Art and reality – take two

by Bill Kirton

In the blog before last, I claimed that, thanks to its structured nature, fiction was the nearest we get to reality. In a way, this one repeats the claim, but from a different perspective.

I once wrote a blog about theatre being a collaborative process. Of course it is, that’s obvious. But I want to take the idea of collaboration a little further. I said then that I thought the director had much more power in movies or TV plays than in the theatre and, consequently, the writer’s role was overshadowed. But there’s so much more to it than that. In a chapter of a book about writing which I co-wrote with Kathleen McMillan, we drew a parallel between editing film and editing text. The relevant passage runs as follows:

‘It’s like the process of editing film or video; a scene is shot from various angles, favouring different perspectives, emphasizing different aspects of what’s happening but, in the edit suite, the material is reviewed, selections are made and then spliced together to create a fluid ‘real’ representation of events. The editor creates a ‘reality’ on the screen which never actually happened as a single episode. As a writer, you want to create the same sense of flow, blend selected pieces of the information you’ve collected into a single, coherent sequence, create your own, unique written ‘reality’.’

If you’ve never been involved in making a movie, this totally artificial ‘reality’ it creates is puzzling. On the screen you see, for example, the woman reach for her scarf and have difficulty tying it round her neck because she’s so angry with her partner. She’s shouting at him and tells him that he must either spend more time with her or she’ll leave him. Then she grabs her car keys from the table and goes out, slamming the door behind her. There are probably cutaway shots of the partner, attempts at bits of dialogue from him. There may also be some other element – visual or aural – that’s in the scene to symbolise something or maybe hint at a shared memory or a harbinger of something sinister waiting to happen. The important thing in connection with the point I’m making here is that what you see as a single sequence never happened, so the reality it’s offering is a lie. Having to set the camera up in different places to highlight the different characters and objects involved takes a long time, even days – but the editor cuts it together and what we see is a seamless scene lasting maybe 20 seconds.

But then, we’re judging its reality by the way it mirrors what we see around us – people slamming doors, having a row, fumbling with items of clothing. It’s just a straightforward picture of it. And yet it’s not, because the editor and director will have cut the scene to suit their purposes. Maybe they want you to dislike the woman, or maybe they suggest that the argument she’s having is simply a cover for something else, or perhaps the two characters are being manipulated by someone or something outside their awareness. And so, as we watch, we’re being manipulated too; our judgement is being deliberately compromised so we become accomplices of the director …

… just as our readers become our accomplices when it comes to the written word, because this process of creating a seeming ‘reality’ out of disparate incidents and actions is even stranger in prose fiction. Let’s just take one example from the scene I’ve been describing. We’ll make it as basic as possible and write:

‘Samantha grabbed her scarf and walked to the door.’

OK, so how many actions does she perform? Two, you cry – ‘grab’ and ‘walk’. But wait, didn’t she maybe look at the scarf? Reach towards it? OK, four then. But she must have opened and closed her fingers too, so six. And the more you break the sequence down, the more the actions multiply. So much so that, in the end, the simple act of reaching for the scarf requires an infinite number of steps as neurons fire in the brain, amino acids do what they need to do to provide the fuel which energises the muscles, the lungs take in oxygen, the heart pumps the blood to where it’s needed, nerve endings relay messages that contact has been made with the material, etc., etc. In other words, what we describe and perceive as one fluid, meaningful action consists of millions of sub-routines without which the whole edifice crumbles.

But such detailed analysis would be unreadable and is, obviously, unnecessary – because we collaborate with the writer. We’re grateful to him/her for breaking infinite complexity down into a couple of distinct, apprehendable movements. But, again, we’re being manipulated because not only does the writer reduce the action count, he/she chooses the words to convey them. If I write ‘water’ you might think of oceans, a tap (or faucet), a bath, a kettle, a cup of tea, a pond, a river, a shower. But the more I qualify it, the more I restrict the interpretations available to you – ‘running water’, ‘hot running water’, ‘a bloodstained copper tube from which hot running water spewed into the stagnant, viscous residues at the bottom of the pit’. Hmm, so bang goes your cup of tea.

Art is artifice and yet it produces realities far more profound and affecting than most of those around us. As I keep saying to myself and repeating to anyone who reads my blogs, it’s a joy to be doing something that lets us pretend there are meanings and significance somewhere and even to create our own. Isn’t it great that, out of scraps of experience which we’ve woven together in our little room, we can make someone in Brazil, Australia, Canada or anywhere feel an actual emotion? Once again, it’s that mystical, intimate, one to one connection that’s so fundamental to the reader/writer dialogue. It’s the reality of fiction.


