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One Scene, Many Chords

From the Open Page | Selection by John T. Howard

It’s difficult to mention the relationship between watching television (or movies) to creative writing without thinking of David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” But let’s put aside DFW’s talk of TV, fiction, metafiction, and irony aside long enough for me to admit this: When I can’t write and I’m too tired to read, I watch movies and/or TV shows; sometimes I even binge. A few years ago, during a binge session spent re-watching some of my favorite films (e.g. Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Tender Mercies), I spent much of my time in front of the tube only half-watching, thinking about a difficult scene I was trying to write for a story I was working on at the time. In the scene, a father and son are at home in their living room, working together on college applications that the son isn’t at all enthusiastic about completing. Something about my rendering of the scene was off: the dialogue felt stilted, the small exchanges between father and son were mechanical and unnatural. Perhaps the biggest challenge was the trouble I had visualizing these two characters in an all-too-familiar setting. I mulled this problem over right through both of Tarantino's ostentatious, ironic, and (yet still) brilliant films, and kept on mulling it over as I hunkered down for my fifth or sixth viewing of Tender Mercies. In this beautifully subdued work, a has-been alcoholic of a country singer named Mac Sledge finds recovery and redemption in the arms of a single mother. In one of the film’s tenderest moments, Mac is seated at the kitchen table, speaking with Rosa Lee’s young son, Sonny, while his mother prepares them a meal in the background. Mac, who’s holding his guitar, explains some of the mistakes he’s made in life to Sonny before shifting their conversation to the guitar lesson. To teach the boy, Mac sings a song about departures, calling out each one of the chords as he strums them on the guitar. As I watched Rosa Lee pausing to admire Mac’s song, I got the urge to write, thinking that this scene unfolding before me—though not directly related to my story—might help me visualize the scene I was struggling with.

So I decided to use it as an aid to help create my own material. With pen and paper in hand, I replayed the scene and tried to describe exactly what I was seeing: the small kitchen with the tiny dinette, the yellow floral wallpaper, the boy’s serious demeanor and attentive stares, Mac’s playful gestures as he performs for both the boy and his mother. On a first attempt, what I was hearing from the film’s audio tracks got in the way of my writing. So I replayed the scene with the sound muted. On a second attempt, the visual sequence moved too quickly for me to be able to get down a description of setting adequately, let alone the rich collection of gestures shared between the boy and his new stepfather. So I watched the scene again, focusing first on setting description, thinking that I would re-watch it a third time to focus on facial gestures, perhaps even a fourth time to imagine what each of the characters might be thinking or feeling. I ended up re-watching the scene at least a dozen times, filling three, sometimes four pages of my notebook each time, each one of those smaller writing sessions focused on another aspect of craft that I wanted to practice. In a sense, I was practicing my own writerly chords, and that’s how my use of television and film for writing purposes began.

Let's Get Started:

For visual learners such as myself, use of good television and films can be instructive for practicing one’s chords. This exercise can be useful for targeted work—to help with scenes already in progress—or it can be used to generate new material. As an exercise, it can be instructive for writers working in any genre. It really all depends on the material chosen for the creative watching: If you’re writing fantasy and working on a scene taking place in a raucous public house, then maybe there’s an episode of Game of Thrones that can be instructive. If you’re writing a crime thriller where a murderer is stalking potential victims on the subways of New York City in the 1970s, then maybe there’s something to be learned from moments found in The Warriors or Saturday Night Fever. If you want to learn to capture a nuanced depiction of human emotion, then keep an eye out for the best films available. The very best films bring great choices in mise en scène, casting, and acting, which make for rich and vivid scenes to draw from.

1. Find a scene that is useful and instructive for your writing purposes.

2. Rewatch the scene on mute.

Write down details of what is visible with a focused attention to a particular element of craft.

3. Work through watching-writing sessions for each of the following considerations.

  • Description of setting

  • Description of physical gestures and movement

  • Reimagined dialogue

  • Imagined thoughts or emotions

4. Read through the material you've generated.

Highlight or underline any useful material.

5. Take 20 minutes to combine the new material into your original work.

Challenge yourself to create something that moves away from the original scene entirely.

You can find this writing exercise, along with many others, in Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing's anthology:


About the book: This 300-page book collects creative writing exercises and award-winning stories, essays, and poetry from some of our most beloved instructors from the past 10 years, and captures the magic of our program in its pages. Both a craft-book as well as an anthology of award-winning fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, this book is the perfect way to bring the magic of MVICW with you into the coming year!

About the writer: John T. Howard is Assistant Director for the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and serves as Writer-in-Residence at Wellspring House Retreat. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University. He writes poetry and prose, and recent work can be found at PANK Magazine, Sweet Tree Review, and Red Rock Review Literary Journal. He is currently at work on a first novel, a first collection of short stories, and a first book of poems.


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