The Writer’s Imaginary Camera

I found an interesting thread on r/writing about writing (rather than ‘am I allowed to write a ghost if I’m not dead’, circle-jerks about being writers but not writing, requests for emotional support), from a screenwriter trying to do a novel.

In response to:

At about 855 words per scene, your scenes are almost certainly too sparsely written for a novel. That is incredibly short for an average.

I can almost guarantee that you are doing a LOT more telling than showing and neglecting atmosphere and detail. Go through each of your scenes and flesh them out more.

He says:

???
Character enters room with another character. Characters discuss topics. Character leaves room. End of scene.
What am I supposed to do to “flesh it out more?”

I got the impression that as he wrote, he was picturing the events from a camera’s perspective. I picture scenes I’m writing from cinematic angles and such, like anyone probably would.

The issue here is execution (as others pointed out, it is possible to write in ‘dramatic POV’, like Hemingway, and pull it off), and bearing in mind the difference between screenplays and novels in how the audience or reader ends up getting it.

A screenplay will end up getting seen through the work of actors, directors, set designers, etc. A novel won’t – there’s only what’s on the page. So a prose writer might imagine a sweeping shot, a suitable soundtrack, and all the rest of it, without that actually being made available to anyone else reading.

There are also the different senses that novels can bring to bear. Smell. The physical sensations of characters. Direct, mental access. As well as the style of the prose itself. Even an unobtrusive, camera-like sort of language, which doesn’t draw attention to the words or rhythms themselves, is its own deliberate use of prose style.

Max Gladstone said some stuff about this a while back:

Just having a dim bulb epiphany about one reason journeyman writers so often spend page space having characters see things, notice things, etc, rather than just narrating what happens.

It’s cinema language, isn’t it? In film you can’t just have “she grabbed the gun from the desk and pointed it at him.” We haven’t seen the gun since it was last in frame—we “need” a shot of her *noticing* the gun, making the decision, going for it.

In a book you just *remember* the gun was there, because he put it down half a page ago and all you’ve done in the interim is read twelve lines of text—vs. a film where you’re spending a lot of circuitry watching Bogart and Gladys George, reading their body language, etc.

If you’ve grown up with cinema grammar, you internalize that rhythm, so you know: ok, what we need here is for her to *see* the gun. We need a shot of it. Because the gun doesn’t exist unless she sees it. When in prose, the gun can just… exist. […]

And also said:

I’m personally so tired of books that doesn’t care about the effects you can create WITH BOOKS, the way an even competently-made tv series cares about the effects you can create with a camera. Books that read like screenplays for the movie the author hopes someone will make […] sometimes I want to just vanish into the dream, into the movie in my mind, I get it… but even there, when I do, the vanishing comes from a mastery of prose technique. (Evocation of camera image is also prose technique!)

When I wrote about flashbacks, I said it could be heavy-handed to use words like ‘remember’ or ‘reminded’. Instead of ‘the Old Spice reminded him of his grandfather’, ‘Old Spice had been his grandfather’s brand. He’d been standing on tiptoes to see[…]’. See how that takes advantage of an immersive access to somebody’s mind, which isn’t possible through a camera perspective?

The point here is to be conscious of how we’re engaging with our own work in progress. If we’re audio/visualising, how much of that is actually on the page? And are we losing sight of the other senses and perspectives which the written – not visual – make possible for us to use?

An Eye For Fictional Accuracy

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Oran’s critical review of Jim Murphy’s Christadora got me thinking about the type of accuracy that works in details in fiction.

