Interesting Writing Problem: Screen to Book

posted in: writing | 0

Before I speak on-topic, let me just mention that there’s an interesting exchange of comments on creationism versus evolution going on under the Faith and Rationality piece, which you can scroll down to (or click on, in the right column). [Does anyone know if there’s a way to set this blog so that comments show up with the original posts? Some of your posts are more interesting than mine.]

That said, I want to talk about writing for a bit. The craft, not the business. As readers of this blog know, I’m currently working on a novelization of a big frakking science fiction TV miniseries, and I’ve been intrigued by some of the differences between writing my own stories and writing a story from the screen. There are the obvious things, of course—the plot and dialogue already exist, and while I can elaborate on them where it seems appropriate, I can’t do much to change what’s already up there on the screen. In some cases, this poses minor challenges, such as explaining away scenes that don’t make sense (or have elements that don’t make sense). Less obvious may be the difference in the voice that a novelist uses, compared to the filmmaker’s voice.

For example, take a scene in which the camera moves from one character to another to another, not just showing what is happening, but also revealing (as much as the camera can) the thoughts and feelings of the characters. Sometimes there’s a long tracking shot, in which the camera isn’t just moving among the members of a group, but actually passing
through what you might call mini-scenes, involving groups of characters who aren’t necessarily connected. It can be a very smooth and engaging effect in the film or video. But how do you translate that to narrative prose?

One could, of course, simply jump from viewpoint to viewpoint in quick succession, or adopt an omniscient narrator point of view, where you look into everyone’s thoughts. But I’m not generally a big fan of this kind of voice, which I often find jarring—and which jolts me out of that fine state of suspended disbelief, which is another way of saying it breaks the spell for me. (Tolkien got away with it sometimes, but only because his writing was so powerful in other ways.) I’m personally more comfortable writing, and reading, from one point of view at a time—sharing that one person’s thoughts and no one else’s, at least for the duration of the scene. For me, that lends an immediacy and intimacy to the narrative that the omniscient narrator doesn’t, because we feel that we’re sharing that time, whether it’s long or short, with one individual on stage.

So I’ve chosen that voice, mostly, as I write this story-from-screen. As a result, I’ve been finding myself facing, over and over, unexpected decision points as I start a new scene: whose viewpoint am I going to tell this one in? The answer isn’t always obvious, and I sometimes wonder—would I have written a better scene if I’d chosen a different character? Once in a while, it’s simply been impossible, such as scenes with a bunch of different spacecraft, and no one anchor point to tell it from. In those cases, I’ve tried to tell it the way the camera does—as a free-floating, all-seeing narrator, but limited in what I can tell about what anyone is thinking or feeling. Once or twice, I’ve briefly emulated the long tracking shot. It’s tricky. Very tricky. (Especially when you’re writing fast, under tight deadline!)

I hope you’ll all tell me, next year when the book is out, how well you think I did.

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  1. Harry
    | Reply

    Unless they are doing a special shot, almost all TV and movies offer an omniscient point of view. Only rarely do we see the camera’s view as a person’s or animal’s point of view. This makes it much different from writing and reading a novel.

    I don’t read many novelizations so I can’t recall if they all use the same view as the camera. It will be interesting to see what you do with it.

  2. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    The camera is almost always omniscient, but there are more and less intimate ways of shooting a scene, so that you might feel very connected to particular individuals–or you might have a floating, fly’s-eye view of the larger scene.

    I don’t read many novelizations, either. But I figure, if I do my job right, the reader won’t notice any of this. It will just feel right.

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