Author of Stoning the Devil
Two Ways of Writing a Novel, April 26, 2017
Part One: The Cinematic Model
There are essentially two different ways to write a novel. The first is action-oriented, and usually heavy on dialogue; concerned with visible drama, above all, it works much as a film does. It observes human beings interacting and conflicting with each other. “I am a camera with its shutter open,” wrote Christopher Isherwood, in the second paragraph of Goodbye to Berlin, “quite passive, recording, not thinking.” One may argue about whether he succeeded in maintaining that objectivity, but unquestionably that was his aim, as it was of so many early twentieth century writers, among them Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Graham Greene.
They were heavily influenced by the new and dominant art form, the cinema, consciously or not. Whereas nineteenth century writers took care to write smooth transitions between scenes and acts, these writers would often simply stop, leave a blank line, and jump into the next without explanation—what film directors call the ‘jump cut’. While we are privy to the rich inner lives of Victorian novels, the cinematic fiction writer would often leave this to be inferred by the reader from the actions and speech of the characters, as it is in film. One can hardly disagree that this approach has engendered some masterpieces, including many of Greene’s novels. (And not coincidentally, perhaps, some of these, particularly The End of the Affair and The Quiet American, have been the subjects of some of the most successful movie adaptations of all time.) So I am not arguing that this is an inferior model in any way. What I do wish to argue is that it does have limitations, that it is not the only way to write a novel, and that it should not be the sole model taught to writing students—as it is, frequently, if indeed the novel is taught at all in creative writing programs.
One could argue, naturally, that the very nature of the novel is dramatic, and that the very earliest examples were for that reason ‘cinematic,’ even though their authors had never seen a film. Don Quixote, the first and possibly the greatest novel of all, has an epic scope that makes it an easy subject for adaptation into film, as does Tom Jones. Dickens, too, was often cinematic in technique, alternating scenes of pathos with those of humour, pitting his heroes against formidable adversaries, and ensuring that in the end, they triumphed over evil. Nevertheless, it’s in the twentieth century that we see the novel stripped down to its drama and little else. Brighton Rock and The Third Man must both have been very easy to adapt into screenplays, and again both made good films. A Farewell to Arms is almost journalistic in its reporting of war scenes, and of course the new fast-paced journalism of America was an influence too, certainly on Hemingway, but on British writers too, from Evelyn Waugh to Anthony Powell.
This is not to argue that all twentieth century novelists followed this trend: most of the Modernists didn’t, including some of the American Modernists, like Faulkner. These writers followed a more contemplative model, inspired more by poetry than by drama, that aimed to illuminate the inner lives of their characters—and I will discuss this approach in the second part of this essay. Of course there are no clear delineations here. Some writers follow a hybrid approach. Consider Fitzgerald, for instance. Gatsby is certainly cinematic in the richness of its visual imagery, the sharpness of the dialogue, and the almost thriller-like pace of the action (which rises like a roller coaster.) And yet it aspires to, and reaches, the heights of poetry, not only in the lyricism of the language, but in the complexity and depth of the psychological insights, especially those of the narrator, Nick Carraway. So it is both cinematic in its tension and visual appeal, and deeply meditative, and it may be that this melding of the two fundamental approaches is what makes it one of the very greatest American novels, and probably the greatest.
Still, the oft-repeated injunction to “show, not tell” of the workshop, good though that advice usually is, has been taken to harmful extremes, so that many contemporary American novels read like screenplays—and unfortunately, unlike those of Graham Greene, not masterful ones, either. But perhaps I am wrong to blame the workshop. Could it be simply that most writers nowadays watch far more films and television than they read books? I am often struck, in a workshop, that when students are reminded of something in a story, it is almost infallibly a similar plot in a TV series or blockbuster movie, and the reference is instantly clear to everyone in the class (except me.) And yet when I mention a story or novel to which it bears a resemblance, the students’ faces show no glimmer of recognition. This is often true at the professorial level too. Once at a conference I sat with a group of English professors and was astonished at how many times when one asked if the rest had read such and such, they would reply, ‘No, but I know the movie.’
So possibly it’s inevitable that the influence—one might say the hegemony—of the Seventh Art would make itself felt in fiction. Still, it’s worth considering whether we merely want to try to reproduce the effects of cinema. This is not to suggest that cinema can’t be great art; obviously it can. But what can novels do that cinema and television can’t? Or what can the novel do better than a film? If we aren’t trying to do something better than another medium can, then why should be persist with writing? If really all you want to do is make a film, but write a novel instead because you can’t afford to make a film, then maybe you should be writing screenplays.
I’m going to claim that the novel does offer creative possibilities that are closed to film and the dramatic arts, and that these come broadly under the canopy of the Contemplative Model, or perhaps the Lyrical Model. And that will be the subject of the second part of this essay.