In trying to place things in a specific sense of place and time, for example, he tells you things you don’t need: “Mateo parked his car 100 metres away” as opposed to “Mateo parked his car nearby”. If you wanted an example of accuracy and not specificity “Mateo parked his car a few streets away”. It’s a kind of detail I would naturally track which is why the specificity of 100 metres is weird. This might seem innocuous but when the book has these details I don’t need, I am pulled out of the story. And it happens quite a bit. Here is another example: POV character is coming home from work with pizza and she finds out her kid is in hospital because they were bitten by a dog. This is verbatim what she does:

“… put her pizzas down on a handsome, high-backed wooden bench in the lobby, pulled out her cell phone …”

This is exactly the kind of information I don’t want. Like I want to know what happened to the kid. She can put the pizzas down, sure, but with the detail she seems unpanicked, unhurried, wanting to gently place her delicious steaming pizzas on this handsome, high-backed wooden bench before at last pulling her mobile out and dialling her partner.

Murphy has a journalist’s background. He has a well-honed eye for accurate details, but what works in journalism isn’t what works in fiction.

The aim for details in fiction isn’t to be factual. It’s to be true to life.

Details should be chosen for particular interest, such as narrative relevance or significance to character. If a detail is noted in fiction it’s marked out as something with implications – which is why it’s distracting to specify the exact distance of the car, and why describing the bench in detail right there suggests the character isn’t that worried about her kid. The reader’s mind is being pointed in an irrelevant direction.

It might be factual for the car to be 100m away or the bench to be high-backed. But in the story, this use of detail isn’t true to life. Good description is active, it bounces off everything else. It’s not just there, it does something: implying importance, imbuing subtext, portraying character, reinforcing points of the setting or themes. An unnecessary or ham-fisted detail cuts against the grain of the scene, distracting readers.

As far as a realistic character is concerned, the car is ‘nearby’ and the pizzas are ‘thrown on a bench as she pulls out her phone, hands shaking’. Now, if Mateo were parking his car for a heist or assassination, having a specific distance planned might work. And if the character with the pizzas was supposed to be cold or even abusive, implying a sedate response to their kid being in hospital could be powerful, striking a disturbing note.

Does this specific detail matter? Would it change something if this were different? What does it imply? Does it fit the tone, the character, the scene? What will the reader want to know right now?

What Makes Prose Purple

Purple prose doesn’t just mean writing that uses nice words, rich imagery, or long, lyrical sentences. When people talk about purple prose, they aren’t saying everybody has to cut out all the frills and flourishes. It’s not an argument for minimalism – everybody has their preferences.

It’s just that there’s a difference between being lyrical, and waxing forth with the languid effervescence of a try-hard who’s just discovered a thesaurus and that Nobody Understands MeTM. Purple prose aims for meaningful language with evocative imagery, and ends up sounding ridiculous.

The Deep Emotional Narration is overly angsty or too self-consciously dramatic:

O, the vexation, the flood of turmoil that came upon his tormented breast as he witnessed the locomotive, missed by the slimmest of margins, vacating the station! Each of the long 500 seconds before the next train would make its appearance hung before him, mocking him…

The description drags, burying you in obsessive and awkwardly written detail. Detail, including a juicy section of it, can be used well. Purple prose stops to drone on at you about literally everything, as though the leaf getting blown along the path is as important and interesting as the sword hanging over the fireplace.

Small words aren’t used deftly to convey big ideas – or small ones, either. No, it takes a lot of syllables to reinforce how truly epic everything is. The protagonist doesn’t have blue eyes, or even eyes the dark blue of dusk (though is their eye colour that important, anyway?). No. They have sapphire orbs, brimming over with the voluminous depth of the heavens, the shade of encroaching twilight. They’re just that special.

Michael James’s post Showing vs Telling explains that ‘Showing activates a readers imagination. Telling activates a readers comprehension.’

Maybe purple prose could be seen as an approach to showing that doesn’t trust the reader to imagine correctly. That’s why it drowns you in details, while using attempted evocative language like the writer’s nudging you in the ribs, saying, ‘geddit? You’re meant to feel sad, do you feel sad yet? Eh? Feel sad?’

