Commercial motion pictures didn’t exist until the 20th century, and it’s a pretty safe bet that since then it’s been tough for writers of prose to ply their craft without those pesky images from a darkened movie theater encroaching on their work.
I know that in my brain there’s an ongoing battle between what I imagine is original and what’s already been done. There’s a scrawny hipster of the old video store variety living up there who’s constantly second-guessing my creative choices as derivative hackery cobbled together from43 years of pop-culture immersion and ravenous movie watching.
But in retrospect, writing “cinematically” – that is, while imagining the events played out on the page as a running visual narrative in one’s mind’s eye – was likely happening long before putting images to celluloid was even considered. After all, the primary element of our human capacity to imagine is to see things in our heads, whether through dreaming or conscious effort, as if they were really happening. Plus, acting out stories onstage predated film by thousands of years, so the art of rendering a story with actors playing established parts had plenty of precedent.
However, I’m sure some artists who consider themselves more pure of heart would argue that our 21st century immersion in cinema (and TV and videogames) has somehow negatively altered the writer’s art. I could see how this might be the case if all the writers out there were somehow taking everything they learned from the Transformer movies and translating blind action and idiotic dialog to the page. (Actually, that does happen quite a lot in movies, but that’s a conversation for another time).
But long before there were movies, bad prose still made it into print. During the Victorian Age, when the novel as we know it now first emerged, there was plenty of crap being written throughout Europe and America, and no one had the luxury of blaming it on Michael Bay and giant robots randomly blowing stuff up.
Great books are often defined by their standout lines of narrative or dialog. So are films. So who’s to say that “Call me Ishmael,” or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” can’t be ranked right up there with “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” or “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker”?
As for being derivative, no less a writer than William Shakespeare was accused by his contemporaries of the very same thing. Sure, he used tried and true plot devices and narratives that had already been a part of folklore and wandering minstrel storytelling for years, but when he took them into his own hands, he added his own unique pathos, wit and social satire to create something wholly new, immensely popular in its time, and brilliant enough to be repeatedly performed over the subsequent five centuries.
In short, intelligent and talented writers take what they learn from personal experience, personal experience, established story structures and – yes, other art forms and media – and cleverly fold them into what they are doing on their own.
In my own case, I can tell you outright that my writing is highly influenced by films I’ve seen throughout my life, the books I’ve read and the TV shows I’ve watched. But perhaps most of all, it’s influenced in rhythm, pacing and atmosphere by the music I listen to.
The idea for SHAG, the terrorist organization made up of youth-obsessed octogenarians in Immaculate Deception, emerged directly from my experiences with the Baby Boomers of Florence, S.C., who grew up dancing the shag to Stax and Motown R&B on the jukeboxes in Myrtle Beach nightclubs.
So in crafting the story itself, these songs stuck in my head and I imagined them playing along with certain scenes in the novel. The same went for the character of Eli, who at least appears as an elderly Rastafarian surfer. That necessitated some reggae.
So in my mind, along with imagining the scenes of the novel as if they were playing out onscreen, I also had musical accompaniment. What resulted was a full “soundtrack” for the entire work, from opening title sequence (Matthew Sweet’s “Divine Intervention”) to classic reggae (“Rivers of Babylon,” by the Melodians) to beach music legends (“Give Me Just Lil’ More Time” by Chairmen of the Board). For the full cinematic experience, you can listen to the complete soundtrack here.
It’s not only a great extra element for me as the author, but it serves the readers in much the same ways as book trailers or audio books do. A novel soundtrack – born from an author’s head and laid down in electrons like a globally connected mix tape – is a way for readers to add an extra dimension to their reading experience and perhaps build upon their enjoyment of the novel itself.
Lots of folks have been very kind in suggesting that Immaculate Deception would make a great (even blockbuster!) movie, and I’d be lying to you if I said I hadn’t imagined that it someday would make it to film. But in the meantime, the novel itself will have to do – with a little bit of appropriately cinematic music thrown in.