AND… ACTION! – HOW A TV DIRECTOR WRITES A NOVEL

Mark Capell is a writer, director and animator residing in London.


I wonder if I’m the only TV director with an allergy to the word ‘action’. I’ve used any substitute I could think of – ‘go’, ‘in your own time’, ‘when you’re ready’, even just waving my finger. Maybe that allergy was a sign that I should try something else – which is why I’ve decided to write novels. But how did a history as a documentary TV director affect my methodology, writing style, even my attitude?
It was while I was editing a book trailer that I got the urge. I’d had it before but I’d fended it off by writing a screenplay. After a couple of years of development hell in Hollywood I decided to do some proper writing (screenwriters hate that joke). And with the Kindle publishing revolution gathering apace, getting something out there appealed greatly. It had to be done.
I found I could use a lot of my TV skills as a director but also that some of them were a hindrance. Here’s what I learned in the writing of my thriller, ‘Run, Run, Run‘.
TV DIRECTORS KNOW HOW TO TELL STORIES – TV and film know how to get from A to B. It’s what they do well. It’s what I was taught too. The best book I read when learning to direct was called ‘On Directing’ by David Mamet. The title is misleading because it’s mostly about storytelling. In it he says the only question you should concern yourself with when deciding on how to tell the story is ‘what happens next?’ He says he became a better writer once he started directing movies because of the need to concentrate on ‘what happens next’.
THE SHOT LIST METHOD – When you direct a TV show you compile a shot list. This is like a storyboard but with words. For instance, a documentary about a murder at a factory might begin: wide shot of factory building; closer on factory gates; tight shot of worker’s legs as they file in. Then, to move the story on, and to provide contrast with the daily humdrum, cut to a body lying on the floor, examined by scene of crime detectives. I used this skill to outline my story. Many times I found myself imagining my chapter as a series of shots, and set about describing them. But you have to be careful. What can make an interesting shot sometimes doesn’t make an interesting paragraph.

POINT OF VIEW – In telling stories with a camera there is only one true point of view – the camera’s. I know screenplays contain description such as ‘From David’s P.O.V. we see the knife in Frank’s hand’. But it is still the camera, so the image is largely uninflected. Writing a novel made me fully realise just how important and how exciting it is to play with point of view. It’s what separates novels from movies.

SHORT CHAPTERS AND FAST FILM EDITING – As I was setting out to write a thriller, I thought I’d read the world’s bestselling thriller writer, James Patterson (along with Lee Child, Robert Harris and, of course, any excuse to visit my old friend, John Le Carre). Patterson has settled on a technique of using short chapters for his thrillers to keep tension high. It’s the same in TV and movies. If you want to keep the action fast, you shorten the length of a shot. One of my favourite directors is Paul Greengrass, the director of ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ and ‘United 93’. He’s a master of fast cutting and moving a story along quickly without skimping on detail. As my novel is a chase I also used short chapters to keep the action moving. A couple of times I broke this rule when the drama became so intense I wanted to linger in the moment. It works, unless you try to cram too much into a short chapter or end it with an unnecessary cliffhanger, which can lead to melodrama.
DID BEING A TV DIRECTOR HELP OR HINDER? I think it helped enormously. What both have in common is storytelling. And, as a TV director in the editing room, you have to be brutal in cutting out anything that doesn’t further the story. Both require you to create memorable images that will transport the reader/viewer to another world. But what I did learn is that you have to respect the differences in the forms too. It’s no good trying to make a novel exactly like a movie. The novel has wonderful attributes and strengths all of its own. That’s why we read and why we write.
Well, that’s it. “Cut, that’s a wrap,” as they say. Or maybe I should start saying, “Shut the laptop, that’s a completed draft.”