Friday, July 24, 2015

Medium Displacement 101

First, news: after talking it over with my family, we're changing our vacation plans slightly.  I'll still be gone two weeks, but it'll be starting the weekend of the 8th, not the first.

What does this mean?  First, if you want to submit a guest post, you now have until the 5th of August to do so--details are back here.  I have enough commitments to get along, but this is a "more is better" situation.  Well, unless I get fifteen new offers or something, but the point, is, if you were thinking about doing one, the opportunity's still open and I love to share your work.  Also, it means I'll definitely be able to take part in this month's write-off!  Go me.

Now, on to today's babblings.  The topic du jour is one I've been asked about recently: how to tell if your story should be something other than a story--and what to do about it.

"Medium displacement" is a phrase I've used more than a couple of times when describing fics.  Essentially, it boils down to saying that something would work better in a medium other than the one it's being conveyed in.  Let me give you an example:

The man walked up to the newspaper clerk, with a galloping gait ending in an aborted hop.  He shook the clerk's hand.  "The Times, please," he said, placing some coins on the counter. 
"Oh yes sir, here you are," said the clerk, grabbing the paper and offering it to the man.   
"Thank you," the man said, the second word coming out a bit heavier as he turned and tucked the paper under his arm.  The clerk muttered something vaguely affirmative, and the man lifted his leg backwards, turning as he did so so that it ultimately came out to his side, high as his waist.  Turning his foot until it was facing straight up rather than parallel to the ground, he took an exaggerated second step and headed out onto the street.
Now, compare that description to the first ten seconds of Monty Python's famous Ministry of Silly Walks sketch.

It should be obvious that the video is a lot better than the three paragraphs you just read, and not just because the Pythons did it first.  In the text, the action is difficult to follow, and the main joke--that the man is walking in a silly way--is obscured by the different ways in which that first sentence could be read.  "A galloping gait" could, and probably would, be interpreted nonliterally, as the author trying to convey a sense of hurriedness.  Then, when you get to the third paragraph, an over-technical description of the motions avoids that problem, but introduces a new one: over-explaining.  There's so much detail about the movement of this man's leg that it's confusing in and of itself!  That passage above is an example of something that works a lot better on camera than in text.

This is an issue that often crops up in fanfics which aim for "show-tone."  While trying to emulate the style of the show is a perfectly valid thing for an author to do, with it comes the temptation to utilize visual gags, auditory cues, and other medium-specific shorthand that just doesn't translate well to text.  One instance that struck me enough that I can still remember it off the top of my head came in Niaeruzu's Thrown Abroad, a perfectly not-bad story which I reviewed here.  If you want to read it, go to chapter 7 and start reading from the phrase "In the distance, he could hear Apple Bloom say something" (context: "he" is a changeling pretending to be a pony named Suncloak, he's having some self-disguise problems which he's masking with said cloak, and he currently has a ball stuck in one of the holes in his leg which the CMC are helping him "look for").

Otherwise, let's talk about the issue here: the author is trying to make a joke relying on separate action in the foreground and background (the latter being represented by speech only).  This is pretty common in film and TV, where you can place the foreground characters closer to the camera than the background ones, and even keep the background characters out of focus or out of shot.  It's also regularly seen (well, heard) on radio, where volume and muffling can create the "effect" of one set of voices being much closer than the other.  In either case, this can be used to effectively show the audience two things at once, which may be related or completely separate.

In text, this doesn't work because there is no "foreground" and "background."  Whatever the writer is describing is the foreground, and so the effect in that passage of Thrown Abroad (lest anyone get the wrong idea, that fic does have other medium displacement issues, but none nearly so glaring as the one I'm focusing on here) is to feel unfocused and even a bit disorienting, rather than like a smooth juxtaposition.

So, now that we've spent all this space talking about examples of medium displacement, how does one fix it?  Well, the important thing to remember is that there are a nearly limitless number of ways to present any scene, so there's almost always a way to present something that plays to the strengths of the written word, rather than to those of some other form of communication.  Take the example from Thrown Abroad: the idea "Applejack and Rarity talk about Suncloak while he gets dragged around and abused by Winona" is a perfectly good one; since narrative focus doesn't really give us a "background" to work with, we could play it as two "A" plots, with point-of-view cuts every couple of paragraphs.  Alternately, we could use the most powerful tool in a writer's arsenal--the reader's imagination--and simply skip from Suncloak wondering who Winona is to the girls' conversation, with him showing up battered and slobbered on at the appropriate moment.  Readers are good at filling in those kinds of details; often, what they imagine is something funnier than what the author can come up with!

Or go back to that novelization-in-progress of Silly Walks.  Leaving aside for a moment whether that's something there needs to be a written-word version of in the first place, it failed because it aimed to precisely communicate the mechanics of that first piece of the sketch.  Trying to communicate mechanics in an impossible-to-misunderstand manner is something that is remarkably difficult to do in writing (you would think otherwise, but one only needs to look at the market for instruction-writing, and the many failures it produces, to see how true that is), but which can be conveyed visually as easily as, well, doing it.  Where writing excels, on the other hand, is in creating vivid imagery rather than specific images.  What if that first sentence had read, "The man approached the newspaper stand in much the same manner as an American in Tijuana, having ignored all admonitions not to drink the water, might approach the lone port-a-john on a public beach."

...Okay, clearly I shouldn't quit my day job.  But even if that isn't the most wonderful sentence ever written, it's still a thousand times more effective than "The man walked up to the newspaper clerk, with a galloping gait ending in an aborted hop."  It's not more effective because it's more precise, but because it gives the reader the context to imagine how the man walked, rather than trying to detail the literal movements.  Rather than try to recreate the exact effect someone else did in another medium, it uses its medium's tools to try to communicate the same meaning.

In the end, "medium displacement" isn't about subject matter.  You can have Michael Bay-levels of explosive violence, Loony Tunes-levels of slapstick, or anything else in your story, and it can work.  The important thing is to remember to write those explosions and slapstick for a reader--not a listener or viewer.


  1. Ended up reading this in John Cleese's voice. It was very disorienting

  2. This was actually very eye-opening.

  3. Instructions unclear. Wrote a NY Times best selling souffle. Composed a nature documentary. No longer able to get palms read. What do?

    1. If it's a NY Times best-seller... I'd say keep souffle-ing!

  4. "You can have Michael Bay-levels of explosive violence"

    It's true.

  5. That's a really good term. I've noticed the phenomenon of course, it's something that pops up in the way when I'm trying to read from time to time, but that's the first term I've heard for it. Will be trying to remember it for future reference.

  6. Gonna be linking to this in one of my blog posts because it is a good explanation of something I see people mess up on a fair bit. Taking advantage of the medium you're using is important; directly translating from one to another tends not to work as well.