The other day, a friend of mine, who’s story I’m critiquing, and I had a discussion of how important character, emotion, and stakes are to fight scenes in fiction. My friend had gotten really into the cool fight moves, but part of the way through our discussion, he stopped and said, “I think movies have ruined me.”
Movies have certainly altered the way we think of stories. The question is then, is that a good or a bad thing? Have movies, and thus TV, expanded the field of fiction writing or hindered it? Let’s take a look at a few points.
PACING: There’s a reason modern fiction is much faster paced than the classics. We expect swift action in our stories when much of the fiction we take in visually is shown in real time. Gone are the days when extended description and languorous scene setting were popular. If modern authors pulled these once common tricks in fiction, they probably wouldn’t be read. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place and a beauty to the vividness and leisure of classical writing, but not so much in modern fiction.
THE COOL FACTOR: Not to say that the fiction of older times didn’t have Cool. Read, or, better, listen to someone perform the St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V. (This Kenneth Branagh version of Henry V below is awesome, and I highly recommend watching the whole movie.) And there’s something admirable and cool about Sir Gareth walking unarmed and unarmored into a crowd of angry knights to protest the burning of Queen Guinevere in Arthurian legend. In essence, though, movies and TV have allowed us to explore the Cool Factor in ways that written fiction struggles with. It would be difficult to capture in words alone, for example, the speed of The Matrix fights or the complexity of starship battles in Star Wars.
However, as writers, it’s easy to forget that written fiction is much different from visual fiction. We can get caught up in the visual cool and lose sight of the fact that awesome stunts won’t carry a narrated scene for long. Try describing any cool battle scene from a movie to someone who hasn’t seen the movie, and most likely, your listener’s eyes will start to glaze. That glazed, bored effect is what writers must avoid, so, when writing, they cannot allow themselves to get trapped in the realm of movie fight scenes. Rather, they need to remember the importance of including gripping conflict, goals, motivations, characters, emotion, and high stakes. These things are what make the cool moves matter. Even in movies, the cool moments that have all those traits as well are the ones that make us hold our breath the most.
ONE DIMENSIONAL SENSES: Yes, I know that’s kind of an odd way to put it, but it gets the idea across. In movies, we have only two senses satisfied: sight and sound. That makes for a one dimensional mode of storytelling. Of course, for this medium, it works beautifully. Not so with written fiction.
Written fiction actually has six senses it much satisfy in a reader: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and thought. By that last, I mean the glimpse we get into another’s mind that no other form of entertainment can capture the way a book can. All this is conjured with words alone, but with those words, the sensory part of the human mind is activated, and we imagine in exquisite detail. Think of the last time you read about a bad smell and, unconsciously, wrinkled your nose. Remember the last time you stopped reading and found yourself surprised to be sitting in your own house with your mundane life around you. That is the power of written words. When writing fiction, we must keep all these senses in mind for a full, multidimensional affect.
EMOTIONAL AFFECT: Great actors are the crucial glue to the visual medium. They can lift a mediocre script. They give substance to the cool special effects and CGI. They make us feel and rivet us to the story. On the screen, they embody more emotion at any given moment than any author could reasonably convey in written fiction. They add character, life, and depth that the average person might not even consider.
On the other hand, part of what written fiction does is evoke emotion in the reader, and the tools to do this are a little different than those at the actor’s disposal. In written fiction that’s done well, readers can experience what the character feels at a much more personal level than most movies. However, I would venture to say that if one were to compare the best of written fiction with the best acting, it would be hard to say which has the greatest potential to move an audience.
Personally, I don’t think movies have ruined fiction writers, as long as the writer is aware of the handicaps that thinking like watching a movie can have when trying to write. Movies have expanded the realm of storytelling. On the other hand, if I had to choose between giving up movies or giving up books, I’ll toss the movies out without hesitation.
What about you? Do you think movies have helped or hindered storytelling? What pitfalls do you see for the fiction writer that stem from filmmaking? What lessons can we learn from the silver screen?