Write Like You’re Chaplin

Posted: November 22, 2016 in Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

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Unless you’ve studied Charlie Chaplin’s films, you may not immediately see what I’m getting at.  If you can find it, there is an amazing documentary in three parts from 1983 called Unknown Chaplin, which breaks down his creative process and shows for the first time lots of his unused film.

But failing that, let me give it to you in a nutshell: Chaplin worked to his own schedule, refusing to let studio execs tell him what to create or how long it should take.  He often puzzled over a single “gag” for months without shooting a second of film, while all of the cast and crew sat around and waited.  He once re-shot almost an entire movie after recasting the leading lady. He never threw away an idea. And once he was satisfied with something, the finished product always looked utterly effortless.

That’s the key.  When you write make it look effortless, no matter how long or how hard or how many reams of paper you went through to get there.  One mistake writers make is to show how clever they are and make it obvious how hard they worked to get their story on paper — pages of in-depth backstory, obtuse and lengthy set-ups, flowery, purple descriptions of scenery or weather or location — all there to demonstrate the writer’s dedication to research and the richness of their invented world.  Chaplin’s best work was silent, with almost no dialogue, and in back and white.

There’s a scene in City Lights, in which the Tramp buys a flower from a blind girl, and she mistakes him for a rich man.  How did he do it?  No long set-up or clever dialogue. To avoid a cop while crossing the street, the Tramp climbs into a parked car and gets out at the curb.  When the transaction is done, the car’s owner gets in and drives off, leaving the Tramp standing there waiting for his change, which he never gets.  Smooth, natural, completely organic. Effortless.

Chaplin spent weeks filming that one 2-minute scene.

If you take this kind of no-excuses approach, and strive for these kinds of simple-but-sublime results, you should go far as a writer. Pick every word carefully. Make every word count. Rather than “a picture worth a thousand words,”  try to find those words that are worth a thousand pictures.

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Comments
  1. Great image that provides a good idea for writers. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. seabreeze says:

    Cool and refreshing advice…after slogging thru a long novel.

    Liked by 1 person

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