A few weeks back I watched John Wick for the first time. In this movie, Keanu Reeves plays the titular Wick, a former hit man gone straight, who comes out of retirement after the local Russian mob boss’ son invades his (Wick’s) home, steals his car, and kills his puppy.
I swear all this relates to writing. Just give me time.
So the Russian mob boss discovers his son has made a mortal enemy of the implacable, nigh-invincible Wick, who was so good at his job in his heydey that he was regarded as a supernatural force—Baba Yaga. He tries to patch things up with Wick, but fails. Now, the only thing our mob boss can do is order a pre-emptive strike on Wick’s house by twelve ski-mask-wearing goons, and hope it works.
The following occurs:
Just… ponder that beautiful scene for a second. John Wick did well with general audiences, but from action fans I heard a collective scream of joy for, among the film’s other virtues, its return to legible fight scenes, and rejection of the Bourne Consensus of Shakey-Cam Combat. The choreography in John Wick is clear and sharp, the cuts minimal and explicative rather than meant to mystify. There is a point to the Bourne style fight—it mimics pretty well what it’s like to be in an actual grappling match with intent to kill or maim or at least defend oneself, which is to say deeply confusing and unpleasant. This camerawork, by contrast, shows us the battlefield as John Wick sees it: composed of clean angles and short, sharp stops. The fight scene is ballet and the camera one more dancer, intended to highlight rather than obscure the performance. Nor does the choreography stint from displays of sheer strength and determination, highlighting this important element of the character. While we begin (from 0:17 to 0:35) with angle, rotation, speed, and precision, we end (as the movie itself ends) with an uncomfortable forty seconds of flailing over a knife.
After the credits rolled, I stood and paced the house thinking, how on earth could I accomplish that same effect in prose? How could I write scenes that felt like those?
Now, for most of my life my instinct has been: well, you just describe what happened! So, first he shoots the one guy, then spins and shoots the other guy twice, then changes angle to shoot the third guy. But that doesn’t capture the information coded in the elegance of Wick’s motion, or even the tiny details that make the first four-shot sequence stick, like blood spray or the spatter on the photograph on the back wall. (Let alone the music’s heightening of tension and discomfort, or the cinematography’s coding of shadow as threat and moonlight as exposure and the way that plays with the bad guys’ darker wardrobes and balaclavas, the gunshot flares as revelatory instrument.) Capturing all of that would require a denser, fuller prose approach that would conflict with the speed of the scene, unless we wanted to embrace the Proust.
It gets even worse when interactions grow more complicated than “shoot the dude / dude falls down.” Toward the end of that three minute clip we segue into strikes and locks, and most readers don’t have the technical vocabulary to read a description of that fight and extract meaning. Consider, say, the brief exchange of blows from 1:44 up to the flip at 1:50—guy goes for gun, Wick kicks gun away, guy goes for a hammerfist with his right which Wick blocks & redirects down, goes for a chop or a haymaker with the left which Wick strike-blocks Bruce Lee style, then it looks like Wick goes for a stomach hit to distract the guy while he transitions into the wrist lock then pirouettes for an over the shoulder throw so the guy lands on his (guy’s, not Wick’s) back. I bet it took you longer than six seconds to read that description—and that’s having just watched the video.
If you only read my description and did not watch the video, maybe you could piece together what actually happened on a blow-for-blow level, but it would probably involve reading the above paragraph with a tolerant friend and some free time. Certainly, if I tried to convey that choreography, not to mention the overall feel of the event, I would almost certainly bore my reader—or at least take several pages to describe a handful of seconds’ interaction.
