Silence and filmic prose

Gregory Heath

Introduction: visual silence

Writing filmically involves both a state of mind on the part of the writer and an acknowledgement that (amongst other things) the reader’s ‘mind’s eye’ can be likened to an ‘inner movie camera’, obliged to view the scenes presented to it in certain prescribed ways. When writing in a consciously filmic manner the author is actively directing the imagination, rather than simply leaving it to its own devices. Should a reader encounter a sentence such as, ‘The dam wall was huge and intimidating, casting a permanent shadow over the two farms, the coal yard and the seven cottages beneath it’, for example, it is to be presumed that the picture created in their mind is the equivalent to what in cinematic terms would be an extreme long shot. ‘Kate sat in an armchair, sewing labels into a new school uniform’ would be the equivalent of a medium shot. ‘A look of horror crept into his eyes’ would be the equivalent of a close-up, and so on.

The human imagination is infinitely more flexible (and unruly, and unpredictable) than a movie camera, of course, and this analogy therefore has its limitations, but a writer can nevertheless benefit a great deal from thinking about their work in this way: as an approach it lends a clarity of vision. Not all authors utilise this filmic approach, though, by any means; many of today's most successful fiction writers have a tendency to present long passages of prose, even entire novels, in what might be thought of as unremitting medium shots. (Charles Dickens, on rhe other hand, who died before the term 'filmic writing' could even exist, wrote very ‘filmically’ indeed.) That said, this chapter proposes that an awareness and appreciation of a variety of filmic techniques, in conjunction with the notion of silence, can be put to very good use in the production of high-quality prose.

Silence and cinematography

Having introduced the idea of the mind’s eye as a camera, let us proceed with the concept of cinematography (camerawork) as applied to a piece of fiction by Ian McEwan, an author who consistently employs it in his writing, sometimes very subtly and sometimes much more overtly. On the very first page of his novel Enduring Love, describing the immediate aftermath of a horrific hot air balloon accident, McEwan’s narrator tells us that:

I see us from three hundred feet up, through the eyes of the buzzard we had watched earlier ... five men running silently towards the centre of a hundred acre field.

(McEwan 1997, 1)

Note that the supposed silence in this passage is artificially constructed by the implied physical distance of an aerial shot from 300 feet up, which brings with it in turn an emotional distance, a sense of detachment. Here, the narrator is self-aware enough to recognise this, going on to recall (2) that this aerial viewpoint brought‘a comforting geometry ... the knowable, limited plane of the snooker table’ (an intriguing if ultimately unsuccessful psychological defence mechanism).

Likewise, any reader encountering the enforced distance and silence of an aerial or extreme long shot in any piece of work is likely to conjure this feeling of detachment. Picture, if you will, a lone figure walking through a vast open landscape, and ask yourself how they are feeling. Ask other people to do the same. What you will find, more often than not, is an assumption that the character is emotionally troubled in some way, so readily does the shot imbue its subject with a sense of isolation.

Now consider how Elizabeth Bowen employs ‘camera movement’ in conjunction with silence in her hypnotic World War 2 short story ‘Mysterious Kor’. As we shall see, Bowen begins with the ‘camera’ high above London, then in stages brings it closer and closer in to the scene and her characters.

First, we have the establishing shot of London, which combined with the absence of sound (reinforced so effectively with her references to the moon, that most silent of all places) creates an eerie and slightly magical atmosphere, despite the grim reality of war that the city is facing:

Full moonlight drenched the city and searched it; there was not a niche left to stand in. London looked like the moon’s capital - shallow, cratered, extinct. It was late, but not yet midnight; now the buses had stopped the polished roads and streets in this region sent for minutes together a ghostly unbroken reflection up ... The futility of the black-out became laughable: from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roofs, every whited kerb, every contour of the naked winter flowerbeds in the park.

(Bowen 1944, in Bradbury 1988, 32)

Note here how the phrase ‘from the sky ... you could see’ serves to place the reader firmly behind the lens. Then, as Bowen slips into second person proper, the camera closes in somewhat and a more naturalistic tone begins to emerge:

Outside the now gateless gates of the park, the road coming downhill from the north-west turned south and became a street, down whose perspective the traffic lights went through their unmeaning performance of changing colour. From the promontory of pavement outside

Silence and filmic prose 137 the gates you saw at once up the road and down the street: from behind where you stood, between the gate posts, appeared the lesser strangeness of grass and water and trees. (32)

The reference here to the traffic lights’ ‘unmeaning performance’ serves to maintain and reinforce the quietness of the night at this point, before the camera closes in further still to introduce the scene’s inhabitants: three French soldiers in search of a hotel they cannot find, a couple of wardens coming off duty, and finally two of the story’s main characters:

a girl and a soldier who, by their way of walking, seemed to have no destination but each other and to be not quite certain even of that. Blotted into one shadow, he tall, she little, these two proceeded towards the park. They looked in, but did not go in; they stood there debating without speaking. Then, as though a command from the street behind them had been received by their synchronised bodies, they faced round to look back the way they had come. (23)

Finally, still before a word has been spoken to break the silence, the gradual homing in is complete and the first close up arrives as:

His look up the height of a building made his head drop back, and she saw his eyeballs glitter. (23)

The density of detail in Bowen’s story, with its clear, concrete descriptions, serves her purpose well, but it is worth remembering too that sometimes an absence of clarity, in conjunction with silence, can be just as useful to a writer. Let us cut, for example, to an ominous establishing shot from Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Heart Goes Last. In a lawless, dangerous world, Atwood’s protagonist Stan is trying to find his estranged brother, and it is the lack of focus, as it were, that lends the shot its sense of potential threat:

Stan tries Conor’s last known address, a boarded-up bungalow on a street that’s only semi-inhabited. There might be faces looking out of the windows, there might not. Possibly they’re only tricks of the light.

(Atwood 2015, 19)

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