Monday, July 14, 2008

A book is not a movie

I recently critiqued a short story which began with a cinematic description of the landscape and the weather. People in a generic medieval village were briefly described, but they were unnamed and didn’t speak. After a few paragraphs of this, the camera panned away to another location and the main character (who was named) began to speak. The writer explained that she often wrote as though watching the events unfold movie-style.

Such a cinematic point-of-view opening is used in any number of movies, where it works well whether with or without voiceovers, and this makes a number of new writers use it too. But to do so without understanding the difference between the two media can be a stumbling block. A movie offers an unfolding visual, which is often more atmospheric and attractive than a written description. Such an opening, coupled with stirring music, may well do what paragraphs of written description at the start of a novel cannot.

Minus moving pictures and an orchestra in the background, most writers don’t have a page or two in which to describe the setting, especially not in this day and age where competition for publication slots is stiff. Even a paragraph of description may slow down the pacing. Most writers may therefore be safer beginning with the main character dropped head-first into a difficult or dangerous situation, and allowing the setting to unfold and develop around him or her. On the other hand, there are some circumstances under which a more leisurely and descriptive opening could work.

1. The description is unusual.

A soft grey mist settled on the fishing village isn’t going to be as interesting to me as A soft grey mist settled on the first human settlement on Jupiter Prime. If the story is describing an obviously alien or fantastic environment – and doing so well – that might be enough of a hook to overcome the fact that the main characters haven’t stepped on to the stage yet. Poul Anderson’s “The Queen of Air and Darkness” begins with such description, but when I’m reading about braidbark, jewelleaf and flitteries, I don't notice anything but the unusual and well-thought-out setting. An exotic locale and a vivid style can be as fascinating as people in danger – but this locale and style has to be as intriguing to the reader as they are to the writer.

2. The description is evocative.

Phillipa Gregory’s Wideacre begins with a paragraph of description of the titular hall, but the paragraph is imbued with the narrator’s emotion, full of her love for her home. That was one problem with the cinematic point of view in the story I critiqued. Since the writer was recording the villagers' actions from a detached and emotionless distance, I felt detached from the events and the setting as well.

3. The description is strongly connected to the story.

Putting anything – a character, an aphorism, a description – at the start of a story tells the reader that that thing will be important. This works in Wideacre because the setting is almost a character in its own right; the story could not have taken place anywhere else. And it connects the opening of the book to its end, where Wideacre Hall lies in ruins.

As Orson Scott Card says in Characters and Viewpoint, we have a trick the filmmakers don’t. Short of having the characters in a movie think aloud, there’s no way the screenwriter can put the reader into a character’s mind or have an interesting omniscient narrator comment on events. I’ll take those any day over the panoramic pan over the setting when it comes to hooking readers at the start. That’s not to say this can’t work, just that it may often be easier and more effective to begin a story (especially a short story, where every word counts) in other ways.

I have to say, though, when I imagine Redemption being made into a film, it gets the panoramic sweep at the start. Every time. :)

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