I hope by now you all have had the chance to see Jason Reitman's film, Up in the Air. (If you haven't, but want to, this might not be the post you want to read, as it will include mild spoilers.)
The film's concept, and the artistic director/writer behind it, have intrigued me since I caught the tail end of an NPR interview covering it. And the finished film really did not disappoint. Much like Juno, it's a very literary take on a basic premise that could have made for a very mainstream film. What makes it stand out is its thoughtful characterization, its skillful weaving together of multiple plot lines and character arcs, and the sincere attention to detail that's shown in its every shot. That last one, it struck me, is something you writer-folk can learn from.
There's a scene in Up in the Air that I found to be a particularly nice touch. Robert Bingham (George Clooney) has finally met the woman for whom he'd give up his "What's in your Backpack?," commitment-free way of life. He's traveled across the country to reach her, only to learn that he isn't a big part of her life -- that she, like everyone else he knows, has her own ties already, and she won't let them go. He's free to return to his earlier habits, uninhibited by the baggage people bring with them.
Scenes in film are even shorter than those in novels, so in a well-made movie they have to be economical in order to have maximum impact. So I was on the lookout for some good moves in the scene directly following this revelation. Bingham returns to the airport -- his home, his comfort zone -- and checks onto a flight. The music is quiet, and when he swipes his card (a card which cues the clerk to say "Welcome back, Mr. Bingham," and something in which he takes total delight), the scene cuts. There's no friendly clerk's voice. Just silence. It's a small decision on the director's part, but it's significant. It not only moves Bingham from point A to point B (literally, back to his apartment in Omaha); it moves the viewer to a better understanding of his mental state. In a very effective, yet very small way, the film conveys the fact that Bingham has lost faith in his free-wheeling philosophy. The airline's welcome isn't included because it's no longer meaningful to Bingham. That's smart, smart directing.
In many ways, writing is a lot like directing a film. When you've got strong, fully-developed characters and the beginnings of a plot in your mind, they have a tendency to take off with it. You can't control everything your characters do, because who they are and how they change has to determine the way their stories advance. But what you can control, completely and entirely, is how their story is told. And a truly great writer pays close attention to every detail, and uses it to artfully convey a story's theme and its characters' mindsets.
A lot of what I know about writing strong scenes, I learned from Cheryl Klein at Scholastic's Arthur A. Levine Books. She taught me that every scene, no matter how short, needs to advance the story told in a manuscript. It can do that in a number of ways: by building character, by containing clues or vital information for the reader, or by moving the story forward with action -- preferably more than one of those at a time. With that in mind, one of the most important choices a writer makes is when to end a scene. Ended too early, a scene doesn't convey everything it needs to and your manuscript feels choppy or scattered. Ended too late, a scene gives the reader everything he or she needs to know but lacks artfulness (a manuscript full of scenes like this will come across as long-winded, and will make it difficult for your reader to hone in on your character's growth and your manuscript's theme). But a good scene -- well, a good scene makes us Get It. A good scene gives your reader everything he or she needs to know, and conveys it in a way that's satisfying because it is purposeful.
Scene endings are particularly crucial in a book's most important scenes: those in which a major change or revelation is occurring or has just occurred (perhaps a good way to identify these things is to zone in on those which make use of all three of those aforementioned Ways to Advance Your Story). Important scenes often end with a clincher which nudges the reader's emotions, and thus their perception of the book, in a certain direction. For a very character-based film like Up in the Air, a quiet and very subtle clincher conveys the appropriate emotion perfectly by leaving the viewers' expectations unmet and allowing them to experience some of Bingham's disappointment. For an action-based book, a thrilling cliffhanger might be exactly what's called for. And for a supernatural romance, perhaps the perfect clincher is the long-awaited kiss -- or a close call that ends without a kiss, but with some sort of self-discovery.
Whatever your story, now might be a good time to think about how you're ending your scenes, and what the manner in which you tell your story adds to the story itself. Remember, your story belongs to your character, but its telling is yours and yours alone. You make the decisions: when to cut, when to go on, when to zoom in on your character's thoughts and when to move back for a sweeping view of events. Questioning those decisions in every scene, no matter how small, will help you strengthen your writing, develop a voice, and more powerfully convey both action and character development.