Notes From the Wasteland No. 47 ‘How To Write Without Words’

In class the other day we were talking about composition and framing in contemporary filmmaking. The conversation was animated and interesting and we were thinking of examples from films when the position that someone stands in front of the camera can be read as something much more than the actor simply hitting their mark.

For example, an actor standing alone in the frame can suggest isolation. A high camera angle combined with the subject being a long way from the camera can heighten this feeling by also emphasising smallness. We have all seen moments in films when characters are overwhelmed by the enormity of the events that they find themselves experiencing and this enormity is doubly emphasised by their actual smallness within the frame. Dwarfed by their circumstances.

No words are needed.

Single figures in a single frame can also be used to signal dominance. Actors fill the frame with their body and this filling of the frame can be read in a variety of ways that all place emphasis on the character’s importance to the film.

Again, no words are needed.

Inspired by the recent release of David Fincher’s Mank (2020), here are three examples from the magnificent Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). In this first image, the adult world is conspiring to send the young Charles Foster Kane away from the family home for what is hoped will be a better life. As the mother, lawyer and father all jockey for position within the negotiations, within the frame, the young boy is seen playing outside. Though small at this moment, the boy’s centrality to the unfolding events is made clear by Welles ensuring that he is always visible in the frame.

In this second image, Kane is now married and things are not going well for the couple. Welles chooses to use a series of framings and edits to tell the story of a marriage dissolving. Here, the simple image of the breakfast table is actually the measure of the now-yawning distance between man and wife. Dialogue is not needed at this moment.

The image tells the story.

Finally, here, when the dust settles and everything falls apart, relationships are expressed by the elaborate vastness of the architecture. It is impossible to conduct any business of any kind when the distance between anyone is this vast.

When writing I aim to see my story cinematically. I imagine what the story would look like as a film. I see the frames and angles in my head and look to find the best ways to not use the words I don’t need. Not because I expect this to actually happen – films made out of my books – even though it would be marvellous if it ever did. I see my writing this way because I find it helps me strip away the language. It helps me find the least number of words needed for a sentence. The least number of sentences needed for a paragraph. You get the idea.

No words are needed.