Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Theatre of the Mind: An Underused Tool

This article contains spoilers for Oedipus Rex, Frenzy, Psycho, The Haunting, The Blair Witch Project, Life is Beautiful and Rendezvous in Black.

We live in a visual era. Most of our entertainment comes through sight. Even music nowadays needs to be accompanied with an eye-catching package (attractive singer, choreography, video with impressive effects, etc.) But there was a time when humans relied on hearing and imagination for entertainment. Think about the origins of storytelling; tales and legends were orally transmitted. Eventually, these stories were performed as plays (but notice how violent scenes happened offstage and the audience was left to see what happened in their mind’s eye.)

In the original Oedipus Rex, the audience never witnesses the moment when Oedipus gouges his eyes out after  finding out he is, in fact, his father's killer. The scene is played offstage and narrated by the chorus.

When radio was the latest technology, families gathered in their living rooms to listen to their favorite shows. Their minds had to “fill in the blank” and imagine what the actors and settings looked like. Thus, the audience became an active participant of the story. In Latin America, radionovelas were the rage, and some aficionados still assert that the actors had superior diction and performances than their successors in telenovelas.

If we look at the history of film, there has been a noticeable evolution from innuendo to goriness. The fathers of Film Noir understood the power of overtone and audience participation and used these tools to maximize the effectiveness of their stories. Iconic director Alfred Hitchcock was well known for favoring “suspense” over  “surprise.” He’s been cited with the following quote:

"There's two people having breakfast and there's a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that's a surprise. But if it doesn't..." 

One of the techniques Hitchock used in his films was to let the viewer “fill in” the details of a violent scene. He called this "transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience.” Two examples of this technique are seen in the films Frenzy (1972) and Psycho (1960). Halfway through Frenzy, as the audience is already aware of the identity of the “Necktie Murderer,” Hitchcock presents us with a scene where the serial killer—in his most charming self—escorts a woman to his apartment. Before shutting the door, he tells her “you are my type of woman,” the exact words he told his previous victim. The camera lingers for a bit in the hall after they go inside, then retracts down the stairs, through the front door and out to the street, where city noises and activity fill in. The crime only occurs in the viewer’s mind. [Click here to watch the scene.]

In Psycho, Hitchcock takes us into one of the most famous horror scenes in film history: the murder of Janet Leigh’s character in the shower. But notice how we never see the knife actually penetrating the woman’s skin or any gruesome wounds. Instead, Hitchcock presents us with a series of close ups of the victim’s face, the knife, portions of her skin, the curtain rod and blood going down the drain. [Click here to watch the scene.]

Alfred Hitchcock was considered the "master of suspense" for a reason. He was an innovator  when it came to storytelling and many of his implemented camera techniques are emplyed by filmmakers nowadays.

Compare these scenes to the goriness of Saw or American Psycho. Another interesting comparison is the 1963 version of The Haunting versus the 1999 remake. In both instances, a group of people go to Hill House, an old mansion where supernatural activity is believed to take place. In the 60’s version, strange events center around one character (Nell) and the viewer is left to wonder if paranormal activity is really happening or Nell needs an urgent visit to the nearest psychiatric ward. The nineties’ version, however, is an expensive display of special effects and disturbing images, where nothing is left to the viewer’s interpretation.

Nowadays filmmakers rely more and more on “morbid fascination” to entice their audience instead of appealing to their intellect. Do we really need to see characters at their most intimate moments? (naked, having sex, going to the bathroom or throwing up?)

However, there are exceptions. A recent attempt to employ the viewer’s imagination as a tool is The Blair Witch Project, where three film students set out for the woods to find out if the legend of a local witch is true. Through eerie noises, witchcraft symbols and the disappearance of one of the characters, the audience must connect the dots and figure out what is happening. In the final scene, the camera pans in rapid motions as the main character frantically looks for her friends in an old shack. (Incidentally, this camera technique of mimicking a person’s gaze was pioneered by Hitchcock.) Bloody handprints, screams, footsteps and finally, the camera being dropped and laying still leads the viewer to conclude the movie ending.

Another example is the Italian film Life is Beautiful. Roberto Benigni spares us the grief of seeing the main character executed by German soldiers and we only witness his death by listening to the gunshots being fired after they have taken him offstage.

Undoubtedly in novels “the theatre of the mind” is more active than in any other medium, but very often writers “spell out” things for the reader, leaving little to the imagination. In writing classes and manuals, we are taught to use all five senses in our descriptions (visual descriptions being the most commonly employed). But we are rarely taught how important it is to trust the reader’s intelligence by leaving things out, or the effectiveness of not letting a character see, but only hear, what is happening and letting the reader roam the dark corners of his mind.

