(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Jurassic Park.)
I love me a good action movie. Tense standoffs, well-choreographed brawls, car chases that make me go, “Oh, shit!”… I just eat it up. But you can definitely have too much of a good thing. No matter how much you love a given food, if you eat nothing but you’re going to get sick of it. As great as action is, it needs context for us to be able to care, and if it’s unrelenting, it overwhelms us and causes us to tune out. This is the mistake of a movie like King Kong, where everything ran twice as long as it should have been, to the point where I’m checking my watch during a fight between a giant gorilla and a dinosaur.
So speaking of dinosaurs, let’s check out a movie that understands that good pacing is a balance between crazy high-powered action and quiet character moments. YouTube ahoy!
Now, Jurassic Park isn’t an action movie in the shooty explody sense; some of its greatest moments of tension are in the frozen terror rather than the running and screaming. (“He can’t see us if we don’t move” is bad science, but very, very good cinema.) Things go steadily south as treacherous code monkey Nedry enacts his plan to shut down the park and steal the embryos, until we get to the midpoint and the T-Rex busts out and wrecks shit up. The next several scenes show the characters trying to evade and survive, until everyone still standing has found a place to hunker down for the night.
If you can’t watch the scene above, Hammond is eating ice cream (which is melting, since the freezers are off), and he tells Ellie about the flea circus he used to operate. Up until this point, Hammond has been the smooth showman, more concerned with getting his park open than with the danger it represents and the people who’ve been injured and killed. But here, he gives us a little explanation for his obsession, and in that moment, he’s vulnerable and human in a way he hasn’t been even when shit is headed fanwards.
More importantly, he’s still hanging onto the obsession until Ellie directly calls him on it. She has to remind him that the safety of their loved ones–remember, it’s his grandchildren and her boyfriend still out in the park–is more important than even his lifelong dream. It’s a pivotal moment for Hammond’s character, the first time he’s forced to seriously consider that he might not be able to salvage this project. The scene ends with a sad echo of his proud refrain: “We spared no expense.”
Hammond’s meeting with Ellie is flanked by two scenes of Dr. Grant and the kids, first reaching a safe place to sleep and then waking up and interacting with the brachiosaurus. As with Hammond’s scene, this provides a significant character moment, showing Grant’s growing connection to the two children (symbolically represented by him dropping the raptor claw fossil he’d used to antagonize the brat at the Badlands dig). Of course the audience saw how far he was willing to go to save Lex and Tim from the T-Rex, but the scene in the tree is the first time Grant himself has had the chance to stop and think about what he’s doing and what it means.
It might seem odd to have this fairly lengthy interlude in the middle of an action movie, but it’s really quite necessary. As I touched on in my discussion of Paper Towns, we’re just not capable of sustaining fear for very long; our baselines readjust because otherwise our hearts would explode. This lull gives both characters and audience a chance to make that readjustment after the devastation of the T-Rex attack. It lets the characters process the events and deal with their reactions, and it helps remind the audience of what’s at stake by reintroducing the characters as rounded people after they’ve spent the last few scenes as screaming dino chow. And, of course, there’s the narrative convenience of letting us skip ahead to the next morning, because daytime shoots are cheaper and easier.
Contrast is an extremely useful tool in the writing arsenal, establishing patterns and providing context the reader can use to derive meaning. Without some moments of quiet, the loud whizbang action just isn’t as effective.
(No spoiler disclaimers this time, but disclaimer link anyway for swearing.)
I don’t much talk about my own writing here, because honestly, I’m unpublished so no one gives a shit. (I do occasionally broach the topic on my Google+ page if you’re so inclined.) However, I had an experience a little while back that seems relevant.
I was working on a second-world fantasy dealing with multiple cultures, and though I’d done some initial brainstorming about the setting, I went ahead and started on the first scene. A page or two in, one character said “damn.”
