Writing Fiction in the Age of Cinema

Aatif Rashid
May 12, 2020

One of the biggest challenges for modern fiction writers is reckoning with the massive cultural influence of cinema. It’s not just that movies and T.V. shows have defined our expectations for what makes a compelling narrative, but also that for many of us, movies were perhaps our first introduction to storytelling (as much as I consider myself a “literary” writer, I have to admit that the thing that first influenced me to want to be a writer was watching Star Wars when I was a child). Beyond all this, cinema also means that so many people encounter their stories visually rather than through language—and inevitably, this reality influences our fiction writing.

Many of the craft-related posts I’ve written for this blog have focused on applying cinematic techniques to fiction writing, most recently my piece on the use of lighting in written scenes. In general, there are some novels that I think achieve power of cinema through a strong attention to visual and scene-based storytelling: Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise, which I read recently as part of a writing group, is one of the first things that comes to mind, especially the opening chapter, in which a priest living in a Central American country has to help a local officer dispose of a body, a vividly drawn scene that as you read plays out in your head like the opening five minutes of a dark, moody political thriller. Fantasy novels too, like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, often have a highly visual approach to storytelling, with detailed descriptions of landscapes, clothing, food, etc. to make the world as real as possible.

Of course, both Martin and Stone are writing after the advent of cinema, Stone in the 1970s, Martin today, when movies have already achieved a cultural prominence. In essence, one could argue that their writing is attempting to mimic cinema, using fiction and language in a way that attempts to capture the visual power of a well-shot movie. This isn’t something new, of course, as fiction always been about the visual—Gustave Flaubert is one of the most strikingly visual writers I can think of (James Wood and others have famously described him as a “painterly” writer), and he was of course writing long before cinema. But writers like Martin and Stone are writing with a different relation to the visual, one that has inevitably been influenced by the movies and T.V. shows that these authors no doubt consumed throughout their lives. As a result, their strikingly visual storytelling comes across as an attempt to mimic the cinematic forms of their time rather than, as with Flaubert, a more foundational belief in fiction as a visual medium.

More interesting, therefore, are the writers who, in the age of cinema, go in the opposite direction, who opt not for a visual storytelling that seeks to mimic the power of cinema but who use fiction to do things that cinema can’t—using the flexibility of language to go beyond cinema. I’m thinking here of something like Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy, the last of which, The Mirror and the Light, I’m currently reading—on the one hand, it’s a vividly drawn historical novel that feels in parts perfectly cinematic. And yet, as the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall demonstrated, Mantel’s novel achieves something that cinema alone can’t—the T.V. miniseries was perfectly adequate, and occasionally really good, anchored by two strong performances, and yet the whole thing felt very ordinary, very serviceable, yet another visual adaptation of the famous Anne Boleyn storyline that we’ve seen many times (if anything, I found it inferior to the Showtime series The Tudors, which, though often very trashy, had an over-the-top intensity that made it much more compelling). Mantel’s novels have something that cinema can’t replicate—their languid pacing, the long and intricate conversations between Cromwell and some courtier that last for pages and pages, and most importantly that close third-person point of view that drives some critics insane but that gives the books their unique power: everything in the novel is interpreted through Cromwell’s perspective, and as a result a simple description of London can very fluidly become a lyrical Cromwellian commentary on the interconnectedness of society.

This kind of intense closeness of perspective is something a movie alone can’t achieve, and to me it’s a justification for the continued relevance of fiction in the age of cinema. Similarly, something like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, also a high visual, cinematic novel, does things that elevate it above the level of a movie, such as linger for ten pages on a description of a door. In the age of cinema, therefore, fiction doesn’t just have to mimic the visual storytelling of a movie, but can—and maybe should—go beyond it. I think that might also explain the popularity of “auto-fiction”—a movie might be visually striking, but even the most art-house of films with the most beautiful cinematography can’t capture that profound sense of the self and the individual that a great auto-fiction novel brings us.

I think fiction writers today often despair because our medium is no longer the dominant medium of our culture: we feel like easel painters in the age of photography or, to the even more cynical, creators of illuminated manuscripts in the age of the printing press. But just remember that although movies and T.V. shows might be our culture’s dominant narrative art form, there are things fiction can do that cinema can’t—and even if fewer people will read a book than watch a movie, that doesn’t make the book less valuable as an art form. Painting after all didn’t end with the invention of photography, but elevated itself with modernism into something even grander.

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