We spend a lot of time consuming film-based entertainment. The average American watches nearly three hours of television a day. This influences how writers, especially beginner writers, imagine the scenes of their novel, memoir, or short story. Without even realizing it, they see the lens of their story like a camera panning across space. The characters become like actors, primarily expressing emotions through their facial expressions.
However, these techniques don’t work as well in books as they do in film. Books instead rely on different idioms, ones that don’t translate well into film.
Some movies do have a voice-over. You’ve all seen one. Here are the opening lines of the movie A Christmas Story (1983):
Ah, there it is. My house. And good old Cleveland Street. How could I ever forget it? And there I am, with that dumb round face and…that stupid stocking cap.
When a movie has a narrator, the narrator is usually commenting on what is happening on screen. In this case, the adult Ralphie is commenting on the image of his house and his appearance when he was nine years old. Narrators in movies wouldn’t start jumping around in time or talking about something unrelated to the current scene.
But how often are your thoughts perfectly linear? How long can you think about one topic without a random idea popping up? This is one part of the human experience that can be better captured in writing.
Here’s an example from As I Lay Dying, a novel told through the stream of consciousness of several characters. In this chapter the son Jewel overhears his brother making their mother’s coffin from the room where the mother lies, still very much alive, for the moment.
It’s because he stays out there, right under the window, hammering and sawing on that goddamn box. Where she’s got to see him. Where every breath she draws is full of his knocking and sawing where she can see him saying See. See what a good one I am making for you. I told him to go somewhere else. I said Good God do you want to see her in it. It’s like when he was a little boy and she says if she had some fertilizer she would try to raise some flowers and he taken the bread pan and brought it back from the barn full of dung.
While the narrator starts describing where his brother is and what he’s doing, he immediately starts making assumptions about his brother’s thoughts: “See what a good [coffin] I’m making for you.” Then the narrator jumps back in time. He’s comparing his brother’s actions to something he did as a young child. The mother had asked for fertilizer and the little boy unthinkingly used the bread pan to bring in some dung. The narrator doesn’t explain how these two scenes are alike, it is just where his mind went.
This isn’t the only way a narrator in a book can express more than the narrator in a movie. The narrator in a book can give lengthy judgements, express complex philosophical ideas, or give extensive historical background that would be too cumbersome to work on screen.
Movies and TV shows tell stories with cameras, and cameras don’t lie. If the camera shows Bud stealing a car, we know that Bud stole a car. However, if a first-person narrator in a short story tells us Bud stole a car, we don’t necessarily know that Bud stole a car, especially if the narrator is mad at Bud for winning over the girl the narrator loved.
This is what happens in the T.C. Boyle story “Termination Dust.” I went along with the narrator at first, taking his word for everything. I believed him about how bad this guy Bud was and the negative consequences in store for the woman after she follows Bud to his remote Alaskan cabin. I believed the narrator until he bursts into the cabin where Bud and the woman are making love and gives this lame excuse when the dog attacks him:
And I should say here that I like dogs and that I’ve never lifted a finger to hurt any dog that I’ve ever owned, but I had to put this one down. I caught him as he left the floor and slammed him into the wall behind me until he collapsed in a heap.
When I got to this point in the story, I started to question everything the narrator had told me thus far. A person who would treat an animal like that is not to be trusted.
Word Choice and Syntax
In a film, the camera determines our impression of the setting. Whether or now we feel a setting is threatening or friendly depends primarily on the visual techniques of the filmmaker. However in books, the word choice and sentence structure can change how you feel about a location, and it may be in contrast to how the setting physically looks. Here is a bright, sunny day in suburban California, as described by Tom Wolfe in “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.”
…endless scorched boulevards lined with one-story stores, shops, bowling alleys, skating rinks, taco drive-ins, all of them shaped not like rectangles but like trapezoids, from the way the roofs slant up from the back and the plate-glass fronts slant out as if they’re going to pitch forward on the sidewalk and throw up.
The long list of nouns in this sentence has a dizzying effect. The length of the sentence makes it hard to catch one’s breath, which is also reflected in the choice of adjective, “endless.” All these techniques, along with the simile about the building throwing up, make it clear that this is a hostile alien environment, despite being a normal Southern California suburb.
A film can show you a character’s face and body language better than a book can. A great actor can make even a sparsely written character come to life. However, books have an advantage when it comes to revealing the internal sensations of a character.
The Ben Lerner short story “Cafe Loup” takes place in the brief moments while the narrator is choking to death. A film could show a person choking—his face turning colors, his rigid hands coming toward his neck—but it would be impossible to convey in the visual medium what choking feels like. As the narrator’s friend begins the Heimlich maneuver, this is what he experiences:
Aaron was behind me, his breath on my neck, trying to figure out where to put his hands. Instead of my life “flashing before my eyes,” a series of odors were doing whatever the olfactory equivalent of flashing is, all of them intensified by the fact that I couldn’t inhale. Childhood cut grass (nothing is a cliché when you’re dying), the sulfur of strike-anywhere matches, asphalt after rain, fresh paint in a room whose windows are open in the spring, movie-theatre popcorn, the sexual smell (that is, the vaginal smell) of a woman who broke my heart in my late twenties, hyacinth, watermelon candy (in the throat of Mrs. Sackett’s student?), my first cat (Felix), grilled peaches at my brother’s in Seattle […] as Aaron performed his first ineffectual thrust, tears finally in my eyes, haloing all the tabletop candles, my little aleph, little star, my asterisk, and even as my peripheral vision began to contract and my ears started to ring and I was begging my daughter to forgive me in my mind, I was surprised—and surprised that I was surprised, that in my last moments on earth, as I was flooded with terror and love, I had the mental space to note how the world failed to conform to my expectations of it…
Sometimes I see beginner writers use techniques from film in their stories—montages that slice a bunch of scenes together, or dialogue that is said to be inaudible to the reader. In literature, these techniques don’t make sense and only create confusion. But when an author uses techniques that are especially for the written form, they can create a unique artistic experience that no movie can imitate. The best way to learn these techniques is to read—read widely and frequently.