Visual fiction and written fiction share many things, including compelling characters, a developed plot with a clear quest and conclusion, and genre conventions (crime thriller, romance, historical or science fiction, for example). Anybody familiar with visual fiction might instinctively use its devices in written storytelling, even unconsciously. But, on many levels, visual and written fictions are constructed to different templates. Below are some quick and easy guidelines designed to help aspiring debut writers embrace novelistic convention, whilst being aware of film-style aspects to avoid:
Head-hopping. Film and TV shift viewpoint frequently. Novels can’t afford to do this, because readers need sustained contact with a character so that they begin to care for that character. This suggests why bit-part characters (who vanish or die early in a story) can have their own scenes on TV, but don’t work as successfully in a novel. Decide who is going to tell your story and stick with that character throughout. Film and TV often follow the bad guys, too, whereas in novels, readers prefer somebody they can champion. Untrustworthy and unpleasant narrators do exist in written fiction (generally written by experienced novelists), but they’re heavily outnumbered by the good guys. Readers don’t want to follow the axe-murderer antagonist so much as the heroine who’s going to kill him. Viewers, though, are quite happy to watch the baddies unfold a narrative in just as much detail as the good guys. Regarding the number of characters in a book, the current wisdom is that six characters are all a reader can remember. In film and TV, the number is higher, thanks to the visual prompts. The question is, if you want to write a novel with more than one viewpoint, how do you do it without falling into the trap of unnecessary head-hopping? One suggestion is to write a composite novel. The composite novel allows for stories to be told by more than one narrator. Composite novels use more than one narrator to unfold a story, whilst sticking to the novelistic convention of not head-hopping, TV-style. Their secret is careful planning on the part of the author. Composites give the reader long enough with each character to become emotionally attached to them. Well-structured composites don’t randomly change narrator after short scenes, although it’s true that the scenes can sometimes become shorter when the tension reaches a high point. The novels listed below are great examples of carefully constructed composites:
Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last and The Testaments. These composite novels are structurally the simplest, being told in two stories which are revealed in alternate chapters. Maya Lunde, A History of Bees. Lunde tells three stories in composite form: past, present, and future, in strictly alternating sections. David Mitchell is incredibly sophisticated, telling multiple stories within one novel: Ghost Written, The Bone Clocks, Cloud Atlas, and Slade House are great examples. Mitchell writes his composites as self-contained novellas which sit end-on-end, linked by what he calls ‘tunnels or trade routes’ between (people, places and objects which the stories have in common. One is the moon-grey cat, which appears in most of Mitchell’s novels). To give an idea of how carefully novelists plan composites, Cloud Atlas is written in sections which can be grouped, by narrator, as follows: ABCDEDCBA. Mitchell uses a mirror image structure, with a single central episode, E. Readers might not ever break down how these composites function, but because they’re already on the bookshelves, and very popular, readers are incredibly savvy at spotting a well-told composite, which explains why aspiring debut novelists shouldn’t use roving viewpoint or too much head-hopping in an unstructured narrative.
The setting. In film/TV, the setting is provided, so we don’t have to work very hard at imagining it - it’s already there as a visible backdrop. By contrast, novels rely on the reader interpreting the writer’s words to build a scene in their heads. So, written fiction needs to work harder to create that picture. Novelists give a description of where the character is, and what makes the location stand out, often using reference to the senses and perhaps to memory as well as to the visuals. Rather than having the benefit of incidental music and visual cues to create a setting, the writer must choose descriptive and evocative words carefully, balancing these with additional elements like dialogue; there’s a definite art to creating a vivid setting in written fiction, and it’s entirely different to the image and music combos of film/TV. The blog ‘Reading as a Writer’ (click here) gives useful tips on how you might achieve this.
Jigsaw scenes. Film and TV take full advantage of vivid visuals to present scenes which are often short, and which jigsaw together to form a whole. Using background music and crafty lighting, visual fiction gets inside the viewer’s mind far more quickly than written fiction does. Because novelists have to stay with a character for longer, we can’t chop and change too regularly, or use too many short scenes with the assumption that the reader will happily glue them together. Novels are about sustained narrative, so if a writer breaks the scenes up too much, the reader will lose continuity and therefore lose the story thread. If this happens, the reader is likely to put the book down and find something else to entertain them. It’s best for writers to stay with their character for long enough to give readers an emotional connection. So, a useful piece of advice is to avoid dodging between short scenes to unfold your novel, instead remaining close to one narrator to give their eye-view in more detail. With novels, the writer isn’t creating a jigsaw so much as taking the reader on a continuing journey - it may not be a pleasant and happy journey in terms of content, but it should always be smooth.
Talking. Film and TV feature lots of talking; good novels are carefully balanced between dialogue and narrative showing, with splashes of telling where needed. Novelistic conversation isn’t like real-life chat, either - it’s pared-down and concise, and so the domestic mundanities which often feature in TV (when we pull extra information from the visible backdrop with no effort on our part) won’t work the same way in a novel. Casual chit-chat is best avoided when writing dialogue in a novel, and neither should novelists tell a story mainly in ‘talking’. In written fiction, conversation works best when broken up by scene-setting detail, to keep reminding the reader about the character’s location/setting. If you’re working on your debut novel, and you aren’t sure what an ideal dialogue to non-dialogue narrative ratio is, reach for a recently-mainstream-published best seller of any genre. This should give you a rule of thumb to work to.
Describing a visual. Writing a novel isn’t the same thing as describing a visual viewpoint. If, in the final scene, your main narrator rides a horse away into the sunset, we shouldn’t be reading a description about the silhouette of horse and rider vanishing over the horizon, we should be reading that our narrator has the sun in her eyes as she spurs her horse for home. Even though all writers visualise their story unfolding like a vivid film reel in their minds, it needs to be set on paper using novelistic conventions. This means writing from a character’s POV rather than describing a visual image as seen through a camera lens. The difference is that remaining close to the narrator makes a character with heart, instead of showing somebody moving around the landscape from a distance, which can often read as devoid of emotion. Emotion is the most powerful thing with which to hook a reader - we need to feel for, and with, the characters.
Special Effects. Special effects can convey almost anything ‘impossible’ in a visual image, sometimes in as little as a split second. If you’re a debut novelist trying to recreate the impossible in a horror or fantasy story, bear in mind that readers need whatever is happening setting up properly beforehand, to make it convincing. If your character vanishes through a wall having never done this before, the reader won’t be convinced if the episode is reduced to: ‘Without looking back, John vanished into the wall.’ This is one aspect of fiction in which film is a terrible teacher for novels. If John is going to do anything spectacular or unusual, it won’t work if you write this as a visual special effect with the assumption that the reader is watching the same image as the one running through your own head. Without the visuals, the reader needs some kind of a framework setting up, to explain how and why John vanishes through the wall. Is he a ghost? Can he teleport? Does he activate some kind of futuristic device, or make use of a spiritual ability to cross through solid objects? Once the reader understands the mechanics, s/he will need some graphic detail to flesh the occasion out - perhaps a few words on how John prepares himself for this strange journey, whether or not he switches his state of consciousness, what sensations he might have whilst moving from one state into another - anything at all to give the reader a vivid mental picture. Writing magic and the supernatural is all about convincing the reader that it’s really happening, which takes a little bit more effort than notating it as a quick visual special effect.
If you’d like to read more about the conventions for writing fiction, try these books:
Into the Woods, John Yorke - great for plot and structure;
Beginning, Middles and Endings, Nancy Kress - good for technical aspects, an easy read;
The Art of Fiction, David Lodge - a more technical book, with prose examples;
Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose - as above.
27th October 2021