The more I thought about this problem, the more convinced I became that John Wick’s charm is due to the fact that it sets itself challenges at which movies excel. I’m no cinema scholar—someone who was could probably give you a better summary—but here are a few points: movies show movement, and humans are really good at parsing movement—especially at parsing the movement of other humans! We know how bodies bend, the ways they’re supposed to move and the ways they aren’t. Soon as we see someone’s arm broken on camera, we know what that means. Movies can convey multiple streams of visual information at once, guiding our attention with focus and camerawork. As the Plinkett Reviews repeat again and again, ‘you didn’t notice [this tiny cinematic detail], but yer brain did.’
Prose fiction does not excel at any of the above. Before you break out the pitchforks and torches, note: I’m not saying prose fiction can’t have awesome fights, or action, or anything like that! What I’m saying is, the qualities that go into making a book as exciting for a reader as John Wick was for me as an action movie buff are different. That book would have to make use of its form, of the particular constraints and opportunities of prose fiction, the way John Wick—or any other action film—uses its own cinematic toolbox.
This should go without saying, but I’m not sure it does any more. For one thing, constant repetition and misuse of advice like “show don’t tell” can lead writers to use the cursor like a camera lens, and only like a camera lens, which seems to me like using a Shun chef’s knife to open your mail. For another, modern imaginations have been shaped to a great degree by film and television and video games—and have shaped them in turn, of course. Most people likely to be writing a fight scene in 2015 have probably seen many more fights on television or in movies than they’ve ever seen or been a part of in real life, likely several orders of magnitude more. David Foster Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram goes into this notion in greater detail, though his vision of a voyeuristic writership has been altered a bit by the two-way fisheye internet world, in which we all have cameras pointed at us as we sit at our computers watching video feeds from cameras other people have pointed at themselves, while the government watches us watching, etc. People repeat what they’ve seen—so writers tend to pick up storytelling tricks and beats they like, even (as in the case of the cinematic fight) they’re not terribly well-suited to prose.
So, what can prose do well?
Man, isn’t that a question with deep roots. I’ve been pondering it for a while, and damn if I’ve come up with a solid answer, but I have a few ideas.
Prose can convey an immense amount of narrative in a terrifyingly brief time. For my money, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather—the book, I mean, not the film—does an amazing job of establishing the Corleone family enforcer Luca Brasi as a Man With Whom You Do Not Fuck, even though we never see him in action. If you’ve only seen the film, Luca is the guy who wanders around the wedding stammering and practicing how to pay his respects to Don Corleone, who’s then killed at the beginning of the feud. (The “sleeps with the fishes” scene.) He’s a tough operator, but he doesn’t stand out from the Don’s other soldiers.
In the book, Luca’s a demon. The last time someone tried to kill Don Vito, Luca went on a non-stop murderous rampage through the New York underworld, the kind of stuff that would fill a whole grindhouse movie. We don’t see any of this. We receive second-hand descriptions, stories of him tying people to chairs and attacking them with axes, all in others’ mouths. If I remember correctly—I don’t have my copy of the book to hand, and it’s been years—this material totals up to a page, maybe two, but it’s enough for us to be absolutely certain that as long as Luca’s alive, no one will dare touch Don Corleone. (So, of course, when Luca gets assassinated, we all of a sudden fear for Don Corelone’s life.)
We never see Luca Brasi fight in The Godfather. We know the danger he presents. That’s enough.
Prose also has the power to convey information and focus through ambiguity. Here are the opening lines of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon:
The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock. Two days before the event was to take place, he tacked a note on the door of his little yellow house:
At 3:00 PM on Wednesday, the 18th of February, 1931, I will take off from Mercy and fly away on my own wings. Please forgive me. I loved you all.
(signed) Robert Smith, Ins. agent.
Think about how much we get from these few words, without any feeling of forced “info-dumping”: tragedy, setting, time, fault. But Morrison also introduces signifiers with unresolved meanings. What does Smith or the book mean, exactly, by ‘fly’? Or, for that matter, by ‘his own wings’? And Mercy, what’s that? Of course, the whole book’s about working out the answers to these questions—Morrison hasn’t just introduced ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. But by introducing a few terms without easily decidable meaning, she forces us to ask the questions she wants.
