Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Editing reality

A short while ago I wrote a bit here about theatre being a collaborative process. I want to take the idea of collaboration a little further. In the comments on The Play’s the Thing, I said 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 Just Write, the book 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. 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 to note 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 several minutes and maybe much, much longer – 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. (By the way, this is a useful little exercise to get a class discussing how fiction works.) We’ll make it as basic as possible and write:

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

OK class, 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 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 leather 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 this stuff, it’s a joy to be doing something that lets us pretend there are meanings and significance somewhere and even to create our own. I won’t bleat on about this because it’s a point I made in a posting ages ago but isn’t it great that, out of scraps of experience which we’ve woven together, 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.


  1. Well said, Bill. Like the film editor who splices scenes together, we writers, especially those who write mystery/crime novels, have to be selective when planting clues and setting scenes so that the action isn't interrupted by too much "clutter." Each word should be chosen carefully.

  2. Bill. See you? You're dead good so you are.

  3. What can I say? I agree with both of you.