Monday, June 4, 2018
Writing like a Samuel L. Jackson speech
While my last post got a surprising amount of traffic over the weekend, I received some feedback (plus notes from a few angry Star Wars fans) that it made more movie references than writing references, which seemed unusual for a blog about writing. Well, the movie focus was by design, because it leads to this post. This is a writing exercise that helps the writer focus on the important details within a scene, and it all starts by examining a scene from a movie.
First off, a disclaimer: Books are better than movies. The written word plays off the imagination, challenges the reader to put that brain to use and fill in all the details. Stories tap into those deep fears and wild ideas that we barely understand ourselves. Movies can thrill and chill, but I have yet to experience a scene that matched the tension of a long walk through the dark, abandoned, Holland Tunnel in Stephen King’s The Stand.
Now that I’ve clarified things, here’s the exercise. Think of a scene in a movie that really stands out in your mind. One that you know by heart. Replay it in your head until you can feel the mood, until you get the rhythm of whatever events are going on. If there’s dialogue, recite it to yourself. Listen to how your voice changes to emulate those actors.
At this point, ask yourself how you would write such a scene. What are the parts worth describing? You have the entire visual in your head, but what details make it your favorite scene? If it’s the dialogue, is the surrounding scenery even important? If it’s an action sequence, who needs words? And if it’s the pacing of the scene, how can your words match the speed of a movie?
A classic scene early in Pulp Fiction involves Samuel L. Jackson (Jules) and John Travolta (Vincent) interrogating some young men in an apartment. Most people know the importance of this scene relative to the plot, but what makes it so memorable? It isn’t the apartment – that’s a non-starter. The people being interrogated aren’t that important either – we know it doesn’t end well for them and we don’t care. The takeaway of this scene is the dialogue, which is where the writing should focus.
The first thing that comes to mind should be, “There is no way I can write something as well as Samuel L. Jackson can perform it.” Fair enough, but by writing the scene as a narrative, you can see the techniques that make it stand out (other than just pouring on the exclamation points). To reflect Jules’ domination of the conversation, use constant interruption to make the talk one-sided. His speeches are long but his actions can be written quickly and decisively. Describe his looks with aggressive adjectives, but make the verbs simple to show controlled anger. Here’s just a piece from the part where Brad is in a chair being questioned by Jules and Vincent, while Brad’s friend is on the couch:
Brad holds out his hands, trying to contain the increasingly volatile situation, “I just want you to know how sorry we are that things got so f***ed up with us and Mr. Wallace. We got into this thing with the best intentions and I never–”
With a slight turn, Jules puts a bullet through the guy on the couch, then casually returns back to Brad, who falls silent, shaking with panic. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Jules says sarcastically. “Did I break your concentration? I didn’t mean to do that. Please, continue. You were saying something about best intentions.”
Brad only stammers, his wide eyes fixed on his dead friend.
“Oh, you were finished,” he continues, each word deliberate in its delivery. “Well, allow me to retort…”
This narrative distills the scene to the basic components. We don’t need to know what Brad or the guy on the couch is wearing, we don’t labor on where the latter was shot. Our attention is on Jules, who dominates the narrative. And for those who know this scene, the “retort” totally takes over.
When we think of any scene in our mind, we need to know what part needs to be written about. In my next post, I will show this as far as description is concerned, leaving out dialogue and allowing visuals to be done with narrative and with emotion.
Now I’m going to rewatch Pulp Fiction.