Thursday, April 23, 2009

Practical Application of the Atoms of Cinema, Part I

(Related article: The Atoms of Cinema)

In my February article, I presented a new method to understand the cinematic storytelling process, the “Atoms of Information” theory. In this month's article I intend to give a basic understanding of how this method can help a writer analyze their work and allow them to write better, more effective stories.

To summarize my last article: Art is about communication. The entire cinematic experience is made up of the continuous communication of singular pieces of INFORMATION to the audience, in a visual, verbal, or acoustical form. It is through these pieces of information that the story progresses, bit-by-bit. And, like atoms in chemistry, words in the English language, or even bricks in the construction of a building, each “atom” of information builds upon and combines with previously existing information to create larger, more meaningful structures (i.e the plot, characterization, visual atmosphere, etc., etc.)

Please understand first off that this theory is not intended as a tool for plot construction or a method of structure. Its best use is for analyzing existing works and to provide the writer a mindset from which he or she can create the most efficient and effective story scenes. Understanding that a movie is all about communication, and a forming a working knowledge of how your scenes interact with your audience WILL make you a better writer.

Let's start by creating a very simple scene and analyzing what is being communicated to the audience at each moment.


A MAN, (late 20's) enters. He takes off his coat and has a seat at the counter. Moments later a WOMAN (mid 30's) comes in. She surveys the room and has a seat at a table across the room.

Now, most action that takes place on screen amounts to information that is communicated to the audience literally. If an audience were to watch this scene, the information told to them is literally: “A man in his late 20's entered. He took off his coat and had a seat at the counter. A woman in her mid 30's came in. She had a seat at a table across the room.”

But keep in mind that every visual detail on screen at any moment also communicates info to the audience, whether they are taking conscious notice of it or not. Everything the audience sees tells them something. What do this man and woman look like? Are their faces attractive, ugly, weather-beaten, innocent? Does the look in their eyes denote confidence, apathy, fear? How are they dressed? What about body language, gestures, the pace of their movements? Every little detail on that screen is instantly absorbed by the audience as information that creates the characterization of these people – tiny atoms of what kind of people these two are.

What about the location? What information does it communicate? Is it clean and well-lit? Is it cheap and disgusting? Would it cater to the trendy set, or is this a spot for blue collars to blow off steam after work? What does this information say about our two characters who have decided to come here? The audience can pick up subtle clues as to the city we are in, the time period, the attitude of the place by the decor, furnishings, or what kind of music is playing from a jukebox.

What about outside? How is the weather? If it is raining, this information can work to establish mood, or the rain might have some story significance that will be revealed later on.

A writer who understands how much a simple scene like this can potentially express to an audience would do well to control exactly what information he or she wants -or needs- the audience to know about these people and this place, rather than to leave the action in empty ambiguity.

So, let's rewrite our scene to communicate more information to the audience.


A shady little place, not many customers at this time of day. It's a little old-fashioned and past its prime, but friendly nonetheless. A YOUNG MAN steps in from the light drizzle out outside. He removes his overcoat and make his way to a seat at the counter. Late 20's, blond and handsome, he's dressed like he just got back from Harvard on his father's trust fund.

A WOMAN enters as well. Mid-30's, an aging beauty with the weight of the world on her shoulders. She removes her sunglasses and shakes out her umbrella as she takes a seat at the table.

Now let's continue the scene with some dialogue.

The young man catches the attention of the elderly EMPLOYEE serving behind the counter.

Cafe, por favor. Negro, no azucar.

What is being communicated to the audience by this line?

In one simple line, the audience is told some surprising character information. Our New England Ivy League kid is comfortable speaking in Spanish. This could suggest a number of things about his background.

Secondly, the audience now understands is that this story most likely exists in a Spanish-speaking country.

Let's continue.

I've never seen you drink coffee before.

What is being communicated to the audience?

The audience now understands that these two people KNOW each other. Before this moment, they seemed to be complete strangers to each other.

What, did you follow me here? I was hoping I'd never
have to see you again.

What is being communicated to the audience?

Obviously there has been some conflict between these two in the past. They don't seem to have parted on good terms the last time they were together.

The woman rises from her table and approaches the young man. She reaches into her purse and places an object on the counter next to him.

Here. I don't want it anymore. I don't care what you do.
Just get it out of my sight.

She turns and heads for the door. Sitting next to the young man is a small, worn, back leather-bound BOOK with no writing on its cover.

What is being communicated to the audience?

Apart from the literal information communicated by this action, (“she has given him a book”) the mere fact that the camera is paying close attention to the book tells the audience that this item is important. It has some sort of story significance. But the storyteller has chosen to not give the audience all the information at this point. It remains a MYSTERY ITEM. The fact that the audience knows that this item is somehow important but does not know why makes the audience ask QUESTIONS.

The ability to use new information to raise questions in the minds of the audience is one of the most valuable skills a storyteller can have. This is where I will begin Part II of this article.

(On to Part II)

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