If you’ve spent much time reading books or blogs meant to help fiction writers, chances are you’ve seen a few analogies or examples from the film industry. The two forms of media have their differences, but I think the comparisons are helpful and appropriate. Both tell stories, and as a result there is overlap on such things as story structure, character development, dialogue, and a host of other subjects.
In both mediums you have an author, a manuscript, and readers. I could have used the word “audience” for that last one, but I chose “readers” because I think movie-goers get to skip a step in the process that people who read novels have to take for themselves.
Authors in both formats must subject their ideas to interpretation. In film, a host of different specialists interpret various aspects of the script, from lines of dialogue to lines of description, each bringing to the work their own experiences and preferences. In novels, however, the reader performs all of these jobs, interpreting authorial intent in every instance.
The Actor-Reader Relationship
There are probably several different ideas that could be explored here, but I’m interested in one–interpretation of characters.
A good actress separates herself from the rest of her field by using every tool at her disposal–facial expressions, vocal intonation, body language, and so on–to communicate what her character is thinking and feeling at any given point in the script.
Her job is to take what has been written on the page and plumb the depths of that character. She has to ask why? over and over again, digging deep into the character’s past and uncovering things like mannerisms, fears, and motivations to help her portray a more fully realized character to the audience.
A reader does the same thing. He takes what is given to him by the author and interprets it, almost using those details as guidelines to create his own version of the character. Each new thing the character says or does gets added to this subconscious profile the reader keeps, and any gaps are filled in with the reader’s imagination. The result is then projected onto the mind’s eye of the reader–the “stage” of a novel.
Work with Your Actors
One of the things I learned in my screenwriting class last semester is that actors don’t appreciate it when the writer goes into too much detail describing how a character does something. If the script says, for example, that “Marie’s upper lip remained steady, but her lower lip quivered against it, shaking loose tears from her eyelashes” the actress may object because she feels the author is trying to tell her how to act.
In the same way, I think novelists should be careful not to get too detailed in their descriptions. Readers want to use their imagination. Let them. You can’t describe everything, so pick the most crucial details to put on the page and use those to stimulate the reader’s imagination for the rest of the picture. If the color of your hero’s eyes doesn’t play an important role in your story, I would encourage you not to tell the reader the color of his eyes.
Ben Whiting is a full-time English student at the University of Texas at Arlington and co-general editor of the award-winning collegiate publication Marine Creek Reflections. He recently completed the rough draft of his suspense novel, Penumbra.