It’s funny. Yesterday, I was writing a scene for my novel. It takes place in a car. There are five characters in the car. The five characters are talking. Sometimes they are talking to everyone (“Look at the view!”) and sometimes they are holding conversations with one or two other characters (e.g. arguing over politics). Declarations interrupt the flow of conversations, conversations overlap, and questions aren’t immediately answered.
That’s one of the challenges of literature: how do you present instantaneous information sequentially? Two characters may be speaking simultaneously, but you need to write one sentence after another. There also needs to be clarity in the chaos. You want the reader to feel the commotion in the car while also being able to follow each thread of each conversation.
Faced with this problem, I turned to movies. More specifically, I turned to the movies of Robert Altman, who is famous for his overlapping dialogue.
Doing so, I was completing a historical circle. It’s the circle that’s funny. In the early days of cinema, filmmakers turned to forms of art they knew to create a form they didn’t. They looked to theatre, painting and literature. When they came to editing, painting and theatre weren’t helpful. When the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, one of the first great practitioners of “montage”, wrote about editing, he wrote about Charles Dickens’ novella “The Cricket on the Hearth”.
It’s not hard to see why. Editing is about sequence, one shot after another, just like writing is about putting one sentence after another.
The men were on a boat in the middle of the lake. They signed the contract by shaking hands.
The men signed the contract by shaking hands. They were on a boat in the middle of the lake.
Both descriptions are of the same moment in time, yet the sequence in which they’re presented affects how the reader imagines that moment. In movie terms, the first description suggests a long shot (a boat on a lake) followed by a close up (men shaking hands) while the second description starts with the close up and pulls back for the long shot.
So, faced with a technical challenge, I looked to Altman, who learned from Eisenstein, who adapted from Dickens. With my mind set to editing, I was tackling a fundamentally literary problem. This makes the moral of this post easy to state:
Read more books!