Monday, August 7, 2017

That's Entertaining!

But I was just getting started
Several times in the past on this blog I've written about the things a writer should focus on for every scene, how everything you write has to serve the story.  A lot of people write about this, its a constant theme in classes, books, articles, and other blogs.

Without explaining in detail, every single scene which you write in your fictional story should do at least one of these jobs:

  • establish the setting
  • develop the characters
  • move the plot forward
  • resolve conflict
If what you wrote doesn't do at least one of these things, then its time to cut or edit. What you've written may be brilliant, but its padding, its the stuff people skim over or wonder why its in the book. Even if they don't know why it bothers them or they find it pointless, people will sense it.

Yet there's an aspect here that some may bring up: what about entertainment?  What about a scene that's there just to be fun and exciting, or entertaining?  Like my last post about sex and violence, where sex scenes almost never serve any purpose except titillation and arousal, some might wonder what's wrong with that as a purpose?

Well, there's a place for scenes that are there for exciting or interesting, but to understand what I'm saying here, you have to consider what actually makes things interesting and entertaining.  Compare and contrast these two action sequences

The Bunny Sleigh - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

The Barbarian Horde - Gladiator

Now, when you consider these scenes you notice some differences in tone and especially context.  One is a scene of pure action and tension, the other has story and purpose.  One is just there to be "entertaining" and the second is there as part of the overall tale being told.

Bunny Sleighing
This entire scene could have been cut out of the movie, and nobody would have noticed.  In fact, if you do cut it out of the movie, the only thing that you notice is that the time traveled between The Trollshaws and Rivendell is very quick.

What is this crap??
Why is it so expendable?  Because its just padding.  Its there to help extend the film (so you can have 3 movies of 2+ hours long) and its there to be exciting and a change of pacing from the previous scene.  Peter Jackson is working from a very specific playbook here, laying out one scene after another according to a formula.  At this point, he needed a chase scene.

I'm not going to address most of the many flaws in this scene (the scene not in the book, Radagast's absurd sleigh, how he's supposed to lead the orcs away but keeps going back to where the dwarves are again and again, its muddy and confusing, you have no idea where anything is relative to each other).  What I want to focus on is how it tries to be entertaining but fails because it doesn't fulfill any of the above criteria.

Nothing takes place in the entire scene which develops any characters.  It doesn't advance the plot, it doesn't set the scene, it doesn't even resolve any conflict.  Its lots of scenes of the bunny sleigh riding around and dwarves charging all over.  There's not even any sense of place; they're in the wilderness somewhere, but its irrelevant where.  Its just lots of activity with no purpose.

Didn't The Romans Win?
Now contrast that with the simulated Battle of Carthage, with the Barbarian Horde vs the Romans.  This scene hits several points in the requirements.  It moves the plot (conflict between the emperor and Maximus), it develops character (you see Maximus as a leader in action, etc) it resolves conflict (lots of fighting to save their lives), and it even sets the scene: this is the first big fight in the Colosseum and it gives a wonderful sense of place and time.

Now you're just showing off
The Bunny Sleigh isn't entertaining because all it offers is action.  Its just pointless fluff action that adds nothing to the film.  The Barbarian Horde scene gives us several story points that makes you care about what happens, who these people are, and what takes place.  There's drama, there's movement to the scene, driving the plot.  Each of the main characters has a chance to shine and is shown to be interesting and distinct.

I chose two extremely distinct examples to make the point, but really it comes down to this: your purpose to every scene is to entertain, in fiction.  But what entertains isn't "entertainment" its making your readers interested in and care about the scene.  Peter Jackson's mistake with the Bunny Sleigh scene is that he just put it in to be interesting and take up minutes on the digital copy, rather than tell the story.

If you don't care about the characters, aren't shown some movement in the story, don't get a sense of what is going on, or resolve anything then its not entertaining.  It is the engagement in the story, the reader caring about what happens that makes it entertaining.  Entertainment is the result of making a scene meaningful and pulling the reader in.

So the basic goals of writing a scene aren't dry mathematics, but rather the tools by which you create entertainment.  The scene without any of these basic requirements is a scene that can be just dropped because it doesn't do anything for the story at all.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Sax and Violins

And Brian Eno production values
I have no small amount of violence in my books, particularly the last one where a Werewolf carves a bloody trail through Nazi-occupied Poland.  While its satisfying to read about Nazis being mangled, its pretty violent stuff and he doesn't restrict himself to just bad guys.

There's not much sex.  Life Unworthy has one scene but its one of those old-style "fade to black" scenes rather than a detailed account.  There's some kissing in Snowberry's Veil but its pretty chaste, as I was following a Louis L'Amour template, and tying to write a fantasy version of one of his books.  Old Habits the main character is pretty misogynistic and distrusting of women.

Every so often, someone will bring up the old charge of why its okay to portray violence and not sex.  Europeans tend to sneer at Americans for being "prudish" about sex but comfortable with sometimes gruesome violence.  You can show a man being shot to death but not a naked breast on television!  How prudish!

And there's something to that in terms of ratings systems; its PG to show killing, but PG-13 or R to show nudity.  Why is a naked breast more offensive and damaging to youth than a sword stabbing someone?

Like cheese to a mouse
At the same time, there's something from a storytelling perspective that some do not grasp here.  Sex is pleasurable and necessary human activity, it is a valuable part of a committed relationship, a bonding experience that demonstrates love and brings closeness.  Sex is good, if sometimes used in bad ways.  But its just sex.

