The Limits of Scenes

A case can be made that films have a lot of advantages over novels and short stories.

The moment the screen lights up, the world comes vividly alive. Everything is right there before our eyes. The action is viscerally immediate.

How can the written word compete with that?

Well, it does.

The works that have moved me the most have always been on the printed page. Why?

Because novels and short stories don’t have the limitations of films.

First, films exist in real time. Movie makers sometimes try to use montages to get around this, but they are always a little awkward. Time is time in films, which means that they are built almost exclusively on scenes.

Second, films are about surfaces. As viewers, we have no direct access to the thoughts or the interior sensations of the characters, which means that we can’t know the characters as fully as in written fiction.

Given these facts, I’ll admit to being puzzled why some authors try to write like they are making movies.

They include only film-like scenes.

And instead of giving us access to the interior of the characters, they offer only surface description and dialogue.

In other words, they leave out the best tricks of fiction writers, who can cover years in a paragraph, or can write in generalized time, or can focus for pages and pages on the events of a single moment.

And fiction writers can deliver the material from the inside. They can offer quirky, interior perspectives that make the characters unforgettable.

Here, for example, is the opening paragraph of Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees:

At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high-pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin. I watched their wings shining like bits of chrome in the dark and felt the longing build in my chest. The way those bees flew, not even looking for a flower, just flying for the feel of the wind, split my heart down its seam.

Kidd, of course, might have made this opening more like a film. She might have described the events of a single night. She might have limited herself to just what could be “seen” and “heard.”

What she did is far better. By placing the opening in generalized time (what happens, presumably, on many nights) and by giving us the girl’s odd and interior interpretations and emotions, we feel we are getting to know something crucial about her.

This isn’t to say that scenes aren’t essential for writers. They are. And as writers we have to be careful not to let our fiction become so interior that we forget about the outside world, the surfaces.

Still, the best writing steals what films do well (the surfaces, the feeling of immediacy) but adds its own strengths by not being a slave to time and by adding the inside to the outside.

Films can’t do that.

They have limits.



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