Film Noir writer Cornell Woolrich was an expert at this. (Hitchcock based Rear Window on Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder.”) In his novel Rendezvous in Black, a man seeks revenge over the five men he blames for the death of his fiancée. Every year on the date of his girlfriend’s death, he kills an important woman in the life of said men. Before the last “rendezvous,” the potential victim is taken away to safety on a ship (as the detective who’s figured out the connection between the women warns her of the situation.) The woman-in-question, Martine, is blind. When May 31st has passed and it appears as though she will be saved, she perceives a presence in her cabin. For seven pages, Woolrich extends the tension of Martine going through the motions of merrily getting ready for dinner to realizing the killer is in the room with her and there is no escape. Woolrich expertly describes her thoughts and movements in her dark world as she tries to figure out if an intruder is really there. When he grasps her hands, the reader is left to imagine what happens next. On the next scene, we learn that since the ship was traveling to Hawaii, the doomed date hadn’t passed yet and Martine has died.

I confess that in my own writing, I have a tendency to over explain. But fortunately, my beta readers point out these instances to me. As storytellers, we should understand the choices we make in our writing. Violence is, at times, an important component in fiction, but is it always necessary to use gory details? Why do you think filmmakers are resorting to the lowest common denominator? (the “morbid fascination” appeal). It’s true that we now have the most impressive technology of human history, but is it necessary to display it in every movie?


  1. Hey Lorena, inspired post. Today we don't seem to be encouraged to use our imagination, yet we're always advised to 'show not tell' when we craft our stories.

    Most of Shakespeare's plays leave even major events to our imagination - how gory is Macbeth yet we fully imagine Macbeth killing Duncan just through Shakespeare's poetic voice and a couple of bloody daggers. No wonder that dead white guy is still being revered today.


  2. This is one of the reasons I've never much been into modern movies and far prefer the old films that left stuff to the imagination, when less was truly more. It's also one of the reasons I adore silent films (I've seen about 900), since even more is left up to the imaginations of the viewers, having to fill in the speech that isn't relayed via intertitles and even imagine how the actors sound.

    I love the wedding night scene in the original (1922) Blood and Sand, with Rudy Valentino as the tragic bullfighter Juan Gallardo. Juan's nervous new bride Carmen walks away while he's saying goodbye to the final guests, and he turns around and finds her missing. He then goes to find her, and slowly comes up behind her, puts his arm around her waist, and sweeps his hand out. Then they walk to the stairs and go towards their wedding bed. Just the looks on their faces, that sweep of the arm, and the suggestion that they're about to have sex is far more erotic to me than some scene of a couple tearing one another's clothes off and having graphic sex. I haven't yet seen the 1942 remake with Tyrone Power, but I hope the wedding night scene, if it's there, is equally tasteful and suggestive.

  3. Very interesting and entertaining post. Cheers.


  4. There is a difference between excess and moderation. I happen to love HBO series, but I know every episode is pitted with gratuitous and excessively graphic gore or sexual scenes.

    I consider those scenes my “commercial breaks” I make phone calls, go to the bathroom, or get something to munch on during those periods. It´s not that I am a prude or squeamish. Is just they are so boring. Once I used to find sex on screen as erotic, now those scenes have become repetitive, dull and mechanic.

    Jumping from screen to book. Since the border between erotic and pornography is so blurred, I would advise staying away from dwelling too much on sexual description. The more you write the more you come close to being unintentionally funny.

  5. Regis here. A very thought provoking post, Lorena.
    In a recent discussion of Hudson's Green Mansions, my opinion of the movie was quite divergent from that of Violante. Your post made me think of a perfectly logical reason for our disagreement.
    When I read the book, I was 16 or so, and I created in my mind the entire scene, and characters. Rima was a quiet, dark, native girl, the narrator was adventurous, and love sick, as I was at that age. The jungle was quiet and mysterious, and if there was music, it would have been by Delius, or Villa Lobos. The scenes of political disarray in Venezuela? among others, revealed one cause of the narrator's wanderings. I can't think of a novel that affected me more at the time.
    When I saw the movie, twenty years later, I was a different person, just married, busy with my career, a much more 'down to earth' guy. The movie had no relation to my mental picture of Hudson's world. I felt it was totally miscast. Audrey Hepburn looked as if she had just stepped out of her Paris cosmetican's office and her attempts to be demure failed. I think she was marvelous in roles that suited her. I don't remember walking out, but I think I would now. A much later movie, ' The Green Wall', really set the scene well, and I was moved by it; I think partially because it showed the struggle to exist in the Amazonian milieu.
    So Violante's view is as valid as mine, because I think she had a different mind-set, and different expectations when she watched the movie.

