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On Visual Storytelling: The Camera Lies

Yesterday I told a story about a high school ski trip that ended with a Goofy-esque pratfall on the slopes at Aspen, Colorado. It was one of those moments too perfect to believe, and I’ve cherished it in my memory ever since.

A couple years ago I got to relive the experience when Dad shared his first novel with me…and it featured a high school ski trip with more than one Goofy-esque pratfall to it. That sort of strongly visual scene, capturing an effect we’re all-too-familiar with from our extensive TV- and movie-watching, can be a powerful element of fiction writing. In fact, “It reads like a movie” is one of the most common and most encouraging compliments I get about my novels.

It’s a tricky effect, though. Reading those scenes in my Dad’s book (and in a handful of other first novels I’ve had the opportunity to review in the time since), I’ve been surprised how consistently new writers get tripped up trying to recreate in print effects they’re clearly more familiar with on the silver screen.

Late Attribution

The worst of these (and, in my experience, the most common) has got to be the late attribution. Our protagonist is sitting at a table alone, waiting on her lunch and thinking idly about…well, important plot elements, when suddenly:

“Well, well! I never expected to see you here. What have you been up to? Mind if I join you?”

Quick! Tell me who said that. How did you read it? Is it from our protagonist’s point of view, catching sight of an old friend? A high-school rival, wearing perfect politeness as a thin veneer over vicious judgment? Ooh, or is it a romantic interest “happening to bump into her” with a little bit of flirtation in his words? Or did you hear the voice of the arch-villain, sneaking up behind her with a dreadful malice dripping off every word?

The answer usually comes in the next word.

  • …Janey said, catching sight of her friend.
  • …Paulo said, taking the empty chair and favoring her with a disarming smile.
  • …Evillo McBadguy said, with a dreadful malice dripping off every word.

And that quickly the problem is fixed. Your reader has had to endure all of, what, twenty words of confusion. Is that such a bad thing?

It is. This is another example of what I was talking about last week — telling your readers everything they need to know, before they need to know it. And your readers need to know who’s saying a line before they read the line.

That’s because when we read dialogue, we voice-act it. Without ever thinking it through, we instinctively apply some sort of voice and emphasis to the words in dialogue, and when a reader has to guess — and then, in all likelihood, go back and reread once they’ve got the necessary information — that’s jarring. It takes your readers out of the story, and that’s a Very Bad Thing for good fiction.

It’s easy enough to see where it comes from, though. It’s pretty common on TV and in movies for us to hear a dramatic line and then the camera swings around for the dramatic revelation of the speaker. Late attribution attempts to recreate that (admittedly cool) effect, but it doesn’t work.

When you’re writing something to “read like a movie,” you’re still not writing a script. Remember that. Your goal is to create the effects, not just to blindly repeat the methods. That matters a lot, because as you try to recreate those visual effects, you’re doing it with a completely different set of tools.

When the villain speaks a dramatic line of dialogue from off-camera, for instance, we can still easily hear his exact tone of voice. Film provides audio and visual cues that novels don’t. That doesn’t mean you can’t achieve the same effects…it just means you’ll have to learn new ways of doing it.

Flickering Point-of-View

There’s another “rookie mistake” that I think gets discussed a lot, but nobody really talks about where it comes from: flickering point-of-view. When I say “flickering,” I mean too-frequent point-of-view changes in a story. Just like late attribution, they tend to be jarring for readers, they cause confusion, and they can shatter immersion.

So why are writers so anxious to throw them in? Because it’s what we’re used to seeing in our favorite TV shows and movies. We’re used to seeing the same scene flicker between more than one literal point of view — the multiple cameras usually used in filming — and it’s a technique that works.

It’s fun, as a storyteller, to get to show every single event from the most perfect possible perspective. And TV and movies have taught us to follow that sort of flicker, as viewers, to piece all the disconnected images together into a single awareness of the scene.

Humans are incredibly visual creatures, though, and that capacity gives us the power to do those mental acrobatics. Words, though…words are slower. Ideas take time to take shape, and rapidly jumping between descriptions of points of view is much harder to synthesize than just shifting perspective of rich visual images.

Maybe that paragraph was a bit too dense. Here’s the situation in simpler terms:

  • When we see a scene from a different perspective on camera, it’s (usually) immediately, visually obvious that the perspective has changed. Good cinematographers also make sure we can tell at a glance — in a split second — exactly what the perspective has changed to.
  • When you switch perspective in a novel, there’s nothing to reveal it to a reader until you tell them. And then, to achieve the same effect, you have to tell them what the scene “looks like” from the new perspective before you can ever get back to telling them what’s actually happening in that scene.
  • That means who, what, when, where, why, and how…and that’s an awful lot of Ws just to provide a slightly different take on a storyline the reader is already comfortably following. It might take a paragraph, or it might take a page, but it’s certainly not “a split second.”

There are certainly times when a change in perspective is valuable in written works, it’s just important to realize that the cost of a POV switch is much higher in a book than it is on film. Focus on recreating the POV switches that you like from authors — not the ones you like from CSI.

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