There’s a new trend happening in the part of the web that reports on popular films. Those crazy fan theories that once resided in the darkest shadows of the Internet are being put in the spotlight, and the once most aggravating geeks are now churning out click-bait.
Some of these theories are interesting examinations of the foreshadowing techniques, visual language, and symbolism of franchise films. Others find meaning in the supporting materials. Star Wars fan theorists riffle through novelizations for descriptions that differ from what they saw on screen. They scan the notation of a films’ score for meaningful melodies. They interpret concept art for scenes that were never filmed. They deduce plot points from toy line advertisements. Continue reading How Writers can Use Their Crazy Fan Theories→
When I grew up social networking involved passing notes, pirating movies was done on VHS, and the only wearable technology was Nintendo’s Power Glove. Young Adult fiction was stuck in the choose-your-own-adventure era, cable dramas had yet to hit their stride, and streaming video was still in its infancy.
We didn’t have the options of today’s generation. Most of us watched network television. Those of us who grew up to write stories, shared a lot of the same influences. Continue reading Own Your Influences→
Why writers shouldn’t put up an APPLAUSE sign in the middle of their story
Writers, have you ever wondered if your story was too self involved? Ask yourself, is the hero so funny that he laughs at his own jokes? Is every walk on role just as witty? Is your dialogue so clever that it defies belief? Continue reading Humble Thy Story→
People don’t passively consume books, they participate in them. They cast themselves in the lead role, acquiring the hero’s goal, going through their evolution, learning all the same lessons. They feel the protagonist’s sense of urgency. They wait until it’s safe to set their bookmark in the page.
Authors need not write choose-your-own adventure novels to get their readers in on the action. When the author sets the scene, the reader chooses the angles. When the author determines the perspective, the reader adjusts the focus. When the author describes the environment, the reader provides the soundscape.
Writers should leave room for these contributions.
I disagree with any literary theory class that convinces students there’s only one way to interpret a story’s symbolism, that only the astute will walk away with the right understanding. I hate discussions that turn everyone’s translation into something uniform, that homogenize the imagination, that turn text into fixed images.
A line of description is worth a thousand pictures. We all see stories differently.
My reading of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is going to differ heavily from yours. My mind’s art department added some after market modifications to the giant penguins, making them more disturbing. Since those blind birds were livestock for something in the shadows, I decided to see them with their eyes seared shut, wings clipped, and ankles fused together in crystalline slime, their feathers dripping with oil and blood. Lovecraft drew up the creature designs, but it’s my inner Industrial Light and Magic team that assembled them.
What Reading and Filmmaking have in Common
Film is a collaborative medium. Screenplays are maps, they are not the terrain. There are discoveries to be made by every artist walking down the screenwriter’s path. The screenwriter might have the hero catch the villain’s punch and twist his arm, but the fight choreographer might think it’d look cooler if the villain flipped himself free.
This is why screenwriters are told not to use camera directions like:
PAN TO SILHOUETTE
ZOOM IN ON KNIFE
or EXTREME CLOSEUP – EYES FULL OF PANIC
These lines do the cinematographer’s job for them. Specifics limit the director of photography’s artistic contribution, taking the discovery of the shots away from them.
Screenwriters shouldn’t do the actor’s jobs for them either. Using a parenthetical, a writer could specify the tone of every line, but they shouldn’t. The situation should dictate the delivery. It’s up to the actor and the director to suss out the emotions themselves. Good dialogue leaves room for spontaneity, for the little gems actors give in the spur of the moment.
In the same sense that screenwriters shouldn’t direct from the page, authors shouldn’t do the readers’ job for them. Like film, fiction writing is a collaborative medium.
How to Leave Room for Your Reader’s Imagination
As writers, it’s our job to illuminate just enough of our environments to let the reader play set designer, matte artist, and lighting department. We layout just enough of our characters’ costumes to leave the reader in charge of tailoring. We identify sounds, but we don’t mark every noise with an onomatopoeia. That’s where the reader gets to play foley artist. We evoke the sound effect, they pull it up from their memory archives. Who are we to debate with readers, when they turn our “muffled thuds” into thunderous crashes in their heads?
