Q&A: A Thousand Words

How do you convey the feeling of an ominous/sad close up shot through prose? I have a scene that ends with a character taking off their SciFi armor because they are about to set off an EMP-like device that would make it a burden. The narrator doesn’t think much of it, but I want to give the reader a sense of trepidation.

The problem here is you’re asking how to write a picture. To a certain extent, this is natural; we’re all influenced by the media we consume. Sometimes you see, or read something, and want to use parts of that for your own writing. Sometimes you can. Sometimes you need to step back and completely reevaluate what you consumed, and realize that some of it doesn’t directly translate into your chosen medium.

You can adapt what you see into prose, but you cannot fully recreate it. You can’t exactly mimic the colors, you can’t get the totality of scope, or incorporate all of the detail work. In the case of film, you can’t replicate the musical cues. You can write a script, and work with other people to realize that image, but in a written work you can’t get everything. You shouldn’t want to, because you can do better.

Writing gives you easier access to the inner workings of your character’s heads. It also opens up the gates, and lets you start sketching out your world in ways that would be impossible in another format. In writing, you don’t need to force emotions onto your audience, because they have direct access to your characters’ states of mind. If your character is scared, worried, or anxious, you can say it. You can talk about it. You can talk about why, and go into details that would kill the pacing of a flow.

What you can’t do as elegantly is show the device. But, to an extent, beyond basic mise en scene, it doesn’t really matter that much if it’s riveted, or if it has slick, beveled plates. You might mention that when describing it, but it really is just set dressing to sell the moment. The important thing getting into your character’s head. Again, in writing, that’s really easy. It’s film where the director and actors need to take extra steps to sell the moment.

Case in point: your character doesn’t need to take their helmet off. Think about this for a moment. The entire reason to take the helmet off is to see the character’s face. If you’re inhabiting their skull as a PoV character, you wouldn’t “see” it when you take it off anyway. You don’t need to see the actor’s performance because there is no actor, just your character, and your audience stuck in their mind as the moments tick down. You actually miss out on things too. If their helmet has a built in HUD, you miss out on that frying and going dark when the EMP detonates.

Visual media excels in providing spectacle. If you’re shooting a fight sequence, you can let it run far longer than a real fight could ever last because you’re relying on the choreography to keep the fight interesting. You can mix this with a changing environment to make things even more engaging. All of this applies when you’ve got stunt guys going through the motions, performing visual art. In prose, you lose that. Long fights become exhausting for the reader, and replicating the spectacle is (effectively) impossible. So, you need to tell a different story with your fights.

Different media have different strengths and weaknesses. As I mentioned, prose gives you the most control over your protagonist’s state of mind. Film and other visual media provide the most spectacle. Again, you’re never going to replicate the visual detail in text. Comic books stand between these two points, gaining some visual elements, but the trade off is that your audience is outside of the character’s head looking in, even if they have limited access to their thought process. Video games will give you an unparalleled connection between the audience and the events, as they’re an active participant rather than an observer, the trade off is, you give up a surprising amount of autonomy as a writer, as you have to find a way to align your audiences views with the character and their actions, otherwise they’ll disconnect from the material, or at least from your stories.

So, the short answer of, “how do I do this in text,” is to evaluate the scene in the context of your medium. How do you write a scene where a character is looking at a weapon of mass destruction about to detonate? In prose you’re going to spend a lot more time working through your character’s emotional state, rather than trying to get your audience to share in that experience via visual cues. They’re already in your character’s head. In that sense, you get to jump ahead of the line.

-Starke

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