What The Movies Can Teach Us About Texture In Writing

By Ryan Byrnes

Writing fiction is a democratic art—a market art. Directly speaking to newbies and hopefuls, this is your saving grace. In that twilight where writers aren’t famous enough to snag movie deals, but still good enough to attract the notice of literary agents—at that level, degrees and resumes are useless—all that readers can use to differentiate between two same-genre books are the subtle elements of style that give each book a vague sense of “flavor.”

Is this too abstract? Allow for a concrete example. Think about a movie you have watched twice, thrice, or more; you already knew the plot, you already knew the jump-scares, you could probably recite some scenes from muscle memory. So why watch it again? Maybe your friends dragged you to see it against your will. More likely, you watched it because the movie “just had a certain feel to it” that you wanted to return to.

The writer analog of this feeling is known as texture, and movies can teach us so much about texture—the combination of design elements that gives each story its unique feel. Let’s do an example right now, observing three legendary directors who worked with the same genre of WWII films and yet differentiated themselves vastly through texture. Any wily internet surfer could find these movies online—so grab some popcorn, a blanket, and snuggle up with your cat for an evening of film study!

Dunkirk (2017)

Flavor: Smokey

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The first thing you’ll notice about this WWII movie is the lack of color – every scene is either in blindingly bright light or total darkness. This movie has no main character. It’s a collection of jumbled vignettes about random soldiers, each scene jumping in time with no warning or explanation. Instead of two hours of monotonous violence, most of the movie is spent dreading the fight, concentrating the action into brief, extremely jarring bursts. You never actually see the Nazis, making them even more intimidating.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Flavor: Sugary

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A series of framed narratives creates a storybook effect, placing this fable in a tiny square frame within a flashback, within a novel, within the present day. The action is purposely cartoonish, with ridiculously exaggerated shootouts where nobody is actually shot and whimsical chase scenes right out of Scooby Doo. The movie includes plenty of cakes, candies, snowy vistas, impeccably clean uniforms, and ornately decorated mansions. The dialogue is pretentious, ironic, and filled with awkward pauses. Everything is a sweetened shade of pastel pink or powder blue.

The Monuments Men (2014)

Flavor: Savory

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Following the traditional three-act story arc, this movie has a purposeful antiquated feel, focusing on a vintage treasure chase reminiscent of an Indiana Jones story. We are given an ensemble cast of classy, well-educated, reluctant heroes. Scenes include a lot of faded yellows like canvas uniforms, bombed-out sandstone churches, and oxidized golden treasures. Characters display chivalry as they spare their enemies, stay faithful to their spouses, and sacrifice themselves for their friends.

And these are just three flavors. Imagine how much potential each writer has to make their work pop within its genre. It’s not enough to just write vivid characters, sympathetic conflicts, and snappy dialogue—any published author, we assume, can do that. An author needs to brand themselves with a unique texture, just like we have observed the vast varieties present between three WWII films. You can do this with an infinite number of devices—poetic devices, colors, voice, setting, and more.

Ryan Byrnes is an intern with Holloway Literary.