Wednesday 29 May 2019

Storytelling Genius - Nick Garlick

One of the best examples of storytelling I know is the opening wedding scene of The Godfather. Not the book. The film. I watch it – or pieces of it – constantly. (In the last 30 years I’ve owned the VHS tape, the laserdisc, the DVD and the Bluray.) 

What leaves me shaking my head with admiration is the way this one scene introduces not just every major character, but a whole raft of minor ones; people who often won’t be in the film for more than a few moments. It does all this without ever once confusing the viewer as to who’s who, while at the same time telling us who they are with just a few lines, or in some cases a single action. 

Santino has an explosive temper. Fredo is a clumsy drunk. Michael is a war hero, convinced he won’t join the family business. Tom Hagan is like a brother to the previous three men but forever excluded from the family because – in three thrown away words from Michael – he’s ‘not a Sicilian’.

Then there’s Kaye, Michael’s girlfriend, who can’t quite believe what she might be getting into. Don Barzini, a rival boss, can have an unasked for photograph destroyed with a snap of his fingers. Luca Brazzi is the family’s brutal enforcer, a murderer, but he looks uncomfortable in morning wear and stumbles over his words like an 8-year-old forced to recite in class.

I still haven’t mentioned Johnny Fontane, the singer seeking help with a movie role; Clemenza, another enforcer, happily dancing and guzzling wine. There’s Paulie, his treacherous assistant; Connie, the godfather’s daughter and Carlo, her slimy husband; Mama Corleone, the godfather’s wife; Bonasera, who opens the film with ‘I believe in America’ before asking the godfather to commit murder.

And of course the godfather himself, Don Vito Corleone, who can arrange a beating, fix a residence visa, step outside for a dance with his wife and then return to his office to greet Luca Brazzi with the words, ‘My most valued friend

By the end of this sequence, the scene has been set for everything that occurs in the rest of the film. It's been set so well that we react to every event with a, 'Well, that makes sense'. Forgive the hyperbole, but for me this is storytelling genius and my hat is forever off to writers Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (and an uncredited Robert Towne).


Nick Garlick is an English writer living in the Netherlands. He's published Aunt Severe and the Dragons, Aunt Severe and the Toy Thieves and Storm Horse. He has a website: and a book blog:


Penny Dolan said...

Hello Nick! Great to see your post here and I'd agree that this is a powerful and compelling opening scene and tells a viewer all they need to know about the complicated relationships between all those characters.

As a writer, I know it would be wonderful to create such an effect - but I also wonder if it might be impossible. Is this an example of the kind of storytelling that works so well on screen but can't - alas! - be created/recreated on the pages of a novel?

I wonder if that is why - as you suggest - the book is less satisfying?

Thoughts, anyone?

Nick said...

I think you're right, Penny: I don't think you can create this effect with a book; there's simply too much to describe. One of the reasons the film works so well is that it can show at the same time that characters are speaking. (I think of Santino seducing a guest with a whisper and then a quick cut to his wife seeing this and her face falling. Takes just a few seconds, but they tell you almost everything about the marriage. It would take a LOT longer in a book and wouldn't be so effective: you can't see her face.)

I was thinking of adding this observation to the post, but decided not to; it was already long enough. I might write about it the next time though, because it's a 'problem' that can dog my own writing. Being a movie lover, I often get TOO cinematic. And I'm often pulled up on it.

Andrew Preston said...

Must say, I always thought The Godfather was an overblown, rather nasty tale of gangster lowlife. Just like the book. A real Hollywood blockbuster.
But maybe I misunderstood the nuances.

Penny Dolan said...

Andrew, it's often hard to say what attracts us and why, in all sorts of art forms. (eg See my own ABBA post a day later) Can be sentiment, nostalgia, the imagined romance of a place or period of time, the exciting tension, the sense of feeling you are among a group of interesting people (even if they might slaughter you at any moment) and so on. But I also think many people would agree with you too.

Nick, I think the problem is that, when beginning to write, we're encourage to "imagine" (ie think in images) and "visualise" and "create scenes" etc when words on the page don't quite work like that!

Whenever I'm starting a writing workshop with children, some eager kids talk about wanting to write a story that's like X or Y film (incorporating, as they so often do, the chase and set that will be used for the videogame.) A moment that needs some careful handling as they will have been fired up by the ir teachers beforehand to think about what they'd really like to write - and the collision of artless hope and impracticality always makes my heart sink.

Nick Garlick said...

Interesting point, Penny. I remember my own first fumbling attempts at writing, and my disappointment that they just wouldn't reproduce what I imagined. Quite how you teach/help children about writing is a puzzle. To me, at least. I'm impressed by anyone who does so.