John A. Connell is the author of Ruins of War, which just came out. Please give him a warm welcome!
Many times when people learn that I’ve worked on some pretty big movies in my career (Jurassic Park, Thelma and Louise, etc.), they inevitably ask me what movie stars I’ve worked with, and wondered what they’re like. I understand the attraction, and I’m happy to spin a few anecdotes. But for me, the real stars are the directors and writers. I’ve had the privilege to work with some greats, and my writing is, in part, a product of what I learned from those artists. My position as a motion picture camera operator gave me the opportunity to be up close and personal with many of the inside workings on the set. Everything I observed has in some fashion found its way into how I approach my writing.
Here are some of the things I try keep in mind as I write:
- Directors work with actors to explore every facet of a character to bring out the depths of their feelings and motivations, why a character says something and who they say it, so that an actor doesn’t end up just reciting what’s written on the page (we’ve all see THAT too many times).
- Directors also dictate pacing, the rate at which the dialogue and action unfold, speeding things up or slowing them down, matching the rhythm to the mood and needs of the story.
- Directors determine staging, where the actors sit, stand or move within a space. Little actions, like tics or fiddling with their hands, can convey meaning without words. Stillness exudes confidence and power, both in a hero and the protagonist. Some of the scariest villains in film remain almost rigid, as if devoid of empathy, like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. And directors know that if the actors are, for example, sitting at a dining table, a whole other dynamic has to take place in the actors’ expressions, where they place their hands, or whether their gaze is fixed or wanders.
- Finally the framing of a scene is vital: What to reveal and how to reveal it, whether it’s a big wide frame, showing everything, or a close-up of someone’s eyes or hands or feet. As a camera operator you learn that what is left out of a frame is just as important as what is included.
In writing for film or television, everything about a story has to be told through action and dialogue. There’s no getting into someone’s head. You can’t tell an audience what’s going on, you have to show it; the old “show, don’t tell” adage. And I think some of the most memorable dialogue comes from film and television because it is so vital, and it has to tell a great deal in a few succinct lines. Another thing that’s pounded into every aspiring screenwriter is that the best dialogue has subtext. What people say and what they mean can be two different things. Sometimes spot-on dialogue is necessary, but often a writer can simultaneously convey meaning and emotion on several levels. And dialogue is more memorable and impactful when it’s taken out of the ordinary, out of the banal speech of everyday life, and twisted or flipped on its head. I love the classic movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, when dialogue was as important as plot. Think of all the quotable lines from Casablanca or To Have and Have Not. The witty and rapid-fire dialogue from His Girl Friday or The Women.
I’m not going to claim that I’ve reached those same heights of excellence. But I do keep them in mind, like added tools in the writing toolbox. A writer should never stop learning the craft of storytelling, and, I will keep reaching for that brass ring, to maybe one day reach those lofty heights of art and craft that I’ve witnessed by some of the best in the business.
About Ruins of War:
A chilling novel of murder and madness in post-World War II Germany…
Winter 1945. Seven months after the Nazi defeat, Munich is in ruins. Mason Collins—a former Chicago homicide detective, U.S. soldier, and prisoner of war—is now a U.S. Army criminal investigator in the American Zone of Occupation. It’s his job to enforce the law in a place where order has been obliterated. And his job just became much more dangerous.
A killer is stalking the devastated city—one who has knowledge of human anatomy, enacts mysterious rituals with his prey, and seems to pick victims at random. Relying on his wits and instincts, Mason must venture places where his own life is put at risk: from interrogation rooms with unrepentant Nazi war criminals to penetrating the U.S. Army’s own black market.
What Mason doesn’t know is that the killer he’s chasing is stalking him, too…