I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro there was a Negro of dignity, purpose and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.
John Steinbeck wrote this letter to 20th Century Fox in 1944! (via roscoemcnally)
Hollywood has been doing this for a long time.
Reblogging in part because I just read East of Eden recently and was (pleasantly) surprised by Steinbeck’s handling of non-white characters and, generally, a much more nuanced view of social dynamics in the early 1900s than I was expecting from a white guy writing in the early 1950s. Clearly it isn’t perfect (in particular, there’s a bit about lazy Indians in the first chapter which, just, no; and certain stereotypical ways that the character dynamics shake out in the end) but it seems clear that he was really thinking about it, and making an effort.
Random Advice: The Opening Scene
I get asked a fairly constant stream of questions about writing, particularly for comics, for obvious reasons.
What I find is that a lot of the teaching methods out there focus on theory, rather than practical advice. What do I do about writer’s block? How do I make characters interesting? How do I avoid cliche dialog?
These are important rubber-meets-the-road questions. They are practical problems with practical solutions.
I thought I would take a couple minutes this morning to discuss ignition. Before you drive anywhere worth going, you have to start the car.
So I am talking about the opening scene.
Keep in mind this is just what works for me, for you, it may be something else entirely.
The key word here is not explosions, it’s not fighting. The key word is ‘intrigue.’
Your opening scene has to INTRIGUE the reader to want to turn the pages. If you don’t do that, what you do for the rest of the book doesn’t matter at all, not even a bit. It might as well be blank pages. The only person who will continue reading is your mother and even she might lie about it.
You have to set a question, or a scenario, that demands an answer or a satisfaction. You have to pose a problem to the characters and to the readers, one that demands a resolution.
When I read a lot of new writers, the number one thing I see that I think is wrong is, they didn’t grab me with the first scene. Common mistakes are:
1) No sense of setting.
2) No interesting character or characters
3) An overload of exposition
4) A too-worn scenario
Any of these things will kill a book or story. Remember the Green Lantern film? How it started with a long, dry discussion of GL history? I actually watched people in the theater as their imaginations disengaged before the characters even showed up on screen. The fun things that happened later no longer mattered, they had switched off.
Your opening scene should provide some sense of tone and place. If you are careful and skilled, this is PAINLESS exposition, it simply is accepted by the reader, rather than swallowed reluctantly, like too many Flintstones chewables.
In comics, this is also a key time for your establishing shot, where you show the sense of place so clearly that the reader can fill in the background details in panels where the details are sparse. This is Comics Writing 101, but I consistently see new writers muff this bit. I can’t tell you how many comics I have looked at where I had to ask where the story was taking place. I read one that took place in a hospital, but there was no visual clue to such until halfway through the book. Don’t leave your reader with no GPS, they will abandon the motorway entirely (and yes, I am mostly done with driving metaphors).
Second, make that first scene ask a question, or posit a scenario, that the reader wants to see through to resolution. I can’t say it enough. We all love the big splashy effects shots in comics, but it is the recognizable human condition that keeps us reading. It is the well-placed teaser that makes a book a page-turner.
When I taught a workshop to some wonderful aspiring comics creator students in Norway, I presented it like this.
Imagine there is a story that starts with the main character on a quiet street at night, near a train station. He sees a young, attractive woman, wearing pastel clothes, and she’s pushing a baby carriage and cooing into it, singing a pretty lullaby, the only sound in the area. “Rock a bye, baby, on the tree top.”
That’s an opening scene.
But now imagine this. Same exact scenario, but the woman passes by the main character, and he looks in the pram, and there is no baby. It’s empty. The woman is singing a lullaby to an empty carriage.
Which compels the reader to keep going?
My best advice to someone who is really serious about creating stories people want to read is, find your empty baby carriage. Find your image, or discussion, or action, in your opening scene, that says, “I dare you to put this story down,” to the reader.
If you start well, you can do miracles. If you start badly, you are always playing catch-up.
And good luck!
Really excellent advice from someone who knows her stuff! *takes notes*
Europeans: I drove forty minutes to the Netherlands for some groceries and then I popped into Germany to see some of my relatives before driving back home.
Americans: I was in Florida, I drove for nine hours, now I’m still in Florida.