What a delight to host the very patient Janie (J.B.) Cheaney here today. I say patient because I messed up on scheduling, causing Janie to have to wait a loooong time after I initially promised her a slot. And yet she is still my friend and still willing to share her thoughts with you today. That just shows you what a classy person she is!
HOW THE MOVIES CHANGED STORYTELLING
One hundred years ago, Charles S. Chaplin moved to southern California. Less than three years later, he was the most famous man in the world. Literally—peasants in Uruguay knew his face; sophisticates in Paris chattered about his films; Chinese moderns participated in look-alike contests. Not bad, for a hardscrabble vaudeville performer, and what made it all possible was a dramatic innovation in story-telling. But cinema didn’t just alter the trajectory of Charlie Chaplin, of course; it changed the way we tell stories.
Movies are so firmly meshed into modern life—even in third-world countries—that we seldom think about how movie-watching influences our perception. That’s what interested me about the early days, when artists and technicians had to invent a narrative form that was entirely visual. Isobel Ransome, the narrator of my latest novel I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, is initially skeptical about the worth of moving pictures: “If a story is not worth reading, it’s not worth seeing.” But that’s before she meets Ranger Bell, her aunt’s new stepson, a self-described artist with big plans for a career in this fledgling industry. Ranger makes a place for Isobel and her little sister Sylvie in his plans–though the song hadn’t been written yet, he convinces them that they “oughta be in pictures.”
What eventually converts Isobel is the process itself, especially editing: how pieces of a story can be combined in different ways to send a story in a totally different direction. Possibilities abound! She has her own reasons for wanting to shape the story that have nothing to do with Ranger’s ambitions. But other film techniques work their way into the project, and today they influence not just how we picture stories, but also how we tell them.
W. Griffith, Ranger’s idol, is responsible for either inventing or perfecting many of these techniques. Comparing a Griffith picture like Broken Blossoms with a pre-cinema novel, say one by Charles Dickens, is a fascinating exercise. Griffith makes use of
- Fadeouts. indicating continuing action while attention shifts to another setting or skips forward in time. Switching the scenery within a chapter used to be rare in fiction, but contemporary novelists feel free to change perspectives with impunity.
- Flashbacks, indicated by a fadeout or a “ten years earlier” imposed on the screen, were rare in literature until the movies primed us for them. Ebeneezer Scrooge needed a ghost to escort him to the past, but now a simple change of tense or an ellipsis will do the job.
- Crosscutting and parallel action moves the viewer back and forth between events that happen at the same time. Griffith was a master—his resolution of the contemporary love story in Intolerance (which I feature in IDK) ratchets up the tension almost unbearably. In novels, cross-cutting is a technique borrowed directly and shamelessly from the movies, and you can almost read those sequences with an imaginary soundtrack in mind.
- Focus and Framing is what cameras do best—picking out the details to contribute to the narrative. In silent films especially, a character’s expression or a repeated motif carried much of the burden of backstory. The miniature of his sweetheart carried by Buster Keaton in the early scenes of The General communicated both his feeling for her and her distance from him. Details have always been important to fiction, but I sense more of a conscious focus on objects in contemporary novels, even list-making of a Jonathan Franzen.
- Total-screen Closeups. At the very beginning, “photoplays” were shot by a more or less static camera from a middle distance, like stage plays—but it didn’t take long for directors to discover the possibilities of closeups. Griffith, an emotional director, used them to great effect as a way of showing a character’s inner turmoil. Take for instance the “closet scene” in Broken Blossoms—though it’s a bit over the top, I dare you to refrain from feeling right along with Lillian Gish. Novels have always explored a character’s inner turmoil—that’s one of many things they do best—but thanks to movies, they do it with more intimacy and immediacy.
Intimacy, immediacy, and the sheer visual weight of our shared movie-watching experience has made both writers and readers more cinematic. The writer’s “Show Don’t Tell” rule owes a lot to the movies—if not everything. Pre-cinema novels tended to be much more tell-ish, with a certain “middle distance” imposed between writer and readers. But now there’s less need for pages of description and exposition, largely because the average reader has built a visual library of places she’s never been and sights she’s never seen in person. Our history of movie-watching allows us to picture as never before. Sometimes movie images impose too much, as when we can’t read a blockbuster novel without seeing the blockbuster movie made from it (Get out of my head, Jennifer Lawrence!). But thanks to the movies, we also see alien armies rushing across a plain or ships under full sail or mist on the Mississippi or the dismal depths of a swamp. A single paragraph, perhaps with smells and textures added, can set the entire scene because we already have the furniture in storage.
My characters Isobel and Ranger stand on the threshold of a medium that, since their time, has gone places they never could have imagined, but they’re beginning to see the possibilities—manipulative as well as creative. We’re stuck with the movies, and they stick with us, for better and worse. But mostly for better.
J. B. Cheaney was born in Dallas, Texas, sometime in the last century. In school her favorite subject was making up parts for herself in imaginary movies and plays. Too bad they don’t give grades for that. Fortunately, her second-favorite subject was history. All that daydreaming and history-loving finally paid off with six published novels, including The Middle of Somewhere and Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous. Her latest historical novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, was published last October. She lives and daydreams in Missouri with her husband. Please learn more about Janie and her books here.