In this video we look at two descriptions of the same place, which appear at different stages of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Although the place is the same, Smith is able to advance the story just by changing the sensory details on which she and her characters focus. Being able to do this, to show rather than tell, to use concrete description as an essential part of the story rather than a background, is central to how most writers work. But do remember that mimesis is not the only way to tell the story: there are many alternatives to the cinematic mode of narration.
In the beginning, cinema took its inspiration from older forms of narrative including literature. But even in the 19th-century, realist writers were comparing their work to photography, and during the 20th-century many prose authors, including Wyndham Lewis and Christopher Isherwood, took inspiration from film. Published in 1960, John Updike’s present-tense novel Rabbit, Run was subtitled originally, “A Movie”, and he was explicit that “The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration.” From what I’ve seen, the cinematic mode of narration often dominates Creative Writing classrooms. But what is it? What are its limitations? And what are our alternatives?
In film-making, montage refers to the technique in which a series of clips are edited into a sequence in order to convey succinctly what happens over a longer time or a wider space. It’s a form of summary in which, rather than providing a general overview, the director gives an impression of everything that happens through a few examples. Strangely, nobody ever discusses how prose writers use this technique, even though novelists have been writing montages for hundreds of years. Here’s how!
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