Rediscovered this marvelous NYT portrait of Jack Vance, one of my favorite writers. Carlo Rotella captures a hard-to-capture writer perfectly by describing a key component of Vance’s style as “feral, angling politesse, the marriage of high-flown language to low motives”.
Over the weekend I finished editing my first draft of the second Jupiter Pirates book, tentatively titled The Treasure of the Isis. It’s now in the hands of my wife, a careful reader and ace editor, and will then go to my kid, who’s both of those things plus a one-boy focus group.
I learned something new in struggling with some scenes in JP2, and getting through that struggle let me put a name to the issue. (I’m sure other writers have their own names for the problem, but since this was new to me I’ll stick with my own terminology.)
I did a pretty detailed outline for JP2, as I now do for everything. The pivotal scenes in the book came pretty quickly once I got to them — which was no surprise, since I’d had them in my head since before the outline existed, and had been sub- or semi-consciously working through them for months and months.
Where I got bogged down was in some of the smaller scenes — the quieter moments leading us from Point A to Point B (or from T to U). Several times, the writing slowed to a crawl and I alternated staring at the monitor with even less-productive fits of self-loathing. Sometimes I advanced by writing a couple of hundred or just a couple of dozen words a day until I escaped. Other times I’d tear the whole scene down and start over. Neither approached worked particularly well.
Until, finally, I realized what was wrong: Those scenes were missing an engine.
I knew why the scenes were there: They had to advance the plot, or introduce a character or concept. But that’s not the same as the engine.
The engine, as I came to think of it, was why the scene mattered — why it belonged there beyond reasons of simple exposition. The reader had to leave the scene not just further along in the plot but also more invested in the story. He or she had to think differently about one or more characters, or have a new perspective on one of the book’s themes, or be in possession of something that was both real and resisted easy definition.
Once I figured this out, I stopped scrapping and clawing for forward progress or resorting to sullen teardowns. When I got bogged down in a scene, I stopped and asked myself what the engine was.
Most of the time there was an answer, which was good news: It meant my instincts had been right when I included that particular bit of action in the outline. But my execution needed some work — I’d been buffing a hood with nothing underneath it, and it was no surprise that the car wouldn’t move.
An interesting essay by my friend and mentor Roy Peter Clark of Poynter on how transparency in storytelling (particularly journalism) can be an enemy of narrative. Roy’s solution: translucence. This is an intriguing read for reporters and editors alike to think about.
Stumbled across this very good examination of how Patrick O’Brian moves readers through scenes, plays with points of view and simultaneous dialogue, and merrily bends or breaks rules in doing so. Above all else, it’s a great lesson in the authority of the storyteller: earn it, then use it.
I remembering doing a double-take the first time an Aubrey-Maturin book got to the beginning of a battle and then jumped to its aftermath — just as I remember nodding and smiling when I figured out O’Brian had been wise to do so. But wow — it takes stones to write naval war fiction and do that.
[Warning: Spoilers for “Oz the Great and Powerful.”]
I’d read the early reviews of “Oz the Great and Powerful,” the “Wizard of Oz” prequel starring James Franco, Mila Kunis and a ton of CGI. So I was expecting a long list of things to be wrong with it.
And yeah, the movie has its problems. For the first three-quarters of the picture Franco seems either sullen or half-asleep. (Oh, what Robert Downey Jr. might have done with the role.) There’s a bit too much contemporary-sounding sass from monkeys, china dolls and half-sized nuncios. One yearns for songs to cover up awkward transitions between scenes — the whole picture tries to rise when the Munchkins start to sing, only to have Franco bring the number to a hasty halt for fear of copyright lawyers.
But I was able to get through all that. Some of the CGI is breathtaking, and Oz is a setting that allows characters to stop and gawk at the scenery. Franco’s road companions can’t compete with scarecrows and lions and tin men, but they have their moments. The parallels with “Wizard” — black and white to color, Kansas to Oz, actors in dual roles, dreams and twisters — are nicely done. The plan to use a technological con against the witches is clever and generates some excitement (even if it’s just Sam Raimi remaking “Army of Darkness”), and Glinda’s line about greatness and goodness is a winner.
