Words and (Moving) Pictures

Steph_2_cropped. jpgBy Stephanie Stamm

“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

“His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella….”

So opens Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.

I read—and enjoyed—some of Hardy’s novels years ago, but this wasn’t one of them. A while back, I saw a trailer for the current movie version and decided I wanted to see it. Before I made it to the movie, I happened across the book in Barnes & Noble. I ended up reading the first chapter (only six pages) standing in the aisle of the book store. A couple of days later, having read no further in the book—I wanted to finish another book first—I went to see the movie. While I enjoyed the film, I also found it somewhat disappointing, because, for all its beauty, it didn’t give me what even the first chapter of the novel did.

In his review in Variety, critic Scott Foundas writes that “the generally faithful adaptation benefits from a solid cast and impeccable production values, though the passions that drive Hardy’s characters remain more stated than truly felt.” In part, this lack of feeling might be said to be due to the difficulty of adapting a novel like Hardy’s, which as Foundas later notes “has five main characters united by an omniscient narrator who not only knows the inner workings of their hearts and minds, but editorializes on their behavior as he goes along.”

Such narration violates all the current novel writing advice. Certainly Hardy shows us things, but he tells us a lot as well. And he doesn’t start with action at all. Those opening paragraphs that so pulled me in are the beginning of almost three pages of description of Gabriel Oak. Three pages. Of description.

But, at least for me, it’s compelling reading. Partly because that description both tells and shows me who Gabriel Oak is, and partly because the language is so wonderful. Here’s my favorite bit:

“His height and breadth would have been sufficient to make his presence imposing, had they been exhibited with due consideration. But there is a way some men have, rural and urban alike, for which the mind is more responsible than flesh and sinew: it is a way of curtailing their dimensions by their manner of showing them. And from a quiet modesty that would have become a vestal, which seemed continually to impress upon him that he had no great claim on the world’s room, Oak walked unassumingly, and with a faintly perceptible bend, yet distinct from a bowing of the shoulders.”

These 102 words paint a picture of Oak, but they also give us more than a picture. They invest the picture with depth, dimensionality. While the characters in Thomas Vinterberg’s film each demonstrate their complexity through their actions, I missed the experience of plumbing those emotional depths.

Part of what seems missing is perhaps due to the director’s choices (see another review here), but some is a result of the difference in media, the difference between words and moving and talking pictures. Films convey character primarily through action and dialogue, while novels, through their narration, allow us entry to the POV character(s)’ thoughts and feelings. But, it seems to me, that much of the advice given to writers today encourages us to write as if we were writing for film. Show, don’t tell. Limit description; get to the action. Structure your story using a beat sheet, a tool borrowed from screenwriting.

All of those techniques help us tell exciting, fast-paced stories, which are very popular in our fast-paced world. But they put aside the pleasures to be found in slowing down for passages of description like Hardy’s: the pleasures of exploring character through narration, the pleasures of language—of a well-constructed, complicated sentence, or of a comparison that prompts a new awareness. Here’s another example, from chapter 15 of Hardy’s novel, where he describes an aged malt maker:  “Indeed, he seemed to approach the grave as a hyperbolic curve approaches a straight line—less directly as he got nearer, till it was doubtful if he would ever reach it at all.”

I’m glad I saw the movie version of Far From the Madding Crowd. It is beautifully filmed, and the actors play their parts well, inasmuch as the adaptation allows. But reading the novel is fleshing out the characters for me in a different way, adding shading and depth and awareness. And I find myself rereading sentences purely for the pleasure of the language.

No, I won’t be trying to write Hardyesque passages of description in my novel draft, but his use of language is a spur to enhance my own.

What have you read—or watched—lately that made you want to write differently?

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Connect with me:

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I am the author of the New Adult/Young Adult urban fantasy series, The Light-Bringer:

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I have also contributed stories (one fictional and one true) to the following volumes:

Undead of Winter Front Only Into the Storm Cover

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23 Responses to Words and (Moving) Pictures

  1. Mike Staton says:

    I wonder… will writers in 2075 being writing in the OMNI pov? I have to admit… to get into characters’ minds, I write in multiple first-person POV with appropriate inner thoughts. It seems to be a style used a lot in the fantasy genre.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Joe Stephens says:

    I recently read a book by James Lee Burke. I had never read a hybrid POV quite like this. The main character, Dave Robicheaux, narrated most of it, but it also had long passages of omniscient 3rd person. Just like in the Hardy book you describe, it gave me a depth of understanding of other characters, specifically of the villain, that would never have been possible with straight first person. And Burke must have read him some Hardy because he clearly ignores the rule about showing instead of telling. Maybe I’m a throwback but I really liked that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • sstamm625 says:

      I haven’t run across that POV combination yet, Joe. I find the ones that alternate from one main character in first person to another in limited third rather odd. Though I can still enjoy the stories. People do interesting hybrid things now.

