[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.

3 thoughts on “[process] Competing with the visual

  1. Harald Striepe says:

    The interesting part is that the ultimate VR is the mind. It wants to be stimulated and intrigued, not drowned.

    I think of Chip Delaney’s earlier works including Triton and Dhalgren, and the early CyberPunk stuff.

  2. Matte Lozenge says:

    I think it’s the opposite. Cinema can never compete with the infinite scope of human imagination. Cinema can impress and awe, certainly, but the mere fact of realizing a vision on film limits it to that one single interpretation, forever static and highly susceptible to obsolescence.

    Whereas, prose that is merely competent can blossom in a million ways in the minds of a million readers. Each reader becomes a co-creator as he or she decodes the written word and brings it to life in the theater of the mind. Readers participate interactively with an intimacy that cinema can only dream of achieving: the intimacy of one’s personal imagination and store of life experience.

    If contemporary readers find cinema more powerful than compelling prose, the fault must their lack of imagination and experience, not any inherent superiority of cinema.

    I love great cinema, and every time I find an unknown classic it’s a gift from the past. But books can take me places that movies just can’t go and never will. Truly, a word is worth a million pictures.

  3. David S. says:

    I seem to recall Stephen King saying pretty much the same as Matte, no millions of dollars of special effects from Hollywood can compete with what a reader (primed by the author) can imagine.

    Ditto for Iain M. Banks, he claimed that one of the BDO scenes in an early novel of his (I forget which one) was an attempt to create something no future movie adaptation could ever match. CGI has come a long way since then though…

    The potential problem however is that for this to work the readers have to have an imagination, and that takes practise and effort, whereas the Hollywood fast-food variety requires only eyes and a pulse.

    That in turn leads to a whole discussion about whether people today are too damn lazy for their own good, etc. Increasing numbers of those damn lazy young people will prefer their entertainment the way they like their food – fast, nuked and in the form of regurgitated Hollywood slurry, no effort required.

    Or whether the massive popularity of that Wizard school book series and the endless series of vampire, werewolf, and other booming YA books mean the future readers are getting all the imagination exercise they need to prepare them for adulthood.

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