Tag Archives: The Good The Bad The Ugly

The Good, The Bad, and The Slow To Start

Actions speak louder than words and a picture saves a thousand of them. These two phrases capture exactly the efficiency of the movie over the book. When we read (or write), we use many minutes and many words describing the scene: the appearance of the characters, the places they find themselves in and their reactions to those places. On film, those things appear instantaneously – in a single second, the Director (or more accurately, the Director of Photography) can transport us to a dank prison, an open plain or a distant galaxy.
All of which is a blessing for a reader like me, who gets easily bored by long passages of description and has great difficulty visualising things anyway.
Most movies rely heavily on dialogue. Next time you watch a film, or even a TV show, time the longest gap between speech and it’s likely to be less than a minute. Even in something like an epic car chase, where music and action take over, there are probably moments of dialogue to ensure that we stay connected to the characters. By contrast, flick through most books and you’ll find double- page spreads where not a single word is spoken.
All this came to me in sharp relief when I recently watched The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The opening scenes introduce the three characters described by the title. The Director of Photography does a great job of placing us in the American West (not bad for a spaghetti western) and the combination of music and action leave us in no doubt as to what’s going on. But it’s a full 10 minutes before anyone speaks. Ten minutes! That’s a lifetime in movies. The only thing I can think of that comes close is two and a half minutes before Maria starts to sing in The Sound of Music (indeed, almost a minute before you can be certain you’ve not accidentally muted the TV), and nine minutes before the first words of dialogue.
As novel writers, we can learn from the movies, but we also need to be aware of the differences between the genres, and to accept that even if our masterwork might one day become a screen-play, it will be a different beast.
How long is too long? Well, both these films have done pretty well for themselves, so perhaps a long opening is fine, but if there’s a lesson here, it’s a reminder to the writer not to hang about too long before getting stuck into the action. Even if Julie Andrews is prancing about the mountains or Clint Eastwood is looking rugged and grizzled, there’s only so much world-building we can take.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing