Sunday, April 17, 2016

Screen or Page?

Now that I have a Netflix account (thanks to my daughter's insistence), it's easy to select a movie and watch it in the chair where I used to spend all my time reading.

So much of my day is often spent online--not just writing but reading news articles and longer journals, posting updates on Facebook, Tweeting, sending and receiving e-mail--that it’s no longer surprising to me how comfortable I feel with a screen in my hand, or that, instead of picking up a book after dinner, I’ll pick up my tablet and open my Netflix account and begin watching.

The thirst for a story is the same. I want to lose myself in the experiences and adventures of another person. But the way that I get into a story onscreen through images and sounds is far different from the way I get into a story on a page that's told through typewritten words and the white, silent spaces of a book.

Lately I've started wondering if I’m taking the easy (lazy?) way. Is watching a story unfold on a screen somehow easier than reading a story? And I wonder, as well, how might the two experiences be different, and if those of us getting our stories through movies might be losing something essential by spending more of our time on screen than with a book in our hands? But I’ve also been asking myself if getting stories from the screen might give me a different understanding of stories and how to tell them.

One of the advantages of watching a movie versus reading a book is that I can learn the entire story in roughly two hours or less. A book simply takes much longer to read than it takes to watch a movie. And seeing the story whole, from start to finish, in such a short period of time gives me an understanding of the story’s structure that’s far different from the way I’d come to understand the same story if I read it in incremental chapters over, say, days or weeks. I can view the entire story, not just a limited part of it, almost instantly.

But the disadvantage is that I'll lose the slower pace of the story, as well as the sound of a narrator’s voice in my ear, and the chance to imagine the scenes and characters and action on my own, without the assistance of a director, casting department, costume designer, or sound stage to fill the scenes in for me.

Reading a story, unlike watching a movie, offers my imagination a chance to translate a story from words into pictures. Without a production company camped in my brain, I have to do the heavy lifting myself. Words have to accurately convey color, size, texture, sound—a feast for the senses—but without the actual sounds or colors or textures available, I have to imagine them from the words the author has selected to prompt the images that will appear in my mind.

Plus, as a reader, I feel as if I place myself in direct contact with the original story, while, as a viewer of movies, I occupy a slightly different relationship to the story, not so much as an outsider, but not exactly in direct contact with the story in the same way as I am when reading it. Instead, I must rely on a director’s or actor’s interpretation of the story, which means I’m getting a second-hand view of the story, an interpretation of the story and the author’s vision rather than the story alone. Sometimes such interpretations can deepen one’s understanding of a story. But sometimes they simply stand between the viewer and the story, creating a distance that can be hard, if not impossible, to overcome.

It’s true that actors can imbue a story with an extra layer of meaning, one that they bring to the story through their deep understanding of their role in the story. We can watch the expression in their eyes, a look of surprise or disdain, or we can notice how their lips form the hint of a smile, or perhaps a smirk, and from these physical features, all carefully timed and planned, we may be able to deduce how they feel as the characters who they are intending to portray accurately. But this is a different process entirely from reading a sentence in which the author uses words to describe a certain character’s emotional state, or else alludes to a reason for a character's motivating behavior.

A writer can benefit from finding stories in any form, but there are limitations to these forms, both page and screen, and learning these limitations, understanding how film and books differ in terms of narrative art, can help us make our own stories more compelling whether we are writing a novel or a screenplay.

What’s your preference—screen or page? And why? Let us know if you get a chance.