A little voice popped up in my head. The pedant. The one who will spend hours on various websites to ensure that a character is getting coffee in the right place. The one that demands a level of logic and consistency that makes my preference for writing spec fic seem rather masochistic. “You can’t use that,” the pedant said. “You don’t have Christianity.”
“Bloody hell,” I said.
“Nope!” it replied with irritating cheer. “Christian-derived, twice over.”
“Son of a bitch!”
“That one–” The pedant paused thoughtfully. “Huh. Actually, that one’s okay.”
Most profanity falls into two categories: obscenities such as fuck, shit, and piss, and blasphemies such as hell and damn. The former category tends to be seen as a stronger sort of swearing (although this is a somewhat new development in English). So basically, if I want my gruff mentor figure to express mild irritation, I have to work out his whole system of theology first. And did I mention that this is multicultural? Yup, that means I’ll have to figure out three distinct religions just so people can talk normally. This is why I drink, people.
Of course, all manner of slang, obscene or otherwise, is baked deeply in our culture and doesn’t always translate to other worlds. (Hell, idioms and slang can be problematic even in English.) Localized slang can be a great way to add depth to your world-building, letting us feel like these are real people in a place with real history and culture. I just tend to focus on the swears because I have a potty mouth, which often bleeds over into my characters.
And invented swears can be especially beneficial to the kidlit crowd, since there’s a certain breed of parent who gets the vapors and gets you pulled from the shelves over the slightest hint of salt in the dialogue. You’ve got everything from “stars” as a mild oath in The Lunar Chronicles, to “d’arvit” as a very much not mild oath in the Artemis Fowl books. Although this can be a fine line to walk; I personally gave up after 100 pages or so of The Maze Runner because I couldn’t take it anymore. In theory it was a good way to maintain a gritty feel without getting banhammered, but in practice they sounded like goddamn kindergartners. But that might have just been me.
As for the blasphemies, fantasy stories largely go the polytheist route, although funnily enough, it’s somewhat rare for this created religion to be referenced by any means other than swearing. Some even have the concept of hell and damnation, so hey, I could go that route and tell my inner pedant to piss off.
But the point is that I have to decide what route I’m going. The world around us is shaped by thousands of tiny details that have grown out of the collective experiences of millions who have come before, and in speculative fiction, those thousands of tiny details are all your responsibility. This can be equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. It will pop up when you least expect it, and can really throw you off your stride if you’re not prepared. But if you don’t address those concerns, it can throw your readers out of the story.
So listen to the inner pedant. The little fucker usually has a point.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, book flavor.)
Considering how haphazard my planning for the month has been (M’s post was written way back in January, while this one is coming to you from the far-distant land of two days ago), it’s a bit funny how thing seem to be lining up. Yesterday’s post talked about how writing in first-person can present certain problems. But going in the opposite direction isn’t guaranteed smooth sailing, either.
“Head-hopping” has gotten to be something of a bad word in the reading world. It refers to a third-person omniscient view that doesn’t constrain itself to a single viewpoint character, but dips freely into whichever thoughts and reactions might be relevant. This can get kind of confusing, especially if a reader missed the part where the POV changed, or if a character’s direct thoughts are thrown in without sufficient attribution. Current conventional wisdom seems to favor a sort of revolving limited perspective than an omniscient one, only changing viewpoints with a scene or chapter break. Of course, if you’re cutting quickly enough that you end up with scenes shorter than a page, it can feel just as disjointed, if not more so. (See the latter half of The Good Fairies of New York for a good example of that.)
However, it is possible to execute this technique well, because really, it’s possible to execute any technique well. For today’s master class, let’s turn to the late, great Douglas Adams.