Film’s attempts to accomplish these same effects feel more forced, to me. Datelines and time stamps are artificial, and textual ambiguity is much harder to achieve, since we don’t have a text to ponder; in film, we see whatever stands before the camera lens (though there are great moments of inversion, misdirection, and visual or sensory confusion in cinema too—c.f. Rian Johnson’s Brick, or the scene in Sneakers where Robert Redford claims to have been driven, blindfolded, through a cocktail party).
Storytelling—by which I mean, moments when characters tell stories—works brilliantly in books, because when we’re reading a book we are reading a story—when I read, say, Smiley’s monologue about Karla in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I am engaged in the same sort of mental work as I am when I read Smiley going about his day in third-person narrative. When a character monologues in a film, I am watching that character tell a story, and imagining the events that character describes—which is a different mental activity than normal moviegoing. (Of course, filmmakers can address this issue by transforming monologues into staged moments in their own right—the 2013 Tinker, Tailor turns Karla’s monologue into such a dramatic moment that I at least was riveted.) Absalom, Absalom lives and breathes this technique—we read tales nested within tales nested within tales, the same story told time and again with different emphasis in different characters’ mouths as interlocking truths come clear.
(And then of course we have questions of unreliable narration, c.f. Eco, Wolfe, etc.)
Much as prose can layer realities, it can also extend or compress time to ludicrous degrees. I’m not talking about slow-motion work, though some of the ship-to-ship battles in Peter F. Hamilton’s gloriously mad Nightsdawn Trilogy—dancing from microscopic particle interactions on a timeframe of nanoseconds to supernova blasts—would put any Wachowski-inspired bullet-time fantasia to shame. For example, here’s an early passage from A Wizard of Earthsea:
This was Duny’s first step on the way he was to follow all his life, the way of magery, the way that led him at last to hunt a shadow over land and sea to the lightless coasts of death’s kingdom. But in those first steps along the way, it seemed a long, bright road.
When he found that the wild falcons stooped down to him from the wind when he summoned them by name, lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist like the hunting-birds of a prince, then he hungered to know more such names and came to his aunt begging to learn the name of the sparrowhawk and the osprey and the eagle. To earn the words of power he did all the witch asked of him and learned of her all she taught, though not all of it was pleasant to do or know.
Talk about telescoping! The first sentence covers Ged’s (who at this point is called Duny) entire life, all the way to the end of this book if not the entire series. Then we swoop back to the child’s point of view. Next graf, we get a single brilliantly observed image, “lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist” (and note the slight lighting-thunder / lightning-thunder wordplay, and the delicious honeysweetness of doubled “wings” and “wrist”, because LeGuin, goddammit, LEGUIN!), one of those sharp word-pictures that seems to last forever—yet within the same sentence we jump through what would have to be, in cinema, a scene—little Ged runs to his aunt, “aunt teach me the names of sparrowhawk osprey and eagle”, aunt grins evilly, “well, you must do exactly what I tell you,” “yes I’ll do it,” cue then us having to see what unpleasant things she asks him to do and know, which would certainly be more pleasant than the things we invent in our mind when we read that final sentence. And after this we zoom back out in a different direction to discuss Gontish culture and the business of wizards.
Prose can also convey immense amounts of information by focus. Noir fight scenes like this one from The Big Sleep do this well:
Agnes turned the gun away from me and swung it at Carmen. I shot my hand out and closed my fingers down hard over her hand and jammed my thumb on the safety catch. It was already on. I kept it on. There was a short silent tussle, to which neither Brody nor Carmen paid any attention whatever. I had the gun.
And this is one of Chandler’s wordier fights! I don’t have a copy of Hammett’s The Thin Man to hand, my own personal failing I’m sure, but I am positive I remember a fight between Nick and some mook that goes down like this:
He had a gun.
I took it from him.
