Narrative and the Moving Image: What Film Can Teach Us About Fiction Writing

I’m a big movie fan. One of my favorite things about film is its ability to win an audience’s trust so easily. As a storytelling authority it seems the celluloid image has a propensity to pull viewers under its “spell” much quicker than the written word. There’s something about our visual faculties that allows us to surrender seamlessly once something has managed to “trick” the human eye into believing images on a screen are objects inhabiting space. On the other hand, it takes considerable work once a story has begun to convince a reader that what they’re experiencing on paper is a unified and worthwhile creation, a cohesive reality capable of standing on its own and compelling an audience.

Of course, film and literature are uniquely distinct storytelling disciplines. One uses a device that mimics the faculties of the human eye; the other exploits the ways we think. However, both are presented with a similar challenge: how to use their respective storytelling mediums to reproduce ideas in such a way the reader (or viewer) will deem them authentic and accurate representations of what we call "reality." In other words, film and literature both struggle with the paradox of presenting a new way of seeing a very old world.

The fact is, both disciplines can learn a lot from the other. There’s no doubt film owes a great deal to literature's pedagogical and cultural traditions as a storytelling authority. Similarly, there’s no question writers can learn a great deal about how to tell a story by examining some of the common techniques used in modern film.

Consider the common technique known as the eyeline match. Here, the camera shows a character looking at something off-screen, then cuts to reveal the foreign presence seen by the character. It would be obtuse storytelling if the film insisted on having the character utter “here comes a dog!” to signify his/her recognition of the invading object, or if it required a close-up on the character’s eyes to acknowledge that they’ve seen something. Instead, there’s a sort of causal linkage established by the succession of images on the screen. There’s an unspoken assumption that what we’re seeing in the secondary shot is also what the character is seeing.

Bad writing often ignores this practice. It’s common for writers to pen scenes with unnecessary language such as “Then, Tom saw a dog running toward him.” Instead, the writer could simply say: “A dog ran toward him.” After all, we know Tom is in the scene. And now, we know a dog is there too. You don’t have to explain those obvious inferences of causality. Doing so slows down the story and worse, reveals a writer who doesn’t trust his/her audience.

The fact is, just as film owes a great deal to literature’s tradition of telling stories, there’s no question writers can learn a great deal about storytelling craft by examining some of the common techniques used in modern film.

Writers can also learn about storytelling by taking note of how films establish a fixed vantage point from which audiences watch the scene unfold.  The narrative point-of-view you choose to tell your story is a lot like a camera lens: it dictates how reality is represented, and determines — by how “wide” or “close” the shot — what we see and what we don’t. Just like how directors establish a predetermined axis between the subject and the camera to establish perspective, a similar relationship should be established availing the reader to what’s shown on the page. Consider the differences in description below, each of which essentially captures the same event, only from different “cinematic” vantage points.

Wide shot: “The cop ran into the street.”
Medium shot: “The cop ran into the street, a pistol in his hand.”
Close-up: “As the cop ran into the street, his thumb cocked the pistol in his hand.”

While writing transcends the visual, writers should think like cinematographers when choosing their POVs; they need to make a judicious decision regarding how “close” or “far” they want people and objects to be represented in the story. Different “shots” allow the reader access to different layers of information. The more details you add to your description, the “closer” you put us to your character. The fewer the details, the “farther” out the lens goes to take in the surrounding panorama.

Then there are the “shots” composed within the scene, where writers can superimpose different “focal” lengths (i.e., perspectives) to add depth and urgency.  For example, here’s a scene working off the last descriptive passages, this time incorporating different “shots” which offer the reader a wider, richer gamut of perspectives:

(wide shot) “The cop ran into the street.” (medium shot) “The robber, on the corner, turned and dropped his briefcase.” (medium shot) “The cop, still running, pulled the pistol out of its holster.” (close-up) “The robber, removing his hand from his pocket, pulled out a similar pistol.” (medium shot) “Stopping in the street, the cop drew up his arm, aimed his gun and, (close-up) with his thumb, cocked the pistol.” (close-up) “A sinister smile graced the robber’s face (medium shot) and he drew up his pistol.” (wide shot) “A shot rang out, the robber fell onto the sidewalk, and the screams of passersby filled the street.”

