24 October 2014

Helpful Advice if You Are Writing Fiction But You're a Fan of Film and Television

In terms of my story consumption, I'd say I'm about 50% reader and 50% watcher of television and movies. I don't even feel bad about that. I love reading but there is something very compelling about visual media, and it's a great way for me to consume narrative such that I can discuss it with my partner, who is not a great reader and who tends to gravitate toward nonfiction anyway.

The unfortunate thing about being a fiction writer who consumes a fair amount of scripted, enacted, carefully edited stuff is that there are some important differences between written story and televised / filmed story. It's too easy to absorb some film techniques and transfer them into your novels or short stories where they don't really make much sense.

Here's some advice on this problem from Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel, which could equally be called How to Make the Novel You're Trying to Write Way, Way More Interesting to Just About Everyone:
...many writers visualize their stories in the way that a film unspools on a screen. They write travel between scenes, establishing shots and incidental action (dropping ice cubes into a glass, flicking a lighter into flame) in order to "pace" their novels and make them feel more realistic.
That method is sometimes misguided. A novel is not a film. The compression inherent in film often demands its action be paced out; otherwise, the unrelenting tension of the film's back-to-back scenes would hammer the audience into insensibility. Novelists do not have that worry. A novel's pace is already slow. For novelists the challenge is just the opposite: to keep the tension level constantly high.
In other words, get to the good stuff right away and keep it coming. I don't know if bearing this advice in mind would help resolve all issues that arise from accidental copying of film / television techniques onto written fiction, but it might.


Andrew Leon said...

Yeah, I disagree with that. A lot. Any time I read a book that just starts in the middle of the Action and then just keeps it coming, I find myself distinctly disenjoying it. The characters are inevitably two-dimensional, if they even reach two dimensions, and there is rarely any reason for the Action other than keeping it coming.

Elizabeth Twist said...

I agree that there's a problem with starting in the middle of a nonsense high action scene for the sake of "grabbing" the audience. That can be a very empty formula, and it's something that Maass recommends against.

The idea I took away from this is to avoid "cinematic" style scene setting in written fiction. I don't personally see any contradiction between keeping the tension going and building character.

Andrew Leon said...

Tension building in a novel, though, has the luxury of being slower and, therefore, more pervasive.

I actually don't know how to address this, so I'll just say:
The only time I try to think of things in a "cinematic" style is when I'm trying to write a fight scene. I need to run the visuals through my head for those so I can figure out how to write it.

Mina Lobo said...

In a weirdly related story, I've just started reading "Save the Cat," which is about script writing but was recommended to me by a novelist who says it's brilliant for all kinds of writing. :-) And so far, about 1.5 chapters into it, I can see why. It's not yet touched on visual aspects, though. I reckon the challenge in fiction writing is striking the right balance between setting a scene and bogging it down with needless detail, eh?