Friday, May 05, 2017

Margin Call and the value of a dive bar chanteuse

A client of mine and I were thrashing out ideas for a book recently, and I used the movie Margin Call as a comparable title.  My client had not seen the movie so we both retired to our respective sofas to refresh our memories.

I really love that movie. It's an absolute study in pacing and tension.

We reconvened the next day, extolling the movie again, when my client made a very interesting observation.  He said the movie is tense because the movie's gaze (ie the viewer) never turns away. There is literally no break in the main story line; no subplot, no segue for character development.

He said that's what makes the movie work, but it wouldn't work in a novel. It would be too short for starters, and the pacing would be too relentless. It would be claustrophobic.

Aha!

I stopped to think about what he said.  If you've seen Margin Call (and if you haven't you should! Right now!) you'll realize that we know next to nothing about the characters. We know Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) is a former rocket scientist ("the money here was more attractive" is one of my favorite lines.) We know Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) has a dog that's dying. We know Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) got fired that morning cause it's one of the very early scenes of the movie. And we know what Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) spends his money on.

As far as character development, it's so subtle you have to really think about it.

This is a forward motion, no pauses to breathe movie.

In a book, you need to give your reader pauses to breathe and characters that are more than one-dimensional

A book is a marathon, Margin Call is a sprint. At 107 minutes it's an Olympic paced sprint too.

So what's the point here? Don't leave your writer's notebook on the desk when you watch movies. I've learned a lot about pacing from watching movies. Both Margin Call, and another favorite Heat.
I've often mentioned that one of the best books about writing is actually a book about jazz: Waiting For Dizzy by Gene Lees.

Movies, and other art forms, can show you a lot about craft and style and discipline. It's not goofing off if you go to the movies, or go to a dive bar to hear the chanteuse. It's actually work, and I'll write a note saying so to your skeptical spouse as needed.

52 comments:

french sojourn said...


And that's why you're QOT-f-ing-KU. I'm embarrassed to admit that there are quite a few movies that I will rewatch often. Dr. Strangelove, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf, To Catch a Thief, even Breakfast Club (years ago) because the dialogue for me sings. Great post, it lightened up a darkening day for me.

Oh, and Heat...loved it. That scene where Ted Danson kinda dances across the parking lot in the background.

Thanks, Hank

french sojourn said...


Rats! The movie I was thinking about was Body Heat...swell.

Amy Johnson said...

Quinto = mega-creepy (Heroes). Tucci = mega-creepy (The Lovely Bones). But I'll try.

Karen McCoy said...

This is supremely helpful. One of my Achilles heels in writing is that my pacing is way too fast. This is a good reminder of why words need to breathe.

Plus, I have to see this movie. You had me at Zachary Quinto, but then came Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, and...Paul Bettany!? Must. See. Now.

Karen McCoy said...

Amy, I understand your concern. Quinto I can't really defend, but Stanley Tucci has non-creepy roles in both The Devil Wears Prada and Julie & Julia.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Amy, think Quinto = Spock.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I want to never punch a timeclock again, sell everything, move to the mountains. I want to live the rest of my life like a vacation, sleep late, take long walks, watch late-night TV. I want to be a watcher of movies and life. I want to write it all down, edit it with naps and publish it with balloons.
It’s research, right?
It’s grist.
I need a permission slip. A doctor’s note. A post-it.
Dispensation?
You said you’d write a note to my husband.
Here’s how to start: Dear Bob...

Brigid said...

I'll often say "I'm writing" when I'm peoplewatching, or turning sentences over and over in bed. A good reminder that if your brain is on, a scotch in a jazz bar counts as work.

In off-topic news, we're buying our first house! It's gorgeous and in good shape, a small 1920s house with a big yard for IJ to run around in. Not that my 8-week-old can run yet.

Also, if anyone is writing a thriller and wants to know how the bad guys can get away undetected, the answer could be a Fedex truck. (This note inspired by the Amazon driver who followed close behind me in the dark around a corner...because he was going to my place and couldn't see the house numbers.)

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

My BA is in Film and Music, two art forms that are all about pacing and development.

When people ask me what I can do with a degree like that, I respond, "Write novels." And yes, it was excellent training.

Amy Johnson said...

Thanks, Karen and Heidi. Yes, both more pleasant elsewhere. Also Tucci is married to a literary agent. Good guys, I'm sure. But Heroes and Bones.

Colin Smith said...

