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Anatomy of a Scene: Citizen Kane


I could have chosen practically any scene out of Citizen Kane for this column. It's a movie brilliant in its writing and I think it helps open up storytelling so much. I think part of it is because of how it was made. 

In Michael Chabon's book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the characters go to a screening of the film when it was new in 1941 and Chabon is able to illustrate the impact the film had on the artists of the time and I think it still impacts storytellers of all sorts when they sit down and watch it the first time.

Here's Joe Kavalier's take on Citizen Kane from Chabon's novel:
It was that Citizen Kane represented, more than any other movie Joe had ever seen, the total blending of narration and image that was. . . . the fundamental principle of comic book story telling. . . . Without the witty, potent dialog and the puzzling shape of the story, the movie would have merely been an American version of the kind of brooding, shadow-filled Ufa-style expressionist stuff that Joe had grown up watching in Prague. Without the brooding shadows and bold adventurings of the camera, without the theatrical lighting and queasy angles, it would have been merely a clever movie about a rich bastard. It was more, much more, than any movie really needed to be. In this one crucial regard—its inextricable braiding of image and narrative—Citizen Kane was like a comic book.
It's literary, too. It is the best of so many media, smashed into one story. It's an utterly fearless film, and Orson Welles explains why in this exchange between him and an interviewer. 

Interviewer: "Where did you get the confidence to make [a film like Citizen Kane]?" 
Orson Welles: "It was ignorance. Sheer ignorance. It's only when you know something about a profession that you're timid or careful. I thought the camera could do anything that the eye could do, or the imagination could do. And if you come up from the bottom in the film business, you're taught all of the things the camera man doesn't want to attempt for fear he will be criticized for having failed. In this case, I had a camera man who didn't care if he was criticized if he failed. And I just didn't know there were things you "couldn't do." So anything I could think up in my dreams, I attempted to photograph.  
Interviewer: "But you got away with enormous technical advances, didn't you?" 
Orson Welles: "Simply by not knowing they were impossible."
I think this attitude is part of the reason the movie resonated so much with creative types, it's an attitude we should try to take to heart in learning our crafts of storytelling, whether that's in writing or in filmmaking. Writing a novel or a screenplay should be that capturing of our imagination, and Kane gives us that.

But getting to the storytelling in this scene, in particular: it's one of my favorites.

It begins with Mr. Thatcher, Kane's caretaker through his youth and the manager of his money, receiving a letter from Kane himself. Through the film, we've not yet been introduced to Kane in the flesh, his introduction thus far has only been at arm's length, through a newsreel. As an audience, we're left to wonder if we're ever going to see him again. With our point of view character still an enigma, this letter is the closest we've been to his own voice in the narrative. 

In prose, you'd think of it as epistolary. It's a good tool to use to get into the first-person perspective of a character who isn't there, or to switch perspectives in your text. (For example, Graham Greene's End of the Affair, where the first third of the book is first-person from Bendrix's perspective, then he finds Sarah's journal and the next third of the book is in this epistolary fashion.)

But the dialogue that goes with the scene gives us a lot of information. First, through the way Thatcher reads Kane's words, we know he's dismissive and annoyed by what's being said. And then we learn that nothing has grabbed his eye except for this newspaper. He's got this "college-boy" attitude. "I think it would be fun to run a newspaper."

Thatcher then breaks the fourth wall, staring directly into the camera, to growl. (The scene establishing this POV is that it's a reporter in an archive room reading Thatcher's memoirs, so the wall-breaking isn't jarring, knowing we're getting his specific POV.)

Then we're shown a progression of newspaper headlines attacking the sort of person Thatcher is, and getting his reaction to each of them. There's an elegance, then, to the reveal of the final newspaper. Not only is it a reference to history, it's something that will be carried into the next scene brilliantly. Welles (and Herman Mankiewicz) wrote incredibly well-designed transitions that have multiple meanings in the text, the subtext, and on a meta-level, too. 

The final headline we're given reads: "Galleons of Spain off Jersey Coast!"

This is the conversation we're introduced to, the newspaper is pulled away and this is our first look at the real, in the flesh Charles Foster Kane. He's handsome and his smile is devious. He's enjoying this.

Thatcher's first line, "Is this your idea of how to run a newspaper?" implies there's something wrong with the headline. And we're supposed to, as an audience, know this is a thinly veiled reference to the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst's that led us to the Spanish-American War.  This is something I think people don't do enough: trust your audience. Assume they'll be able to bring context with them. If they've made it this far and they don't understand the context or the history or the references, they're going to end up checking out anyway.

But Kane replies with that same earnest, devious smile. "I don't know how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher. I just try everything I can think of."

