As you can see from the title, this one is a little less to do with novels, but it still has to do with stories, and that’s what we talk about here. We talk about tales and whilst I’m aiming to become an author, there was a time where I actually wanted to be a screenwriter. No matter the mediums, it’s still all about stories and characters and settings, and in this post, the point I’m going to make about cinema can translate to novels too.
As a writer, you have a few jobs; you have to make what you find interesting something other people find interesting; you have to convey your story in a convincing way; you have to spell things correctly and use the correct grammar; you have to make your characters likable, or at least engaging if you’re going for an unlikable protagonist. Most of the time, you also have to hide the devices you’re using. This means showing your foreshadowing in subtle ways, using the correct language to convey distress or excitement, utilising extended metaphors in convincing, sometimes imaginative ways to convey the images you want as well creating associations to specific settings with specific characters. There are lots of different story devices you can utilise to craft your story, and you often want them to be hidden, discreet.
Not all the time, of course. Sometimes you want to highlight your story devices for particular reasons. Maybe that’s to point out to your audience how clever your story is, or to say, look at how distracted you were by this plot point when you should have been thinking about this plot point! In terms of cinema, sometimes art cinema likes to highlight exactly the way it’s controlling your emotions or make evident the ways certain stories work to manipulate you. Cinema is a very clever medium, and art cinema can be even cleverer in the way it shows you the techniques of the medium at work.
This isn’t to say other modes of cinema don’t attempt the same thing, that they don’t try to show you how clever they are. Sometimes it can come across in a much more frustrating manner instead of feeling impressive, particularly when a film has a twist and it flashes back to show you all the things you might have missed. If you’re going to showboat how clever the writing is, you don’t need to spoon-feed at the same time; audiences are much cleverer than a lot of films give them credit for.
However, most fiction tales don’t want to show you how they’re manipulating your emotions and attention. This is because, arguably, when we don’t see the devices at work, stories come across as cleverer and are typically received much better. As an author, you hide these techniques where you can because you want to immerse the audience into the world you’ve created without showing them how you’re doing it.
That’s why blood on the camera is baffling. Some might call it a pet peeve of mine. I would call it a gripe with the film industry at its core. I could not fathom why you would want to remind an audience member that there is a camera separating you from the characters and settings. What reason could there be for highlighting that divide when you want your stories to be immersive?
Again, in certain circumstances, like art films, it can occur to remind you of the camera, to remind you of those devices trying to manipulate you in a certain way. Stories are all about manipulation, but it is the subtle manipulation that most fiction stories want to aim for. Why would you want to remind audiences that there is manipulation by pouring blood onto the camera?
I can excuse water, in some circumstances. In the barrel scene in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug because the camera goes beneath the water for a sense of immersion, when the camera breaks the surface, there’s inevitably going to be droplets there. I don’t know if the scene itself creates enough immersion for the technique to be wholly necessary, it’s not a theme park ride after all, but it’s there to try and help the story along. Blood on the camera, now what does that help?
It’s the same for video games, perhaps meant to be even more immersive than films. In films, we watch as characters play out decisions we have no impact over. In a lot of video games, we play as an avatar where we make decisions that impact the characters and the story. Blood on the screen only serves as a reminder that there is something separating you from the avatar. The avatar is really there to be an extension of your own self, it’s as immersive as a medium could be, even more so when you’re playing with a virtual reality headset, as nauseating as those experiences can sometimes be. By offering splatters of blood or water on the screen, you remove the player from that immersion.
In some ways, I can excuse VR. If you’re playing in that immersive way, looking from a first-person perspective, blood there perhaps may offer a sense of immersion because you’re meant to be in the world and if something is spattering blood in a setting where you exist, obviously, blood is going to get on you. Again, like the barrel scene, I don’t know if it ends up being more jarring than immersive. The blood doesn’t sit on your face but on a screen, and surely that creates a disconnect between you and the characters you’re inhabiting. In settings that want to offer the 4D experience like some cinemas have attempted and often in certain theme parks, again, the sensation is surely meant to be more immersive. At the minute, I don’t know if the technology is really there, if the movement of your seats makes you feel nauseous or disconnected or if the spray of water from a 3D dragon honestly makes you feel like you’re there. In these instances, I can excuse the use of liquids being spattered onto the screen because, arguably, it can create a further sense of immersion, and that’s what we really want our fiction stories to do.
