As writers, we draw inspiration and learn from other arts, whether painting, music, comics, or videogames. By offering inspiration beyond the written word, these arts can provide new experiences for us to explore, provoke insights into our craft, or reveal new possibilities for our practice.
For me, movies have long been a source of sustenance and motivation. I grew up dreaming of directing Z-grade horror movies, a goal best characterized by the short I made in high school, Plastic Face IV: Plastic Face’s Revenge (there were no Plastic Face 1-3s, but no matter). As I’ve written elsewhere, movie viewing and the larger filmgoing community play an important role in my mental wellness (https://thewalrus.ca/tiff-is-more-to-me-than-a-film-festival/). Even as I settled into my career as a teacher and writer, I remained so movie obsessed that a few years ago I went back to school to study filmmaking and begin creating my own experimental shorts (https://filmfreeway.com/Tiz).
Beyond viewing and making, I also turn to movies as a writer in search of lessons and inspiration. For this column, I will share a few of the different ways I nurture this relationship between my writing, teaching, and movies by providing writing prompts and lessons derived from two short films: Jeremy Comte’s Fauve and Carol Nguyen’s No Crying at the Dinner Table.
I have decided to write about short films for two reasons. I thought it might be helpful for you to have easy access to the films to best understand the lessons and, in turn, to discover your own directions for creation. I also find that short films do not have the wide audience they deserve, so I wanted to take this opportunity to promote them.
These two shorts are very different films, but they both provide a glimpse of what is possible, and they are linked by their ingenuity and power. With TIFF on the horizon, I also thought it would be fitting to select a pair of my favourite Canadian shorts from recent incarnations of the festival.
On the TIFF note, this post is written in support of TIFF’s Amplifying Access program, with the payment providing a Digital Pro Pass for an emerging filmmaker from an under-represented community: https://tiff.net/support
Here, then, are the links to the shorts and three prompts or lessons derived from each film:
Jeremy Comte’s Fauve is both a gripping “humans vs. nature” (or, really, “humans vs. nature destroyed by humans”) psychological thriller and a devastating coming-of-age story. https://filmshortage.com/shorts/fauve/
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1) Redo/Reset/Renew/Etc.: Perhaps the most essential way to respond to another work of art is to reimagine it through the lens of your knowledge and experience. This can take the form of a thought experiment, writing exercise, or full-fledged project. The work might involve transformations in location, era, character, perspective, tension, and more.
For example, responding to Fauve, which “nature destroyed by humans” location could serve as the site for your own imagined life-or-death struggle? What would be the personalities and interpersonal dynamics between the two youths in your coming-of-age story? Or would your response involve composing a coming-of-middle-age or coming-of-older-age story?
You could also explore Fauve’s events from another perspective: the dump truck driver, the woman in the car, or even the fox. Or you could place yourself in the playful then trapped shoes of one of the boys, immersing us their experience.
2) Character and Change: Comte makes expert use of two of the techniques we can employ in our stories to spur and show character change.
The first is the climactic choice. This is the choice, in the form of an action, that changes everything for our protagonist. It is ever-present in popular narratives, evident in the superhero either giving up or finding the ingenuity and strength to defeat the villain or in the romcom protagonist either accepting their solitude or finding the courage to deliver the (often very public) speech that wins the love of their life.
In Fauve, Comte creates a very powerful climactic choice because, really, it is an impossible one: Tyler must decide whether to dive into the pit to save his friend or leave.
The second character change technique Comte employs is epiphany, the moment in which a character experiences a transformative revelation, whether about themselves, their social circle, their society, their times, or some combination of all of these and more.
In Fauve, Comte utilizes the encounter with the fox to force Tyler to confront all that he has lost and to experience how he has irrevocably changed.
3) Plant and Payoff: The “plant and payoff” is a fundamental technique in all forms of writing—whether a story, poem, essay, or play—and involves introducing information or an object or an image or a character trait early in a work and then returning to it, often at the end, for a payoff that can be related to plot, character, theme, and more.