What threw me out of the picture is ultimately a problem of character and storytelling, and it’s this: Theodora, whom we see become the Wicked Witch of the West, simply doesn’t work. We don’t understand her motivations or believe the choices she makes, particularly since the critical ones are made for her. And since she’s the iconic character, this failing sinks the movie.
It’s not really Mila Kunis’s fault. No, she’s not Margaret Hamilton, who brought a near-feral intensity to the role where Kunis often just looks trapped in green latex and colored contacts. But Hamilton had much more to work with — in this “Oz,” the writers gave the more interesting lines and motivation to Evanora, the other wicked witch, though that’s not saying much.
The basics: Theodora falls for the slick-talking Oz, only to learn from her sister Evanora that he has been charming other women and handing out music boxes a-plenty. Heartbroken and furious, Theodora accepts a magical apple from Evanora to ease her pain. The apple withers her heart, turning her green and ugly, and then she joins forces with Evanora to destroy Glinda the Good Witch and her people.
What’s wrong with that? From the perspectives of character and storytelling, a number of things.
First of all, two villains compete for the audience’s attention. If your story really calls for two, they MUST be different enough to be compelling. In “Oz” they’re not — Theodora spends the last part of the movie standing beside another wicked witch, using identical gestures to hurl identical CGI sparks. That’s not interesting with any villain, and it’s a major misfire with a villain everyone knows and yearns to see in action.
Second, we never believe Theodora’s background or motivations. Franco’s Oz keeps insisting she must have tons of handsome young princes courting her, but she acts like she’s barely seen a man before. Our inclination is to agree with Franco — even a weirdly desexualized realm like Oz must have a few men eager to sidle up to a gorgeous young witch in leather pants.
Now, it’s okay if we’re wrong. It’s fine for Theodora to simultaneously be both sheltered and free to wander a dangerous magical kingdom. In fact, that’s pretty standard logic for fairy tales, and would have worked in “Oz.” But the writers had to inform us and convince us of this. Because they didn’t, we look askance at Theodora’s sorrow when she thinks she’s been two-timed, we don’t understand her furious reaction to it, and we don’t invest in the character.
Third, the way Theodora falls is a disservice to the character — she’s tricked by her sister. That’s tragic, yes, but it’s the tragedy of the sap — a villain is far more effective when made (and unmade) by his or her own choices.
I think on some level the writers of “Oz” knew this — you see vestigial bits of another, better story there, one they either didn’t quite reach or were ordered to reconsider. We see Theodora’s emotions manifest as destructive power in one of her early scenes with Evanora, and that was the idea to run with, in true fairy-tale fashion. It would have simplified the storytelling and strengthened the characterization.
“Theodora of Oz was a witch from her first breath, so powerful that her infant tantrums caused storms of magic that threatened the Emerald City. To protect her and the people of Oz, she was locked away in an enchanted corner of the realm, surrounded by nothing that might cause her sorrow or anger. And because love is the most powerful of emotions, all men were forbidden from her prison. There Theodora grew up, beautiful but lonely. Until one day a traveler from a distant land arrived by accident, and everything changed….”
Now we’re interested in Theodora as a character. Now the fact that she’s captivated by Oz makes sense, as does her sorrow and rage at being betrayed. And now we don’t need the sister’s plot device of an apple — Theodora transforms herself. In fairy-tale fashion, she literally turns green with envy, becoming the terrifying Wicked Witch of the West. She’s still tragic, but no longer passive and weak.
That wouldn’t have addressed all of the problems with “Oz,” starting with the fact that we’d still have one wicked witch too many. But it would be a start, and give us a far more satisfying villain.
Over at the NYT, Melanie Thernstrom has written an engrossing story about a radical treatment for children with severe food allergies.
It’s worth reading just to read, but I’ll throw in this note for journalism geeks like me: The reporter is very much part of the tale, both as a participant and because her own child has severe allergies. Despite this, I read it and the Republic, the Constitution, and what’s left of journalism seem more or less intact.