      Like

  3. Doris says:

    Stephanie, you have hit upon the age old issue of movies and books. Many times an actor, if good, can make a poor script better, but I’ve yet to find many who can add the nuance that one gets from reading passages such as you included. I agree, our fast paced world has turned readers into browsers. No time for the joys of a description, no time to really sit ad read. Sound and visual bites are the norm. So sad. But there are those few hold-outs who write and read for the pure pleasure of it. Doris

    Liked by 3 people

    • sstamm625 says:

      I too tend to race through books–usually contemporary fiction, often fantasy, these days. But I’m really enjoying slowing down with the Hardy novel. I know the story now, so just savoring the words and images is fun.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. erinfarwell says:

    I’ve always enjoyed the writing of Earl Derr Biggers, who wrote the Charlie Chan novels as well as the Seven Keys to Baldpate. Several of his phrases still resonate with me today, make me smile, and encourage me to write so eloquently funny.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Neva Bodin says:

    In this year’s writing conference, I was advised to write my novel first as a movie with 12 scenes. I believe we are “dumbing down” our culture in different ways, and media is definitely one of them, including the written word. Along with catering to the fast paced superficial reader, (which I have to admit I am sometimes too) we are encouraging less patience which bleeds over into many other pursuits. I have found seeing the movie then reading the book results in less disappointment in the movie. Found that out as a teenager with the book “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come.” And as an adult “The Horse Whisperer.” So different on the screne. Great blog.

    Liked by 2 people

    • sstamm625 says:

      Thanks, Neva. When books are turned into movies, I usually like the books better too, though there have been a few exceptions. And sometimes I love the movies as much as the books–like the Keira Knightly “Pride and Prejudice” or “The Princess Bride.” 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wranglers says:

    I agree. I think we’ve moved away from language and replaced it with too much show. I like a dreamy thought from the narrator, now and then. Thanks for showing how aome books don’t work as films. Cher’ley

    Liked by 2 people

    • sstamm625 says:

      I don’t know that it didn’t work exactly. It just felt a bit lacking. When I bought the book, the cashier at the bookstore said someone else had bought a copy earlier because she’d seen the movie and loved it so much. I wonder how she reacted to the book? I hope she loved it too.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Some movies take artistic license with the books on which they’re based. Take for example Philomena by Martin Sixsmith. You can read my review of the book and movie on my blog at https://abbiescorner.wordpress.com/2014/09/02/philomena/ .

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Travis says:

    Great post Stephanie,

    I love the opening line, especially “…the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears…” A wordsmith having fun with details. One of the books that I am reading now is Dead Men’s Teeth by Bart Lessard. http://www.amazon.com/Dead-Mens-Teeth-Bart-Lessard-ebook/dp/B00QO2FSA0/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 It’s a tough read as he uses 1830’s American lexicon and slang while compressing every sentence into something monumental. It reminds me of Pynchon’s Mason Dixon which nearly killed me with it’s weight and prose density. As far as writers that excite me, Don Winslow’s work is inspiring for the risks and results he gets. I really want to write in the omniscient voice as Hardy did above at some point. (I’ve started a few and backed away.) The standard stories are mostly first person past, followed by third person limited past. I think things should be shaken up. I’ve had one story in second person published, but I’m hoping to get a few more out and maybe even a novella if I can sustain the intensity. I guess the thing is that we’re “creative” writers, but we’re boxing ourselves in with “rules” which is anti-creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sstamm625 says:

      Second person. Wow, Travis. That would be hard to sustain. Lorrie Moore’s “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)” may be the only story I’ve read in second person. It’s quite wonderful though. I wrote a poem in second person, but I haven’t tried it with a story.

      Like

  9. Nancy Jardine says:

    Great post, Stephanie. I really like a novel which has a good balance of show and tell- that is action with plenty of background. To write good description, I think, you have to use a well chosen vocabulary to suit the place, time and action. It’s years since I read Thomas Hardy, but you make me want to go and dig out my copies that are buried in one of my groaning bookcases. I try to enjoy books and films of separately for their ‘own’ qualities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sstamm625 says:

      Yes, books and movies offer distinct pleasures, and I do like both. I like a mix of showing and telling as well, Nancy. And your right about vocabulary and good descrIption. I want to get better at that.

      Like

  10. S. J. Brown says:

    I am often disappointed by films based on books I have read. The films adaptation rarely co exist with my own imagination. Books let the reader use their mind, where films simply let us observe. As writers I think we all evolve and adapt over time and are influenced in some way by everything we read.

    Years ago I joined a writers group and didn’t like to read the work of one member. He always used large unfamiliar words and it made me feel stupid. After a while another writer informed me he made those words up. That taught me to write clearly so that the reader could follow along and not feel stupid, but enjoy the work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sstamm625 says:

      I like films too, but there is a different kind of involvement because of the reading vs. observing I think. Yeah, I agree about writing clearly. I’ve had to look up some of the words in the Hardy novel. I’m okay with that, because I don’t think he was trying to be obscure. Writers who deliberately write obscurely make me annoyed.

      Like

      • S. J. Brown says:

        I was a member of a writers group and one of the members actually made up words. It ruined the entire story line and I didn’t enjoy reading his work at all.

        Like

  11. wyoauthor1 says:

    I’m like Nancy — I enjoy a mixture of show and tell. Since I often write from the dog’s point of view and can’t use dialogue, I have to rely on setting and action to tell my dog stories. Of course, my devotions are written from my point of view with research and such to back up the thought-process, so for me, having a mixture of action and slowing-down description and thoughts is a good combination. Great post, Stephanie!

    Liked by 1 person

    • sstamm625 says:

      I like a combination too. Sometimes a story can feel overloaded in one direction or another for me. It’s about finding the right balance for the work, I guess.

      Like

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