It’s easy to forget what art used to look like. We have only had videogames for about forty years. We have only had film for just over a century. Even novels are a relatively new artform when compared to other forms of expression. We have had music and painting for far longer than we have had long narratives. We can trace the genealogy of literature to the narratives told in cave paintings and songs and to epic poetry. As such, it is important to remember that we as a species are predisposed toward stories with visual and auditory components. What can we as writers take in from other art forms, whether we practice them or not? What can practicing and trying out these forms do for our writing?
The first storytelling was visual. Cave paintings became carvings. Carvings became tapestries. Urns and pots were frequently inscribed with scenes. Now we have comic books and films and as such, we get visual stimuli with a lot of our narratives. Many of our comics writers are also artists. Directors like David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Tim Burton are also painters. Alan M. Clark, an acclaimed horror artist I know is also a fantastic author of morbid, fascinating historical fictional. Just as Lynch and Burton turn their skilled eye to storytelling, so too does Alan turn his attention to aesthetics, detail and scenemaking to his fiction. If you watch a film by Lynch or Burton or look at a painting or read a book by Alan, we get a richer sensory experience than we would in the hands of an artist who doesn’t pay attention to the eye. When we’re writing we should remember this. We don’t just need to let readers experience the scene but to find interesting things inside it, to build sets and create captivating details and images that are not necessarily one hundred percent relevant to the understanding of the story.
Visual details are extremely important in fiction. But we shouldn’t forget the ear. Writing might seem like a visual medium since mostly when we read, we do so quietly and relate to the text with our eyes. This is not entirely so. The rhythm and cadence of our language changes our experience as readers. Before there were novels and short stories, there were poems, before there were poems with our songs. We read with our ears. The rhythms and line lengths of a piece change how we relate to it. A long, plodding, monotonous sentence that seems to have no conclusion in sight, one that does not give the reader much time for respite is one that will instill in the reader a sense of lethargy or tension or a desire to either put down the text in hand or to skip ahead and hopefully reach a point at which the language begins to move at a crisper and more organic pace which creates a sense of immediacy and urgency and presence in the situation. See what I did there? That long, plodding interminable sentence provides you with the information but you really want it to end. The rhythm of short, sharp sentences does the opposite. You write. The scene seems to be progressing too slowly. The fight scene doesn’t seem urgent enough. You shorten your line lengths. The story speeds up. The readers eyes progress faster through the page, the voice in their head reading it speeds up. The action happens quicker. Rhythm is your friend.
As a poet and singer/songwriter, I see the importance of keeping your ear attuned. A lot of writer neglect the sound of their prose and the rhythm of it because they don’t stop to listen. This can sometimes create an emotional disconnect or prose that plods and is less pleasing to the reader. Remember what the poet, the songwriter and the painter know about storytelling and mood. You can take that with you. A story with nothing for the mind’s eye and ear won’t stand out for readers and might be harder for you to write because you lose your emotional connection with it. Read out loud. Tap out your sentences. Your readers and editors will be grateful if you do.
Speaking of music, I have an ulterior motive for this post but not a particularly sinister one. My songwriter partner Wick Hill and I just dropped our second album Things That Can Never Happen Again. You can listen to it or download it here. I sing on three tracks and was involved in the writing of almost all songs. You can see in this how songwriting and poetry can inspire and inform a writer and editor’s ear. You can also buy it because we worked hard on that shit.