The fox in Fauve serves this role. Initially, the fox is planted as an unseen (and potentially fabricated) entity that serves a plot, character, and symbolic function. At the end of the film, the fox returns for the payoff of Tyler’s epiphany and to manifest as a figure of nature loaded with symbolic force.
I find attending to the “plant and payoff,” and to the larger web of a work’s patterned repetition, is especially helpful when revising a poem, story, essay, or script. Often, the weaknesses arise when I do not fully develop my potential plants and payoffs or when I force these interconnections and returns. Whether revising or giving feedback, I find it helpful to think of this work as nurturing repetition with a difference.
Carol Nguyen’s moving and illuminating personal documentary No Crying at the Dinner Table draws insight and power from her brilliant twist on the genre. Nguyen records interviews with her individual family members and then documents the intimacy that forms when her family listens to these interviews together. https://www.shortoftheweek.com/2020/12/23/no-crying-dinner-table/
4) Listening To Being Listened To: Much of the power and brilliance of Nguyen’s No Crying at the Dinner Table arises from her unique approach to documentary conventions. To the usual act of documenting, she adds another layer by recording her family, together, listening to the initial individual acts of honest opening up.
As a teacher, I was struck by how Nguyen’s work mirrored a writing circle: individuals create and then share their creation with the group. I could see following Nguyen and creating a collaborative work with family, friends, co-workers, or members of any group we are connected to. We could gather and persevere both the individual initial creations (whether writing, photography, drawing, etc.), and the collective sharing of and responses to these creations.
I could also imagine fictionalizing a variation on Nguyen’s technique, whether to the same affirming and uplifting ends, or to more dramatic, comedic, or, even, horrific results.
5) “I’m only telling you this because you asked”: Every time I watch Nguyen’s film, I am struck by the father’s line: “I’m only telling you this because you asked.” Amid the film’s many breakthroughs, this admission stands out as one of the most significant revelations: the unspoken could have been spoken. All you had to do was ask.
Silences, repressions, the unspoken, and the unspeakable reside in all our lives and in our writing. What happens if we ask the questions we don’t allow ourselves to ask or the questions we are kept from asking? What happens when we ask ourselves? When we ask others? What happens if we imagine asking and write down the invented answers? What happens if we ask for real and capture that, too?
6) Cutaway Writing: Documentary filmmakers use cutaway shots for a wide range of reasons: to provide a visual for the subject the interviewee discusses, to add a counterpoint to the interviewee’s observations, to build the world, to increase visual dynamism, to develop symbols, and so on.
Nguyen works artfully with cutaways—her sister bathing, her mother cooking—to immerse us in the experience of her family members and to add an element of lyric lift through the closeness of, and distance between, images and words.
Weaving “cutaways” into our writing can add this same dynamism, immersion, and lift. This could take a variety of forms. Within a paragraph or stanza, we could alternate, sentence by sentence, between our main thread and our “cutaway” material. We could also switch between our main thread and “cutaways” paragraph by paragraph or stanza by stanza. If we are looking to create something more challenging and defamiliarizing, we could also switch between our main thread and “cutaways” word by word by word.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the third instalment of “The Writing Moment with . . .”.
In this series of craft-focused columns, I explore a wide range of works, topics, and interests that inspire me with the hope of inspiring you. I discuss what moves me in these different creations and practices, highlighting the spurs, lessons, and reminders that can serve as prompts and openings into creative possibility.
I call this column “The Writing Moment” because of the helpful double meaning of moment. Each of these individual prompts should only take a moment, and, I hope, each will inspire you to “have a moment,” sparking a burst of creative exploration—even on the busiest, or most reluctant, day.
You can read the first two instalments here.
Stay tuned for more next month!
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Daniel Scott Tysdal is the ReLit Award-winning author of three books of poetry, the poetry textbook The Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems, and the TEDx talk, “Everything You Need to Write a Poem (and How It Can Save a Life).” His short films have screened at festivals in Canada, the US, Mexico, and Australia, and his debut short story collection, Wave Forms and Doom Scrolls, is forthcoming from Wolsak & Wynn. He teaches at the University of Toronto Scarborough.