  6. I found a great review of The Green Wall at:

  7. Lorena,

    Love Hitchcock, but absolutely hate "Psycho"! (It's a long story.) I'd say one of my favorite films by Hitchcock, besides "Rear Window," is "Rope." The suspense is all in whether the body will be found. Loved it!

    As to your question concerning the graphic nature of films nowadays, the truth is that there are so many entertainment outlets vying for the consumers' attention that Hollywood believes the more graphic, the more the envelope is pushed, the more people will want to see it. Theater sales have not been the greatest over the last five years (why they rolled out 3-D again) and production companies are willing to try anything, short of getting an NC-17 rating. The funny thing is, is that if you look at films from the eighties, many with PG ratings are pretty raunchy or filled with curse words, like "Sixteen Candles" and "The Goonies." Hollywood will never stop putting it all out there, because they don't know what else to do.

    Hey Carrie Anne, if you like black and white silent films, you should check out "The Artist." It might get some Oscar lovin' this year (or so the rumors say)!

  8. Dear Denise, I suspected someone would bring up the "show, don't tell" rule, but this is a little different. I'm not advocating excessive telling (though, like you say if it was so bad, Shakespeare wouldn't continue to be popular today.) More than anything, I think as writers we need to understand/consider the effects our work has on our audience. Too much goriness or explicit sex may "cheapen" our work, and it may turn off a lot of readers. Plus, IMO, it's not necessary. The purpose of this article is to show writers that we have other options.

    Carrie, the only silent film I've seen is "City Lights" with Charles Chaplin and I loved it, which was a happy surprise. Now I'm curious about the movie you mention (BTW, I don't think a 40's film would be too erotic. The problem would be if they remade it NOW :-( ) I'd be curious to know what you think of HUGO (it's on theaters right now--deals with a silent film director.)

    Thanks, Mood!!

    Sister Violante, I'm still laughing about your "commercial breaks"! If I'm really interested in a movie, I get annoyed when those scenes extend for too long or if they're unnecessarily graphic (like in Almodovar's films.) I just don't see the point. The way I see it, if someone has a *need* to see an erotic scene at a particular moment, there is material made specifically for that purpose, ha ha!

    Regis, I've had similar experiences with books/movies I enjoyed as a kid/teenager and now. It's funny how our perception/tastes changes with the years. How many of us have recommended a book or movie, and then when we see it again we think "why did I like this so much before?" Ha!

    Sister Mary, I'm going to add "Rope" to my Hitchcock list of movies to watch. My favorite is "Vertigo" but I was a huge fan of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" in the 80s.

    What you say about 80's PG films is SO TRUE. I recently saw "Uncle Buck" with my kids and faked deafness when they asked me "what does she mean by 'I bet she's getting the tongue'?" Ha ha.

  9. Lorena, I recently reread Green Mansions. It is as beautiful as ever. It was the film that left me cold. Regis

  10. I like Hitchcock's example of the bomb under the table very much. There's some delicious authorial mischief goin' on, there.

  11. This book reminded me of your post. Thought you might find it interesting, too:

  12. Thanks for the link, Suze. I'll go check it out. And yes, that is a great quote!

    Regis, now you've made me curious about that book. :-)

  13. This is a great point! Looking back at the Haunting, I hate the 1999 version because of the special effects! Thank goodness for beta readers :)

  14. I haven't read the other comments yet, but I thought I'd jump in. Very interesting post! I prefer not to revel in lengthy descriptions of sex or violence, and I most of what I read doesn't overdescribe, either. I suspect that prurience has always been there, though. A popular form of entertainment in "the good old days" was putting a cat in a cage and lowering the cage slowly into a fire. Public hangings were a family affair, as was watching people get tortured before execution. This was *live* stuff, too, not filmed. In fact, we're actually significantly less bloody-minded now than our ancestors were.

    But gore will always appeal to a certain kind of person. Is it my imagination or are a lot of those people young men?

  15. "Too much goriness or explicit sex may 'cheapen' our work, and it may turn off a lot of readers. Plus, IMO, it's not necessary. The purpose of this article is to show writers that we have other options."

    I agree! It may also turn on some readers, I suppose, if the target audience consumes that sort of fiction. We talk a lot about commercial vs. "high" lit: do you think that applies here? I find the more commercial a film or novel is, the more likely it is to have lengthy descriptions of sex and/or violence. I can also think of some immediate exceptions -- but I think it's mostly the rule. What do you think?

