Not Watching the Movie

From time to time I dip into the bottomless pool of self-published fiction, just to see what’s thrashing around out there. I prefer not to shine a spotlight on the awful prose I run into. Dwelling on it would look petty. So I’m not going to mention the name of the work I encountered this week, nor name the author. The problem I observed can, I think, be described in general terms.

This particular story had an opening that was a fast-paced action scene. (The opening was all I read. It was visible thanks to Amazon’s Look Inside utility.) The action was exciting enough, and an action opener is always good. The trouble was, the scene didn’t make sense in a coherent, linear way. The bits of danger and creepiness were not well attached to one another.

I began to feel that the author had failed to watch the movie. Not that this story has been made into a movie, you understand. What I mean is, the author had not entered deeply enough into the scene to notice all of the details of the action. Not having noticed them, he was unable to put them on the page in a way that the reader could follow.

It occurred to me that possibly this author first developed a passion for writing fiction by reading comic books. In a comic book or graphic novel, there is no linear narrative at all, just a sequence of still frames.

I can’t read (if that’s the right word) graphic novels. I’ve tried. A prose narrative is as different from a graphic novel as it is from a filmscript. If you don’t understand the differences, you’ll never be a good writer.

In this particular story, the hero is climbing up a rock face. He is being pursued by a malevolent creature. We hear the sound of scritching claws. He clambers onto a tiny ledge. And suddenly the creature is there with him on the ledge — but we, the readers, have not seen the creature climb up onto the ledge. It appears suddenly, in a still frame.

There were other problems with this particular story opening; no point going into them here. The essential point is, a writer needs to envision a scene — every scene — in enough detail that all of the important points of the action can be described. And not just the points; the linkages. Which points and linkages are essential and which can safely be omitted is, of course, an endlessly complex juggling act. But if your hero is climbing up a rock face while being pursued by a creature, the moment when the creature clambers up onto the ledge is not a moment that can be omitted. Didn’t the hero try to kick it in the head or stomp on its hands while it was trying to get onto the ledge? If not, why not? This is one of the many questions that a good writer would ask while writing this scene.

Until you’ve envisioned a scene in considerable detail, you won’t have the raw materials at your fingertips. You’ll just be tossing in whatever you think will excite the reader, without regard for narrative continuity. At best, you’ll be scripting a comic book.

Watch the movie. That’s what your imagination is for.

This entry was posted in fiction, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s