So, I’ll confess. A year ago, I sat down and tried to watch the film UNDER THE SKIN. I got to a certain beach scene and had to turn it off. I was so disturbed by what happens in the scene, that I remember standing up (I was by myself) and shouting, “Oh no. No. Oh Hell No!”
I’m not going to spoil the film for you, just say that I finally got the courage to sit back down and watch the entire movie with my husband last weekend. It’s powerful, disturbing (you’ve been warned!) but also, one of the best examples of a film that knows how to shut up and tell a visual story.
Nothing is spelled out, nothing is explained, nothing is headlined. And at the end of the viewing, my husband and I had COMPLETELY different interpretations of what happened in the plot, what motivated some of the characters, and even its genre.
For those of you who have not seen the film, here’s the basic premise: An otherworldly woman preys on men in Scotland until she meets one that changes the way she sees the world.
In the blog this week, I want to talk about some of the narrative techniques the writers (Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell) used, that were so effective.
These techniques can be employed by both screenwriters and those writing fiction or memoir, and are especially relevant if you like pushing the conventional envelope in your work.
1.Don’t tell the viewer/reader what’s happening. Just write the action, without commentary. No explanatory dialogue, or internal analyzing (if you’re writing prose.) Don’t reveal what the action means or signifies, or what the character’s motivation is. Let us figure it out. This will guarantee that the viewer/reader actively engages with the narrative.
2.Write visually. Use dialogue only when necessary (in service of the character achieving his/her goal.) Use primarily visuals and action to unfold your story.
3.Create a narrative that has multiple interpretations. Design narrative questions, rather than answers in your plot. Don’t tie up everything neatly in a bow.
4.Start with a character we don’t like. And then gradually give us access to sympathy for them, as we see (again, through action) how they are changing.
5.Twist narrative conventions. Don’t give the reader/audience things they are used to getting. Give them things they’re not expecting. For example, in UNDER THE SKIN, early on, we don’t know what the main character truly wants. We do however, get access right away, to what would normally be the “mystery” in the story (what happens to her victims.) By twisting classical story expectations, you give the reader/viewer a different kind of emotional experience.
6.Use visuals to reveal your themes. In UNDER THE SKIN, black is a color that signifies something we don’t truly understand until the end. The images of peeling and shedding also reveal the movie’s thematic ideas about identity.
TAKE ACTION! Watch UNDER THE SKIN. See how the writer and director keep us guessing. Don’t explain everything to your reader or viewer. Write visually. Create a story that can be interpreted in different ways. Leave questions hanging in the narrative, rather than tying everything up. Start with a character we don’t like and slowly give us access to his/her motivations and humanity. Use visuals, rather than dialogue, to reveal your themes.
Basically, know when to shut up!
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Enjoy a clip from UNDER THE SKIN below, where the main character takes her first bite of food. Notice how the silence creates tension.
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