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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 154

The Writer as Cameraman

What makes a story interesting or even exciting to read? Any number of things, of course. Is there a sure-fire formula? Of course not: if there were, we’d all be rich and famous by now. But we can learn some tricks.

I’ve heard sophomores complain — not too often, thankfully — of explications done in class, “The prof was just tearing the poor poem (or novel or story) to shreds !” Baloney. With that attitude, they’ll remain sophomores till kingdom come. Analyze away: anything you can come up with, a great author has already thought of, and more besides.

I never cease to be fascinated by visual point of view. Mediocre narration and description resembles nothing so much as the Baroque theater. The actor comes on stage and declaims his lines while remaining rooted to one spot. When he’s finished his tirade, he doffs his plumed hat and bows to receive the applause of the spectators. How many modern stories have you read that proceed in just that fashion?

To write exciting drama or prose you don’t have to be a dramatic genius like Molière, who invented stage blocking. You can pick up tricks as you go. One of them is to think like a film director planning camera angles.

In one of his novels, Balzac describes a house: first from a distance, and then from the street; finally he shows us the ornamentation on the front door. At each step the constantly narrowing focus tells us something more about the people who live in that house. Compare that with “He walked up to the front door...”

In Germinal, Emile Zola does the opposite for a mob scene: the noise of the crowd alternates with quick and seemingly random close-ups of individuals. The result is a chaotic sensual effect with an emotional crescendo.

Chateaubriand, the master of verbal description, fixes his “camera” in one place and pans across the Mississippi valley: from the mountains in the east, to the monkeys swinging from the trees, to the desert in the west. Utterly fantastical, but who cares? It’s beautiful.

One of the greatest plays in world literature flies in the face of everything I’ve just said. At the end, a minor character comes on stage and recites an account of a gory battle. You don’t see it, you hear it. Racine’s Phèdre has no visual point of view at all. It’s what we would call a radio play. As I said, there is no formula.

Our own Roberto Sanhueza is very good at writing economical dramatic scenes. In the Little Belle Bones episode of Katts and Dawgs, chapter 10, how does Roberto use visual points of view to enhance the tension and excitement of the scene? And, by the way, what purpose does that scene serve in the story? I suspect Roberto has read some good literature in his time. And that he’s picked up a trick or two.

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