Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[process] Competing with the visual

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.

Tags: movies, process, writing

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