One of the biggest difficulties for the omniscient perspective is voice, that tricky bastard that everyone looks for but no one can quite describe. With a close third-person, the narrator’s voice will echo that of the viewpoint character, and not just by directly relaying their thoughts. (For a fantastic example of this, check out Gail Carriger’s Soulless.) With an omniscient perspective, if the narrator tries to echo each of the many viewpoint characters, things can get very muddled, but if they echo none at all, it’s just sterile.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, on the other hand, maintains one distinctive voice throughout: the voice of the Guide. The actual guide entries are set apart in italics (at least in the editions I’ve got), but that same sardonic, matter-of-fact tone carries through into the scenes with the main characters, as well as the tangential world-building asides. No matter how random and disconnected the topic, that consistent style helps keep the reader anchored and minimizes confusion.
The other thing that helps prevent confusion is that every single head-hop is clearly attributed. There are no interjections that come out of nowhere; the declarative style means that we pretty much always start by identifying the character.
Consider this passage:
Trillian couldn’t sleep. She sat on a couch and stared at a small cage which contained her last and only links with Earth–two white mice that she had insisted Zaphod let her bring. She had expected never to see the planet again, but she was disturbed by her negative reaction to the news of the planet’s destruction. It seemed remote and unreal and she could find no thoughts to think about it. She watched the mice scurrying round the cage and running furiously in their little plastic treadwheels till they occupied her whole attention. Suddenly she shook herself and went back on to the bridge to watch over the tiny flashing lights and figures that charted the ship’s progress through the void. She wished she knew what it was she was trying not to think about.
Zaphod couldn’t sleep. He also wished he knew what it was that he wouldn’t let himself think about. For as long as he could remember he’d suffered from a vague nagging feeling of being not all there. Most of the time he was able to put this thought aside and not worry about it, but it had been reawakened by the sudden, inexplicable arrival of Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent. Somehow it seemed to conform to a pattern that he couldn’t see.
Ford couldn’t sleep. He was too excited about being back on the road again. Fifteen years of virtual imprisonment were over, just as he was finally beginning to give up hope. Knocking about with Zaphod for a bit promised to be a lot of fun, though there seemed to be something faintly odd about his semicousin that he couldn’t put his finger on. The fact that he had become President of the Galaxy was frankly astonishing, as was the manner of his leaving the post. Was there a reason behind it? There would be no point in asking Zaphod, he never appeared to have a reason for anything he did at all: he had turned unfathomability into an art form. He attacked everything in life with a mixture of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence and it was often difficult to tell which was which.
Arthur slept: he was terribly tired.
Scene breaks would be far too jagged, but we do get paragraph breaks, and each switch starts by identifying the character so we know exactly where we stand. There are little hints of specific personalities (like the difference between “she could find no thoughts to think about it” and “knocking about with Zaphod”) but the overall tone remains consistent. And, naturally, it ends with a punchline.
This, of course, isn’t the only way to pull off this technique, but it’s a good example because it so specifically addresses the elements that can trip up readers. The omniscient narrator may know all, but they have to be able to get it across in a way that isn’t confusing.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Dragonhaven.)
One of the very first things we have to decide in writing fiction is the identity of the narrator. First or third? Multiple narrators? Limited or omniscient? True, this is something that can change a lot while writing, but you’ve got to make a decision in order to start stringing words together at all. The choice of narrator affects, and is affected by, a host of factors: genre and category expectations, which characters are privy to what events and knowledge, series considerations, thematic goals, and so on. But what happens when these factors point in different directions?
Robin McKinley’s Dragonhaven, the story of a young boy who illegally raises an orphaned dragon, is written in first person, narrated by Jake. On the face of it, first person seems like the rather obvious choice. The conceit is that this is a memoir documenting an event that is famous in Jake’s world, while in our world, the intimate and confessional nature of first person lends itself very well to YA.
But the problem is twofold. First, Jake’s narration is something of an unfiltered internal monologue, a huge departure from Robin McKinley’s usual lyrical style that was off-putting to many readers. Secondly, Jake isn’t around for some pretty major plot events, most notably, well, the entire climax. Seriously, he’s holed up with his dragons while the rest of the staff of the park holds off the National bloody Guard. He’s told how it all went down afterward, and the explanation that “we” (being the readers of the memoir in his world, not the readers of the novel in ours) should have all heard about it on the news is cute, but still makes the whole thing rather unsatisfying.
