Dipping into the archives today. Enjoy a golden oldie!
The hubby and I are big silent movies fans. It's interesting to watch movies that are 90 to 100 years old, and even more interesting to see how storytelling hasn't changed much. What worked back in 1920 still works today.
Filmed in 1926, the Buster Keaton film, The General, is an excellent example of tight plotting and storyboarding. Nothing is wasted in this film. If you see a detail on screen, you can be sure it'll come into play at some point. And the best part? They surprise you. I can't tell you how often the hubby and I laughed over something we said we should have seen coming.
It's the story of Johnny Gray, a train engineer living in the South during the Civil War. He tries to enlist in the army but gets turned down, because he's more vital to the war effort as an engineer than a soldier. But he doesn't know that so he's seen by the girl of his dreams (and her family) as a loser. But when a Union plot to steal his beloved train (the General of the title) also kidnaps his girl, he strikes out to get back his train and save the day.
Let's look at a few lessons silent movies can teach writers:
1. Clarity of Goal in Every Scene
When you have no dialog and the only way to communicate with your audience is through visual action and a few placards with text, you have to be clear. But don't think clear means simple. Silent movie plots can be just as well-rounded as today's movies. The difference is that they always know what they're trying to get across to the audience in every scene.
Keaton's Johnny Gray had a clear goal in every scene of the movie. You knew exactly what he wanted and why. Every action and look was crafted so the audience could see the emotions and the goals of this character (show don't tell at its core). Because you know what he wants and why it matters, you're drawn into the story and care about this guy.
(More on plotting with goals here)
2. Sympathetic Stakes
The main plot of the movie is to get his train back, and the kidnapped girl is a subplot. But right at the start we see why both train and girl matter to Johnny Gray, and he takes great risks to bring them both home. He knows he's someone the army turned down, so he's feeling less than heroic. But these things matter to him and he'll stop at nothing to win.
Because the goals are clear, the stakes are clear and personal. You want to see Johnny win and worry about him as he tries to get back his train. Small problems are all the more compelling because you know what he's risking to stop the bad guys.
(More on stakes here)
3. Likable Characters
Without special effects to dazzle us, silent movies lived and died on the characters and what they did onscreen. You had to care about the hero, and Charlie Chaplin created an iconic character with his "Tramp," a central hero in many of his movies. (Just watch The Kid to see how lovable he is) Buster Keaton's characters shared many of the same lovable traits and brought audiences back for more. You went to these movies to see these actors and their characters. The plot was secondary.
What make these characters so compelling is the same things readers look for in novels today. Relatable people with a problem that matters to them. Characters with a sense of humor who try to do the right thing (even if they aren't on the right side of the law). And there's always something they do at the start of every movie that makes you like and care about that character.
(More on crafting characters here)
Almost 100 years late,r and these elements haven't changed. At its core, storytelling is timeless. Characters we care about doing something interesting we want to see them do. I think with all the advice and craft tips on the web today, it's easy to get caught up in the minutia of the craft and forget the reason people tell stories in the first place. Silent movies clearly illustrate what's at the heart of every tale.
(More on the core principles of storytelling here)
Have you ever seen a silent movie? What did you think?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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