The Mathematics of Writing: All Art Forms Are Not Created Equal

Over the years, I’ve been called upon to move a story from one art form into another—to novelize a movie or play, to write a screenplay based on a story. I’ve based songs on stories and stories on songs or collections of songs. In fact, the very first attempt I made at a novel that wasn’t basically Trek fan fiction, was based on a mix tape I made that, in my mind, formed an outline for a cohesive story. It contained songs like Rush’s “A Farewell to Kings”, Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell”, Styx’s “Too Much Time on My Hands”, and Rainbow’s “Gates of Babylon.” 

But I digress. The point is that this repurposing of elements has made me think long and hard about the differences and similarities between various art forms and to ponder why, for example, a play cannot be rendered word-for-word into a short story, or why every scene in a novel can’t end up in the movie based on it. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words; that is the mathematics of writing in a nutshell: Picture = 1000 x Words.

I write back and forth between lyric, poetry, script, and prose and have had to learn that what I put into a song that emerges from a story or a story that’s inspired by a song are different because of the sometimes radically different elements they employ. It helps to remember that songs and prose vary widely as vehicles for ideas, concepts, action, and emotion purely because of the tools they provide.

To give an example: when you write a song or stage a musical, you have the tonal, rhythmic and dynamic elements of music and the visual element of acting to get deep or complex emotions across instantaneously. Those change the equation. Maybe it’s now Picture + Music + Acting = 5,000 x Words. 

You don’t have those sensory tools or their instantaneousness in prose, but what you DO have is a palette of words that have meaning, mood, rhythm, meter, weight, and even sound. Plus, you can get in behind the characters’ eyes, behind their emotions, and describe what they are feeling and thinking. As Somerset Maugham put it: “Words have weight, sound and appearance; it is only by considering these that you can write a sentence that is good to look at and good to listen to.” I’d add that these qualities are also what allows you to write sentences that convey meaning and sensory information.

When I write novelizations of film productions I’ve learned to start with essential questions: What vital quality or idea am I trying to convey in this scene / in this dialogue / in this narrative? What mood or emotions am I trying to evoke? What qualities do my words need to have to do that?

If I’m trying to capture a potent, highly visual moment from a stage play or a film, it’s inevitably necessary to add or restructure dialogue to give that moment impact in prose. It’s also necessary to add narration to take the place of visual or sub-textual elements such as setting, facial expressions, body language, musical cues. Music in film plays such a crucial role in evoking the emotions the creators want that calling it “incidental music” trivializes its power. If you doubt me, watch any of the Lord of the Rings movies and listen to how Howard Shore weaves themes and motifs for characters, places, and moods together to accentuate what’s happening in each scene. (For a completely different experience, watch the movie Ladyhawk, then tell me you weren’t jarred a bit by the anachronistic music every time it, erm, inserted itself into the film.) 

The writer must work with the knowledge that things viewers can see and listeners can hear must now be rendered in an art form that is silent. The writer’s job is to choose the right words and prose rhythms and intensities to create imagery and sound (and other sensory phantoms) in the reader’s mind. Or, as Ursula LeGuin commented, the writer’s job is “to put into words what cannot be put into words.”

In any art form, the ideas you’re trying to convey are the essence of the creative piece; moving that piece from music and acting to prose that sits silently and unmoving on the page forces you to use different modes of expression to create a scene that is as impactful on the page as it is on the screen. There is one of those moments in the Return of the King’s Battle of Pelennor Fields, in which Eowyn responds to the Witch King of Angmar’s taunt that he cannot be killed by any man. Whether you’re reading it or watching it, the moment she tears off her helmet and proclaims, “I am no man” is tingle-inducing. I think, in part, it’s because the scene is tightly focused and the action is simple.

The battle in which that scene takes place, though, finds its most potent effect in film where music, action, and sweeping cinematography allow the viewer to grasp the scope and magnitude of the battle in a glance. That quality is impossible to capture in writing simply because the tools (words) are like stitches in a tapestry that must be made one at a time before an entire visual image can be built. What is visually striking and instantly perceived on film cannot be so swiftly grasped in prose. 

Naturally, this means that choosing the right color of thread for your stitches and knowing where to place them is essential if you’re trying to give your reader an appreciation of the “big picture” using as few stitches as possible.

When I saw the first Harry Potter movie, I was struck by how perfectly they had rendered Olivander’s Wand Shop. It was exactly as I’d pictured it when I read the book. I thought J.K. Rowling surely must have described the shop in great detail. I went back to the book and checked. Nope. She did not indulge in exacting detail, she had simply chosen a few well-placed observations and my imagination did the rest.

That’s a writer’s challenge—to give the reader’s imagination enough information to bring the literary world to life. Naturally, this means that the writer has to be able to visualize the settings and the characters acting within those settings so richly and transfer them to the page so vividly that the reader’s imagination can have a field day.  

That right there, that exercise of imagination, is why I read fiction. I daresay it’s why most of us do. 

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1 thought on “The Mathematics of Writing: All Art Forms Are Not Created Equal”

  1. It is also true, of course, that a word is sometimes worth a thousand pictures. Take an 18-year-old (born circa 2004), put them in front of their first computer, with Microsoft Word open, and see how long it takes them to figure out that the strange square icon means “save this document”. Chances are good they’ll find the menu “Save” command (word) first, or end up relying on the “save” tool-tip (word) attached to the rather inscrutable icon.[1]

    [1] Granted, as someone who grew up in the era of floppy discs, I don’t find it inscrutable, but trying to find a picture that conveys “save the state of this document” nearly as well as the word “save” is a difficult thing.

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