So does this mean it should have been written differently? Well, no. It’s all about priorities. This is primarily a Boy and His Dog type story, with the focus being on how a teenage boy copes with the stresses and joys of motherhood (and yes, he’s rather specific about it being motherhood) taken to fantastic extremes. Taking it out of Jake’s immediate perspective would have been a very different story, and whether “different” means “better” is highly subjective.
Still, it’s important to weigh all these factors in when you’re making these decisions in your own work. You needn’t be a slave to your author “brand” and stick exclusively to an established style and theme, but it’s still wise to be aware of what expectations your readers are bringing to the table. If you’re limiting the perspective, can you still establish the necessary events? If you’re going wide, can you still get us close to your characters? Sometimes the identity of the best narrator will jump out and beat you over the head, but frequently you’ll have to make trade-offs and weigh the pros and cons, maybe even try out several options in different drafts. Though the peanut gallery is always going to have our opinions on how well it worked, in the end, only you know what’s going to best serve the story you want to tell.
(Standard spoiler warning applies to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.)
I be feeling a bit nostalgic today, mates. So let’s talk about one of my favorite scenes in film history. It’s not a particularly spectacular scene by most standards, but it encapsulates a concept that’s executed so beautifully, it makes my crusty writer’s heart weep with joy.
And possibly with a teensy bit of drunkenness, because rum.
Behold, ye scalawags!
Sometimes it can be difficult to pin down what exactly makes a character so compelling. Jack Sparrow is undeniably one of the great, iconic characters in cinema, but why? Is it Johnny Depp’s inspired insanity? The clever dialogue? Just a really good costume?
No, from a writer’s perspective, I think the answer in this case is simple: Jack Sparrow is singularly memorable because he is singularly motivated. He may seem to rapidly change sides as the balance of power shifts, but really, everything he does throughout the film–without exaggeration, every single move he makes and line he speaks–is all designed to bring him closer to his goal of recovering the Black Pearl. Even his desire for revenge on Barbossa is secondary and incidental to getting his ship.
That’s the beauty of this scene on the beach. In case you can’t watch, here’s the relevant bit:
JACK: Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails, that’s what a ship needs but what a ship is… what the Black Pearl really is… is freedom.
Here, Jack’s given a moment to explain himself, to get to the underlying truth that really drives him. The Black Pearl is a tangible item rather unique to Jack, but the desire for freedom, that’s what Elizabeth, the sheltered rich girl with an adventurous heart, connects with. It’s what the audience connects with. It’s something primal, one of those lizard-brain truths that transcends circumstance to speak to a broader human experience. Those primal, basic motivations are hugely important in fiction, one of the reasons we tell stories and one of the things that make stories effective. Hell, it’s the reason that the damsel in distress keeps popping up even though we all know how problematic it is by now; the trope’s still bloody useful to writers, because what’s more primal than protecting someone you love?
This strong motivation also serves the structure of the script. Jack is an active character; his plots and counter-plots drive the story forward, lending urgency and tension even though he’s not, strictly speaking, the protagonist. True, most of his pivots are in reaction to the changing circumstances throughout the story, but crucially, he’s not purely reactionary: he walks into Port Royal with a plan, and that’s largely what he sticks to. He adapts as needed to get to the ultimate goal, but that goal never changes.
And, more importantly, it’s this trait that shows us why the sequels aren’t nearly as successful from a storytelling standpoint. In Dead Man’s Chest, Jack has his ship back and (somewhat contrivedly) lost the treasure at Isla de la Muerta, and thus doesn’t know what he wants anymore. They try to make it a plot point (his magic compass doesn’t work correctly because it’s motivated by his heart’s desire), but it doesn’t disguise or compensate for the fact that he’s a weaker character because of this development.
