Secrets of the Silverscreen

There is an expectation that the audience has a certain level of wit and intelligence that will enable them to figure out the unspoken word for themselves, enabling a more powerful, intimate experience of the film.

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What is it about the silver screen classics that make them so re-watchable? What is the secret to writing something that gives a little more of itself every time you watch it?
I’ve been watching a few old movies lately, Casablanca is one of my two year old’s favourite movies, so we’ve had that on fairly high rotation. Every time I watch it there is something I didn’t see or hear before, and a new depth is added to my understanding an appreciation of the movie. Watching it for the first time in the context of writing a novel, I’ve been paying particular attention to the dramatic devices used to create all that wonderful tension that Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart portray so well.
Now; a disclaimer. I have no training in media analysis or movie reviews, and I’ve never tried to write a script, I am just a girl, trying to write a book, wanting some of that Casablanca magic for myself.
Part of that magic is that it’s hard to define. It’s subtle and pervasive and very convincing. I love that the classics don’t feel the need to explain everything to the audience. There is an expectation that the audience has a certain level of wit and intelligence that will enable them to figure out the unspoken word for themselves, enabling a more powerful, intimate experience of the film. I think Jane Austen put it rather well when she said:
‘I do not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.’
This is the power, indeed the whole point of that tired old (but nevertheless true) mantra ‘show don’t tell’. If you can show just enough so that your audience will fill in the gaps themselves, they will take on a kind of ownership of your story. Your audience becomes invested in a way that keeps them close to the story, almost a part of it.
In Casablanca there is a scene where Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) comes to see Rick (Humphrey Bogart) after his Café Américain has closed for the night. She tries to explain herself to him, but he is drunk, bitter, and won’t listen to her. Eventually he brushes her off with a snide, angry remark.
Tell me, who was it you left me for. Was it Laszlo- or were there others in between- or aren’t you the kind that tells?’
We see the pain Rick’s words cause Ilsa, we hear the insult and we see the wound, but she says nothing. She leaves. She does not explain her hurt with trite dialogue or impassioned speeches, she simply looks devastated. The script directions are as follows:
Ilsa, shuddering, gets up. Tears in her eyes she stops in the doorway, looks back at him, then she turns and walks out.
And we are left wondering and making our own surmises.
There is another famous line from Casablanca. When Rick and Ilsa first meet unexpectedly in Rick’s Café, Ilsa tries breezily to pass of their acquaintance as simply that, nothing more. She wonders when they can have last met and Rick tells her exactly. It was the day the Germans marched into Paris. She is pleased he remembers and he replies;
‘I remember every detail, the Germans wore grey, you wore blue.’
What a wealth of imagery in a single line.
I can’t remember who it was who suggested reading movie scripts as a way to learn about dialogue, some wonderful writer I was listening to on a podcast (and that podcast was most likely So You Want to be a Writer), but I’ve found it incredibly helpful. Not only is it an interesting way to look at dialogue, but it’s a great way to learn about the written emotional response as well. After all, the movies are all about showing, and some do it so very well. I recommend giving it a go. You can find the scripts to most movies just by googling them.
To finish I’m going to leave you with my favourite example of ‘show don’t tell’.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
-Anton Chekhov
Tell me what’s your favourite classic movie? What are your secrets to achieving the perfect balance of ‘show and tell’? How hard do you work to achieve it in your writing?
For everyone doing NaNoWriMo, congratulations on getting the first week down. I hope you’re all getting enough sleep and good luck with the next week. If you’d like a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, you can find me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Until then, I’ll see you next week!

10 thoughts on “Secrets of the Silverscreen

  1. For some movies everything comes together to create perfection and this is one of them. So much to learn from this film about moral ambiguity and subtext in dialogue. As perfectly captured in that very last line. “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember the first movie I watched after doing a creative writing course. I saw it in a completely different light and followed the plot points, dialogue, scenes etc. Something I had never done before then. So it was enjoyable to read your blog and be reminded of that. Also, I hadn’t thought to download some movie scripts, so thanks for the tip.

    Liked by 1 person

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