This scene gives Mickey Spillane a run for his money in the “sawdust prose” department, but hopefully what I’ve sacrificed in quality will allow a more unfiltered example of the range of perspectives that routinely occur in literature. As writers, you can play with “wide shots,” “medium shots” and “close-ups” within the scene to excavate descriptive qualities a reader may not have seen from a single perspective. However, writers should remember to maintain a sort of spatial clarity in their work: don’t “zoom” in and out with abandon. Feel free to go from big to small — or small to big — but try to stay reasonably within these spaces once the big focus in the scene has taken place.

Just like how editing is routinely used in film to suggest a passage of time (particularly the jump cut or continuity cut), similar transitions can be made in literature to quickly usher the reader between scenes. Summary, in particular, always “speeds” things up: abridging scenes and bypassing dialogue in favor of general exposition can move the reader over great distances in very short spaces. By contrast, just like how more frames-per-second will literally slow down movement on the screen, elaborate description also “slows” things down and brings time to a stop. Dialogue, the most “realistic” of all the narrative modes, keeps the story at the steady keel of real-time.

Then there’s the concept of parallel editing. In film this is the idea of showing different events occurring simultaneously in two different locations, with the implied understanding that both will eventually intersect. Parallel editing is dully efficacious: one, because it’s an economical way of showing two separate events; but more importantly, if the effects of one event threaten or serve to alter the meaning of the other, it can add tension or reveal a thematic idea at work in the story. For example, there’s a famous scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone attends a ceremony to baptize his child, crosscut with a parallel scene of his hired goons murdering the family’s enemies. The scene is poignant because it reveals Corleone’s desires to seek spiritual recourse while simultaneously failing to alter his own moral code, and this dichotomy does wonders in both elevating our understanding of the character and, ultimately, the idea of power under the influence of corruption.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that books also do this all the time. There’s a chapter in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections where Chip, the middle child of the family, attempts to travel from war-torn Lithuania to his hometown of St. Jude, Minnesota, so he can celebrate Christmas with his family one last time. As Chip makes an arduous journey across Europe and back to the Midwest, another war rages from the “comforts” of home as his family awaits his arrival. The chapter is a fantastic primer in craft because, with the two seemingly disparate scenes juxtaposed together, we begin to understand not only what awaits the family when everyone is finally reunited, but what each character ultimately means to the other, regardless of their myriad differences.

It’s important to mention here: no matter what story you tell, it should remain consistent in the envisioned style you’ve chosen to tell it. It would defy common sense, for example, to display flowery prose in one paragraph, then delve immediately into a stream-of-consciousness style in the next. Moreover, the methods you’ve chosen to tell your story also have to be germane to the type of story you’ve chosen to tell. It would be spurious to tell a science fiction story in epistolary, or if you told a mystery only in summary (there are exceptions, of course — history is made of them — but good luck delivering either of these in a cogent and digestible manner).

The point is this: the “illusions” of film and literature work best when the viewer or reader forgets they’re witnessing a simulacrum of reality, and instead feels they’ve been subtly transported to a different place, where the delivery mediums that stand between reader and story, viewer and film, seem to disappear. It might be a hopelessly “old school” claim, but I’ve always believed storytelling (whether it’s literature or film) works best when the curtain and lights and stagehands are hidden from view, and this is exceedingly difficult to do when a film employs MTV-style montage or a novel showcases a disassembled narrative from a dozen points-of-view. While all of these techniques can be employed tastefully, relying on these sorts of industry “hat tricks” has a habit of revealing the cogs moving behind the creative curtain, or reminding the audience that they’re watching a story instead of participating in one. There are always going to be limitations in storytelling, or challenges in the medium used to tell the story. While the “real world” and the worlds of film and literature are vastly different, both mediums work best when they avoid revealing their limitations and focus instead on what makes them storytelling authorities, capable of presenting an illusory experience.

Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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Comments

TwistedPaper's picture
TwistedPaper from Poland is reading "The Book of the New Sun" by Gene Wolfe & "Seven Wonders" by Adam Christopher July 11, 2012 - 4:37pm

Great article. Thanks. 

Bret Gammons's picture
Bret Gammons from [I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it.] is reading Whatever he has time for this week. July 11, 2012 - 8:59pm

I always enjoy your articles, Jon, and can usually learn something from them.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Big Book of Pulps July 12, 2012 - 11:39am

Jon, thanks, what a great subject. A good movie is such a magical thing. I  know I need my fix every couple of weeks. Especially with the advent of the DVD and its "bonus" features, a writer can learn a lot from a film.  I just finished "The Prestige" -- directed by Christopher Nolan -- and was delighted by the way the cinematographer's comments deepened the experience even further.  And of course a good writer can teach a film maker volumes. When an author like Michael Chabon or Thomas Pynchon describes a car, home, or a person -- more than just light rays and audio are being sent out.

 

 

Bret Gammons's picture
Bret Gammons from [I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it.] is reading Whatever he has time for this week. July 12, 2012 - 11:45am

Ditto what Jeff said. I always think it's cool to listen to writer/director commentaries because they're so concerned with storytelling, theme, and emotional impact. I listened to all of the Fight Club commentaries, for instance, and recently rewatched Quills and Doug Wright's commentary. I sometimes even put on commentaries instead of music when I'm writing.

Jeff, The Prestige is my favorite Nolan film, and I've seen everything he's done except for Following.

Jon's remarks on consistent storytelling reminded me of a certain video that never fails to get a chuckle from me:

Thomas Derry's picture
Thomas Derry from Bonanza, Colorado is reading Rand McNally World Atlas July 12, 2012 - 1:30pm

Great article to read and to reference. For me, the hardest part is getting the reader to forget they're reading a piece of fiction. I always seem to put something in there that trips them up!

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. July 12, 2012 - 4:29pm

I love the Godfather example.  I need to try this tool.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Big Book of Pulps July 14, 2012 - 12:46pm

Bret, re. "The Prestige" --  as soon as David Bowie made his entrance through that curtain of lightning bolts as Tesla, I was hooked.

 

 

grahamlg's picture
grahamlg April 1, 2014 - 8:25pm

Jon, I'm not sure if I agree with your exposition of the distinction between literature and film. The movie (and still) camera does indeed mimic the human eye in that light is transmitted via a lens to a receptor (film or digital sensor) to create an image. But, in the case of films (movies),
a series of sequential images is then edited into a particular order to create a narrative. This "film" is then presented to the viewer who uses his or her own brain (via the eyes) to perceive it. With a literary work, the process involves presenting the reader with a sequence of symbols which they have been trained to decode into words; words which have been edited into a particular order to create a narrative. These are physical descriptions of the two different ways that narratives can be presented (forgive me if my descriptions are flawed or clumsy).

The major difference between the mediums lies in what each can do. Written narratives can explore mental processes and transmit thoughts, ideas, emotions etc., mind to mind, through the interface of written language. Movies cannot do this. Being a purely visual (and aural) medium, everything is externalised, and therefore ideas and thoughts cannot be directly transmitted. Writers, directors, cinematographers, sound designers and of course the actors, must collaborate to present the viewer with the information visually and aurally in such ways that infer the internal thoughts of a character. I have heard it said and seen it written that film viewing is a very passive activity. But the best film narratives engage the audience and make them complicit in the story telling process.

Film story telling techniques can be applied to good effect in literary narratives, and I can think of some novels that are very filmic in their structure and narrative technique (e.g. Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro). But I think we would be losing something very valuable if literary writers were to lose sight of the unique facility available to them whereby they can communicate so directly with their readers - mind to mind.