In Michael’s example of showing, it’s clearly late at night with a tired character. No problem. ‘The moonlight reflected off the puddles in the street. Her head drooped to her chin, as weariness soaked into her limbs.’ It’s easy to imagine what a writer who didn’t trust the reader to get that thoroughly enough would do with those two sentences.

Let’s make exhaustively clear that it’s night, with a moon, puddle, and tired character:

The moonlight reflected off the puddles in the street, highlighting the scattered wavelets the breeze formed on the water. A cloud crossed over the face of the moon, and she shuffled further along in the darkness, each foot like lead as she raised it, weariness soaking into her limbs like a carpet absorbing spilled wine.

As always, categories are fuzzy. One reader’s purple prose is another’s spellbound immersion. What comes off pretentious from one writer, another can pull off. But there’s still a divide between eloquence and purpleness, a point where pretty much everyone rolls their eyes.

To stay on the right side of that divide, trust your reader, and calm down a bit about your protagonist’s sapphire orbs.

Active Description

Two bad writing habits when it comes to describing things are: not doing it, and doing it by drowning readers in descriptions of the landscape at dusk until they have to go commit arson to relieve the tedium.

I’ve definitely done these things. They often come from treating description as though it’s something passive, separate from all the interesting stuff – as Emma Darwin said, ‘a lump of scene-setting which you have to put in, so that the dialogue and action will make sense once the reader’s allowed to get there’.

So for one thing, the reader probably doesn’t need five paragraphs on what a meadow at dusk looks like in the first place. When writers advise using details to describe things, that doesn’t mean ‘be exhaustively detailed’. It means, ‘mention a small number of specific, unique, evocative, memorable details to point the reader’s imagination in the right direction, allowing it some free motion’. Sunset behind a distant barn, buttercups – and there it is.

Give a reader too much to picture at once and they’ll get bored and confused. Give them a couple well-chosen things, and their imagination will fill in the rest automatically. Choosing a few good details instead of a mass of adjectives makes whatever you’re describing more memorable and alive, distinguishing that specific setting, object, or character. A poker chip on a church pew, an object out of place, bruises on a character’s knuckles: these can say a lot.

I tend not to give characters enough physical description in first drafts, but how much is enough? It should be enough to give a picture, but not too much for a reader to remember without constant reminders. If a character is introduced with an extensive treatise on their every feature, many of us will have forgotten what colour their eyes are by the time we’ve got to the bit about their shoes.

The setting and the objects in it aren’t a passive background on which everything else gets plastered. They need to be integrated. If your characters, action, and dialogue can be plucked from one setting and dropped in another with no changes, the setting is a passive background – even if it’s highly developed.

This doesn’t mean everyone in a New York setting has to be saying ‘fuhgettaboutit!’ all the time as they get in yellow taxis – obviously that’s cringy – but it shouldn’t be interchangeable for Shanghai either. A character going up a steep slope should react to that in some believable, natural way. If you’ve said the hill is steep, the character going up it shouldn’t be exactly the same as if they were walking on a level road.

Description can be snuck in through action, as per that good old ‘show don’t tell’. A character who steps on a chair to reach something must be short, one who ducks through the doorway must be tall. If someone’s breath is clouding and they put gloves on it clearly isn’t a hot summer’s day, so don’t worry about finding six synonyms for cold.

Characterisation, description, and point of view work together, and not just in first-person. If you describe something through the perspective of a particular character, that also suggests something about them – what they find interesting, what they feel about a subject, how they feel about another character. A kleptomaniac will pay more attention to stealable objects lying around, a bookworm will glance at the bookshelves, an envious neighbour will notice their rival’s new car. What a viewpoint character chooses to focus on doesn’t only give an insight into that subject – it gives insight into them.

Passive description is dropped in writing as though from a height, a stodgy thing breaking up the action and challenging readers to picture a mass of adjectives all at once. Active description interplays with the scene as a whole, implying things by engaging the imagination of readers as well as just giving them information.