In my recent posting about POV I mentioned how I thought the term had perhaps been borrowed from scriptwriting, and said I’d explore how modern fiction is maybe influenced by film and TV techniques.
What I had in mind more than anything else was the way most films (I’ll use that term as shorthand to cover anything you might see on TV or at the cinema) have lots of very short, tight scenes. Basically, the boring bits are left out – and this is something which has to a large extent been adopted by modern fiction. Some writers quite understandably visualise what their protagonist is doing in great detail – the problem is, they then proceed to write it all down. But the reader neither needs nor wants to know everything about what the hero’s bedroom looks like, how long it took him to brush his teeth, what he had for breakfast, and what route he took to work.
In film, when Inspector Morose and his faithful sidekick Sergeant Thicke get a call about a corpse in the canal we don’t see them finishing their tea, finding their coats and the car keys, opening the car doors, putting the seatbelts on, and then follow them down every street on the way to the canal. We might see them jumping into the car, but equally we might simply cut from the phone call to them standing over the body and asking the pathologist ‘What have we got?’
(Have you noticed how people in film almost never say ‘Goodbye.’ at the end of a phone call? In real life, unless someone is really angry with the person on the other end they always say ‘Goodbye’, but they don’t in film and we never even notice. It’s all a sort of shorthand which isn’t really realistic but just seems like it is.)
So as fiction writers we need to bear this in mind. When the camera pulls back, as it were, we don’t need to follow our hero every step of the way in what he does unless it’s relevant. But this also applies to the close-ups too. A lot of writers over-describe a character’s actions – all of the grimacing, eye-brow raising, turning heads this way and that and so on gets over-done. Barely a sentence can get out without the writer telling us what the character’s face is doing or which way he is looking, walking etc. I’ve read manuscripts where the writer is so keen to describe every little facial and bodily movement that they inadvertently get their characters into all sorts of improbable contortions. It’s sometimes not only physically impossible, but more importantly distracting for the reader – having to wade through all these ‘stage directions’ to get to the meat of the scene.
Often, the dialogue should paint the picture without the need for all this to be spelt out. If someone says ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘Where did you get that from?’ we don’t need to say that they were frowning. If Joe is talking to Johnny, we don’t need to be told that he looked at him as a prelude to the next piece of dialogue. But even if the dialogue doesn’t tell us everything about the scene, it’s often still okay to let he reader paint his or her own picture. The more they are allowed to do that the more real the scene will seem to them.