Talk Write — Watch Movies And Improve Your Voice?

2 women sitting on blue leather chair holding white and red plastic cups

As writers, we sometimes think that time spent watching a movie is wasted time.  Maybe not.

I remember vividly that first line of Isak Dinesen’s Out Of Africa, narrated by Meryl Streep, at the beginning of the movie with the same title.  It goes:  I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills.  At the time that I first saw the movie, that one line and the way Streep read it set the tone for the entire film and, though we don’t get Streep’s interpretation of the line when reading it in the book, it accomplishes the same thing for the novel.  It sets the mood and sets the reader’s expectations of what the story will bring—a wistful recollection of a beautiful passage in the narrator’s life.  But most of all, it gives the reader a clear sense of the storyteller’s way of telling her story.  And this we call the “narrative voice*.”  (*note: This is my interpretation of this term; there may be variations put forth by others.)

The narrative voice is extremely important to the story because it’s the voice we hear in our minds as we read the book.  If the person telling the story is interesting and we can relate to her (or him), we become hooked.  We will listen to this voice for hundreds of pages just because we like being told stories and we especially like the way this person tells the story we’ve picked to read.  We might think of the narrative voice as the storyteller.

So what does watching movies have to do with my novel’s narrative voice? you might ask.  Well, the first thing is you must realize that your novel has a narrative voice, whether or not you acknowledge it.  When your readers read your novel, they, at least, hear a storyteller.  But secondly, and to answer the question, as the author, you must be aware of who the storyteller sounds like and this is where movies can help.  Ask yourself:  If a Hollywood actor was telling this story (of my novel) which actor would that be?  And in answering this question you can get very specific with it.  For example:  My storyteller is the Meryl Streep character from the movie Out Of Africa.  Or, my storyteller is the Danny DiVito character in Throw Mama From The Train.  Or, my storyteller is the Jessica Tandy character who appears in Fried Green Tomatoes.

If you are familiar with an actor or actress and the character they play in a particular movie, you can probably conjure them up in your head and listen to them speak.  And when writing text in your novel, you might easily imagine how Danny DiVito or Jessica Tandy would express that line if they were telling your story.  Actors are professionals at creating characters for parts in movies.  They are given a script and that’s all.  They have to imagine (with the help of the director) what sort of person that character is and how the character would articulate his or her lines.  In this way, the actor brings the character on paper to life, giving it personality, temperament, and emotions.  Well, as writers, it is our job to give our storytellers those same attributes.  We certainly don’t want our storyteller to sound like one of those computer reading programs, right?

But all of those hours spent watching our favorite movies and favorite actors performing their roles can help us to better define our own narrative voices.  But let me know your thoughts on this, please, by writing a comment below.  And tomorrow, I will explain how you can use this same concept to create terrific dialogue.  In the meantime, however, put in the DVD, get comfortable, and pass the popcorn.