Multiple writing blogs have recently offered a take on harnessing cinematic technique in writing1. More often as not, the cart is put ahead of the horse and they fail to mention that, vice versa, cinema first adapted these famous techniques from writing! Even before writing, stories were shared round the fire and recorded later in pictures, so that, indeed, maybe the comic strip frame by frame is closest to the earliest recorded story medium and with as much to offer.
Narration transcends the medium2 and many of the techniques of film and writing have been passed back and forth with the refinements suggestive of each. Each have their own unique techniques unavailable to in the other.
D. W. Griffith may be the grandaddy of modern film but he credits it all to Dickens:
When Mr. Griffith suggested a scene showing Annie Lee waiting for her husband’s return to be followed by a scene of Enoch cast away on a desert island, it was altogether too distracting.
“How can you tell a story jumping about like that? The people won’t know what it’s about.”
“Well,” said Mr. Griffith, “doesn’t Dickens write that way?”
“Yes, but that’s Dickens; that’s novel writing; that’s different.”
“Oh, not so much, these are picture stories; not so different.”
reminiscences of Linda Griffiths, his wife
Surely we understand that the wife will be waiting a long time for her stranded husband, that she doesn’t know he’s stranded: the juxtaposition provided by the cut makes the situation all the more touching.
Angle, close-ups and wide panning shots offers us and our director friends a wealth of variety to control the pace, tone, and underlying meaning of a scene — the subtext3 — and entrance our ‘reader’. In both, perhaps the single greatest power of narration is the retelling in narrative-time the real-time unfolding of the story. We can jump back and forth in time, speed up and skip sections altogether, summarize others, then slow down for minute inspection of the juicy bits. Story by picture (or any other single frame medium) loses that dimension of narrative order but, where it has lost, the viewer has gained a freedom in how they choose to view the whole4.
Written description is not just visual, but uses all five senses: sound goes beyond ‘he said, she said’; smell and taste, intricately linked, are most evocative of memories and otherwise inexplicably recalled ideas; and touch makes the story tangible.
Words are not merely factual. Specific word choice reflects subtext framed within the perspective of the narrator whatever the POV taken, reliable or not, because even the so-called ‘objective’ narrator will be opinionated. To trust these opinions, whether the reader agrees or not, the narrator must always take a firm stance (no wishy washy maybe could be’s!). Specific words/images evoke a meaning in the reader that, strictly speaking, you can’t control but you can direct nonetheless if you reflect on the beyond-the-dictionary/google response you have with them.
Description is powerful in the particular choice of what to describe and what to leave out: apply the most salient strokes to paint a scene and carry on with the story. In film, the analogous close-up of particular details gives them too much weight; we can’t single out the most important points; the entire scene must be laboriously constructed, robbing the ‘reader’ of their creative input, indeed, distancing them from participation in the ‘reading’. That’s why watching a movie feels more passive than reading a book.
As a writer, be proud to work in a medium that’s so powerful and with such a long and rich history. Sure, our tastes are converging toward movie-like presentation — they’re evolving with the times — but it’s belittling to say that it’s the movies alone that have influenced us. Surely our distaste of verbose passages and purple prose are as much a statement of today’s culture and we can attribute these tastes to fast-paced living and our shortened attention spans, or, conversely, our demands to counter those all-too-real stresses and regain an active evocation in our reading. Taking the next step: how should our writing evolve to reflect our ever-changing culture?
Notes and further reading:
A variety of essays in the readings of a course on Film Adaptation are wonderful: I recommend the Eisenstein essay, “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” and I borrowed ideas unabashedly from Chatman’s “What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t (and Vice Versa).” There are a few others I plan on reading, but do comment if you beat me to them and would like to recommend.
3. Beyond pacing, tone, mood and ‘atmosphere’, subtext gives the underlying meaning, the themes and resonances connecting the scene within the whole, the background motivations of character and action, all the way to the commentary of the world, real and story, our story makes. I’m sorry this is vague — it’s still vague to me! I should probably reread Baxter’s book.
4. Imagine a painting in which the elements of the whole present two stories depending on the order of viewing them: in one viewing, say clockwise, maybe the blood is the consequence, but in the other, counterclockwise, viewing, the blood is the cause.