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Animators Survival Kit

Setting a scene

7th July 2015 - Tasha Kavanagh

 

Tasha Kavanagh, who wrote ten books for children under her maiden name, Tasha Pym, has just published her debut novel for adults, Things We Have in Common, a tale of loneliness and teenage obsession that should appeal to fans of Sophie Hannah and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl.

 

Here Tasha explains how her previous work in film editing turned out to be extremely useful in learning in how to build a scene on the page and why being an author gives her far more creative control than she'd experienced before.

 

 

Twelve MonkeysBefore I wrote my first novel, Things We Have in Common, I wrote picture books for young children (under my maiden name Tasha Pym) and worked as a freelance editor on feature films with credits including Twelve Monkeys, Seven Years in Tibet and The Talented Mr Ripley.

 

I have frequently been asked how working in these mediums led me to write a novel. In truth, they didn’t - I’d always wanted to write a novel. But there is no doubt that the experience gained in both has greatly influenced the way I approach writing and the writing itself. It’s difficult, of course, to know exactly how, in the same way it’s difficult to know how books you’ve read or films you’ve seen influence you. Certainly, though, film editing gave me a feel for the process. It is slow, disciplined work that requires patience and focus. I was editing in the days of celluloid, so the practice of putting a scene together was tactile – a physical experience: make a new cut, watch the scene again; put two of the six frames you just cut back in and cut two off the front of the following shot; watch again; repeat until you love what you have. This is much like writing.

 

Another meticulous editorial job I spent many hours at is lip-synching. When shots are too wide to incorporate microphones, for example, the actors come to the post-production unit to record the dialogue whilst watching themselves onscreen (known as ADR: Automatic Dialogue Replacement). The re-spoken words never exactly fit the lips so must be made to do so by an editor who also chooses the words from different recording takes. I always felt a strange intimacy with a character performing this painstaking task, which I felt again when writing Yasmin in Things We Have in Common. Giving Yasmin the right words to think and speak – words that ‘fit’ her character and mood - was not unlike the process of choosing and fitting Matt Damon’s ADR in The Talented Mr Ripley. Doing both, I felt a similar connection to the character.

 

I’m told I write visually – that it’s easy to ‘see’ each scene. That must come from both my film and picture book experience. I certainly see in my mind’s eye what I’m writing, what it looks like, even what kind of shot I’m watching my character through if I’m not looking out through the character’s eyes.

 

In terms of story, writing and editing picture books has been hugely instructive. I always think of picture books as more like animations than other kinds of written stories. They are all about the momentum, the forward action, the page turn. The page turns are intrinsic to the experience of reading a picture book, so working in this medium has honed my instinct for pace, as well as (since so much story in a picture book must exist within just a few hundred words) a sense of economy in choosing what to show. Likewise from working in editing, I have developed a feel for when to effectively and economically enter and exit scenes. A variety of pace and tension is crucial to all storytelling, and from my work on films and picture books I’m sure I fostered this sixth sense, perhaps moreso than if I had only watched and read stories. Words in novels do an equivalent job to the illustration-word combination in a picture book, or to wide-shots, pans or edits in a film. A film made up entirely of wide-shots or entirely of close-ups (unless a deliberate artistic decision) would leave viewers feeling respectively too distanced from and overwhelmed by the action to care. The same goes for shots of similar lengths or illustrations of similar colour, design or size. Like music, stories need space and time to breathe between the more exciting crescendos and accelerandos. Picture books change tempo from spread to spread too, a series of spot illustrations and short sentences, for example, can encourage fast page turns leading to an expansive and wordless double page spread on which the reader will instinctively want to linger.

 

Things We Have In CommonWhen I began editing I was amazed by how, with cuts alone, entirely different meanings could be given to a scene. Staying with a shot of a character that is listening to another character speak rather than cutting away, for example, lends a significance to that character that otherwise might not exist. The cuts alone, then, add a layer of meaning to a scene beyond the dialogue, acting, music etc. I’m not sure how this translates into writing, but that idea of multi-layered meaning is definitely something I try to tune into when I work.

 

One aspect of picture books that I find really fascinating is the way the illustrations and the words join hands to deliver the story, rather than simply re-iterating each other. I think the experience of writing picture books (I would imagine the illustrations in my head and add illustration notes as I went) subconsciously informed the writing of my unreliable narrator in Things We Have in Common. What Yasmin tells the reader isn’t the whole story, it’s only her view of it, but the reader can sense the greater and rather different story surrounding her. If you’ve ever read the classic picture book Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins, you’ll know what I’m saying!

 

Working on films and picture books has influenced my storytelling in more ways than I’m probably aware of. I love words – how they can conjure meaning on so many levels. I love how, when writing, everything belongs to me - how I get to be the illustrator/cameraman, the soundtrack, the actors, and everything else besides. This responsibility often feels overwhelming, but at the same time compelling and thrilling. Not to mention, since all the equipment you need is inside your mind, no more than the cost of a notebook and a pen!

 

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