Friday, February 11, 2011

Books and Movies: Forever Entwined

By John Gilstrap
NOTE: I'll not be much of an active participant in my own blog day today because I won't have access to a computer or even my iPhone.  Why, you ask?  Because I will be getting a VIP tour of the Navy SEALs compound in Virginia Beach, and they don't let you take cell phones with you.  For the record, that's not a moast.  That's a pure neener-neener outright brag.

Now, on to today's post:

Reading Joe Moore's excellent post on Wednesday about the importance of setting, it was interesting to see how many examples of setting were in fact taken from movies.  In the context of Kathryn Lilley's great post about Finding Your Voice, I got to thinking about how much movies have influenced books over the years.

As a writer of commercial novels (not to be confused with lit'rateur (read that word with a New England elite accent)), I am obsessive about pacing, imagery and snappy dialogue--the holy trinity of screenwriting.  I think in scenes, making every effort to begin and end on action.  I believe in jump cuts, taking the reader from one scene to another quickly.  Even my contribution to the voice discussion focused on "camera placement" as a means of keeping POV consistent.

So, how does a writer fulfill the goals of pacing, imagery and snappy dialogue?  It's all about voice, baby.  And voice is inexorably linked to point of view.  Consider these two descriptions of the same scene:

1. Finally, he arrived at the desert.  He stepped out of the car, stretched his back and closed his eyes, letting the heat and the dry air soak into his skin.  If he used his imagination, he could smell the aroma of purple coneflower and Easter lilly cactus carried on the constant breeze.

2. He'd arrived.  There was no putting it off anymore.  He climbed out of his car into the blistering moonscape, somehow sensing that he'd stepped two rungs lower on the food chain.  Between rattlesnakes, scorpions and a climate that sucks the moisture from your bones, this was a place for the dead, not the living.  It’s no wonder that we tested nukes here.

To my eye and ear, those examples illustrate how an author's voice simultaneously drives action, imagery and characterization--in this case in the form of inner monologue.  At least, I think that's what it's called.  Through description alone, filtered through the voice of the POV character, we get a glimpse at two entirely different personality types.  In both examples we learn that we're in the desert, and that it's hot.  The rest is all characterization.

And for me, all else being equal, I have all I need to know about the setting for this moment in whatever story this would turn out to be.  I've given the reader enough to take it from here and develop it further in his or her imagination.  This is a stylistic thing for me, but once that scene is set, it's time for the character to do something, lest the pacing slow.

People are used to experiencing thrillers--my genre--on the screen.  In order to compete, I need to provide that same kinetic experience on the page, but with the addition of deeper character development.

What do you think? Do movies affect the way books are written?  Is our addiction to entertainment from the screen the reason why thrillers from the past feel sorta slow when we read them today?

7 comments:

  1. Some of the best books today are written using a combination of screenwriting techniques and good writing craft. Sometime in the late seventies, there seemed to be a merge of style. Scenes were shorter, jump cuts became okay, action grew faster and more complicated. Characters, rather than being correct and stilted, began to rip themselves off the page. Teaching writing today requires good knowledge of both techniques and knowing how to pass it on. Thanks for the thoughtful post, John. Hope once the SEALs get a grip on you, they let you come back.

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  2. As I've noted to you before, you and I share very similar storytelling sensibilities. From time to time I've been accused--accused, I say!--of being cinematic in my writing, as if that's somehow a bad thing. I would argue that the worst sin of a writer is boring your reader and first and foremost I don't want to bore myself, so I write in short scenes, quick cuts, lots of dialogue, which to me, anyway, drags the reader directly into the action and brings it in close. Those are my sensibilities and not all readers share them, but a lot do.

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  3. Terrific post, John. Not much for movies, since spare time comes at a premium having a day job as intense as mine while writing at night. Since I write YA adventure tales, mostly geared toward boys (there's a great commercial market - hah!) I have to stay on top of pace, especially with description & dialogue - the action has to be maintained. Gotta make every word count or risk losing the young reader's attention.

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  4. Remember John, SEALS are sissies. Delta Force guys are the real men. Be sure and share that with the SEALs because they are aware of it.

    Sometimes it seems that MTV changed the game and made it so people expect fast scene shifts, constant action, and in effect have lower attention spans Input overload is the goal of media. Quick bites, all fluff and little substance. We want characters that feel real, for most a fast car is the character, so is a weapon in action. A character development is a total asshole who's lost a wife and kid to a killer and he drinks too much who after killing a hundred bad guys becomes a man who cares about the damsel in distress and decides that he wants to be high on life.

    What ya gonna do.

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  5. I agree that cinematic style and book writing have become entwined (I am often thinking of things learned from reading Syd FIeld when plotting a novel). That's good, and not so good. Being less visually oriented than most, I come at it from a different angle. The biggest loss suffered in this trend is that people don't give books the time they need to get started. This pushes people to start their books with a murder in the bathtub for example. I like a subtler approach.

    And occasionally, I'll run across a book that is written in such a staccato rhythm that it feels like the author was writing it while in the depths of drug withdrawal, it feels so disconnected. It gives you a very annoyed feeling like you do when the kid in the plane seat behind yours keeps kicking your seat and their stupid parents do nothing to stop it. You want to get up and whack them upside the head.

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  6. "From time to time I've been accused of being cinematic in my writing, as if that's somehow a bad thing."

    It is a bad thing. It means your writing lacks description, has too much dialogue and you don't get into the character's heads.

    Getting into character's heads is one of the greatest strengths of the medium.

    When someone tells me my stuff reads like a screenplay I see it as a sign that I really need to go back and rework it, make it richer.

    I think the great books that get turned into movies are great books on their own.

    I don't agree with this idea that old thrillers are slower. What about that Follet Eye of the Needle book that everyone on here raves about?

    What about the Bourne books or Silence of the Lambs?

    I think writers trying to make their stuff read more like movies, in order to make it more entertaining, is a detriment to fiction. Readers LIKE to get in the heads of the characters.

    The Potter books are some of the most successful books ever, they are modern, and they read like novels. Not watered-down books designed to be turned into movies.

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  7. When I read books the ones I enjoy are the ones I visualize as a movie in my mind. If the visualizing isn't happening in a few pages the reading stops.

    Ain't got time for wading through extraneous alliteration and excessively eloquent verbage to colorfully illustrate without necessity the allegorical saga into which I am attempting to be drawn.

    er...sumpin like dat.

    Hope you had fun with SEALs. Did they bounce balls off their noses? I love it when they do that.

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