For me, TV and movies are for dialog and character. I can put up with pretty much any stale plot if there are interesting characters and there's good dialog. I try to take my pacing, description, and story lessons from novels and shorts. That said, I’ll not pass up a movie recommendation. Especially when it’s work... :)

Brigid: Congrats on the new house! I wish you easy moving, and many happy years there.

Donnaeve said...

Brigid, congrats on the new house!

I love Kevin Spacey.

Not that this matters, but I don't remember your suggestion on WAITING FOR DIZZY, so, of course I had to go check it out. To be honest, when saw the book, I thought, huh? THIS is one of the best books about writing?

It looks so...obscure. So like the last thing I'd expect you to recommend to writers as a tool to study the art form.

What is it about this book that would make you recommend it as a tool? I went out to Amazon - hoping to read a snippet, no such luck. I did notice only 2 reviews. The link is to Goodreads, 10 reviews. They're all favorable but I'll admit, I'm stumped by this recommendation.

*anybody else cc/pasting their comment into Word to get a word count? LOL! I'm over the limit...but I'm genuinely curious about this book and why???




Colin Smith said...

Donna: *raises hand* :D

Donnaeve said...

Colin :D Good. I'm not the only one.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I love Kevin Spacey. The entire cast of this film rocks. This is a cast that could probably act out the dictionary and build suspense, even without a dying dog.


This post echoes back to an old film professor who bludgeoned his students with the following lesson, repeated often and with heat:

A book is a book. A film is a film. Story is story. Story is the only thing a book and film will have in common. Each page of a script is 1 minute screen time. A good script closes at page 120. A book's parameters are entirely different because different medium. A film has actors to give flesh to characters. A book only has words.

It was a hard lesson I never fully recovered from so for a time in my twenties I kept a book and a film journal to recall how I reacted to each medium. I also wrote both screenplays and short stories during this time, trying my hand at both mediums. I found profoundly different experiences with a strong preference for the book. My imagination works far better than a director's vision. But that's just me.

Pace is tricky be it film or book. It is one of those black magics few really master.

Kitty said...

Donnaeve, the WAITING FOR DIZZY post was Friday Night at the Question Emporium, Friday, March 29, 2013.

Jen said...

You mean I missed an awesome movie with Kevin Spacey???

Going to binge now...

Claire AB. said...

Thank you for this post, Janet! I often look to other art forms for inspiration, but I haven't spent enough time looking at them for instruction about "craft, style and discipline." Taking this as marching orders and will send my husband's email address if I'm in need of a permission slip.

Elissa M said...

All writers should be patrons of the Arts.

No notes to the spouse needed here, though. If I go to a dive bar to hear the chanteuse, it'll be because my husband is the sax player behind her.

kathy joyce said...

I dunno. Some days the line between mental writing and couch potatoing is kinda fuzzy...

Megan V said...

In a book, you need to give your reader pauses to breathe and characters that are more than one-dimensional

Ah well...back to the drawing board. Or is it writing board?


Brigid congrats on the house! May you always have walls for the winds, a roof for the rain, tea beside the fire, laughter to cheer you, those you love near you, and all your heart might desire.

stacy said...

One of my Achilles heels in writing is that my pacing is way too fast.

I struggle with the same thing, too, Karen. On the second draft, I actually have to put things IN.

I think TV series offer a lot of good examples for pacing. I think writers these days are getting a lot better at that, given they know people are going to binge-watch their shows. The third season of BOSCH is a good example. And subtext--Mad Men was masterful. I'm not that into the story--it's too much like a soap opera, but the subtext and the performances are worth it.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Another interesting discussion. It's rare for me to sit still long enough to watch a movie. I haven't seen Margin Call.

But working to gain the trust of dozens of horses who don't like humans has taught me that most things in life have a rhythm. Even mundane things like driving the tractor. Or trying to halter an unwilling or fearful horse. It's a dance. Something is lost if you move too slow. Nothing is gained by moving too fast.

And so it goes in writing. Prosody...

Brigid, Your good news took me back to our first home. A tiny cottage in a fishing village on the west Coast of FL. You're making memories of your own.

Claire Bobrow said...

This breakdown of why Jurassic Park works was a storytelling revelation to me: http://now.howstuffworks.com/2016/05/12/jurassic-park-world-steven-spielberg-subtext-mike-hill

The theory is that the story resonates because it's not really about Dinosaurs (with a capital "D"), it's about whether two people (Sam Neill and Laura Dern) are ready to become parents. While the action and visual effects have major appeal, they in themselves are not the story (which is where some of the sequels failed). Every scene in Jurassic Park supports and reinforces the theme.

