Many readers have told me they can “see” the scenes I write, that my style is “cinematic.” I take this as a compliment, as it is something for which I strive. I want the reader to see it in their mind. I won’t provide each hair or feather or leaf in a scene—that would be awful—but I want my words to paint just enough of the picture that the reader has all she needs to move forward and fill in the details she wants.
But I am definitely informed by cinema. Case in point: a scene I just came across during my re-edit of The Spirit of Thunder. I remember writing the scene, I remember storyboarding it out in my head. I remember knowing exactly what inspired me to construct the sequence as I did.
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was a groundbreaking film in which the director advanced many techniques never before tried. One such technique comes in the “breakfast montage” wherein he overlaps audio and visual footage in a mix that speeds us through the story, showing us years of detail without slowing down the narrative.
Faced with a similar need—to show much in a short period—I borrowed from this technique and put six weeks’ action into a couple of pages.
Excerpt from The Spirit of Thunder:
Every morning, he looked out at the tremendous structure out over the water, silhouetted by the awakening sky. He sipped his coffee and gazed at the creation, applying his layman’s gauge to assess its progress.
Lamps still glowed in the dawn, hanging like a hundred yellow eyes along the back of a myth. The flickering stars of welding torches shed meteors as metal was joined to metal, beam to beam, section to section. The cranes atop the pylons wove webs of cable and rope like colossal spiders hunting for the men who worked at their feet.
And men were everywhere.
Along the river’s edge, they drove teams of horses, mules, and hardbacks. They oared boats through the midnight waters beneath the trestles and manned the great barges and rafts out beyond the pylons. They operated the huffing steam-powered winches that pulled loaded trams up the trestles’ inclines. They tended the fires that burned in the bellies of pistoning machines that belched black smoke and white vapor with each gasping breath.
Men climbed, too, on the bones of the beast, walking the beams and spars that hung over the water. They clambered along the span in a hundred places, they hung from ropes, they leapt from girder to girder. They hammered, they sawed, they worked bellows and pumps. They cut wood and metal. They pounded and hefted and grunted and shouted and cursed and laughed and sang as they all, a thousand and more, worked and sweated together.
What began in one man’s head, what had its size and proportions drafted and delineated on countless lengths of paper, was now being brought into being by the concerted toil of two full regiments, a hundred teamsters and drivers, a score of cooks, ten smiths, four surgeons, and one very overwrought colonel.
As the mornings passed by—some drab with rain, some clear beneath the light of the morning star, and some made glorious by red and orange fire from above—Herron sipped his coffee on the steps to the Devil’s Den. With each sip, the bridge grew.
Ironwork grew upward along the scaffolds like rime. Trestles formed and interwove their straight lines into twin curves of dark filigree, two arcs canted in toward one another until, at the apex, they became one elegant structure that crossed the wide Missouri in a single, graceful step.
The arch complete, the scaffolding was dismantled, thrown in pieces down into the river. The waters foamed as timbers and boards plunged down from a hundred feet above, then eighty, then forty. The Missouri carried it all away, a scrap at a time, until the only thing left was the arch, beautiful and dark like a lady’s eyebrow.
Herron sipped his coffee, tasted its bitterness, its bite, and watched men swarm the arch. They attacked it from both sides. First, the welders with their tiny suns, dripping fire onto the water below. Then the riggers, dragging miles of cable behind them, lacing it into the pulleys like ants threading a series of gigantic needles.
More welders followed, and hundreds of men surrounding small, steam-driven cranes. They assembled the supports for the bridge deck, attaching it to the cables, moving forward onto it and using it as a platform from which to assemble the next stay.
They met in the middle and then retraced their steps to solidify and strengthen the deck. In their wake came the carpenters, and the railmen, and more. And more.
Herron drained the last cold swallow from his cup as the locomotive hissed and sighed its way up the incline for the first weight tests. Shafer was headed his way, slowly. The colonel walked up to the offices. He stopped in front of his general and hooked a thumb over his shoulder toward the bridge.
“Done with time to spare, sir.”