Why writers should continue to challenge what literature can be.
I have a confession to make, now that the statute of limitations has passed: I’ve committed academic fraud. In the second grade, I was awarded a Pizza Hut gift certificate for reading more books than any other student, when in fact my mother had read them to me. Mired in guilt, I ate my ill gotten deep dish pizza on her behalf. Continue reading The Virtue of Risky Ideas→
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.
If relationships in my early twenties taught me anything, it’s that I left women with a sense of buyer’s remorse. I didn’t turn out to be the man they saw in the shop window. My first impression ran out of steam. My bravado deflated into cowardice. The image they tried to project on me, no longer fit.
There’s how a man ought to be, then there’s me.
In 2006, I wrote a poem about a toy soldier losing the admiration of his owner. What started as a piece about a waning romance, became a critique of the ideal man. The poem broke down the expectations set by the greatest generation, chipping away at Americana idealism.
This has always been one of my favorite pieces, but every time I set out to share it, I held back, thinking it was too personal. It took the support of my readers to shed those reservations. I hope you like it.
An Object Gathering Dust
Window shopping on main street
A gust of wind
Snatched the scarf from your neck
Blowing it across the boulevard
Leaving it on the window sill
Of a vintage toy store
Where you saw a clean cut,
Broad shouldered, toy soldier
Decked out in World War 2 apparel
Iconic in its shrink wrapped chivalry
A throw back to an era
Of courteous square jawed gentlemen
Who lived to open doors and hold hands
A Norman Rockwell day dream
A sparkle toothed smile
Complete with the sound of a glass tap
This toy soldier
This prince charming
All your girlhood fantasies
Wrapped up in cellophane
You altered your work route
To walk by my window
Your left hand shaking
Your right hand deep in your purse
Clinging to your wallet
Fighting the urge
One night a dream
Carrying a vision of your man
Walking down the white staircase
Of an aircraft carrier
Burned itself into your mind’s eye
You had to throw fifty dollars on the counter
To appease the Sandman
You took me home
And sat me down
As the guest of honor
At the head of your tea party table
You stared into my half moon eyes
With all the love the world had
For Jimmy Stewart
For Humphrey Bogart
For Frank Sinatra
In Michigan I was a lump of plastic
Lying on a conveyor belt
But in your arms
I became the spirit of a decade
A symbol of an America
Revered by the rest of the world
When I slept beside you
You dreamt of an approaching cavalry
Parading through small town streets
Of boy scout meetings
And corn cob pipes
You were Audrey Hepburn
With her man on her arm
The belle of the ball descending the staircase
In her long velvet gown
An airbrushed pin up
On the nose of a jet
That all the fly boys
Just had to tip their hats to
A sudden flicker of random eye movement
And we were French kissing on Ellis Island
With fire works off in the distance
Our hands cupping one another’s elbows
The moon framing our silhouettes
We became the skyline
But one day you woke up
To find that the green of my uniform had washed out
That my jaw had chipped at the edges
That the half moons of my eyes had faded
And my frozen salute had lost its meaning
You still took me out to the bar
But my smile couldn’t compete
With touch screen Gin Rummy
You buried me in your purse
When my shadow
Eclipsed today’s cross word puzzle
The spirit of the 1950s was gone
America was a different place
With a different skyline
I went from a Christmas miracle
To an impulse item
To today’s inanimate object
And all the love you had to give
Went back to being a lump of plastic
You took me off your pedestal
And put me on your shelf
Never to be played with again
A relic of your sense of romance
Looking down at you through incense clouds
An object gathering dust
Writers are always told to read more. I say, they ought to watch more movies. Why? Good films do not slip into the same pitfalls that so many novels do.
Good films do not tell you what a character is thinking. The audience has to make observations of their mood, and draw their own conclusions. Good films do not just launch into backstory. If there are flashbacks they appear as scenes. Good films put the events on display, they don’t just put them into a character’s mouth, and expect you to take their word for it. Good films show and don’t tell.
Writer’s could take a cue from this. Just because our medium allows for free form exposition, that doesn’t mean we should use it.
The limitations of film force it to tell a more compelling story. These are limitations I urge novelists to try to bring to their work in progress.
The above audio blog gets into the nitty gritty of the benefits of watching movies. The background music is like a scary movie score put through a trip-hop filter. I’ve heard it described as electro-goth. If you’re looking for good music to write to, you won’t go wrong with the instrumental version of the song.
Writers are always told to read more. Read enough good stories and one might rub off on you. Don’t worry about taking notes. Don’t worry about deconstructing the text. Just read for pleasure and your subconscious will absorb everything in the background. The meaning will be found for you. Take your imagination for a walk and your subconscious will count the steps.
Let the story pass by. Read it on autopilot. Don’t worry about following the plot. The twists will present themselves in due time. You’ll recognize the land marks and feel brilliant once you arrive at your destination.
If writing is the act of sending telepathic messages, then reading is the act of receiving. You have to listen to the language before you can speak it. You have to discover someone else’s voice before you can find your own. You have to turn your internal monologue down and let another’s take over. Continue reading Don’t Just Read More, Watch More→