Tuesday, January 29, 2008

You can take the novelist out of TV, but can you take TV out of the novelist? (A note on Giles Blunt)

The jacket biography on Giles Blunt's The Delicate Storm says Blunt spent twenty years writing for television. Coincidentally, I found a blog post today that offers a harsh assessment of screenwriters who try to write novels:

"Many of them are not novelists. Now there are some excellent screenwriters who are also good authors, but making the transition from one medium to (the) other does not usually work.

"The agent, Mary Evans says, `Oftentimes, you shudder when a screenwriter has written a manuscript. Because they tend to be strong with dialogue but crappy with context … Screenwriters are attracted to novel writing because they can let their freak flag fly and just write what they want, but the truly talented novelist-slash-screenwriter is very rare.'"
None of this applies to Giles Blunt. For one thing, The Delicate Storm does an excellent job on mood and setting, which must be at least part of what Mary Evans means by context.

Still, two features of the novel remind me of television, and I suspect that at least one reflects Blunt's TV experience. Broadly speaking, the book is full of incident and potential subplots. More specifically, at least three dialogue passages are just that: all, or almost all, dialogue, with little or no reaction, as if they were lines from a script.

In one, protagonist John Cardinal, a local police officer, snaps at a young-looking Canadian intelligence officer named Squier who has become involved in a murder case. Here's part of the scene:

"You're with CSIS?"

"Canadian Security Intelligence Service," Musgrave said.

"I know who they are, thanks."

"That's right. I've been with them five years."

"They must have hired you when you were nine." Cardinal sat down in a sky-blue chair that creaked like a new show. He turned to Musgrave. "What's the deal here?"

"I'll let him tell you."

"Squier opened his briefcase and set a silvery laptop on the desk ..."
Look what happens here. Or rather, look what doesn't happen. Cardinal has insulted Squier, and Blunt indicates no reaction on Squier's part whatsoever, not even to say "Squier showed no reaction."

Elsewhere, Cardinal's colleague clashes so bitterly with a coroner that the two seem on the verge of at least a shouting match. A sarcastic remark from the coroner proceeds not to reaction on either his of the officer's part, but rather to some small bit of action (a police photographer taking picture of a shoe) before returning to coroner and officer at work, as if they had never argued.

The pattern repeats itself at least once more in the novel, which is neither good in itself nor bad. But it does contribute to the novel's distinctive texture, a texture I'd guess owes something to the author's other writing career.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Linkmeister said...

I'm not agreeing or disagreeing here, just interjecting something from my memory.

Internet bios of Robert Ludlum say he was an actor and producer before he became a novelist, but I remember (falsely?) that he said he'd been a screenwriter, an experience which contributed to his novels. His aren't particularly dialogue-heavy, and in fact I find a lot of his dialogue a little stilted.

January 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder what else, if anything, might characterize the fiction of a novelist who had also written for television or movies. Abrupt transitions, perhaps?

January 30, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was struck by the styling of Natural History by Neil Cross which I read recently - NZ Based author, has been a writer on Spooks (the BBC series) in particular, as well as written other books. But when reading Natural History I was constantly struck by the style of the book, which sort of read like a TV show in the way it was laid out, and done - almost in scenes. That's not to say that it didn't work as a book - it actually did, but the feel was there all the way through.

January 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Karen, that sounds like just the sort of things I suspected in Giles Blunt. What in particular about Neil Cross' writing reminded you of television? Were the scenes especially short or episodic, for instance?

January 30, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bit of a combination would be the best way to sum it up Peter. There was something episodic about the use of the varying viewpoints per chapter, each of those were little "stories" in their own right, but with quite a good teasing way of dragging you forward - not cliffhangers as such.

There's also a single main character who, "narrates" the story / ties it all together - that had a very TV sort of a star feel to it I guess.

It's worth a read as a book - definitely not a body up front style so if you like that then don't read it - but I thought it was pretty good (reviewed it on my site mid this month).

January 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

We appear once again to have been thinking along similar lines. Here's your review of Natural History.

January 31, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of something I read a literary agent once said, that screenwriters have a real problem with point-of-view when novel-writing.

February 01, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oops. You obviously knew already that I had posted comments about Giles Blunt. That agent was probably right. Point of view is such a basic, obvious and deliberate decision for a writer of fiction to make. Any basic fiction-writing course will deal with it in the first lesson or two.

I wonder how prominently it figures in the way screenwriters approach their craft.

February 02, 2008  

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