Over at the official site, a discussion of the writing of Shadow Conspiracy, my adaptation of a four-part Clone Wars arc. Contains a discussion of the differences between visual and print storytelling, and a contest of sorts for really, really hardcore Star Wars fans.
Great David Griner story at Poynter about an arresting image of a KKK toddler and a black state trooper. I’m a words guy, but the best photos awe me with their power and their elusive meaning. You could look at this photo for hours and talk about it for days.
“Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door.”
That’s a quote from William F. Nolan, often cited by horror writers in debating how to craft reveals. It’s a horror writer’s debate, but one that all writers ought to keep in mind.
I first encountered Nolan’s quote through Stephen King, who wades into the debate in Danse Macabre. The audience’s terror grows as the protagonist approaches the door in the old deserted house, hears something scratching behind it, reaches for the knob, throws the door open, and …
… and what?
That’s the writers dilemma. As Nolan describes it, if there’s a ten-foot bug the audience screams, but they’re really screaming in relief, because they were worried that the bug might be a hundred feet tall. And if the bug’s revealed as a hundred feet tall, the audience screams in relief that the bug isn’t a thousand feet tall.
So do you open the door, or not? I read Danse Macabre as a kid and that dilemma stuck with me. King offers a passionate defense of the case that the writer must throw the door open eventually — he likens not doing so to playing for a tie. But other writers (King cites H.P. Lovecraft) opt for opening it just a crack, or not opening it at all.
The last idea was what really intrigued me — particularly when King himself made the case for it effectively. His example of a door left shut is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, filmed as The Haunting. (See the 1963 version, not the 1999 remake.) In The Haunting, the key doors are literally never opened, though something hammers on them in the night and they distort in ways that seem to violate physics. Most frightening of all, the characters Eleanor and Theo endure one episode by holding hands in the dark — only to wake up and realize they are too far apart to have been touching. “Whose hand was I holding?” Eleanor asks.
It’s been years since I read Danse Macabre and saw The Haunting, and Eleanor’s question still bothers me, in a way that the nastiest creation of makeup and CGI wizards no longer can. Ultimately, I don’t agree with King — or at least, I don’t agree that the door should always be opened. Sometimes it’s better not to.
But wait, you’re saying — I’m not a horror writer. Fine, but the question of whether or not to open the door applies to exposition and backstory, too.
It came up for me with Prometheus, the Alien prequel Ridley Scott refuses to call an Alien prequel. (I’m going to ignore that.) One of the most evocative images in Alien is the space jockey, a giant skeleton forever reclining beneath the controls of the wishbone-like derelict. We know the space jockey is very, very old — Dallas even notes it’s fossilized — but we never find out anything else about it.
Or at least that was true until Prometheus, which revealed (in the movie and the original Jon Spaihts script) that the skeleton is actually a suit, and the derelict is a centuries-old death ship, a juggernaut laden with biological weapons intended for Earth.
That’s cool — it’s really cool, in fact. But I’d argue it’s not as cool as a million-year-old skeleton and a derelict whose purpose would never be known. Because it can’t be. I didn’t feel cheated when I had no idea what the space jockey was. I did feel cheated once the door was finally opened.
Or consider the backstory of Boba Fett, the faceless bounty hunter of The Empire Strikes Back, with his scarred armor and clanking spurs. Who was he? My friends and I speculated endlessly in the early 1980s. In 2002 we got an answer: He’s human and a clone of his “father,” whom he saw struck down by Jedi while he was a boy.
Again, that’s pretty cool — but inevitably, it’s a ten-foot bug where imagination had sketched the outlines of a hundred-foot bug.
It’s very hard to avoid this trap, and maybe impossible. So what’s my answer? If you’re writing up to a big reveal, long-awaited passage of exposition or an intriguing bit of backstory, stop and think while your hand’s still on the knob. It’s true that some narrative doors must be opened or the audience feels cheated. But others are better left shut.
In honor of Star Wars Reads Day, a tribute to the first Star Wars book I ever loved, and its author. I never knew Brian Daley, but he was one of my teachers — and it turns out he taught me a lot.