Saturday 30 August 2014

How fiction differs from film: the problem of time

For the nth time in my life, I have begun to write a children's novel. All my previous attempts have ended in failure, mostly due to certain technical problems that I have been unable to solve. One of these is the problem of representing time.

The peculiar genius of cinema is its capacity to portray the passing of time directly. One can see this with special vividness in films where the action unfolds in real time – films like Rope (1948), Bicycle Thieves (1948), High Noon (1952), and 12 Angry Men (1957). The ability of film to record time is one reason why some of the greatest directors – Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Scorsese, among others – saw the long-take shot as having an essential importance, as if cinema achieves its full effect when it shows time unfolding in a single shot.

Even a scene depicting boredom can be captivating onscreen. One of the most beautiful scenes in Journey to Italy (1954) shows a married couple driving in a car across Italy, utterly bored with each other's company. The camera shows the passing of houses, fields, and street signs. It shows the sullen boredom on the faces of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders. But it is not boring to watch. We are watching the passing of time, and that is marvellous to behold.

In his classic study on the art of cinema, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky argued that time is in fact the medium of film. The whole artistry of film, he believed, lies in the way it shows things passing through time. The director carves a film from a "lump of time". "Time [is] the very foundation of cinema: as sound is in music, colour in painting, character in drama."

With the novel, things are very different. Fiction cannot portray time directly. Events in a novel cannot unfold in real time. The novel cannot show what the passing of time looks like. Of course, the ability of fiction to portray human consciousness depends on time as a condition. But the novel is sculpted out of consciousness, not out of time. Time is hidden behind the action of the plot.

This distinction between film and fiction might sound philosophical. But it has helped me to find a solution to a technical problem that I have faced whenever I have tried to write fiction. In my attempts to write novels, I kept trying to achieve cinematic effects. If the character is going on a journey, I would describe the journey. If the character is waiting for something, I would describe the waiting. If things were developing, I would try to describe the process. The results are deadening. Process and movement are the stuff of film, but not the stuff of fiction. (Obviously there are exceptions. A novel like Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is a work of genius precisely in the way it seems to record the passing of time. A novel like this is the exception that proves the rule. Anyway, for present purposes I'm not concerned with works of genius. I'm just trying to figure out some basic techniques for creating an ordinary run-of-the-mill novel.)

It was only recently that this difference between film and fiction became clear to me, in part because I've been watching a lot of early movies from the 1920s and 30s. So I decided to try another children's novel. I've planned this novel simply as a series of scenes plotted along a timeline. I am deliberately trying to pack everything into these scenes and to leave out everything between the scenes. I have renounced (or am trying to renounce) the attempt to describe process, development, and the passage of time. 

The approach I'm trying here is also modelled partly on the theatre, where the gaps between scenes are largely responsible for the creation of suspense. Shakespeare never shows anybody going on a journey: they have either arrived or they are about to set out; or, often enough, you hear about the journey indirectly during another scene. All the action is crammed into a sequence of more or less static scenes, while the passage of time (including all sorts of major developments in character and plot) occurs between the scenes.

I don't know if I'll achieve better results this time. My earlier attempts at novels have all sunk beneath the weight of their own insufferable boredom and indigence. This one is called The Island of Lost Cats. It is modelled on a detective story. It involves a boy, his cousin named Jack, and an island on which all the cats have mysteriously disappeared. 

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