On my personal blog last week I wrote about the new Total Recall movie and a movie it borrowed heavily from for its look and feel: Blade Runner. By complete chance I happened to watch fifteen minutes or so of Blade Runner right after seeing the new Total Recall, and I had a lightbulb moment about storytelling. I want to dig into that a little more, so this is me thinking about it.
From my blog:
“The dialog in Total Recall is terrible. It’s on the nose, obvious, it telegraphs the plot (which it was most likely written to do) and states the obvious, but doesn’t sound like people actually talking. They’re just words to be gotten through until we get to the next car/helicopter/robot chase-fight.
Then we get to Blade Runner. I watched the scene after Deckard has given Rachel the V-K test. She leaves, and Tyrell is standing there, grinning, and Deckard says, (roughly) “She’s a replicant. She doesn’t know. How can she not know?” It’s a quiet scene of two people talking. Tyrell feeds Deckard information, until Deckard figures it out: “Memories, you’re talking about memories.” The whole thing is essentially an infodump, which you’re not supposed to do — deliver information to the audience in a chunk. Usually, this kind of thing is done poorly. But this is a great scene. So what’s the difference?
In the scene in Blade Runner, the conversation is the kind of thing that these people in this situation would actually say. Also, the scene involves more than just the words: Tyrell is showing off, playing with Deckard, and he’s absolutely gleeful at what he’s accomplished. Deckard has the look of a man who thought he’d seen it all get hit with that one more thing, who now knows that this sucky job is going to suck a lot worse than it did a minute ago. It’s not just an infodump, this is part of the story. The result is, I feel like I’m a fly on the wall. This thing is happening, and I just happen to be watching it.”
Writers often talk about a scene doing “more than one thing,” and that’s what that scene in Blade Runner does: it delivers information we need to understand the world and how replicants work, but it also reveals a lot of character: Deckard’s intelligence and cynicism, Tyrell’s hubris — both of which will impact the story later on. And it all feels so natural!
The same kind of good or bad writing happens in prose. Science fiction writers joke about “As you know, Bob. . ” dialog in which characters tell each other things they all already know, for the sake of delivering that information to the reader. When you’d probably be better off just giving that information in an expository lump. A paragraph of exposition doesn’t remind the reader that they’re reading an artificially constructed situation, and it doesn’t force characters to behave out of character. (The infodump-in-dialog scene in Blade Runner works precisely because Deckard doesn’t already know what Tyrell is telling him.)
So many little details contribute to this “fly on the wall” feeling I get from really good books and movies — or detract from it. I recently stopped reading a story in which many pieces of thought/dialog/action were unconsciously repeated. i.e. The viewpoint character expressed an emotion, then expressed the exact same emotion in a following line of dialog. Or said he was going to do something, and then repeated that intention to do something in the following exposition. It made the story seem long and tedious, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. We only need each piece of information once. I saw the scaffolding of the writing, rather than feeling the action/emotional impact of the story.
Back to quoting from my blog piece: “bad writing/storytelling. . . feels like: stock characters going through the motions, flat cutouts on a paper stage, and I never forget that I’m watching a stage, and actors on a stage, who are going through a checklist of scenes. Rather than watching people living their lives, already in progress. I think when people talk about stories “coming to life,” this is what they’re talking about. As an audience, of books or movies or anything, I’m reaching for that fly on the wall moment. I want to be there, not in the movie theater or in my chair reading a book.”
One of the big leaps in my writing ability happened when I could start seeing my stories from a reader’s perspective. I’m still constantly asking myself: what is a reader going to see in this? How are they going to experience this? Are they going to see the scaffolding that the story is built on, or are they going to be a fly on the wall?