Finch and Black Hawk Down: Translating Technique from Movies to Fiction

Jeff VanderMeer • December 22nd, 2009 @ 12:53 pm • Writing Tips


(What does a scene in the movie Black Hawk Down have to do with fiction? Read on below…)

In a general way, TV and movies have often had a terrible influence on fiction, in that some writers substitute received experience and received ideas from mass media for their own personal vision–some even think the structure of most TV shows is perfectly suitable, untranslated, for novels and stories. A lot of this material, reading like scripts or in other ways underwhelming, appears on editor slushpiles every day.

But there are also specific ways in which other media enhance and influence fiction. One example common to most fiction now is the cut-away from scene to scene, wherein you don’t get, for example, our hero or heroine driving from point A to point B. One reason that Lord of the Rings feels dated sometimes is because Tolkien doesn’t cut away for the most part, leaving in pastoral bits of quest that slow the pacing and don’t always resonate with a modern reader.

Then there are techniques from movies that you try to break down and truly translate into fiction. These techniques didn’t impact my prior novel, Shriek: An Afterword, because one secondary goal in writing that novel, due to its subject matter and dueling narrators, was to create a book that couldn’t be made into a film. But my latest novel, Finch, is meant to be cinematic–the beats, the structure, the visuals, at times mimic similar elements in film. There are experimental elements, but these elements are sublimated by the mystery plot.

In this context, I found one effect in Black Hawk Down fascinating, because I wasn’t at first sure how to convert it to a fictional context. Regardless of what you think of Ridley Scott’s film, the editing is precise and often brilliant. In one scene, attack helicopters are headed into Mogadishu–and in one sequence Scott (or his editors) cut the sound. The effect is to more or less leave the viewer lurching through the air. When I saw the film, my stomach seemed to drop when the sound cut off, and it was clear the filmmakers meant for the sudden absence of the noise from the helicopters to put you more directly into the scene–to in a sense turn film from a two-dimensional medium into something you were more immersed in.

I liked the effect very much, and kept turning over in my mind how it could be used in fiction. The answer came while working on Finch. The novel is broken into sections corresponding to the days of the week. Basically, the novel covers seven extremely important days in the life of John Finch while he’s investigating two impossible murders in the occupied failed state of Ambergris.

Each day, as you can see above, starts out with a transcript of Finch being interrogated by an unknown person. Where, when, and how the interrogation is taking place doesn’t become clear until later in the novel. But the reader comes to expect the interrogation fragment when moving from section to section…except there’s one section title page, where the page is blank except for the day title…and the effect is meant to be the equivalent of cutting the sound in Scott’s movie. To bring the reader out of their expectation, to create a kind of lurch or surprise. At the same time, the totally blank white page where before there has been the expectation of dread is a strangely liberating experience. What does it mean for Finch? What does it mean for the chronology of the novel?

Now, this effect will not manifest for all readers. Some may even have treated the interrogation sequences as little more than epigraphs to that point. But, that was the intent: to suddenly pull the rug out from under, but unlike the unease caused by the sudden lack of sound in Black Hawk Down, it’s meant to convey more a sense of release, a sense of possible grace, of possible relief for Finch…although there’s always the possibility it just means he’s dead, the interrogation over.

I think there are probably more overt ways to translate the technique, but that’s how I used it in Finch.

Over the next month, I’ll be posting more pieces on technique pertaining to Finch. Posts that involve spoilers will be clearly marked. Next up will probably be a post on the use of past and present tense in the novel.

14 Responses to “Finch and Black Hawk Down: Translating Technique from Movies to Fiction”

  1. Will Hindmarch says:

    I love this post.

    I’ve been wrestling with present tense lately—some people have been talking me out of it for my novel—so I’m super eager to see the next entry in this series, too.

  2. Matt Staggs says:

    This is a great post on a topic that I’ve pondered more than a few times. I think a longer exploration on how the visual language of cinema has affected authors would be interesting to read as well.
    On the topic of “Black Hawk Down,” I can say that while I love this movie, I strongly recommend reading Bowden’s book of the same title if you haven’t read it yet, as well as “Killing Pablo,” his account of the murder of Colombian druglord Pablo Escobar.

  3. Corey Redekop says:

    I LOVE Black Hawk Down as a completely immersive experience, but I’m not sure whether the experience could ever be translated fully into literature. Or even if it should. Film will always be more immediate, whereas books allow for contemplation, even in frenetic chase scenes. But I also endeavour to bring moments such as the one you mention to the page, to capture that immediacy. Tough.

    Good post. Gives me something to think about.

  4. jeff vandermeer says:

    I don’t really think it’s directly transferable–it’s that thinking about the translation creates interesting approaches. There’s no one-to-one equivalent in this case that wouldn’t be a gimmick.

    I find prose more immersive than film most of the time.

  5. Rachel Swirsky says:

    This is a really fascinating way of thinking about those intersections; thanks for sharing your thoughts on it.

  6. Drax says:

    This is a brilliant post.