Both scenes establish Marlowe’s and Nick’s competence with violence by not describing that violence—because it’s so routine for these characters that they need not focus on it, any more than White need focus on Lancelot’s unhorsing of knights at tourney, or Shakespeare need establish Othello’s military competence beyond that one brilliant line:
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.
Wrestling for a gun is routine enough, for Marlowe and Nick, that they need only relate the pertinent information about the event: its outcome. (And, in the case of The Big Sleep, the disposition of the safety catch, which captures Agnes’ character in a nutshell.)
Alternatively, some depictions of violence capture its aesthetics through the tools of rhetoric rather than dance. The great Ming Dynasty novels deploy this effect particularly well—especially in the poetry fights of Journey to the West. Opening vol 2 of Anthony C. Yu’s translation to a random page, in this case 47, I find:
[The monster, wielding a scimitar, and Zhu Bajie, wielding his muckrake], summoning their magic powers, mounted the clouds to fight in midair. Sha Monk abandoned the luggage and the white horse; wielding his precious staff, he joined the fray also. At this time, two fierce monks and one brazen monster began a savage battle on the edge of the clouds. Thus it was that:
The staff rose high, met by the scimitar
The muckrake came, blocked by the scimitar
One demon warrior used his power;
Two divine monks displayed their might.
The nine-pronged rake, how truly heroic!
The fiend-routing staff, ferocious indeed!
Their blows fell left and right, in front and in back,
But squire Yellow Robe showed no fear at all. [That’s the monster -ed.]
See his steel scimitar shining like silver!
And, in truth, his magic power was great.
They fought till all the sky
Was fogbound and beclouded;
And in midmountain
Stones cracked and cliffsides collapsed.
This one, for the sake of fame,
How could he give up?
That one, for the sake of his master,
Would surely show no fear.
That stampeding sound, I hope, is all of you going to buy copies of Journey to the West right now. Poetry emerges to signal a change in the style of the text—much as fight scenes are shot and formalized differently from dialogue in action cinema. And, by moving to poetry, the writer gains the freedom to play weird language games—rhythm and rhyme, aggressive parallelism, alliteration—conveying the excitement, pulse, and power of staged combat in a manner paragraphic prose finds hard to imitate.
In fact, with its frenetic pace, and the fact that Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing are both fundamentally comic characters (one is the Sancho Panza of divine shapeshifting pig monsters, the other God’s own straight man), the poem comes off in context as something like the following scene from Project A:
… Okay, you got me, I just wanted to include a Sammo Hung clip with this post.
Of course these techniques (compression, expansion, ambiguity, focus manipulation, storytelling, unreliability) are the tiniest fraction of the prose fiction toolkit. Metaphor! God, I could write for days on metaphor and simile. Especially as they apply to action! Think about all the awesome comparisons of the Iliad. If I tried to make this comprehensive, I’d kill myself on this one essay, and I have books to write.
So, why did I spend so much time on this essay? For one thing, it amused me to do so. For another: in online discussions of style, I tend to see prose work analyzed on a single axis, from “purple” to “invisible,” neither term well-defined—a tendency that in my opinion ignores the beating heart of prose—what it does well, what it does poorly, what separates a book from a film, and what makes books teleologically better, that is, better at being books.
Because look at that Project A fight scene again—we get Sammo Hung’s sense of humor, and Jackie Chan’s, we get the joy these people have in one another’s presence, we get that they’re unstoppable side by side, that they know one another well enough to anticipate each other’s reactions. If we were to be writing the book that was Project A, that’s the information we’d have to convey—breathless joyful partnership against all odds at a fast tempo. The precise choreography of the fight seems incidental to that purpose. The John Wick scene back at the top of the essay (you remember the top of the essay?) conveys despair, fury, method, and cold cold logic—in John Wick, the book, our job would be to convey those, not to describe step by step the death ballet.
See? I told you this would be about writing sooner or later.