It is true that films present an altogether different form of storytelling from the written word, and although the all too common battle cry, “The book was way better than the movie!” is heard after just about any film adaptation, both mediums have their places, and both can learn a lesson from the other.
What makes a written story so special is its ability to go into a character’s head, experience his thoughts, his fears, his anticipations. Without the use of the sometimes awkward voiceover narration, a movie cannot accomplish that. A film must appeal solely on the visual and auditory senses. This is both its weakness and its greatest advantage, one that a writer would do well to learn from.
The beauty of a masterful film is its potential use of subtlety. Say, for instance, that a filmmaker wants to use a sound to signify something, but doesn’t want the audience to notice it right away, such as a phone ringing. All he has to do is hide the sound amongst all of the other ambient noises that fill the scene. This is a much harder task for the writer. On the page, everything is taken in sequentially, compared to the simultaneous nature of film. This means that one way or the other, the writer must use the sentence “A phone rang.” If the writer has skimped on the environmental details up to this point, the statement is annoyingly conspicuous. If the writer tries to smother the detail with a barrage of other innocuous descriptions, the reader gets tired or, worse, bored.
Film has it easy. All of the details that a book can take paragraphs, or even pages, to describe can be shown in a single sweep of the camera. In a matter of seconds, a theater-goer can have an idea of who a character is based on her appearance, the state of her room, the posters on her walls, her flowery curtains, and what’s playing on the TV. If a writer were to take the time and space to describe each of these things, the reader would likely pass out. Just what is a writer to do?
Work much, much harder. This means mental work, not keyboard work.
The first step is to figure out just where the line falls between too much detail and not enough. This will depend entirely upon what you’re working on. Are you writing a novel, a novella, a script, a short story, or a poem? Short stories, poems, and, obviously, scripts are much like film. There are space constraints, and cuts must be made. Everything must be essential. Novels and novellas have room for a little more flexibility. Regardless, conceptualizing in terms of film can help give you an idea of what to do.
Imagine going to see your favorite movie. You buy your oversized, over-buttered, over-salted popcorn and your half gallon of soda. You sit in your favorite spot and fight with the armrests for a minute. You endure the trailers you’ve already seen a million times, and the film begins. The title flares across the screen then fades, and the characters enter the scene in front of a green screen. For the entirety of the film, you’re left to try and puzzle out where they are. Occasionally you might see a tree or a car, but you simply have to use your imagination, the dialogue, and the action to fill in the gaps. Sometimes the characters are sitting at the kitchen table, and suddenly they’ve teleported and are standing on the other side of the room. Sometimes they are holding something and it magically disappears. Sometimes a door materializes out of thin air, and sometimes, particularly during fight scenes, the characters disappear altogether. Would a film ever be able to get away with this insulting lack of detail? Then why should a written story?
Now imagine the same scenario again. Popcorn, soda, armrest, trailers, and the movie starts. It begins with a close-up on the fridge. It’s a stainless steel with twelve magnets holding family pictures and comic strips. The camera pans slowly over each one. Then the camera cuts to the counter. You see the toaster, the microwave, a dirty sink. Cut to the table. There’s breakfast there—fried eggs and bacon on red plastic plates. The entire film continues at this pace, and the story and characters are forgotten in the midst of every tedious clip.
As ridiculous as it may seem when imagining it that way, writers make these two mistakes all the time. These are the two greatest techniques for making your reader put down the book and never finish. Lack of detail leads to confusion and no investment in the story, and too much detail leads to boredom. A middle ground must be found. To do this it is absolutely essential that the writer always be “in scene.”
Picture your story as if it were a movie. You can’t share every detail of what you might imagine, but what sticks out as eye-catching and important? What single detail can tell the reader more than any of the others combined could? Are there details that you want to insert that can be as quick and fluid as the panning of a camera?
Being in scene also helps the writer to reach an essential awareness of the story. What time of day is it, what season is it? Is it a weekend? Where are the characters positioned in space and in reference to each other? What is the layout of their environment? These are details that the writer doesn’t have to share with the reader, but if the writer does not know them, the reader will be disoriented. When a writer is not aware of the scene, there is inconsistency. Time lapses occur, characters are not grounded, and the reader simply cannot connect. This is why it can be helpful to use a calendar specifically for a long story, or to draw a map. Even writing a check list of all the details that need to be kept track of can be helpful so that you are not either redundant or too vague.
It is also useful to keep in mind what you can get away with. Many creative writing teachers swear by Chekhov’s Gun, which is the principle that if you say there’s a rifle hanging on the wall in the first chapter, then it better be fired later. As important as it is to utilize this rule, there is room for some flexibility, particularly in the case of a novel. After all, isn’t the detail part of the reason why the book is always beloved over the movie? The book has the ability to go into every wordy detail, while the movie, bound by time constraints, is forced to make cuts.
The simple fact of the matter is that readers will allow you to get away with some things, and not with others. Readers don’t want to know the paint color of every room, but they darn well want to know a character’s hair color. Often,it is the details that give way to character development that readers allow room for, rather than the technical details such as the town’s population of 500 and who of each has what job where, when, and why. The reader won’t care about the details unless the writer gives them a reason to care. In this sense, Chekhov’s Gun does apply. Every detail should be there for a specific reason. The reason could simply be to orient the reader, to reveal character, or prepare for the plot twist, but a reason must be had. The more the writer visualizes and is in scene, the more natural finding this balance will become.
By Rachelle Clifford
Image 3 by presto44, images 1, 2, & 4 from FreeDigitalPhotos.net: 1 by Ponsulak, 2 by Worradmu, 4 by Gualberto107.