No spoilers here, so if you haven’t seen the movie, read on!
This weekend, I saw Gravity. The movie is about two astronauts stranded in space, their communication with Earth cut off, their oxygen dwindling, their craft destroyed. It has been getting spectacular reviews, and I felt it deserved every one of them. The movie was moving, powerful, and thrilling, with a stunning performance by Sandra Bullock.
Once in a blue moon, I see a movie that teaches me something about storytelling. This movie, directed by Alfonso Cuaron and written by the director and his son Jonas Cuaron taught me a lot about storytelling. Here are a few of the things I learned.
In his review of Gravity on RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz raves about Cuaron’s use of motion and Bullock’s skilled physical acting. He calls the film “a master class in how to suggest interior states through gestures.”
This is something we writers need to do all the time, and yet seldom put as much thought into as we should. A man stirs his coffee. A girl stumbles on a sidewalk. A woman stops to button her coat. A baby turns his head at the sound of his mother’s voice. What do these movements signify, beyond the most obvious? What lies underneath the prosaic nod of the head or shrug of the shoulders? What do they reveal? What do they conceal? What connections do they help readers make?
Throughout Gravity, objects play important roles both directly and symbolically. A fire extinguisher. A pen. A family photo. A doll. The Cuarons make brilliant use of the most banal objects. Sometimes the objects are used in unusual ways. Sometimes they are just there. But they are always significant.
What a difference the inclusion of a single object can make in the emotional power or underlying meaning of a scene. Here is a kitchen counter. Now add one object: a wormy apple, a fresh berry pie, a shattered bottle, a half-eaten sandwich. Each object colors and shifts the feeling and significance of that counter, and what has happened or is going to happen in that kitchen.
Taking Our Time
Gravity begins with a view of Earth. For a long time, that is all there is: The Earth with space in the background. Time seems to stand still as we simply take in the majesty of the scene. The shot seems to take forever, mimicking the view which literally goes on forever. Slowly—very, very slowly—a space craft moves into view in the distance.
Cuaron takes his time. He allows the viewer to settle into the view, to be captivated by it, to meld with it.
Throughout the movie, rapid-fire scenes of heart-stopping terror are interspersed with shots that are still, quiet, and long. In one, Bullock simply hovers in the fetal position—one of the longest and most tranquil scenes in Gravity, and one of the most powerful in the entire film.
How often do we write without thinking of this? We charge along as our characters do things, think things, feel things. We forget to linger. To create long, gradual scenes. To let our readers rest in the deliberate grace of our writing. To wait and wait and wait—until now! This is the moment!
Stephen King has written about the misconception that horror fiction needs to be fast paced. I think this was what he was getting at: Sometimes slow is good. Sometimes it is necessary.
Tiny Droplets of Humor
We’ve all used the phrase “comic relief,” but including touches of comedy in a serious work is risky and challenging. The Cuarons use tiny amounts of slight humor in two or three spots in Gravity. Vague rumbles of laughter moved through the audience each time. You could almost feel people relax for a moment before the next heart-stopping scene. The writers seemed to know exactly how much humor to insert and when. A good lesson for anyone tempted to use the comic to offset the tragic or horrifying: A case of less being more.
The Cosmic and the Ordinary
The sense of being cut-off from everything--from the very Earth that is our home--is cosmic, archetypal, and utterly horrifying. But embedded in that powerful story is another, smaller story--a personal one about one of the astronauts. One of the things I loved about the movie was the way the two stories--the vast, cosmic one and the ordinary, personal one--were woven together.
We writers tell stories of personal, real experience. We portray the familiar losses and joys of everyday life. Yet we are never far from the great eternal questions. In the simplest story, there are questions about life, death, the meaning of existence, and our place in the cosmos. We don't have the cinematic technology the Cuarons had to help them draw those connections, but we can do it nonetheless, through the sheer power of writing.
The beautiful blue/green Earth against the blackness of space. The friendly banter of two coworkers in an utterly sterile, technological environment. The silence and stillness of space against the menace the astronauts face.
The Caurons use contrast for both its beauty and its shock value. We writers can do the same thing. Contrast, done right, can make a reader sit up and pay attention. It can shine a laser light on the qualities of the people and situations we are depicting. It can bring out the remarkable in the ordinary.
Disorienting readers—making them a little confused, uncomfortable, or disturbed—is one of the most essential functions of literature. Cozy is nice, but queasy is better. So are nauseous, woozy, dizzy, and creeped out. Because all of those signs of disorientation mean we are thinking, growing, changing, having our world shaken up a bit.
Gravity is all about disorientation. The characters are in a place where nothing works normally. There is no air. There is no ground beneath their feet. There is no sound. There is no, well, gravity. And all of that serves to support the psychic disorientation that underlies the personal story. It is one of the main ways the Cuarons weave together the two stories they are telling, and they do it brilliantly.
If you haven’t scene Gravity, do. If you can, see it in 3-D, which brings out the visual impact of the film. See it to be thrilled by the action, to be wonderfully entertained, and to marvel at the technology that can create such amazing special effects. But don't forget, too, to see it as a writer.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...