Thursday, September 16, 2010

See No Evil, Hear No... What?

John McFetridge

A recent discussion on Crimespace about books being turned into movies brought up something interesting for me.

Caroline Trippe wrote, “After all, when I read any novel, it plays out in my mind's eye like a movie -- I "see" the characters, the places, hear the dialogue. I would guess this occurs with most writers. Part of all writing is visualizing---then you bring that to life with language.”

And I wrote, “When I read a book I never visualize the scenes like a movie -- I hear the story being told by the voice of the book. I prefer it to be the voice of a character (or a number of characters) and I sometimes accept it if it's the writer's voice (but not often ;)

A long time ago at Concordia University in Montreal I took a writing class from Garry Geddes, a guy who was mostly known as a poet, and he asked us to read our stories out loud. At first I was opposed to the idea because I thought prose was meant to be read not “performed” but Garry was a good guy so I did it.

My friend Lisa Pasold (author of the excellent Rats of Las Vegas) was in that class and when I finished reading my story she passed me a note that said, “Your head is so red, looks like it’s going to explode.”

I guess I was nervous speaking in public, that’s really common, but I think I was also realizing something significant – for the first time all that talk about the “authorial voice” was making a little sense to me.

Before that I had tried to visualize stories, see them as movies I guess, but at that moment I realized that I wasn’t trying to write movie scenes, I was trying to capture those moments at the kitchen table when my Dad told a story or those moments at my Uncle’s cottage around the fire when he told a story or those times in the bar when my brother told a story.

That was when I started to realize that prose is stories being told. That voice, that point of view, is the biggest difference between a book and a movie.
The same characters in the same situations doing the same things can work both as a book and a movie, but they’re very different experiences.

What do you think? Do you visualize a book as you read it or do you hear it?


Rusty James said...

I'm a visualizer.

Whether it's literary, secondary, or the fat girl with small tits talking about being gang-banged (yuck!), I'm seeing it if I like it or not.

It's only when the stink of cliche wafts by that I become conscious of being told a story, and give-up right there.

Stephen Blackmoore said...

Depends on the book. If it's one of those novels where the prose isn't particularly noteworthy I'll see it play out.

But if it's something that's voice heavy, like Megan Abbott, say, or Charlie Huston then I'm drawn in by the prose.

I prefer books like that. It's like reading poetry for me at that point. Keeps my attention longer and I feel closer to what's going on and more emotionally involved.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I hear a voice when I read;--if I don't hear a voice I don't stick with it.
I visualize scenes when I write. I guess because it's coming from a different part of my brain.
Never thought about it until now.

Kent said...

The voice is the thing for me. When I'm reading something by, say, Higgins or Stella, I hear those voices loud and clear as I read, and it's like being a fly on the wall. For me, that's far better than visualizing a neat-o gunfight.

Mike Dennis said...

Very original post, John! Made me think.

And now that I'm forced to think about it, I'd say that some books--ie, those with a strong voice, such as Jim Thompson novels--are only heard in my mind. I might develop an undercurrent of vision while I'm reading them, but it's only like a visual aid for the powerful voice that's telling the story.

Other books, such as THE GODFATHER, for instance, practically force you to "see" it in order to enjoy it. The imagery trumps the voice.

And this thought just came to me. This might be why books like THE GODFATHER make such great (and heavily-anticipated) movies, while movies based on the novels of Thompson and Goodis et al generally tend to fall flat. There are exceptions, of course. THE GRIFTERS comes to mind as I write this, but it was a small movie with a small audience. THE GODFATHER or JAWS or any other of the "movie" books became blockbusters.

Rob Kitchin said...

I've been thinking about this a bit by reflecting on it as I read. I think the answer is a bit of both. I definitely hear the story and it kind of gets converted into a visual scene. The stronger the voice, the better the visualization. The voice is dominant, but both is going on.