I haven't seen the ones Janet mentioned, but am putting them on my watch list. Hank: I love the movie Body Heat.

Claire Bobrow said...

And Brigid: Congrats! IJ will be running before you know it. Get your track shoes ready!!

RosannaM said...

Will have to check out that movie. I love movies! And I like trying to figure why something works or doesn't.

As far as permission slips? I sometimes need to give one to myself. And I am always happy when I do. Even if it's something little like taking a walk where I've never been. Or going people watching (and maybe listening.)

It's all inputting. Life. Every little bit, if you have your eyes open and observe.

Casey Karp said...

BrigidHas it really been eight weeks already? Holy cow! Congratulations on the house.

Stacy, you and I are in the same boat. In my case, the only thing that goes into the first draft is the story. Pacing, characterization, diversions and red herrings might sneak in, but I don't actually work on getting them right until at least the second draft.

Donna, me three. Well, kwrite 'cause it loads faster.

PS: Kathy, don't eat the fuzzy potatoes!

Beth Carpenter said...

Another movie for my TBW list! Yay.

Brigid, congratulations. He’ll be running around that yard before you know it.

A few days ago, hubby and I ate breakfast at a lodge. Two couples sat down nearby and started a conversation along the lines of “I’d love to hear your ten-year life-plan.” At first I wondered if they were on a retirement-planning retreat, but no, just friends. My hubby was trying not to eavesdrop. I was trying to remember every phrase without getting out a notepad. I get an excused note for being a writer, don’t I?

Joseph Snoe said...

I love music. Always have. Because of that I focus on Balance and Rhythm in my writing.

The above Pace discussions make me nervous. I'm unsure where my WIP stands on that. I've tried to make it fast paced. I hope I haven't overdone it.

Amy Johnson said...

Just studied the last episode of Parenthood. Very well done.

Donnaeve said...

Thx Kitty.

The good news is...I didn't make a comment on that post. :D

But, I get it now. I couldn't get my head around how that book would help, but it's really about the message within. Writers needing to decide the thing to be good at, by not taking a "boil the ocean" approach.

My own perfect example - the hard crime novel that took me longer to write than anything else. That was not what I was supposed to write. I was forcing it. Southern Fiction, now that's me.

BJ Muntain said...

In his workshops on writing, James Scott Bell often uses movies as examples. His reasoning is that more people have seen these movies than have read a book.

And he uses everything about the movies - pacing, characters, setting, etc. The basics of storytelling are there in movies.

Of course, he lives in Los Angeles, which may be why movies are so important to him.

Regarding learning from other media, I've learned rhythm from poetry. When you read and write the rhythmic rhyming poetry (Charge of the Light Brigade was masterful), you learn that words have a natural rhythm when they're put together - even as prose.

stacy said...

Les Edgerton has a theory about why certain genres do well and others don't: the genres that acknowledge the influences of film and adapt accordingly are the ones that sell. I think that's true.

Sherry Howard said...

I'm not much of a movie buff, and watch very little television, but when I do the notebook on my phone gets filled with writing notes. I find myself observing everything in life through a writer's lens, all things and people are fodder for stories.

BJ, I find that poetry has been the best source for improving my writing. It makes you "feel" a rhythm of words as you write, and consider the necessity of each word. I want beautiful words in my prose and poetry.

Joseph Snoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joseph Snoe said...

BJ Muntain and Sherry Howard

Karleen Koen, who wrote the elaborate historical novel, "Through a Glass Darkly" recommends reading poetry for the rhythm and words even if you have no clue what the poem is about.

Her actual words were "and if you want to improve style…….read poetry……..you don’t have to write it, but reading it will affect your “inner ear,” the part that hears your writing……….."

I don't appreciate poetry. I've look at a few poetry books to try to follow her advice, but I can't find one I can tolerate so I haven't acquired one.

Joseph Snoe said...

BJ and Sherry

In another email Karleen Koen wrote, "Read other poetry. Read Shakespeare’s sonnets. Don’t try to take them apart, just read them and hear the words and cadences echo in your mind."

I don't do that. I know I should but I don't. I don't eat right or exercise enough either.

Panda in Chief said...

Because I'm writing graphic novels, movies are definitely valuable learning tools for me. I've been re-watching some of my favorites, with an eye to pacing, but also how they use color and visual POV. There are some scenes in Dumbo that make my hair stand on end, they are so visually exciting.