There’s a reason for that old cliche of actors asking about their motivation, and there’s a reason that the formula for a successful query or blurb boils down to “Who’s the hero, what do they want, what’s in their way.” The stuff that a character does simply doesn’t resonate with us as much as their reasons for doing it. People connect with a character they can relate to, no matter how fantastical and unfamiliar their circumstances.
If your story doesn’t have someone with a clear, strong motivation (and it doesn’t have to be the protagonist; this is a role frequently played by the villain, after all), perhaps you should dig a little deeper to see what makes them tick. Maybe get drunk on a deserted beach. Seems to help.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Doctor Who. Just… Doctor Who.)
Well, this is quite the little mini-theme of writing terms! First there was “show, don’t tell,” then “kill your darlings,” and today we have “lampshade hanging.” For those of you who don’t speak TV Tropes, this is when a writer handles something that strains plausibility by pointing out exactly how implausible it is. It doesn’t seem like it would work, but it can be quite effective for a certain type of story.
Doctor Who, the long-running sci-fi show about traveling to all the corners of time and space that look suspiciously like southern Britain, is rather that kind of story, though it might not seem that way from the outside. The lampshade, you see, is all about the writers making fun of themselves, so it is a device that by definition deals in the comic and the meta. It is therefore a staple of meta comedies like Archer and 30 Rock, but it also tends to pop up in other works, especially genre ones, that don’t take themselves too seriously. With its long history, savvy and devoted fans, and a sensibility that vacillates between goofy and terrifying, Doctor Who definitely falls into that second category. Hardly an episode goes by without some on-point observation being made, but a few characters over the years have really taken this trope and run with it–probably none more so than Rory Williams, who pretty much acted like this was his full-time job.
Rory’s observational skills are on display from his very first appearance, and are actually what catches the Doctor’s attention, since Rory’s the only one who figured out what’s really weird about the whole alien invasion situation. While Amy gets immediately swept up into the Doctor’s world, Rory stays firmly and intentionally grounded in reality, which makes him quite effective as an audience surrogate. Indeed, Rory (at least, early on, before the centurion business) is probably a pretty good representation of what the average sci-fi fan would be like as a companion, and the Doctor finds his genre-savviness quite annoying since–another lampshade–he keeps his companions around so they can be impressed at how clever he is. Rory’s everyman qualities show off one benefit of lampshade hanging: He finds his situation just as implausible as anyone would in his situation, so it keeps the show grounded even as it starts to strain credulity.
For instance, there’s the little fact that Rory just keeps dying. Hell, he manages to die three times in a single episode. This is not the kind of thing that someone would just shrug off, and so Rory doesn’t. His reactions run the gamut from sardonic annoyance (“We’re dead. Again.”) to his confession to the Doctor that he’s still haunted by the memories of his centuries as an Auton. It helps inspire confidence in the audience that it’s not just a passing gag, but that the writers have a plan and are working it into the story.
Really, it’s the way that a lampshade lets the writer communicate directly with the audience that makes it so effective. For instance, there’s Rory’s response when Amy asks if he can ride a motorbike he’s just stolen:
RORY: I expect so. It’s been that sort of day.
The thing with breaking rules or engaging in lazy writing habits on purpose is that it can be difficult for the audience to know that it’s on purpose and that you’re not just bad at this. A line like Rory’s helps clue the audience in to your intentions. The subtext is, “Yes, this might merit more explanation, but we’re not going to waste the time on it. This is just the kind of story we’re in, so let’s move on and get to the good stuff.” Calling attention to it helps the audience trust that the writer knows what they’re doing, and lets the audience know that the writer trusts them to have spotted the pattern. And it wraps the whole thing in a joke, because the Rule of Funny trumps all.
So, in essence, hanging a lampshade takes a moment that could be a major pothole in the storytelling experience and turns it into an opportunity for us all to have a laugh and congratulate ourselves on being very clever. All around, a good tool to have in your arsenal.