Sunday, March 8, 2009


Like a lot of writers, I spend a fair amount of time reading submission guidelines (truth to tell, like a lot a writers, I read the guidelines a little more diligently than I read the magazines they apply to… but that’s another story).

After a while you become familiar with certain conventions, mostly along the lines of what the magazine won’t publish rather than what it will – no fanfic is always a popular one, as indeed are strict limitations on the overuse of vampires. However, recently I came across a magazine that has put something of a moratorium on the use of first person perspective in submissions, along with very strong instructions that the inner life of the character should be kept to an absolute minimum (something along the lines of ‘we want to see the character slay the dragon rather than have him explain why he is about to’).

As a form of shorthand this could, and has been, referred to as ‘cinematic writing’ – the writer using his words in the same way that a film director uses his camera – where virtually everything is externalized rather than internalized and a character’s actions, dialogue and appearance say everything about them.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the omniscient third person perspective (the old God’s Eye View) but I think that once you start to limit even that to a narrow focus you removed some of the most important tools in the writer’s toolbox.

Taken to its logical extreme it strips the narrative of anything subjective, making even dialogue conform to cinematic rules: if it can’t be heard then the reader can’t be aware of it. In turn, of course, it also means that any signs and signifiers have to be stripped away since, in general, they are also subjective: simile and metaphor can have little or no place in cinematic writing at its logical extreme since the camera makes no differentiation between objects. Thus even simple metaphors such as ‘He was as big as a house’ cannot be used unless their use is literal.

More than this, the narrative language of cinema and that of the page are very different animals. The tools that the novelist or short story writer has at his disposal are not exactly the same as those of the film director – who has movement, camera angles, voiceovers, use of colour, music, slow-motion et al – so that were a writer paints a picture with words, a director essentially paints a picture with many different brushes and palates.

Again, if one takes the principle of cinematic writing to the extreme, even a straightforward statement such as ‘The town was called Little Cutting’ cannot be written: someone has to mention the name of the town in their dialogue or someone has to see a road sign that tells them the name of the town. Similarly one cannot say ‘Jeff and Peter were brothers, Peter was the elder’, there needs to be a definite statement from one or another of the characters. At its basest this boils down to: “‘Hello, older brother,’ Jeff said as he entered the room.”

Of course, every writer makes a choice about how to tell a particular story and perspective is, well, a matter of perspective, but to utterly dismiss the first person is, to my mind, completely wrong. There are those writers who believe that first person perspective is a cowardly refuge – but this is to dismiss many, many fine stories and novels. Would Dracula be as interesting if told from a third person perspective? Frankenstein? The Wasp Factory?

What the omniscient/ cinematic form of narrative cannot do is look into a character’s thought processes or soul, and most certainly cannot give the same perspective as the camera. If one considers, say, the climactic gunfight in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, with its use of mid-shot, close-up, extreme-close up and music one realizes that such a scene with all its tension is difficult if not impossible to recreate on the page. Certain quirks of an actor’s face, the colour of their eyes, their particular way of moving, their clothing, the cinematic baggage they bring with them all add to a scene – when Harrison Ford loses his hat in the Last Crusade, for example, the audience reacts to it for various different reason, all linked to both character and actor, a reaction which is hard to recreate by simply saying ‘as the tank hurtled towards the abyss, Indy’s hat flew off.’ Clint Eastwood narrowing his eyes in ‘Unforgiven’ has a resonance that mere words cannot hope to match.

To use a really extreme example of first person-most-positively-definitely-not-cinematic narrative:

Remembering- Do you hear, my little red?
Hold me softly. The cold grows.
I remember:
- I am hugely black and hopeful. I bounce on six legs along the mountains in the new warm… Sing the changer, Sing the stranger! Will the changes change forever… All humans have worlds now. Another change!
Eagerly I bound on sunward following the tiny thrill in the air. The forests have been shrinking again. Then I see. It is me! Me Myself, MOGGADEET-I have grown bigger more in the winter cold! I astonish myself, Moggadeet-the-small!
Excitement, enticement shrilling from the sun-side of the world. I come!… The sun is changing again, too. Sun is walking in the night! Sun is walking back to Summer in the warming of the light!… Warm is Me Moggadeet. Myself. Forget the bad-time winter.
Memory quakes me.
The Old One.

Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death by James Tiptree Jr

Any attempt to render the above passage as a purely objective narrative would miss so very, very much. Moggadeet’s internal thought processes could never possibly be captured by a straightforward, third-person omniscient/ cinematic narrative.

As human beings we experience life subjectively, everything we see, hear, touch, taste and smell is filtered through our senses and has a resonance for us which is unique to us (the taste of rich tea biscuits and orange squash, for example, takes me back to my childhood almost instantly and the smell of wood smoke on a warm summer’s day does much the same thing).

Ultimately, the writer of fiction has many, many tools at his disposal, tools which are unique to prose (as opposed to script writing) and it strikes me as being very wrong to dismiss any or all of them, cinematic writing included.

It all boils down to the right tool for the job - after all, you wouldn’t use a screwdriver on a nail, would you?

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