Reading Zone #2 – Frozen River

I read the Frozen River screenplay from top to bottom. Couldn’t put it down. It was tense, riveting and super descriptive about how the weather affected the characters in the world. Reading it I couldn’t help but imagine the characters wearing a lot of flannel and heavy coats.

The screenwriter (Courtney Hunt) wrote in such a way that really triggered my imagination to almost unconsciously make faces to match the characters. It’s like being one step removed from a book. For example, if you had a simple hierarchy you would have film and the lowest point of a term I will call ’imagination encouragement’.

Imagination encouragement is a measure of how much description or visualisation an author or creator puts into their works to show a character or setting or anything, really. The fewer descriptions and visual aids an author/creator applies to their work, the more imagination encouragement is derived from it. -Ed Wong, 2017. Get around me.

I will be speaking in super broad terms by using mediums, obviously all types of media have differing levels of imagination encouragement but I’m working in generalisations. Film/TV tend to have the lowest point of this. In film/tv a character is portrayed by an actor, who has a face, a body type and a voice. They are dressed by the stylist and makeup has been applied to them to suit a specific look for a specific scene. The audience does not need to imagine what this character looks like because they are right there on the screen. Screen based work has the added sense of sight and sound that books and screenplays do not.

There are some small exceptions to this, for example, a lot of horror films employ an added element of mystery to their killers like in Scream (1996) where the murderer dressed a particular way with the mask and black cloak but you don’t actually know who is underneath it, prompting you, the audiences’ imagination to conjure up ideas on who could be behind all the killings. Sure, you can still see how the murderer looks for the most part but it’s an example of omitting information.
The next level up is books. With books it’s simple and the jump is stark; the lack of audio visual stimuli books have compared to film/tv means that readers have to work their minds a little harder in order get a representative image to the things they are consuming. Where screen-based works do not explicitly show or flesh out every little detail, books try to engage readers by being as perfectly descriptive as they can. A single sweep of a camera can quickly show an entire page of a book in half the time it takes to read. Read this passage about The Chocolate Room from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, a classic.

Mr Wonka opened the door. Five children and nine grown-ups pushed their
ways in — and
oh, what an amazing sight it was that now met their eyes!
They were looking down upon a lovely valley. There were green meadows on
either side of the valley, and along the bottom of it there flowed a great brown river.
What is more, there was a tremendous waterfall halfway along the river — a
steep cliff over which the water curled and rolled in a solid sheet, and then went
crashing down into a boiling churning whirlpool of froth and spray.
Below the waterfall (and this was the most astonishing sight of all), a whole mass
of enormous glass pipes were dangling down into the river from somewhere high
up in the ceiling! They really were
enormous, those pipes. There must have been a
dozen of them at least, and they were sucking up the brownish muddy water from
the river and carrying it away to goodness knows where. And because they were
made of glass, you could see the liquid flowing and bubbling along inside them, and
above the noise of the waterfall, you could hear the never-ending suck-suck-sucking
sound of the pipes as they did their work.
Graceful trees and bushes were growing along the riverbanks — weeping
willows and alders and tall clumps of rhododendrons with their pink and red and
mauve blossoms. In the meadows there were thousands of buttercups.
There!‘ cried Mr Wonka, dancing up and down and pointing his gold-topped
cane at the great brown river. ‘It’s
all chocolate! Every drop of that river is hot melted
chocolate of the finest quality. The
very finest quality. There’s enough chocolate in
there to fill
every bathtub in the entire country! And all the swimming pools as well!
Isn’t it
terrific? And just look at my pipes! They suck up the chocolate and carry it
away to all the other rooms in the factory where it is needed! Thousands of gallons
an hour, my dear children! Thousands and thousands of gallons!

Now picture it in your mind. I know it’s hard because the film did a great job on the set design but read it. Read it again and imagine what it looks like. Hold that image in your mind. Now watch the first 18 seconds of this video…

First of all, 18 seconds was not only way faster than I could read the passage (I’m a slow reader, shut up), but it was also faster than I could conjure up an image in my mind for The Chocolate Room (guess what? I’m an adult and my imagination sucks too, boo).

Second of all, I pictured the room to be way bigger than that and also nothing like that. It seems like in the film the room was made for that pan but reading it I pictured something more like this.

A valley with trees on both sides.

This is just a simple example to show how much harder your brain needs to work when reading vs when watching. So after that aside, we’ve come to the next step up. Screenplays! After reading the Frozen River screenplay, I came to realise that there are so many omissions of descriptions that you would find in a book. There are a few here and there but overall it’s super stripped down compared to a book. This is where imagination encouragement is at a high. I searched high and low for the screenplay of the Willy Wonka film but couldn’t find The Chocolate Room scene. It would’ve been amazing to see how it compared to the book but I’m not really ready to dish out $3000USD to get a copy of it on a collectors website.

And that’s it, pretty much. So it’s clear that screenplays are meant to be written very barely and not as descriptive as a book might read. Courtney Hunt did an immense job in setting the scene and maintaining the tone and feel of her world through big text and character dialogue. It’s something that I really need to adjust to because on the surface it sounds easier to do. Basically write less. But it’s actually forcing you to really put a magnifying glass over every word you write because they’re the building blocks to crafting a world and what’s worse is that you’re not trying to craft the world for yourself, it’s easy to write something and immediately know what you mean when you say it. Writing screenplays are meant to elicit reaction from investors, directors, collaborators, friends, family. Basically everyone except you because you want this thing to be made into a screen-based work.

That’s just one thing I took from the reading, I really need to understand that I’m writing a story but I’m not writing a book. My writing needs to spark the imagination of anyone who comes across it by means of brevity. It’s going to be tough.