When it comes to writing supernatural stories, it’s often best to leave room for abstraction, to describe something seen out of the corner of your hero’s eye, to describe a silhouette, teasing the reader with the details in the dark.
Read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane for a masterclass in supernatural writing. Gaiman doesn’t describe the creatures in this novel down to their molecular level, instead he gives you an impression. Sometimes they’re shadows that disappear the moment the narrator focuses on them. Sometimes they’re so horrifying that the narrator’s memory wipes their image the moment he looks away.
Gaiman gives you an idea of the creatures and asks your imagination to do the heavy lifting. One of my favorite descriptions was something along the lines of, “These ancient creatures weren’t dinosaurs, but rather the buzzards that fed on dinosaurs.”
He leaves just enough of a Madlib for his readers to fill in.
One of my favorite tricks in Gaiman’s tool box is when he has the narrator question his recollection. The narrator wonders how he could’ve ever mistaken his nether-realm nannie’s face for anything but a pile of strategically placed rags, until the light shifted and she was beautiful again. Those fluid descriptions had my mind staging grand productions.
Upon finishing Gaiman’s book, I adored the movie the two of us made in my head. I know The Ocean at the End of the Lane has already been optioned for the big screen, but I suspect I’ll prefer my adaptation to the theatrical one.
When people say, “The book was better than the movie” what they’re really saying is, “My interpretation of the book was more vivid, more involving, and more layered than the movie had time to be.”
They’re not arguing the worth of one medium over another, that’s like comparing apples to oranges, they’re arguing the value of imagination over tangible representation. They’re arguing for their version. This is why I’m not afraid of a scenario like the one found in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where books fall so far out of fashion that they’re burned. Too many readers care about their own artistic contributions to let that happen.
Films have the power to invoke the imagination, the best leave spaces for their audiences to wander in, but books are always wide open, waiting for your input, your vision, and your additions.
Stephen King says, “Writing is telepathy.” I’d say the best of these messages evolve upon delivery.
All artistic mediums invite participation from their observer, but few offer as much creative freedom as literature.
Cinema therapy can help you escape reality, but reality is not always so easy to get back to.
Originally a guest post for rachelintheoc.com, this essay reveals my coping mechanism for dark times, side effects and all (follow Rachel on Twitter @RachelintheOC). This story explains why I can’t have a conversation about depression without pop culture references peppered in. It’s one of my best pieces, which is why I had to share it here.
Andrew: A Story About Cinema Therapy
From ages two to six, I spent my waking hours at a living room daycare center. My playmates were the caregiver’s three sons. Their principal forms of recreation were hurling rocks through windows, leaving milk jugs in the street, and beating the living snot out of me.
It was their home, their shield generator facility, and I was the rebel scum who’d broken into it. They had to make an example. Their mother turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to my side of the story. She had stories of her own to watch.
Her boys kept the den locked down, the only window of escape was through the TV. While they amputated action figures, I fled to a galaxy far far away. Watching Star Wars on an endless loop, something happened to me. Turning away from the screen, hyperdrive lines streaked through my vision. Out the window, I watched Tie Fighters chase robins. Looking at the night sky, I saw the moon was no moon.
I ceased to see Mark Hamill on screen. I saw myself. I had slipped into Luke Skywalker’s Velcro boots. I was mourning Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. I wanted to go back to save Obi Wan. When my caregiver switched the TV off, I saw the world differently.
These boys weren’t my peers, they were storm troopers marching across my finger paintings, clones programmed to sit on my face. Seduced by the dark side of the force, they dragged me through the backyard, and pushed me into the Sarlacc pit. When I limped inside, Nanny Vader yelled at me for tracking mud across her carpet. She dragged me to the detention block by my ear.
This wasn’t a day care, it was a Death Star. I wasn’t clogging a laundry shoot full of toys, I was launching proton torpedoes into a thermal exhaust port. I wasn’t waving a tampon at my captors, I was slicing bad guys with a light saber.
When Nanny Vader told me to eat my peas, the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi appeared beside her.