Stories are there to grip us, whether that is video games, films, or novels. When we see what devices are there, they loosen their grip. Obviously, in certain circumstances, reminding us of the devices can shock us, but when they appear in the midst of a story and we see blood splattered on the screen, it can certainly be a shock, but often for entirely the wrong reasons.
Blood on the screen does not only remind us that there is a screen; it also reminds us of the camera, which then reminds us of the camera crew, then of the directors, and then that the characters we are seeing are merely actors who could be on location or in a studio with a built set. Therefore, it takes us out of the story, it doesn’t pull us further in.
Stories are also often about escapism. During times of stress and panic, we turn to stories so we can escape our reality. You only have to look at the surge in cinema admissions during World War 2 or the peak in consuming video games during the pandemic to see that, when our reality is difficult, we turn to fiction to alleviate those stresses. Even just a couple of hours away from what plagues us can totally lighten our mood. When we throw in reminders that these things we watch or read are just a story (by perhaps splattering blood all over the camera), that immersion that might offer some levity can quickly disperse. If audiences are engaging with a story to escape, why would we want to remind them of the reality in which these stories were made?
The power of subtlety is undeniable. If our foreshadowing is too obvious, it can ruin the twist or revelation (though we also want our foreshadowing to be somewhat noticeable so readers/audience members can feel rewarded if they guessed at it beforehand. Don’t get me started on shock value or twists for the sake of complication that hold no basis in what has been told before it. That’s a topic for another day). For authors, if your language isn’t utilised advantageously, then your audience won’t feel what you want them to feel. Short sentences for action can quicken the pace, making everything feel fast and decisive. Changing up the use of ‘said’ can make you really understand how a character is conveying dialogue, but change ‘said’ too often and it can feel cluttered and clumsy. Overusing ellipses or exclamation marks can remove their impact. If you put blood on the camera, you remind the audience this is but a story and the immersion is destroyed.
Let’s think, for a moment, about the device of putting blood on the camera, what purpose creators might think it serves. It can highlight brutality in characters’ actions or serve to tell us that whoever was just stabbed or kicked or crushed is actually dead. If the blood is of a different colour than to what we expected, it can tell us that whatever the protagonists are fighting isn’t human. I won’t deny that there are devices within spattering liquids onto the camera, but I think they serve more negative functions than positive ones. We don’t need the camera to be covered in blood for us to think a character is acting brutally if we can see this conveyed in other ways. In fact, covering the character themselves in blood can be a pretty obvious sign of brutality. If we see a dead body or perhaps a pool of blood on the floor, this can also tell us that the person is dead. Blood can be found elsewhere in a different colour to show us if the creature is human or not. Whatever function is served by having blood put on the camera can almost definitely be utilised in other ways to reach the same goals without removing us from the moment in doing so.
Obviously art cinema, documentaries, and found footage films are different. These are also immersive forms of cinema, and when there’s blood on the screen of a found footage film, that serves an entirely different purpose without removing us from the story, and that’s because the camera in a found footage film is a part of the story. The story wouldn’t exist without that camera. In fact, you could even argue the camera is a character itself in this specific genre. Blood there serves a function that offers immersion, not a disconnect.
But in other forms of fiction cinema, we don’t want to know there is a camera. It’s not that audiences can be fooled into thinking the camera was never there to begin with, it’s more that we want audiences to be immersed in this story, we want them to forget about devices, story manipulation, the hundreds of people it can take to make a film. As a member of the audience, we don’t want to know about the camera crew, the directors, the actors, the set designers, we want to know about the characters and their settings. If we remind them that this was all filmed by various members of the crew, it removes us from the immersion of a story, and I cannot fathom why you would ever want to do that.
Like I said, sometimes you want your audience to see the story devices for a multitude of reasons. In that case, go ahead, show them how clever your story can be. But if you want total immersion, hide those devices wherever you can. If a character does kill another, think about what kind of message it sends if you splatter their blood all over the screen; does it create immersion or does it actually remove the audience from the story? Is that something you really want to do? If not, finding a way to hide those devices can often make your story subtler, and subtlety in storytelling is power.