Monday, December 7, 2009

Visual grammar

Benjamin sent me a few questions that I admit I've found vexing:

Are you a fan of visual grammar, found in Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Slumdog Millionaire?

A bit confused, I wrote back asking him to clarify what he meant by "visual grammar," to which he provided a PDF that also led me to this article online:

Just as a side note, I'm always wary of gurus who invent rather complicated and intellectual-sounding nomenclature for common screenwriting terms, just so they can claim they've invented a new "method." I'm not gonna name names, but there's at least one popular guru whose work I find to be complete hogwash and counterintuitive unless you are adopting his method without any prior knowledge of screenwriting. (Compare that to the methods of the late Blake Synder, whose 15-point checklist is a great way for newbies to learn structure, and for more experienced writers to refine it. Mr. Synder communicated his method in a way that didn't require those who have read other screenwriting books to unlearn what they already knew.)

By the way, I'm not saying that this particular site I referenced above is one of those gurus - just that at times, some of the verbiage did remind me of the overintellectualized claptrap I've seen on the sites of other gurus who charge out the wazoo for their classes.

Getting back to the site at hand, it defines "Visual grammer" in part as:

I would say that its overall function is to do with creating an absolutely compelling world for the characters to live in.

It’s about using visual imagery to bring the world of the story alive to the audience.How a writer does this involves finding ways to make that world a vivid, palpable presence.

It can be evoking something as huge as an epic landscape or as tiny as the colour of a character’s tie.

It may be choosing whether a scene occurs at night or in daytime, dusk or first light. Describing the outside of a character’s home, or the contents of a fridge, where one word on the page says almost everything we need to know about a character.

Think of Alan Ball’s American Beauty where Annette Bening’s character wears gardening gloves and clogs that match. And how Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham’s rebellion against her immaculate homemaking by messing up her expensive couch tells us so much about his transformation.

Character, Story, Emotional Plot – are all being served here by the superb screenwriting. Visual grammar can be positively loaded with meaningful eloquence.

Put in those terms, yes, I absolutely agree with what the writer is saying, and it is something that writers often neglect, particularly in the early drafts. I think calling it "visual grammar" when discussing a writing technique is needlessly confusing because it made me think of the purple prose that screenwriters use when trying to be overly descriptive. Stuff like:

The tide rhythmically laps against the sandy shore, in a metronome of nature's beauty. Water. Sand. In. Out. White foam bubbles to the surface like the carbonation in a soda as the waves themselves erase small etchings in the sand that took it's artists hours to create in painstaking detail. Nature is indifferent - and yet beautiful at the same time. We marvel at how the tides compelled by a lunar relationship borne hundreds of thousands of miles away could directly impact the actions of those without even being aware of it.

zzzzzzzz.... what? Oh, sorry... I know that's a terrible example, but I got bored myself while I was typing it. If you've read a lot of scripts, you probably have seen the examples of purple prose I'm talking about. Avoid that crap like the plague. To me, it always reads like those 1000-word writing assignments that were given in school, and led the students to try to fill up the page by overwriting ever little bit of description, to the point of using every synonym in the book.

However, I'm very much in favor or writers finding a way to tell their story through visuals and small details that don't arise out of dialogue. The American Beauty reference is a good example of this, in part because they're as much about action as the visuals that we see.

It's not about writing long description, and it's not about writing about everything seen in every scene in exhaustive detail. Worry less about writing full paragraph descriptions of how your character's hair is parted, or what sort of socks they're wearing (unless it's important to the plot.) Make sure there's a reason for every visual you're given and that you're not just trying too hard to micromanage everything.

In other words, it's showing, not telling... and I'm always in favor of that.

I don't call it "visual grammar." I call it "visual storytelling."

1 comment:

  1. There's a really good book on the subject by a non-hack: Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer Van Sijll.