Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Subtle Tools

My last post was about characterization. I used cinematic examples, something I often do because the odds are better that you've all seen the same movies than that you've read the same books. Unfortunately, I feel that I managed to snare myself a little bit there.

You see, talking about movies, it's too easy to fall into the visual language of film. Too easy to overlook some of the novelist's finest tools.

Sure, there are some things movies do that books can't. The best car chases I've ever read (all by George Pelecanos, as it happens) still struggle to compare to the average Hollywood action movie. And the fine fight scenes of John D MacDonald, Joe R Lansdale, John Connolly or Lee Child still don't compare to the adrenalin rush of watching Jason Bourne, Daniel Craig's Bond or Jet Li.

Movies do visual. They do it well, brilliantly even. But that is also Hollywood's weakness: they can only put an image on the screen.

Novelists have a wonderful array of much, much more subtle tools at their disposal.

I'll use the former example of a 'Clark Kent' character, someone who may seem mild on the outside but the reader is to understand possesses hidden depths.

Thoughts: It may seem too obvious, but we do have the power to let our readers in on our characters' thoughts. Way back when, mild-mannered Clark might have thought, "Janet doesn't suspect that I am Secret Heroman, the one she seeks." These days, it's more fashionable and effective to have another character give that information to the reader:

Janet watched Clark move around the room. He always came off like a big shaggy dog, sort of clumsy and sweet, but Janet was never able to escape the sense that Clark was a steel trap, coiled and ready to spring.

Now, no matter what a dishrag Clark is over the next few chapters, we'll still have that little seed in the back of our minds. And notice that in addition to moving into another character's head for the thoughts, I also didn't present those thoughts as dialogue.

Small Reactions: Movies do a pretty fair job with the big reactions, and a particularly gifted actor can express a wide array of subtle emotions just by lifting an eyebrow. But a filmmaker cannot be sure of getting their star of choice, or of the shot they want. And there's no guarantee the folks in the seats will see interpret that raised eyebrow the right way, or even notice it. With prose, we can isolate these expressions and make sure the reader knows what it means.

Janet's eyes narrowed. That car had come within inches of hitting them, and Clark didn't seem to care. Her own heart was racing, her breath short. Clark was cool and calm, quiet and poised. Almost bored.

"That maniac could have killed us," he said.

We know how we would react to a minor crisis like a near hit and run. Clark's unusual reaction, and Janet's careful appraisal, plant that crucial seed. Also, her more normal reactions are there for contrast.

Outright Exposition: This tool isn't subtle, but one of our strengths as novelists is the length of story that we have to work with. Every second of screen-time in a movie costs a small fortune, quite a bit more than a page of print.

"You stand around there, looking all sleepy and slow and not too bright, but you don't fool me." The old man shook his head and laughed. "I was there that night the Jonas brothers showed up drunk and high and God knows what else. They were pure tearing the hell out of the place, and you just stood there like a big dope watching. Right up until those boys laid a hand on Miss Polly."

This time the old man laughed until he coughed, and he coughed until he spat, thin and brown.

"I was there, boy. You can't fool me."

John D MacDonald used this one a fair bit. Yeah, it sidetracks us from the narrative. Yeah, there are more economical ways to drop this hint. So what. You make it entertaining enough and your readers will be too busy imagining what happened that night with the Jonas brothers to notice that they were sidelined.

Environment: This one's great fun. You get to be all poetical and stuff. Basically, you take some quality of the environment or element of the natural world and juxtapose it against your character to make a point.

"The wallet, dickhead. Give it." The gun in the mugger's hand was a little block of chrome, no bigger than a child's toy. To Janet the barrel looked as wide as the Holland Tunnel.

It was a beautiful summer day in the park. Children played on the swings, students threw a frisbee on the lawn and an urban hawk wheeled overhead, still and slow.

Clark stood. He held his hands low and out to his sides.

"You hear me, dickhead? The wallet."

Janet thought she might wet her pants. If the gun in the mugger's hand bothered Clark, he gave no sign. His eyes moved from the children to the students and back to the man with the gun. He pulled a flat square of dark leather from his front pocket. The hawk's shadow glided over the grass at his feet.

The mugger grabbed the wallet and ran. Janet bent over, knees shaking. Tears rose hot and shameful, blinding her.

"Goddammit, Clark, why couldn't you
do something? God damn it!"

Clark said nothing. The hawk plummeted, a dark shadow out of the blue sky, seizing its prey.

James Lee Burke is really the master at this. His latest book features a brilliant scene in which a mild-seeming man confronts an underworld figure. The man's words are quiet, his manner assured. On the far side of the picture window, a shark menaces a group of swimmer's. The hitman's true nature, and the danger he represents are clear.

There are probably a few more I could think of, but right about now I need to be getting back to the ol' novel...


Charles Gramlich said...

I'll give you the chase scene thing with the movies, although David Morrell does it pretty well in print. I don't know if I can agree on the fight scenes. I think maybe if you're talking about a 'modern' fight, like in the Bourne stories. But a fantasy, sword & sorcery fight. I don't know. I think books can do it better.

You're exactly right, though, there are strengths that books have that not all writers utilize. They try too hard to mimic the movies and they can never achieve the 'visualcality" of the movies.

Angie said...

I agree with Charles that fiction tends to have a more cinematic feel these days, and that it's a shame so many writers have lost the wider variety of tools available in fiction. I like a lot of cinematic fiction, mind you, but it'd be nice to have a wider variety.


Shauna Roberts said...

I don't know what the tool you picture at the top of your post is, but as soon as I saw it I knew I needed one.

Erik Donald France said...

Absolutely right on, man.

My Dad actually ave me something like that handy tool pictured above. Have yet to get to all its Bond-like possibilities.

cs harris said...

Very well said. In the hands of a good writer, director, and actor (or an actress whose face still moves), cinema can make a novelist green with envy.

Although I must say, Bernard Cornwell's battle scenes from his Sharpe series (I haven't read the others, but hear they're superb, too) make incredible reading. I still haven't figured out how he does it.

Bernita said...

In general you're probably right but Dell Shannon has the best car chase scene I've ever read in one of her Lt. Mendoza police procedural novels.
In my opinion women often write better battle scenes than male writers, though I cannot figure out why it strikes me this way.