The Story Economy Blog

Movies and Life Never Happen in the Right Order

I spent last Friday on a video shoot, because I had written a script for a commercial (a piece my client is using for a corporate show and their You Tube channel). I got to write a whole scenario, involving actors with dialog and a little kitchen demo. In my mind, it was A to Z: the action moved smoothly from the first scene to the last scene. I wrote it that way. People watching would experience it that way. It seems only logical that it would be shot that way.

I quickly learned that A to Z is not the way things happen in the world of video production. Once the director has the script, it moves from the world as it appears on the page to the world as it appears behind the camera. It’s all about lighting and angle, and the camera determines the order, which is often something like W to K to B to Z to D. But if the script truly works, it should be tightly woven enough that you can pick it apart and stitch it all back together.

This is the art of continuity: creating a seamless experience that flows from A to Z, even though it hasn’t been put together that way.

The potholders can’t be sitting on the right side of the sink in one scene, and the left side after the next cut. An actress can’t have a ponytail with loose strands of hair in a full screen shot, and no loose strands when it cuts to close up.

Continuity is hyper attention-paying to every single thing in a way that you’d never do in real time. But it’s the only way to create the illusion of real time.

(My movie geek husband loves to remind me that movies hire people specifically to monitor continuity. Actually, what he really loves to do is find the tiny instances where the continuity breaks down, and point them out to me with glee.)

As a writer, I learned that if I can improve my ability to think and write in stitched-together time, I’ll produce even better scripts.

But there’s another level (there always is). It has to do with Neil Young.

 A Lesson From Love and War

The potholders and the strands of loose hair stop being relevant as soon as the camera is off. But continuity—as a concept—never stops being relevant. Because it’s also about the stuff you say over a lifetime. And that’s much, much harder to figure out. You could try to hire a continuity person to manage it for you. But they would quickly resign in frustration, because it just doesn’t work that way.

What happens as you get older is that you lose some ideas and gain a bunch others—and then there are ideas in the middle that get abandoned and reclaimed, sometimes (usually) more than once.

A few weeks ago, I heard Terri Gross interview Neil Young, and toward the end of the interview, he talked about this as it related to his music. He has a (brilliant, I think) new song called “Love and War,” which starts out: “When I sing about love and war, I don’t really know what I’m sayin’.”

You can’t possibly know what love and war mean to someone else, he says in the interview. You can’t really even have an opinion.

Except that he has had opinions, he goes on to say. He made outspoken music against war, because it was how he felt at the time. “But I was no more right than the people who believed in it,” he told Terri Gross. In “Love and War,” he sings: “I said a lot of things that I can’t take back, but I don’t really know if I wanna.”

So Neil Young still doesn’t like war, of course, but he’s come to a much more nuanced place about it, because he has had the benefit of years. But if he hadn’t written a song like “Ohio” in desperate anger, the world would have missed something.

More and more, I find it scary to take stands about things when I’m not sure where I’ll wind up. I want to write manifestos about things, because it’s how I feel in the moment (by moment, I mean 5 minutes or 5 years).

But once a new moment hits, I’m in the middle of a new experience, and I feel differently. And it’s a terrible feeling to get called on something, to feel like a hypocrite. To feel like you blew the continuity.

For example, I’ve got an essay burning in me about the role reversal my husband and I have, and how shallow and ridiculous I find the majority of the conversations in pop culture around gender roles to be.

But what if our roles reverse, and I feel trapped in my words? Trapped in the ridiculousness I once wanted to expose?

But if I don’t say it, I can’t sleep.

Continuity isn’t really about words, because beliefs change. Anthems change. Energy shifts in people and in cultures. I think continuity is really about character: being who you are all of the time.¬† As for what you say: it may not always stitch together pretty. But if it always comes from the same you, it has to be good enough.

Maybe I’ll just to borrow from Neil here: When I write about continuity, I don’t really know what I’m sayin’.

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