  16. Jennie, welcome to our blog! Sometimes I think I'm weird because I normally HATE to see special effects (except for animation movies.) Am I alone? (probably, ha!) For me, the nineties version of "The Haunting" was a total turnoff! I just hate it when they don't give me anything to think about!

  17. Sister Steph, like you say, a fascination with goriness has always existed. Just look at the Roman Circus! (Or early 20th century circuses--this reminds me of "The Elephant Man" :-( ) I'd be a hypocrite if I said I despised every movie with explicit sex or gruesome scenes. (Just the other day I mentioned in our forum "Braveheart" and "Apocalypto" as two of my favorite war movies, though someone (who shall remain unnamed) mentioned that they weren't *really* war movies.) What I dislike is to see this everywhere (for no good reason) and that writers may think it's the only effective method to interest the audience because everybody else is doing it.

    You bring up a very good question. Although goriness and nudity are very common in action flicks targeted toward men (or Halloween horror-type films), I've also seen films that are considered more literary (like "The Lover" for example) with very explicit sex. It seems to be an ongoing trend too with Latin American and Spanish cinema. A dichotomy for me is Pedro Almodovar. I LOVE so many things about his films: the characters, his storytelling style and his photography/art direction, but I get frustrated when he gets too raunchy (which he does very often) or gory (ever seen Matador?) It's no coincidence that my favorite Almodovar films are the "clean" ones (Volver, Women on a verge of a nervous breakdown, Broken Embraces, Talk to her.) Mexican cinema has experienced a similar phenomenon. Since they wanted to "break" away from the low-budget 70s and 80s films that gave them such a bad reputation, they started what is called "new" Mexican cinema (Amores Perros; Sexo Pudor y Lagrimas; El Crimen del Padre Amaro, etc.) but in order to "compete" with European cinema (in my opinion) they thought they needed to show a lot of boobs and sex scenes... (the same seems to have happened with most Argentinean, Peruvian, Chilean and Colombian films I've seen. In fact, I'm surprised when I don't see anything vulgar, ha!)

  18. "Sometimes I think I'm weird because I normally HATE to see special effects (except for animation movies.) Am I alone?"
    I know how to do 3d art (barely), have many friends in visual effects companies in London, and so on. But I think there has become a trend where VFX are used as a primary selling point. The first transformers film was absolute rubbish, all VFX and no real plot. Bad guy monsters versus good buy monsters. All the depth of a coin face down.

    That said, many real world events that become more real to us because of visual elements. Would the September the 11th terror attacks be real to anyone not there if they didn't see the footage of the planes smashing in, the towers collapsing and hearing people screaming in terror?

    That'd be VFX in terms of film. You can't have horrible events without them being portrayed somehow, unless there's some specific element you're trying to focus on (the trauma of the individual after, for instance). The bigger the story and the wider the plot, the more of life it must encompass to feel real... which ties me back to what was said about gore and sex; these are parts of life, so it seems odd not to have them at least fleetingly described.

    In my own writing there's a fair bit of gore, not exhaustively described in terms of specific organs and that, but you know; people die, blood and guts go everywhere, that sort of thing. I couldn't impress upon the reader the enormity of the ethnic cleansing without it. Similarly they might not appreciate the main character's ethical transformation, and certainly wouldn't understand why on occasion he breaks down into a hysterical sobbing mess. There's some sex too. The most graphic of which is probably the rape scene, the rest is either implied or described when it's ending as the rest is far more important.

    Mind you, I cut the scene with the concentration camp because I didn't think I could do it justice, or that it had any character progression or plot element to it. There's fundamentally a utility behind whatever happens. I'm happy to delete a whole chapter of description or dialogue if it doesn't fit and doesn't do anything other than being itself.

  19. Nodgene,

    I don't believe in absolutes, so my "I hate special effects" statement was a big exaggerated. What I really dislike is exactly what you point out: the glorification of special effects and turning them into the selling point of the film. "Transformers" is a perfect example.

    My problem is not with ALL gore and sex. My problem is with the trivialization and banality of it, or the blatant use of these tools to entice the audience. I also have a rape scene in my first novel, but it was absolutely necessary to understand a character and her decisions.

    "Mind you, I cut the scene with the concentration camp because I didn't think I could do it justice, or that it had any character progression or plot element to it. There's fundamentally a utility behind whatever happens. I'm happy to delete a whole chapter of description or dialogue if it doesn't fit and doesn't do anything other than being itself."

    This tells me you are a thoughtful writer and when you include gore and sex in your stories, you do it for the right reasons.

  20. So we agree, and you give me a compliment? Most excellent. :D


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are the sole responsibility of each sister and do not reflect the opinions of the entire sisterhood.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.