Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Writing Wednesday: Lost in translation - show v/s tell in movies and books

Over the past few days I've watched a few movies. When your brain is mush from hearing too many screams and game-related fights, you want something to take your focus off everything. You actually want to turn into that vegetable lying on the couch and with flickering images reflecting off the glasses she wears.

So I saw Valentine's Day and Love and Other Disasters. Good flicks, but for the second one, I just couldn't get into it. Why? Because that story is about an American intern at British Vogue and her posse of friends, especially her gay roommate. A lot happens, you see it all, but the movie did not cut it for me because it seemed like a story better suited for the book medium rather than the screen. I wanted to 'be' those characters, be in the their POV and heads. Not just see them doing things.

Is there a difference between screen and book? Basically, both are stories, right? To tell a story you relate what you see - like you're watching a movie and it's a blow-by-blow visual of what's happening on the screen. That's your story, innit? You as the writer would be able to convey everyhting, right?

Wrong! You're supposed to write, not relate!

That's where it seems a lot of writers go wrong - they write a story with the same viewspan and attention span as watching TV or a movie. It's like they're saying, you watch a movie, get it? Start, middle, end, you show what's taking place in the story. There you go - story written!

Sure you go. You've written a story with start, middle, end and it even holds the line! But wait a second too - you're giving me the movie version, not the book one!

I'll take an example. Twilight movie v/s Twilight book. Each has start, middle, end, the same story, same people, same setting, same plot, same whatever. Where's the difference then?

This is what's different - I watch the movie while I read the book. Not making sense? Okay - the book gives you an addtional layer to the movie version, because you are not seeing the characters but you are the characters!

That's why you cannot 'watch' a book, you need to read it. Reading means you open a total different world for the reader, one where it's almost a virtual reality simulation without the gadgets because the reader uses his brain as the simulator and your words as the connection.

Still not making much sense? Okay, let's try another approach. How many times have we as writers heard this line - show, don't tell! It's almost become a mantra that switches on automatically when we get to the keyboard. But how much are you really showing?

Bear in mind the virtual reality simulation again. You need to show something to your writer. Say, for example, your heroine is angry after a tiff with her lover. So, in show and don't tell mode, you go - Megan fumed inside, and as she went out, banged the door behind her.

Made your point, innit? She's so angry she bangs the door. You showed! Actually, no. Sorry to burst your bubble, but you didn't show me this. You gave me a visual, which is basically what one would watch in a movie. But in the movie, you'd see the expression on the actress playing Megan's face. You'd see her bunch her fists maybe, bite her lip extra hard, stomp her heel. Where have you shown this in the above line?

Also, is this door-banging in character with her? What makes her bang the door? Exasperation that her man is taking her for granted/has brushed her off again? Is it completely unrelated, as in this tiff with him not understanding that he needs to pick his socks off the floor, is it simply the drop that made the vase overflow? Is she maybe feeling irritated by everything and nothing because it's a hormonal time for her?

All of this you would give your reader to connect with if you showed not just her movements but what's in her head too.

And this is the difference between watching movies and reading books. You watch a character on the screen, whereas you relate from the character's POV in the book. You become her, you experience what she is feeling, it's a virtual reality simulation for you!

You can call this Deep POV; you can call this being in her shoes; you can call this TMI, but this showing part is definitely lacking in books nowadays. If we wanted to watch a movie, we'd watch a movie. Where's the thrill in reading, in being taken to that other world with all your senses involved (not just eyes and ears), that reading is supposed to give a reader?

Remember that this connection lies in your hand, you the writer. It has to flow from your pen, to be able to whisk your reader away. Otherwise, why bother to read your work when he/she can watch a movie?

I'd love to hear your take on this question. Feel free to discuss!

From Mauritius with love,



Rae Lori said...

Very true stuff, Z. I'm glad you touched on this because there are a lot of similarities between the two mediums to help the beginning writer and at the same time there are vast differences that one should be careful to sidestep. Most of which you covered here.

I learned to write mainly via learning to write screenplays and they told us the more white space on the page the better. Don't direct, leave that and the descriptions to the casting director and the director themselves because it's only supposed to be a blueprint for the movie.

Thus, most of the movie becomes muddled in translation from script to screen due to so many hands in the pot. Most of the time the story gets lost and one can SO tell in the final product. Books, however, keep the writer's vision and like you mentioned you get into the character's head more and really 'see' what's going on through their eyes rather than experiencing it from where the director wants you to.

That's one reason I love movie novelizations. You not only get more story but more motivation and emotion from the characters! :-)

Lastly, is it me or are most of today's movies lacking that extra 'POW' to draw emotion from the viewer? The characters and writing seem to be going through the motions whereas years ago you really felt for the characters and what they were going through. Perhaps there's too much 'telling' than 'showing'. ;-)

Zee Monodee said...

Hey Rae

So glad you could stop by! It's true that an author is not just relating a story - he/she is the scriptwriter, the producer, the director, the main actors, the supporting cast, the props and clothing and accessories executive. In short, an author is everything to the story. This could account for the consistency in a book that gets 'lost in translation' when, like you say, too many fingers dip into the pot.

I think it's emotional drive that is somewhat lacking in movies today. The 'wow' factor was actors becoming their characters. Like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird became a persona from the book and then as Gregory Peck who portrayed him on-screen. There doesn't seem to be this trancending today. Russell Crowe did it in movies like Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. Tom Hanks did it in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, as did Denzel Washington in Training Day. They all transcended and became the character (no wonder their performance was awarded the Academy Award!). Marion Cotillard did it in La Vie En Rose (another winner) but Daniel Craig did it too as James Bond in Casino Royale.

These are all reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart's roles of the past, as in Casablanca and Sabrina.

Most actors just play cut-out role today, and it's indie movies who take the route of full emotional portrayal more than commercial movies.

Thanks for commenting and sparking a discussion! :)