|On Saturday, the fam and I caught a 9 PM showing of 1917.
For just under two hours, we traveled into a century-old story about war and friendship. And as we sat there, watching the near one-shot tale teach us everything we’d ever need to know about unfathomable loss and unbelievable courage, I’m not sure any of us moved an inch.
Somehow, director Sam Mendes erased nearly 103 years of time and invited every single one of us to leave the comforts of our 2020 lives to join his characters on a life-changing journey.
We were frozen by the power of story — pulled into the vast, war-torn landscape and stunned silent by the magnanimity of it all.
What made the film so powerful wasn’t the fact that Sam told an original story, however.
For an entire century, more than 180 films have chronicled the tragedies of WWI.
Add in the documentaries, the short films, the television series, the books, the short stories, the essays. . . it’s hard to imagine how a new and fresh narrative might still exist.
What made 1917 such a powerful film was HOW Mendes told the story.
|Now, you can bet your bottom dollar that Sam Mendes knows ALL ABOUT the hero’s journey.
Heck, he even implemented it flawlessly –>Tom Blake gets pulled into an impossible journey and brings his friend, Will Schofield, along for the ride. Together, they stare into the worst of humanity, and eventually, Will Schofield finds himself alone on the journey, overcoming incredible odds with a near supernatural force.
But it’s not the hero’s journey that made the film.
Every war film for the last 100 years has implemented the same journey, and many of those have taken their rightful place as some of the greatest films in history –> Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge, Unbroken (in the last two decades alone).
[Side note: When my husband and I were backpacking through Europe in 1999, we were walking through the French countryside of Calais, France, trying to find our way to the Beaches of Normandy. We met up with two kids who were about our same age, and EVERY conversation we had with them always came back to one phrase: “This is JUST what it was like in Saving Private Ryan!” The film, released just one year prior, had shaped and colored and directed these young Chicago boys’ reality.]
👆🏽👆🏽👆🏽👆🏽And THAT right there was Mendes’ secret, too. 👆🏽👆🏽👆🏽👆🏽
1917 was told in a way that moved the dial just a little bit more on the way we understood war. For those of us who saw the film, our conceptions of WWI (and the ways we imagine it from here on out) will undoubtedly be colored by the 119 minutes given to us by Sam Mendes).
1917 invited us in to see and feel everything that the characters saw and felt. It made us mourn with them.
It made us fear with them.
It made us ache with them.
It made us long for food and warmth and solace with them.
Had Mendes told his story in a way that failed to elicit our emotion, then we’d likely find his story inside the pages of a college textbook instead.
But Mendes DID tell his story well, and to do it, he used a few tricks that one of my favorite copywriting mentors, Joanna Wiebe, calls CPTS.
C = Color
Mendes didn’t expect his audience to imagine the horrors of the war. He SHOWED us its full brutality.
>>He didn’t just tell us that it was cold outside. He showed us the white air of his characters’ breath.
>>He didn’t just portray panic. He pulled us into the fear by overwhelming us with darkness.
>>He didn’t just let his characters escape near death. He made us feel the exhilaration by showing us the freedom of light at the end of a dark and collapsing tunnel.
>>And he didn’t patronize us with the tragic reality of death. He made our hearts break with it as we watched its red power stain the hands of the living.
What’s the lesson?
It all comes back to the age old wisdom of show, don’t tell.
If you want your audience to feel the weight of your words, use color (e.g., descriptive words and phrases) to paint vivid images in your reader’s mind.
P = Pattern
Mendes takes the cake home for this one.
The ENTIRE film was basically one long, rolling shot.
Where most directors rely on cuts and edits to splice together a story, Mendes dropped his audience into the vast French countryside. . . and kept them there until the very end of the film.
The audience NEVER lost sight of the characters.
And this allowed us to feel exhausted and defeated and overwhelmed by the end (just like Will Schofield).
What’s the lesson?
There are two here, actually.
1. Never underestimate the structure of your writing. Its role is nearly as important as the words you choose.
2. Think about the rhythm of your own writing.
How are you equipping the reader to journey with you?
Do you need subheads to act as your “cuts” and “edits,” or are you able to tell one long story without losing your way?
Do you write with long sentences, or do you rely on short sentences and fragments to illustrate your point?
T = Texture
This is your chance to break the rules and go against the grain.
Texture can almost serve as a pattern interrupt, taking the audience out of the expected to help them see the unexpected.
For Mendes, his use of texture was best displayed in his one rolling shot approach.
He also used texture in the silence, replacing dialogue with vivid imagery or allowing the pace of action to cue the audience’s emotional states.
What’s the lesson?
In your own writing, this might mean using ellipses (. . . ) when you want your reader to follow through to the next line.
It might mean using an em-dash to break up your thoughts or parenthesis to give an important aside.
It miigggghhhhhttt even mean introducing a fragment or a super long run-on –> just to break the pattern and jolt the reader into awareness. (Did you catch the examples of texture I used in this very paragraph????)
S = Shine
Like color, shine allows your reader to SEE exactly what you see.
Your high school English teacher likely called this figurative language: simile, metaphor, onomatopoeia, imagery, foreshadowing, suspense.
To help his audience see the tragedy of war, Mendes used foreshadowing, suspense, music, sound, and more.
We shielded our eyes at the realities before us, cringed in worry and anguish, pulled close into our loved ones as scenes unfolded, all because Mendes relied on SHINE to activate our minds.
And because our minds were activated, we forgot for a while that the story we were watching was fiction, believing every detail was truth simply because we felt true and raw emotion.
What’s the lesson?
Don’t be afraid to use shine in your writing. It’s the key to bringing imaginations to life.
Think about CPTS this week as you communicate to your audience. You don’t have to use all four at once, but once you start implementing and see the power it has over the influence of your words, you’ll never want to write without them.