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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Page and Stage

Writers who want to incorporate cinematic techniques into their fiction need, first, to translate the latter into their literary equivalents. I use the word “equivalents” loosely, of course, as there is not precise equivalence between the techniques of the soundstage and the page.

So, what are these “equivalents”?

The camera = description. Everything the camera “sees” can be communicated, in writing, only by way of description. The camera has the advantage of showing everything at once, if it chooses, or of focusing exclusively, and in minute detail, on only one person or object, close up, leaving it to the viewer to perceive that which is displayed and to sort for him- or herself those people (actors) or objects included in the scene upon whom or which he or she chooses to concentrate attention. Of course, through a variety of other techniques—camera angle, intensity, contrast, special effects, and so forth—the director, the cinematographer, and others involved in shooting the scene—can direct the viewer's attention and direct the audience's focus, but, ultimately, it is up to those who watch the movie to see what they will. novelists have a different advantage. Unlike filmmakers, they can appeal to the senses of touch, smell, and taste, as well s to the two senses available for moviemakers' exploitation—sight and hearing. Literary authors can also take their readers inside the minds of their characters, describing their thoughts and feelings about the sights, sounds, tactile sensations, tastes, and sounds they experience during a scene. (A word of caution: novelists should be careful not to overuse description. Unless a picture, or word-picture, is central to a scene or some other narrative element, such as theme, it should be spare, rather than florid. Because filming a movie is enormously expensive, screenwriters have learned to make every image and word count, and most directors plan every second of the filming of each scene. Economy is the filmmaker's watchword, as it should be that of the novelist. As Mark Twain advised, writers should be careful to “eschew surplusage.”)

The camera = point of view. In film, the movie is shown from the camera's point of view, whether the perspective is that of an omniscient, a first-person, or a limited third-person “narrator.” In literary fiction, the point of view can be more complex and experimental and can more easily involve the shifting or alternating perspectives of two or more characters.

Actor = character. It's only partly true that the actor = the literary character, because the screenwriter also creates the movie character. The writer puts the words into the characters' mouths, and, through such dialogue, the character's personality becomes apparent, as does his or her attitude, emotions, values, principles, beliefs, and so forth. By interpreting and projecting these words on the page, actors bring these qualities to life on the screen, making these intangibles tangible.

Audio bridge = transition. In cinema, there are more techniques to indicate a transition from one time to another or from one place to another than there in literary fiction. In the latter, space breaks on thee page or a phrase, or a sentence is all a writer can use to indicate such a shift in time or place. Filmmakers, on the other hand, can use an audio bridge, defined, in Filmsite's “Film Terms Glossary,” as “an outgoing sound (either dialogue or sound effects) in one scene that continues over into a new image or shot [that] connects the two shots or scenes.” As an example of an audio bridge, the Filmsite's article cites Apocalypse Now's use of “the sound of helicopter blades are linked to the next scene of the spinning blades of an overhead fan.” Films also use a number of visual transitions to indicate a change in scene, including the “cut, fade, dissolve, and wipe” (“Film terms Glossary”).

Cut – transition. A cut is “an abrupt or sudden change or jump in camera angle, location, placement, or time, from one shot to another” and may be accomplished in numerous ways.

Fade = transition. A fade can also be accomplished in a number of ways:

[A fade is] a transitional device consisting of a gradual change in the intensity of an image or sound, such as from a normally-lit scene to darkness (fade out, fade-to-black) or vice versa, from complete black to full exposure (fade in), or from silence to sound or vice versa; a 'fade in' is often at the beginning of a sequence, and a 'fade out' at the end of a sequence; a cross-fade means fading out from one scene and into another (often with a slight dissolve or interruption) (“Film Terms Glossary).

Dissolve = transition. A dissolve is “the visible image of one shot or scene is gradually replaced, superimposed or blended (by an overlapping fade out or fade in and dissolve) with the image from another shot or scene.” For example, in Metropolis, this technique “dissolves that transform the face of the heroine Maria into the face of an evil robot.” (“Film Terms Glossary”).

Wipe = transition. A wipe occurs when “one shot appears to be "pushed off" or "wiped off" the screen by another shot replacing it and moving across the existing image.”

There are other film techniques that correspond, roughly, with literary techniques, which is not surprising, since filmmakers, limited to sight and sound, have had to devise ways, using these two methods of storytelling to communicate what novelists accomplish through linguistic means. Now that the stage has largely replaced the page as the storytelling medium of choice for the general public, at least, novelists, in telling their tales, might want to adopt, as far as possible, some of the techniques their cinematographic friends have developed. That mean, first of all, thinking in terms of showing, rather than telling. Thinking as a screenwriter, rather than as a novelist, should facilitate this objective. Again, there is no precise match between the techniques of filmmaking and those of writing novels, but these media's approaches to storytelling are close enough to allow an approximation on the part of the novelist. For example, a novelist cannot use an audio bridge (unless, perhaps, in an audiobook). However, he or she can simulate the use of this technique. Here's an example, using the audio bridge in Apocalypse Now (mentioned above):

The helicopter's whirling rotors were louder and much faster than the leisurely turning blades of the softly humming ceiling fan.

By using sights and sound to appeal the senses of vision and hearing, this transitional sentence imitates an audio bridge, indicating a shift in time and place, as the story's scene changes.

Similar approaches can be taken to suggest many of the other cinematographic techniques motion picture crews use to tell—or show—their stories.

Novelists who want to emulate screenwriters should familiarize themselves with the terms associated with moviemaking and adapt them to the process of writing novels to develop their own set of similar approaches to storytelling. Filmsite's “Film Terms Glossary” is a good resource for this purpose. Novelists who seek cinematographers' techniques for characterization, plot development, story structure, narration, setting, and theme and then, with these (and some actual examples from films) in mind, devise their own similar approaches, are likely to write “cinematographic” novels, which show more than tell. General audiences everywhere will thank them.

Note: Read “The Exorcist: A Marriage of Spirit and Matter in the Style of William Peter Blatty,” my post about William Peter Blatty's use of in his novel The Exorcist for a sense of how a novelist (who was also a screenwriter) uses cinematographic techniques to write a compelling “cinematographic” novel. Novelists can also learn to write this hybrid type of story by reading novels by other screenwriters. Stephen J. Cannel's book, TheProstitutes' Ball, is not only a novel, but, in a sense, a how-to book about writing screenplays and novels!

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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