    Jeff, I’m sure you remember that post from a while back, “Four Dreams! Three Are True!” I was so blown away by your transcription of the first dream, the dream of you and Anne at the resort, and the staff was slowly changing into monsters or werewolves or whatever… I was blown away. Yeah, that was a DREAM, man, and you nailed it. I was blown away because you captured the rhythm and non-logic of a dream. Pretty damn hard. Hats off.

    I think the language of film has “helped” fiction A LOT, and I am hesitant about those quotes.

    The rapid cuts, the action, the close ups, whatever—all these tricks help Our Holy Grail, which is the telling of a story. Period.

    “I find prose more immersive than film most of the time.” Well, God bless you, brother. Me, too. When words are our “weapons,” well… make it count.

    John Gardner talked about “language signals.” A single word can be a universe to a reader. Obviously…

    Brilliant Post. Thanks.

  7. d says:

    Even though the movie is great, [i]Blackhawk Down[/i] was a better book than movie.

    Mark Bowen does a great job writing a “true enough non-fiction” novel.

  8. jeff vandermeer says:

    I’ve read the book and enjoyed it. From the perspective of fiction writing, I didn’t find the book’s use of writing craft as interesting as the editing/sound decisions made in the movie,

  9. Ben J says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for a very interesting post.

    I used to be an avid moviegoer from my teens until my early thirties. I also spent close to a decade being a cinema projectionist in a repertory cinema during my twenties.

    I really can’t explain why I lost my enthusiasm for watching movies, maybe I watched so many that all of the different story telling tropes became very stale. On the other hand I returned to reading SF & F just over a year ago after a close to two decade absence, and have found my varied reactions and thoughts about different authors’ work quite fascinating.

    I’ve always wondered why discussions of how both image and sound are used by directors/editors/sound editors have been fairly rare in my experience.

    I screened “Apocalypse Now” and “Wild at Heart” many times and the way that both sound and image are married in those films is very interesting.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  10. Divers Hands says:

    Fascinating. The odd thing is, while I can not recall what day it preceded, or where exactly in the novel it appeared (and I only finished the novel a scant month back – such a sad indictment of memory) I can prefectly recall the sensation from coming across that blank page, and the various questions it raised. My first reaction was to assume that the questioning had ended, and while years of study have fairly well trained me in determining whether and when you can dispose of your main character, there was a moment where I seriously contemplated Finch’s demise.

    Bravo for your fine manipulation. Obviously, of course, this means you are now not to be trusted. I will be watching you, VanderMeer…

  11. Jonathan says:

    I love that your decision to use the technique was purely conscious. Cinema always creeps into my writing, both consciously and subconsciously. Though we do our best, I think the story is always most brilliant in our heads and loses something in the translation to words. Like Drax says, whatever the tools we use to bring the story out a little more, improving the experience for the reader is the end game. If I can write a story as engrossing as Black Hawk Down (movie or book), I’ll consider it a success. I look forward to reading Finch with this in mind (as well as your future posts). Thanks for the post!
    Quick aside: just received Booklife from my wife this morning. I’m only a score of pages in, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

  12. jeff vandermeer says:

    Yes, there is subconscious and conscious use of technique. I don’t think about these things consciously when doing the rough draft. But after finishing a rough draft, I look at it with an eye toward drawing out certain elements, de-emphasizing others, etc., and then a mix of assimilated, subconscious and conscious use of techique comes to the fore. I do a lot of revision and rewriting after the rough draft to get it where I want it. If the text doesn’t change a lot after the rough draft I am suspicious, usually. The great writers I have studied often have a talent for reimagining from their drafts, a knack for editing that is as organic as the original process of creation, and as importantly *they know what effects they are going for*. It’s in the synergy between the subconscious and conscious decisions that interesting, wonderful fiction gets written and revised.

  13. steve davidson says:

    That blank page worked and coming across it was immediately personal.
    Years ago I used to hang out at a local diner, eventually acquired a ‘regular’ booth – which had a painting by a local artist hanging over it. The painting showed a farmhouse in the background (uphill) and a barn in the foreground (left) with a 1/4 opened door, showing a black interior.
    One day I remarked to my waitress that I really liked the painting. She asked what in particular about it. I pointed to the partially opened barn door and said “you can’t hear the screams”.

    The moment I hit that blank page, I flashed on the above memory.

    So far as film goes – the scene from B.D. you mentioned was quite visceral, highlighted very much by the fairly decent portrayal of the general noise and confusion of war elsewhere in the film – but I don’t think it was an original moment. The first earlier example that pops into mind is the Wizard of Oz. Not only do we get color, but we get a moment of silence following the howling winds.

    I thought your technique in Finch was excellent, but in general I MISS those slow, pastoral transitions that “modern readers” seem to get stuck on. I think the written word should inform film (it would be nice if it were to ever really happen) and never the other way around. (Oh for the days of sex scenes displayed as fireworks out an open window…or slasher attacks as ink running down a drain…)

  14. Television and Writing « Booklife says:

    [...] has written some about this in the past, most notably in connection with the creation of his novel Finch, and his work has made me question the way that some authors use transitions between scenes and the [...]

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