I’m currently re-reading On Writing, Stephen King’s blunt, intimate account of his writing career and philosophy. It’s a perennial favorite of mine, half-autobiography and half-style guide.
His definition of writing was transformative when I first read it almost ten years ago. “What Writing Is,” he declares:
Telepathy, of course.
He’s right. But I think it only applies to words on a page/screen.
There’s a theory in neurolinguistics (which I am no expert in) which states that language is closely tied to our thinking patterns. Polyglots will exhibit different neural scans when thinking in different languages. So, speak a different language, think differently.
But what about other media of storytelling? Audio, like print, relies on language to convey story, but also carries some non-verbal cues such as the voice actor’s accent and musical segues. Still, it’s pretty close to King’s idea of telepathy.
Visual media are an entirely different story. Consider theater. Different productions of MacBeth vary in production design, performance, and overall scope. A high school production will look very different from a film adaptation starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard (which is actually happening, and yes I’m excited), and neither will look like what I imagine when I read the script myself.
Humans have some hard-wired behavior in response to visual stimuli. For example, we’re very good at recognizing faces and evolutionary dangers such as snakes. Beyond that, how we visualize concepts such as “a black chair” or “the setting sun” will vary based on our unique experience. (King uses a description of a white rabbit to illustrate this in On Writing.)
While the skeleton of storytelling is the same in both visual and non-visual media (plot, character, theme), the surface mechanics are quite different. I’d argue that there are stories that are only suited for one medium and not another, because some stories simply need a certain aspect of a medium for it to work. MacBeth needs the performance of a stable of actors, either real or imagined, for it to function. Stephen King’s fiction, including my favorites IT and The Stand, relies on the reader pulling the darkest images from their own subconscious, which film simply can’t do. It needs the telepathic aspect of prose fiction to function.
So the next time you’re disappointed in a film adaptation of a favorite book, just remember. What’s in your head is what counts.