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Jay Lake
Date: 2011-12-12 05:24
Subject: [process] Competing with the visual
Security: Public
Tags:movies, process, writing
Yesterday on Facebook and Twitter, I said:

A challenge of written SF nowadays is describing setting to a reading audience conditioned to visual marvels in television and movies.

There was a fairly interesting thread of comments on Facebook in response to this, including a fascinating digression on Herman Melville.

I've been thinking since about what this means for fiction writers. It's not like this hasn't happened before. Changes in media or technology change reader expectations, because they change reader experiences. Movies, radio, television: all three must have really altered reader experiences. Sometimes they change writers as well — for example, the introduction of the typewriter apparently had significant effects on sentence structure in novels. Not to mention what the changes in revision process from longhand to typescript must have been.

As for special effects, I'm sure this is at least partially observer bias on my part, given my age, but it seems to me that the modern era of special effects began with Star Wars in 1977, and it's only been amped up ever since. The visual influence of movies from Bladerunner to Gattaca has been pervasive. A writer cannot help but be subject to the audience expectation that's been set in the visual media.

Personally, I often run to set-piece descriptions of new settings, and can be guilty of ornate overdetailing in close scenes. I'm not sure those are the correct responses. As a writer, I cannot compete with ILM, and there's small point in even trying to do so. As a writer, it's my job to build a word picture than can translate into the reader's own sense of wonder, whatever their influences are. That my readers and I largely share a cultural grammar of film and television should just be a tool in my toolbox.

But it's still a challenge to wow someone who's seen Fifth Element with baroque marquetry, or to impress a fan of Alien with a dank, gothic starship on the page. The greatest sin would be to create a cheap imitation.

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User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2011-12-12 13:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
When I'm teaching story writing, I talk about competeing with the visual media, and how we have a huge advantage. The screen can let us see and hear, but it can't mimic smell, touch and taste. So, for written descriptions to really soar, they have to give the reader senses that they can't get while watching a screen. The example I give is a love scene. How lame is a love scene if the couple can't touch, taste and smell each other? But you can see the screen's shortfall if you replace "love" with a war scene or an adventure or anything where the point of view is someone more than a passive observer at a closed window.

The default writing style for beginners, though, is to limit themselves to sight and sound. I know they're starting to get it when their characters can touch, taste and smell (with touch being the most powerful of the three).

Imagine how shallow a work Kij Johnson's "Spar" would be if it was just sight and sound.
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User: mlerules
Date: 2011-12-12 14:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think it's possible to be evocative w/out providing all the details for a reader. By virtue of having seen movies/TV shows and/or imagining worlds in one's head - which I did myself growing up w/OUT the "benefit" of much TV or lotsa splashy movies - readers learn to create wonders from well-written material. We can fill in - imagine - more details than we're given. Being involved in RPGs helps, too.
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