Thatcher accuses him of lying, Kane rebuffs him flippantly, and then we're introduced to two more characters that will be vital to the future of the story. This is Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Leland. Their arrival adds an urgency to the scene, giving its point a distraction. 

Based on the setup, it seems like the point of the scene, from Thatcher's perspective, is to talk Kane out of this newspaper folly. Kane is embarrassing himself with lies and debasing people that he should like, according to Thatcher. 

Thanks to Bernstein's interruption, though, we're able to learn more about Kane's relationship with Thatcher and his management style as an editor. And Kane knows this and slyly tells that to Bernstein and Thatcher, "He knows what's wrong with every issue of the Inquirer since I took over."

Bernstein ignores this and reads a cable. This cable mirrors the USS Maine situation off the coast of Cuba and the famous quote of Hearst's that he cabled to his artist who said, "There is no war." Hearst replied, "You provide the pictures, I'll provide the war." Kane echoes this, which gives us a view of him as a loose cannon. 

This is a tool you can use every time you find a scene dragging. Have two people walk in and try to distract it. It has to make sense, but it can create an energy you need.

With Bernstein and Leland on their way, Thatcher gets back down to business. The framing of the two of them is important as well. Thatcher is standing and tense. He's above Kane trying to wave his finger at him. But Kane is casual and relaxed, sitting down. The power dynamic should work in Thatcher's favor, but Kane simply doesn't care. He's lighting a cigar with a smile.

Pay attention to the geography of your characters and who is in what should be a power position. Or a position of meekness. Or supplication. You can say so much about two characters by how they organize themselves when speaking.

Thatcher gives up, trying to sink to Kane's level. "I want to talk to you about the Transit Companies..."

Kane's joke about getting dirt on them seems consistent with his character that we know, but Thatcher calls him on it. "Still the college boy?"

But Kane gets serious at this point and gives us a very telling response. And it's perfect. "Oh, no, Mr. Thatcher. I was expelled from college. A lot of colleges. Do you remember? I remember."

And then Thatcher tries to appeal to Kane's pocket book again. What he's doing, the crusade he's going on could jeopardize his fortune. But Kane not only understands the cognitive dissonance of his position, he embraces it. "I know this is hurting me, and I don't care, and here's why." This exchange tells us that Kane is much more brilliant than he's letting on. But there's also a core of morality to him. He cares. He cares so much that we could see how this character trait could be his undoing. This is the moment that telegraphs his arc for the rest of the film.

Hearing this sentiment from Kane is too much for Thatcher, though. Kane doesn't even stop talking during this confession when Thatcher goes straight for his hat and coat. He needs to get out of there, which is another great tool you can use for characters. Instead of trying to put more words of argument in the mouths of a character, have them just reach for their things to leave.

Thatcher, ready to leave, stops. He still thinks he still has one ace-in-the-hole. "Is it wise to continue this philanthropic enterprise, this Inquirer that's costing you a million dollars a year?"

And that's when Kane wins the argument based solely on the fact that he's absurdly wealthy and there's probably no better way to reveal it than in that simple bit of dialogue. "You're right, Mr. Thatcher, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in... sixty years."

The scene does so much to establish characters, setting, relationships, and it does so in such an elegant, clever way.

It's incredibly efficient and keeps your attention from start to finish. It's a fusion of music, cuts, scenery, and dialogue that engages all the senses. When the dialogue might start to drag, a completely appropriate distraction appears and keeps the energy and pace up. I mean, this sequence runs only 3 1/2 minutes and it is dense with information and entertainment.

Think about how it's constructed and how you can incorporate some of these bits of storytelling into your own, whether that's prose or screenwriting or comics or filmmaking or whatever.

As far as my writing elsewhere, quite a bit has come out. I interviewed Alex Segura about his book Down the Darkest Street for Huffington Post and it's a great conversation about story and writing.

My latest Ridiculous History piece is about the time researchers hid under beds to gather material for a research study. You can read that over at HowStuffWorks.

My latest for StarWars.Com is from my Cinema Behind Star Wars series. It's about Lord of the Rings and its influence on Star Wars.  I also did a piece about the 10 Star Wars quotes you can use to break the ice and make new friends.

I have a couple more pieces hitting this week I'm excited about, so be sure to keep an eye out.

For those going to Salt Lake Comic Con's FanX, you can see my panel schedule here. I'm going to be on at least 17 panels, mostly Star Wars. I am doing two live episodes of Stuff You Missed in History Class with Holly Frey as their guest host, too.

And THIS Thursday, we're doing our Write Out Loud! event at the Salt Lake City Library's downtown branch. Come and listen to work being read and read some of your own!

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As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!


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