Writing Week...is for the Birds

Thank you all for responding to the poll we had up last week! We got some really great feedback and immediately started bouncing around some ideas. I'm not going to spill the beans, but I *am* going to say that I'm simply ridiculously excited about what we're cooking up for the summer months!

Meanwhile, the top thing that people asked for was more theme weeks and more posts on writing, so in an effort to mash the two together, we're going to do a writing theme week! :)

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I saw the Alfred Hitchcock movie, THE BIRDS.

I had never seen this movie before, but I knew the basic gist: birds go crazy and attack people--en masse, killing them. In all honesty, the plot actually isn't that much more complicated than psycho-murdering-birds, which, of course, got me thinking about why it's such an (in)famous piece of Hitchcock's filmography.

After watching the movie, I went straight to IMDb for the trivia associated with the film, and realized that Alfred Hitchcock does two very smart things in the writing of this story:

Hitchcock Smart Thing #1: Sometimes, Good Writing Is All About the Details You Put In the Story:

  • There's a whole backstory where it's revealed that the leading man has mother issues (a nod, perhaps, to Hitchcock's previous film, PSYCHO?). But...it's not really relevant to the plot at all. In other words, the fact that there's some weird stuff going on with the mother really doesn't have anything to do with the fact that there are crazy birds trying to kill people. BUT. What it does do is important. 
    • First: it made me curious about the story. It's such a specific detail to the story that I thought it must be relevant. It felt like a gun on the mantlepiece. It made me sit up and pay attention.
    • Second: it made the characters feel more real. True, the fact that the son has mother issues wasn't relevant to the plot. But it was highly relevant to the characters. It made little things, like the leading lady's hesitation to help the mother, feel much more vivid and realistic.
    • Writing Lesson: Add details about your characters to make them more real. Not every single thing has to be of service to the plot--take the time to emphasize characters, too, even if it doesn't progress the plot. It will make the story feel more real.
      • Example: I think, honestly, this touches on a lot of issues people have been bringing up recently about minority characters being underrepresented in stories. You can have a book where the character is a race other than Caucasian, or is handicapped in some way, or is gay, or portrays any other minority without the plot hinging upon the story. Certainly race, sexuality, and abilities would effect a character--but the plot doesn't have to hinge on it. Making your main character a minority in some way would actually add a lot of depth to the story. 
  • The background is where good writing shines. There are several scenes in the movie that give you a fear of birds; something as simple as birds fluttering down to stare into the window is made ominous by Hitchcock's touch. The most famous example is probably a scene at the school:

In case you can't watch the video, the picture to the left does a good job of illustrating what I mean. Basically, as the leading lady sits down outside of the school, birds silently perch on the playground in the background. If you watch the scene, you'll notice that very little happens. For a couple of minutes, all the leading lady does is light her cigarette and look pensively in the distance. And the birds don't do anything odd, really, certainly nothing threatening. They just sit there.

And that's what makes it so darn compelling. Rather then tell us that the birds are scary (by, say, launching immediately into the birds attacking people), Hitchcock merely presents the information and allows us to make up our own minds as to whether the birds are scary or not.

    • Writing Lesson: Graphically illustrating what the scene looks like and trusting your readers to determine the emotion that scene portrays is better than just telling the reader what s/he should feel by 
    • Example: Don't tell us a character is bad or good--show it. And don't show it right away. Present the character's actions in small, everyday situations, and build him up from there. 

Hitchcock Smart Thing #2: Sometimes Good Writing Is All About The Details You Leave Out

  • Somewhere in the first half hour or so of the movie, I realized there was no soundtrack. No music--at all. It was a little disorientating at first, actually. There were scenes--such as when the school children run away from the birds--that I could imagine other directors would have filled with a very dramatic musical score. A kiss had no softly playing romantic music behind it. A death wasn't heralded by trumpets. In all honesty, it made the entire film feel more like a documentary rather than a work of fiction. And I liked it. I found that the entire film was more dramatic simply by cutting out the dramatic music and putting me in the scene. 
    • Remember, Hitchcock's film before this was PSYCHO--made famous in part because of the loud "EE! EE! EE!" noise when the killer strikes in the shower scene. Hitchcock was known for sound effects and music through that film--he turned it completely on it's head for this one
      • Writing Lesson: It's good to shake up your readers in some way through a stylistic choice. And it's good to shake up your own writing by doing something different. 
      • Example: As a personal example, I had never written in first person present tense before writing ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. The style of writing was unique to me--which made me even more eager to explore it. And while there's stille more book being published in this style, it still is a somewhat rare style for readers, too.
  • SPOILER WARNING... In the very last scene of the movie, the characters drive off--and it ends. The ending is abrupt, and surprising. There's no "THE END" blaring across the screen, no assurance that the people truly escape, no answer to whether or not the bird plague is over--or just beginning  It's an ambiguous ending at best--and it totally works for the film. At first I was mad. "Is that it?" I said. Surely not. But as I thought about it, I realized how appropriate the end was. The true terror of the film wasn't in the bodies the birds had already amassed; it was in the idea that this was all still going on, that it never truly ended.
      • Writing Lesson: If you can make a story so vivid that your reader will believe in it after s/he closes the book, your job is done, and done well. Also: less is more. When in doubt, cut, cut, cut, until all you're left with is the truth of the story.
      • Example: The best writing is simple. You don't need writing with flair any more than Hitchcock needed fanfare at the end of his movie: slice away everything else so all the reader has left is raw emotion.


Jennifer Wolf said...

Ooo. Lots of creepy good points in this one. I love Hitchcock. It's been years since I watched THE BIRDS. I think relating plots in movies, (especially old movies that are great and without a huge special effects budget)to books is a good way to help a writer par down plot and establish pacing.

Elana Johnson said...

Great post! And holy cow, The Birds. That movie scared me to death.

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