The writer’s secret sauce

What’s in his head?

Movies have an advantage over the written word when it comes to presenting the emotions of your characters. For example, you read that a man “had his lips raised in a half-smile on one side while he eyes narrowed.”  Did you realize that he was smirking? How about “the woman’s lips curled up, but corner of her eyes remained smooth and unwrinkled.” That is the evil smile, which flashes across the face of actors to show you how devious the person is. If we see these commons facial expressions, we recognize them. However, discerning them from words is more difficult. But, the novelist has a secret sauce that moviemakers can only employ with difficulty— presenting the internal thoughts of characters with clarity and intensity.

In my previous discussion or writing movies versus novels, I described the opening Matewan, a quasi-historical movie ending with a violent massacre during a minor’s strike. The audience is introduced to the internal thoughts of an adolescent coal mining boy at the opening scene. This internal view was so brief that I didn’t even catch it until the end when the denouement was told from his viewpoint as an adult. However, I realized this adolescent was the character with the greatest change arc. I imagine most audience members also failed to catch this subtlety. Despite doing well with critics, Matewan fared poorly with audiences.

The same difficulty detecting the character’s internal view occurred when I viewed Mad Max 2 (known in the US as Road Warrior). I puzzled who spoke the opening and closing sequences of this movie. I immediately questioned “Whose head are we in?” only to be told that it was the feral boy. (This knowledgeable viewer had seen the movie too many times. ) This feral boy only grunted and growled during the film, so his speaking voice was not obvious.

Viewers are used to movies shown from the omnipresent view. To accommodate the rapid pacing expected in a movie, the audience sees the actions of both hero and villains and any important characters. Internal thoughts are rarely voiced. If a movie protagonist is stranded alone, due a plague, a wreck on a tropical island, or an incident during the exploration of Mars, they will typically start talking to something with a face, such as a bust, a skull, or a blood painted volleyball as in Castaway. These conversations are essential for the audience to understand the plot.

However, the novels are not only allowed to move the plot forward via peeks of inside thoughts, they are expected to do this. (The only restriction is to avoid head hopping—moving from one person’s thoughts to another’s without a clear break.) Do not be afraid to use this one benefit to spice up the written word to your best advantage.

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