Random Musings – Visualizing Your Prose

I’m not entirely sure if that title makes sense in the context of what I’m going to say here today, but it sounds good to me.

Now, to the topic at hand, which is an issue that I see a lot in my students’ work, and one that I can never really be sure how to address and help fix. As I am sure you are aware, our class is a creative writing course that focuses on the basics of story structure. To that end, we write prose fiction, as I think that is the most basic form of story telling. It doesn’t require the “fancy writtin’” that we see in poetry and it doesn’t demand a specific form like a screenplay. Sure, there are some basic formatting rules such as how to format dialogue, but in general, we just sit down and write.

But prose fiction is just as particular a form a writing as poetry, or screenplays, or creative nonfiction, or whatever else. It has its own conventions, and it has its own rules for what works and what doesn’t. The problem I see stems from the fact that all the students in this course are enrolled in either the Film or the Digital Cinematography program here at Full Sail, both very visual programs. And as the programs are very visual, so too are the students.

We often hear people complain about movies made from books because stuff gets left out, or gets changed in some fundamental way, and it pisses us off.

“Why is Harry destroying the Elder Wand rather than putting it back in Dumbledore’s grave? That’s dumb!”

“What do you mean Elrond has to show up and give Andruil to Aragorn? Why didn’t he get it back in Rivendell?”

I could go on forever. Often times, the problem lies in the fact that with movies being a visual medium, what works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen. Sometimes things have to be left out or changed because the way something is written is impossible to portray visually (let’s just ignore the fact that my examples above are not prime examples of this and move on). It happens, and we have to deal with it.

But what I see sometimes is the reverse. I have students who have learned much of their storytelling technique through a visual medium and are now struggling to put it down on the page. They see their stories in their heads like a movie, but it doesn’t come out as well as they’d like on the page. Sometimes I see a scene that would probably be pretty badass on screen, but just comes off awkwardly in writing. Sometimes the story reads more like stage direction than action (also sometimes known as telling, rather than showing).

Detail is also something that gets left out. A lot. If I’m filming a scene, I don’t have to worry about detail. It’ll show up on film. But when writing, my readers can’t see the room that I’m “filming.” I have to tell them all about me room so that they can “see” it. It’s not intrinsic knowledge.

The best advice I can give visual storytellers is to read stories and see how other people do it. I can also read their work and point out where I think they need to give us more detail. Sometimes, this is the best advice there is really, but I keep hoping that one of these days I’ll stumble on the magical equation that would clear it up for everybody.

Enlightenment comes to us all someday, right?

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