Lydia Bennet said…
true Bill - if detail is the secret of good writing, knowing which details to select and which to leave out is just as important. sadly many writers nowadays go for the 'every tiny detail of every tiny action' school of writing which is awful but gets the word count up. characters who smoke are very useful for this as the writer can spend hours describing every light-up and every puff, n times a page. Barbara Pym's work is a perfect example of brilliant and skilled use of the 'telling detail' done lightly.
Dennis Hamley said…
What a wise and observant post, Bill. Yes indeed, selective detail is the key. I think Katherine Mansfield is the best at that. Valerie, isn't it sad that so many writers want to get the word count up? I'm always trying to keep it down.
Lydia Bennet said…
yes Dennis, you are so right, as a poet for me it's about cutting, cutting, but some best selling novels have been quoted on fb lately (for comic effect) stuffed full of pointless padding to fatten em up. It doesn't stop them getting published, publicised or sold. I don't know how people can be bothered to wade through it all.
Kathleen Jones said…
Interesting parallel with film - one of the best books on editing is one for script-writers. Film has a lot to teach authors, not just about the critical detail, but about narrative too. Those wonderful French movies . . . And then there was the way American Beauty was structured . . . the length of the shots and the way they're juxtaposed. Thanks Bill.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, all. In any talks I give on writing, whatever its form - short story, novel, dissertation, etc. - I always make the point that all writing is better for being cut. As for the use of detail, in talks (especially on writing short stories) the example I use is that great Bobby Gentry song 'Ode to Billy-Joe' where the details stress the enormity of the tragedy by setting it against the banality and ordinariness of the everyday:
Poppa said to Momma as he passed around the black-eyed peas,
'Billy-Joe never had a lick of sense - pass the biscuits please'. (etc., etc. Brilliant.)
Dennis Hamley said…
Interestingly, a new writer whose novel I have been helping with told me that he'd been to a conference where an agent said that it was no use submitting a manuscript of less that 100,000 words to a publisher of young adult novels. He asked if I agreed. I told him it was a complete load of rubbish and breathtaking ignorance from someone in a responsible position in publishing - and if it isn't, then publishing really has gone to hell in a handcart.
julia jones said…
I really really like this post - and this sort of insight is what I'm in an authors' group FOR. Thanks, Bill
Bill Kirton said…
Dennis, that's absurd. I'd have said exactly the same thing.
Julia, glad you liked it. Thanks.
glitter noir said…
You know,I remember praise being heaped on the director of Dr. No--by himself, I think--for being the first to handle time in a new, more modern, way on film. Instead of seeing the hero grab his keys, walk out the door and to his car, then step in and start the thing, etc., etc., etc., they showed Bond talking with a woman, then her voice over giving directions while he roared along the highway...Interestingly enough, I found the same celebrated technique in an early episode of Have Gun Will Travel--before Dr. No. It may have been around even longer. But we all owe, as writers, much of our ability to handle time effectively and select the telling details to these cinematic tacks. Readers, like viewers, have been properly trained to fill in the blanks.
Bill Kirton said…
Yes, Reb, the more I think about the editing techniques of film, the more subtle they seem, and the more amazed I become at the degree of complicity audiences bring to the performance. We're capable of mind-bending manipulations of time and even of non-linear narrative sequences.
glitter noir said…
Ah, I love the phrase 'audience complicity', Bill.
Pauline Fisk said…
Bill, I love this post. I often think of the similarities and differences between fiction as presented by the written word and on film. And that process of sifting through reality to find the particles that added together make 'reality seem real' are what I seem to spend most of my time doing. As for significance, not in a self-important way, but in a making meaning of one's experience of life [and indeed life beyond one's experience of it] sort of way - it really is through writing, sifting words, placing them against each other, plot against plot, action against action, that I get any sense of what things are about. I'm not an abstract thinker. It all comes down to words.
Pauline Fisk said…
And PS. Dennis - yes, I too am always trying to get the word count down. Have I said too much, I ask myself and the answer is always yes. I love flash fiction for that reason. A succeessful short, short story almost has the eality hanging between the lines. Went to see an Andrew Wyeth exhibition at the Royal Academy years ago, and his paintings were like that. You sensed the lives and the people who weren't there. How he did that I've no idea.

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