Any film survey course worth its salt includes the classic film noir Sunset Boulevard. The same was true of the “Film and Approaches to Writing the Novel” course I took in grad school with John Rechy. For the class, we watched the Billy Wilder movie starring Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a silent film star who harbors struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) under the delusion that together they will write her comeback script. The writing exercises associated with the film focused on character:
- In one paragraph, describe a person. In another paragraph, describe the same person at least thirty years later. Change only adjectives (and some verbs). Do not use the words “young” or “old.” In both, we must be able to “see” the same person.
- Describe a person as seen from a distance. Then describe the same person as seen at a much closer range; do so by adding only specific details—i.e., write the same sentences but insert details.
- Describe a room—only the room—that defines a character. (Avoid explicit references to gender, age, status.) In one separate line at the bottom, identify the occupant.
- Through description of clothing only—only clothing—suggest the personality of the person wearing it. Introduce one seemingly contradictory detail that refines the characterization, a detail that makes it unique.
- Write a short passage in the first person in which the narrator is talking, or writing, about another person. Let the reader know more about that person than the narrator knows. Create an unreliable voice.
- Write a line of dialogue and follow it with a description of the speaker’s simultaneous gestures; continue with another line of dialogue, and follow it with gestures, etc., for one short paragraph. The gestures must contradict what is being spoken.
- In a single sentence, without dialogue, describe a character as he/she moves from laughter to tears to pensiveness to tears and back to laughter.
The Mots Justes Series on Film and Approaches to Writing