Wednesday 7 October 2015

Book review: "Invisible Ink"

I travel on Adelaide buses a lot. Some trips take up to an hour, and I always have a book with me, so as not to waste the time. In the middle of last year, I went to the CBD for a bit of shopping, bought half a dozen cheap DVDs from a store which was closing down, then caught the bus home again. 
It was only when I was organising our lunch that I realised I'd left the DVDs on the bus. It wasn't the prospect of lunch that distracted me, it was the book I'd been reading. Invisible Ink, by Brian McDonald. And, no, it's not about spies.

Invisible Ink is a riveting read about all the things that make writing great, especially theme. I'd had trouble grasping the notion of theme. Friends told me that the theme of a movie was something that's perfectly obvious to everyone, except the people making the movie. This was always said with a snigger, implying that the concept was bogus, an exercise for intellectual poseurs. Not something I need bother with. But I was curious.

When I heard about Invisible Ink, I snapped it up. And once I got my hands on it, I couldn't put the book down.

The term "visible ink" refers to writing that is readily "seen" by the reader or viewer, who often mistakes these words on the page as the only writing the storyteller is doing.
   But how events in a story are ordered is also writing. What events should occur in a story to make the teller's point is also writing.
   These are all forms of "invisible ink," so called because they are not easily spotted by a reader, viewer, or listener of a story. Invisible ink does, however, have a profound impact on a story.
   ... (It) is the writing below the surface of the words. Most people will never see or notice it, but they will feel it. If you learn to use it, your work will feel polished, professional, and it will have a profound impact on your audience.
White Face
The question many people will be asking about now is, does this guy have a track record? Yes, he does. Way back in 1993 he was a production assistant on Sleepless in Seattle. Since then, Brian has become a consultant to Pixar, Disney and George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic. He also wrote and directed a 14 minute film called White Face (2001), an award-winning short film which has been shown all over the USA. [The screenplay for the film is included in the book.]  By common consent, it's one of the great short films. (I've ordered my copy, but haven't seen it yet. The screenplay is excellent.)

The privilege of reading this book was worth the loss of a few DVDs. It is the best book of its type I've found in many years of searching. In my opinion, the chapters on "The myth of genre" and "The use of clones" alone make the price of the book worthwhile.

Brian McDonald understands writer insecurity, too.
One of the things that hangs us all up when writing is that we feel we need to make it more complicated. We feel that this will make it better, but it never does. It just makes it muddy.
The following sentences (two sentences, mind you) are from Stewart Stern, the writer of Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
Eerily and precisely to the point, they enroll us without threat, not just because they're entertaining in themselves, but because his examples let us hold out our aprons safely to all the trees he plucks them from as we walk with him on the guided tour of his wonderful varied orchardhere Aesop, there nursery rhymes, farther on fairy tales, comic books, cartoons, the Bible, the theater, anthropological discoveries, barroom jokes, Billy Wilder, Shakespeare, Spielberg, Pixar, The Wizard of Oz, ancient African proverbs, and two irreplaceables, Joe Guppy, and Matt Smith. With Invisible Ink Brian McDonald has written us a book to keep and heed forever because through the simple, graceful, graspable, original wisdom of it, we might just save our screenwriting lives.
If there's one disappointing aspect, it's that the book has no index. That irritates me. In this day and age (cue rant by grumpy old timer...)

And now, here's Brian McDonald chatting with Warren Etheredge, in The High Bar. Shot at The Chapel Bar (Seattle), it runs for 38 minutes and is worth watching. Make the time. You'll enjoy this, as well as learn something.

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First posted: 13 January 2012

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