Amy, I was going to mention Stanley Tucci's role in Julie and Julia, if you wanted a non-creepy vision of him, but someone else beat me to it.

Have a great weekend everyone.

Panda in Chief said...

Also, I totally claim that watching panda videos is research, so I can study panda movement.
Favorite is pandas helping rake leaves, and pandas on a slide.
Totally related to my graphic novels and cartoons.

Claire Bobrow said...

Joseph: this may sound ridiculous, but The Children's Anthology of Poetry (ed. by Elizabeth Hauge Sword) is wonderful and most definitely not just for children. My edition has an intro by Olivia Newton John. - yes, I know, perhaps not who you'd expect. And yet she wrote an excellent introduction and it's a truly fabulous collection.

My personal favorite is the clever and funny "Pachycephalosaurus," by Richard Armour.

Joseph Snoe said...

Claire I'll look for it. Anyone more subtle than Ogden Nash or whoever wrote The Cremation of Sam McGee or the Mighty Casey at Bat is over my head.

Joseph Snoe said...

Claire
The Children's Anthology of Poetry includes three Ogden Nash poems AND The Cremation of Sam McGee, and five by my main man, Robert Louis Stevenson. I think we've found my level.

Claire Bobrow said...

Joseph: Hooray, and enjoy!!

Ginger Mollymarilyn said...

Interesting, I'll have to watch Margin Call, just out of curiosity. Now, on my second novel, a thriller, pacing is one of the major things I'm focusing on. Still trying to fill in the gaps and connect everything.

PANDA-IN-CHIEF - I love panda videos too. One of my recent faves is:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JsK6sC4tTuA (If this is not correct link, you google clinging panda)

Steve Stubbs said...

Thanks for putting us on to a great movie. You are right that movies are a fabulous learning experience.

Someone who worked with Hitchcock said in an interview that you have to build up tension, then relieve it, then build it up, then relieve it, and at some point REALLY BUILD IT UP to the climax. I don't remember which film he was discussing, but that describes REAR WINDOW, in which J. Stewart is a wheelchair bound invalid who suddenly finds himself at the climax unexpectedly battling with a homicidal maniac. Thomas Harris does this with great effect in the book SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

kdjames.com said...

It wasn't until I took a class about film/screenwriting structure that I finally understood story structure in a novel. And not for lack of trying. It just never "clicked" until I learned the three act, eight sequence structure in film. Of course, now I can never again watch a film solely for entertainment. I'm deconstructing it, anticipating turning points.

There's much to learn not just from movies and television, but from songs and even stand-up comedy, especially when it comes to pacing and timing. Story is everywhere.

Brigid, congrats! Wishing you much happiness in your new home.

Prosody. Melanie, thank you for the lovely new word!


Lennon Faris said...

When my sister and I get back together, we go out to 'work.' We are people-watching, fueling our heads with coffee, and discussing story ideas. It's good work.

Brigid - how wonderful. My husband and I moved into our current house pre-kids. We scratched their heights into the door frames of each of their rooms. If we ever move, I will pry those door frames off and take them with me. Happy memories.

Brigid said...

Thanks, y'all! Lennon, that is written on my to-do list :) Megan V, that's the best blessing on a home I've ever heard.

RosannaM said...

R.I.P. Dirty Harry.

Thanks for everything Mr. Clint Eastwood.

Colin Smith said...

RosannaM: According to THIS it's a hoax. Dirty Harry is still with us.

RosannaM said...

Colin. I am shocked. The report looked so official. Thank you for the clarification. And shame on whoever reported that.

BJ Muntain said...

Joseph: Cremation of Sam McGee was by the Canadian poet, Robert Service. I grew up reading him - my parents had a big thick compilation of four of his poetry books. I think you really prefer the kind of poetry I prefer - the rhyming, rhythmic kind.

Seriously, the other kind can be okay, but it's not nearly as accessible or even interesting, to tell you the truth. But the ON HIGH Literary Establishment has decreed that rhyming poetry with meter is either passe or doggerel. And that OHLE can go to H-E-double hockeysticks. It's because of them that no one but the literati ever buy poetry anymore, except for children. And that's the rhyming, metrical kind. Poetry has become so high-brow that no one else really pays attention to it - or money for it - anymore.

Claire: Wonderful recommendation. Putting that on my to-be-bought list.