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Oh this Damien Walter post. —On the one hand it is very nice to see well it isn’t writing advice per se, but it’s nonetheless the sort of thing writing advice needs much much more of, and much much less of “cut the adverbs” and “don’t head-hop” and “spelling is important.” —What are you writing? How are you approaching it? What are the tools in your toolkit, and how might they be used to solve the problem? What the heck is the problem, anyway, and is conceiving of it as a problem even what you want to be doing? (What if you’re focused on the sound of what you’re building, and thus that string of adverbs is necessary for the swing?) (What if you’re making a point about universality and actively embrace a cacophonic leap from point to point of view?) (What if you’re making up a whole new slanguage as you oh but this is getting silly, the point is almost made—)

What if you want to write prose that plays with the grammar of cinema?

So maybe you want to cater to the more widespread literacy in cinematic grammar that Walter notes; it’s all about the reading protocols, after all. And maybe you want to mess around in the limen between the words you say and the scene they see; maybe you want to show and not tell. Maybe you want to have a narrative voice as flat and objective as possible because flat objectivity’s impossible, and that’s one of the points you’d maybe like to gesture toward. —So maybe I have a dog in this fight. The visible world is merely their skin.

But also, that other hand: any time you find yourself making essentialist arguments (“Novels dial the phone like this; movies dial the phone like this”), you need to run your check/wreck protocols, or you’ll find yourself stating things that just ain’t so merely because they neatly fit your strictures: the primary sin of fanfic, for inst, isn’t that it’s too cinematic, but almost precisely the opposite: in its attempt to exercise the authority needed to tell a story with someone else’s setting and these characters loved widely and too well, fanfic often indulges in interior monologuery far too drearily specific and on-the-nose in an attempt to demonstrate a basic competence with the material. And while I haven’t read enough Dan Brown to tell you just how cinematic he is, his failing most commonly mocked (probably because it’s the opening sentence of that book, and thus one doesn’t need to have read much further)—

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

—it’s no cinematic sin at all; the hilariously clumsy exposition of “renowned curator” is something only prose could fuck up quite like that.

Many of the sins Walter wishes to lay at the feet of this ersatz cinema are the sins of action-adventure fiction, which prose was committing long before cinema ate the world; which cinema caught, in large part, from the pulps it aped when it was starting out. —There are differences between the reading protocols of this sort of prose and that sort of cinema, sure, and it can be instructive to use the one as a way of looking at the other (in what manner, precisely, is The Wire novelistic? Show your work), but let’s be careful not to muddle medium and idiom and mode, while we’re at it. (To say nothing of genre.)

The primary difference between prose and cinema (beyond the obvious) is I think in time, and how each handles it; cinema (like theatre before it) no matter how achingly it might strive for universal generalities, must necessarily show you specific people doing specific things in specific places at very specific times. Prose, on its wily other hand, can say: “Monday morning staff meetings were always a chore for Willy” or “For the next week whenever she went to the coffee shop she saw the woman on the corner” or “And then everybody died.” —The narrow bandwidth of prose can’t begin to approach the wealth of incidental detail that makes up cinematic specificity without enormous slogging effort; most of the tricks and tips one needs to learn to tell stories and have them told with mere words, in fact, those reading protocols we’ve all had put in place, have everything to do with tricking us into thinking that specificity’s been achieved without us noticing (just as a great many of cinema’s tricks are all about forcing us to empathize with the saps up on the screen, bridging the vast gulf between their specificities and ours). —Now prose can give up its ability to turn on a dime, go large, sweep it all up, and constrain itself to cinema’s pinched and straitened lens (one can do anything one likes, after all), and this is neither a bad nor a good thing: the trick’s in how it’s done. How conscious is the author of what they’re giving up; how mindful of what they might reach for, instead?

And I would agree with Walter in this much, certainly: too many authors who do indeed give up a great many of prose’s tricks do so without noticing what they’ve lost, and what they might be doing instead with what they’ve got.

(The effect I think’s more noticeable when you compare comics and cinema: widescreen, decompressed superheroic storytelling is a far more conscious attempt to down tools half-understood and ape instead the things a more “successful” medium might do, and in this attempt comics is doomed to become nothing but stiffly rendered storyboards for the film we’d all rather be watching.)

  1. Mike    Sep 6, 10:24 PM    #

    I like this part where you say:

    How conscious is the author of what they’re giving up; how mindful of what they might reach for, instead?

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