Art-Directing Your Fiction

We asked Tobias Carroll if he could share some thoughts on the craft of creative writing prior to his reading at The Porch on April 22. He shared with us this great essay on how studying the art of film can guide your storytelling on the page.  

To the extent that I have formal training in storytelling, it’s as a filmmaker. I studied film as an undergraduate from 1995 to 1999, and learned plenty of things along the way that have turned out to be useful after I made the shift into writing fiction. For me, the impulse to write comes from the same place as the impulse that I first had in wanting to make films: there’s a desire to tell stories, and a hope that someone else will find the narrative I’m spinning to be compelling. And while there are plenty of techniques in cinema that can’t be duplicated on the page–or can be evoked to ill effect–there were a few left-field choices that have been vital to me as I’ve written short stories and a novel.

In my second year of studying film, we began working with moving images: half the year was spent shooting on 16mm film, and half was spent working with video. It was then that the lessons we’d had in the concept of art direction were translated from theory into practice. We were reminded that a random sign or object in the background of a scene might add unwanted consequences. One project that I shot featured, in the background, an arrow pointing down. “Was this an implication that the characters were actually in some sort of underworld or hell?” someone asked me. No; no, it wasn’t–but, when they brought the question up, I realized that that interpretation was absolutely understandable.

Essentially, I’d been careless. I hadn’t looked at how the entire set might have looked to a viewer; I hadn’t thought about how an audience might read the background of a shot and process it. It was a valuable lesson to learn: even what seems like the smallest of details to you can be hugely significant to someone else experiencing the narrative.

It’s something I think about a lot more now when I watch films and television. When a sinister corporate CEO on the show Mr. Robot has a map of the world circa the early 20th century prominently displayed in their office, I ask myself what it might mean about their worldview. In the short-lived espionage series Rubicon, a shot of the protagonist’s apartment revealed a photo of the post-punk band Unwound on his wall–which added another layer of backstory to the character. Did his taste in music ever come up in dialogue? No–but the image felt specific rather than generic, a sign of a particular idiosyncrasy. It felt like something I might see in a friend’s apartment, rather than in a design store’s sample catalog.

Sometimes that can work in the opposite way, too. The surreal science fiction film Upstream Color features a conspiracy involving drugs and the life cycle of worms, haunting musical compositions, and a psychic connection between people and pigs. Here, the level of specificity in the background is toned down: it’s nearly impossible to determine the location in which it was shot, for instance; the characters’ backstories are less important here than the bizarre situation in which they find themselves. It’s the cinematic equivalent of minimalist prose–and it can be used to similar effect.

If a film announces via a title card or an establishing shot of a landmark that it’s set in Chicago, that tells the viewer one thing; if it eschews anything like that and lets things unfold in a more generic or archetypal urban landscape, that tells the viewer something else. Similarly, if a story opens with “They were driving on Interstate 90, outside of Buffalo,” that tells the reader one thing. A story opening with “They were driving on the highway, outside of a city that sat on the nation’s northern border” gives a very different feeling, even though they’re literally describing the same thing.

Still, applying concepts of art direction to fiction can be difficult. There are no real background elements, for one thing. You’re using the same language to describe a character’s living space and attire as you do to convey thoughts, dialogue, and anything else that might be crucial to the story that’s unfolding. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use some subtle details to accentuate certain aspects of your book or story.

My novel Reel follows the lives of two characters, Timon and Marianne, who meet briefly at a punk show and immediately clash, largely due to Timon’s propensity for drunkenly careening into people at high speeds and his general disregard for the well-being of others. But as each goes through their everyday lives–Timon grappling with his role in his family’s business, Marianne deciding whether she feels at home in Seattle–their paths continue to almost cross, again and again.

As I wrote Reel, I had a sense of the place in which it’s set: Seattle, for the bulk of the book, with a handful of trips elsewhere due to characters’ restlessness or flashbacks to fill in gaps in their history. In my mind, the book was also set about fifteen years ago: a point in which cellphones were in use, but not quite ubiquitous. And, because of my fondness for music–among other things, a friend and I ran a record label that worked with a few artists in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1990s and early 2000s–I wanted to throw in a few references to Seattle bands of the time.

For me, this was less about inside jokes and more of a way to ground the narrative, which took more than a few cues from pulp detective fiction archetypes and fused them with a more realistic setting. A reader unfamiliar with those bands might have no idea if I’d made them up entirely or whether I was alluding to actual bands. That’s fine. But ultimately, I needed to settle on some way of working these in in a stylized manner, so that it wasn’t just a case of me showing off how much I knew about a particular scene at a particular moment in time.

One of the meanings of the word “reel” is a dance, and that informed parts of the structure of the book: it’s a dance in which neither participant is aware that they’re dancing. Because it’s a two-person operation, I decided that I would only refer to groups who had a two-word band name. This meant that I could throw in nods to Kentucky Pistol, Black Halos, and FCS North–but not to bands with one-word names or names with three or more words. In the novel’s first chapter, Timon thinks about a band with an album called I Am That Great and Fiery Force, but he doesn’t actually cite their name, Behead the Prophet NLSL, because it wouldn’t have quite fit in the stylistic scheme that I’d worked out.

There are a few other similar things in there as well: one character has a cassette marked “split seven inches,” which both evokes my teenage practice of recording vinyl onto tapes so that I could listen to it in the car and–more importantly–provides one more nod to the idea of division and parallel narratives that runs throughout the book.

These are all small things, to be fair, but I can only hope that they had something of a cumulative effect on readers. When you point something out to the reader–saying the name of a band rather than just “music,” naming a city instead of saying, “a city”–you’re focusing their attention on that aspect of the narrative. If you’re going to do that, there should be a reason for it–hopefully one that accentuates some of the themes of your novel or story, or provides a counterpoint for them. It’s the small details that can make a narrative more memorable, and can turn good work into something great.