On the advice of another author, I read Elena Ferrante’s novel The Days Of Abandonment. Her storytelling is direct, often addressing uncomfortable and socially taboo feelings about marriage divorce and motherhood. Parts left me cringing. The novel reaffirms that a character’s unabashed honesty pulls readers deep inside their point of view.
Netflix is showing The Lost Daughter, a small budget indie film directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. She wrote the script based on Ferrante’s novel of the same title about Leda, a middle-aged divorcee whose long-awaited vacation leads to painful introspection. I once binged on episodes of Actors Roundtable that featured Gyllenhaal. She asked why women actors arrived on set in full makeup and dress like bridesmaids while male panelists dress casually in T-shirts and jeans. She also pointed out that the male-dominated film industry generates movies to satisfy the male gaze.
Gyllenhaal’s handling of The Lost Daughter is artful, and unlike the typical Hollywood formula, attends to the female gaze — showing women’s emotions and agency rather than action and objectification. Instead of watching Leda watching a mother and child play on the beach, the camera closes in on Leda’s face so we feel the emotions evoked by her watching. A flashback scene then follows her thoughts to her past as a mother to young children, a wife in a floundering marriage in which her creative expression was smothered by duty. We understand that her watching triggers unresolved issues around motherhood. Had the story unfolded in a linear fashion, that tension would have been lost.
From the filming, I gleaned tips transferable to writing craft. If told well, a character’s internal journey can support a story. Secondary characters can be used to mirror back to the character how society evaluates them, thereby creating tension in the story and stress in the character. Let writing zoom in for a close-up with vivid and specific detail at critical moments to intensify emotions. Budget and time constraints forced Gyllenhaal to make director decisions that yielded stunning outcomes. The lesson, of which, for this writer is to resist over planning and to leave room for the story to redirect itself. In the constraints are creative opportunities otherwise unknown. Let instinct be the writer’s guide.
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