Violence is by its very nature conflict resolution.  It is an explosion of activity, but the activity is to a goal or an end, not random and meaningless: it is someone attempting to resolve a situation, even if poorly and misguidedly.

Almost all of fiction writing is conflict resolution, or confrontation.  Conflicts are what builds drama; if everything works out exactly as planned and everyone goes along, there's no story.  Conflict at any level, whether in a relationship, or surviving nature's hazards, or with one's own nature, or against a physical foe, is the basis of fiction.

Sex isn't conflict resolution.  Its not even dramatic.  It is enticing and titillating, it is exciting and engaging, but it has no conflict.  You can have conflict with sex, but that's an addition, not the primary focus.  Adding conflict into a situation is what creates drama, but sex is just a depiction of physical activity no more laden with conflict than tying shoes or gardening.

What makes sex exciting or interesting to read is not its innate conflict, the way it advances the story, or how it reveals character, but rather a visceral pleasure and arousal that we feel.  Its like a joke that isn't so much funny in and of its self, but makes you laugh out of discomfort or shock.  You're not supposed to laugh at that, which makes you giggle.

Frankly, its often kind of boring
In terms of telling a story, violence makes more sense than sex, it fulfills one of the basic tasks of writing: it moves the story, it resolves conflict, and it develops plot.  Like sex, it can reveal much about the characters by how they behave in the process, but that's not integral to violence or sex its self.  But violence is conflict resolution, while sex is just people doing things.

For me, sex is a cheap device, its a way of filling the story out with physical descriptions of activities that are arousing and titillating, but they're still just filler.  It holds reader attention, but not by telling the story.  Its like having a video of two trains colliding in the middle of a play; its not the play at all but wow look at that crash!

I tend to skim past sex scenes, mostly because I find them kind of boring and a little frustrating for me personally.  And they add words and pages without story, which is a waste of time.  Put too many in (or too clinically exact and descriptive in) and you lose me entirely as a reader.  I'm probably not alone in this.

Who, me?
You can do the same thing with violence of course.  One need not know the exact scientific and medical effect of a gunshot, punch, or dagger wound. Spending paragraphs describing specific and exact accounts of bloody, gruesome violent activity stops being conflict resolution and becomes simply pornographic in a different sense. 

Having characters do what they do in life doesn't always have to be conflict resolution or fulfill the requirements of a book: your character can put on their shoes, kiss a girl, or punch a clown without it needing to resolve conflict.  It sets the scene, and helps build character to see how they do things and why.  But if you get too much detail and description, it stops being useful and starts being padding.

And while that can be true about both sex and violence, it is almost always true about sexual descriptions whereas violence serves the story more fully.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Post Holmes

I finished my Sherlock Holmes story and it was a lot of fun to write.  The whole thing is on Wattpad if you care to read it; I claim no special skill at mystery writing and clearly am no comparison to Arthur Conan Doyle.  But it was an interesting experiment, and I learned something about writing in the process which was the whole point.

I set out to write this partly out of the fun of writing a Holmes tale, but mostly for several other reasons which were mostly about experimenting and learning.  I wanted to develop Watson as a more rounded and intelligent character, so I had to figure out what there was about him that Doyle had hinted at and mentioned which gave him more substance.  I wanted to demonstrate that Holmes and Watson were essentially modern day knights battling in a different war than the old time ones.  

I wanted to examine how to portray intelligence so that I can write a character much smarter than everyone around them more easily.  I wanted to write a mystery to determine how its done; I'm still not sure if that worked or not.  

The problem with writing a mystery is that as the author, you know the whole plot.  Its no secret to you.  Once you've read a Sherlock Holmes story, you know the entire secret and what happened.  You know the snake climbs down the bellrope and kills the person sleeping in the bed.  You know why the dog didn't bark.  So now when you read it again, the solution is obvious and easy.  The author starts out that way, wondering if perhaps this is too obvious or boring a mystery.

In my previous novels, there's been a mystery of sorts in each one.  In Snowberry's Veil its not clear what Lord Valance is up to or why at first.  In Old Habits, something is going on in the keep that Stoce is in the middle of and its not clear what until almost to the end of the book.  In Life Unworthy, its not certain what's going to happen to Cezar, and what Vladimir is up to is murky until the end.

That's because most of my writing style comes down to asking questions: what happens next?  Why did he do that?  Who is that girl?  I have a vague idea what the basic plot is, then dive in and start asking and answering questions as the story unfolds.  So there's always an element of mystery.

But in writing an actual, intentional mystery, the entire story is focused on that one plot point: the secret behind what happened.  All of the book serves the purpose of unfolding that mystery.  Yet a "fair play" mystery has to give enough clues and information that in theory the reader can figure out what is happening.

So its a balance between telling enough to be fair, but not enough to make it obvious.  And the mystery in this case has to be one that only someone like Sherlock Holmes can puzzle out soon enough to catch the criminals, while surrounded by other people who are trying to solve the case as well.

That was the challenge and I honestly don't know how well it worked.  I was told by one reader that he hadn't figured it out, which is promising, but who knows?  For the author its all so stupidly obvious and blatant that you feel like taking clues away and throwing red herrings in just to protect the mystery.

Another element involved was keeping the story within proper character and time.  I had to research a few things (different neighborhoods in London, how hard it is to get into the British Museum, what a Brit at the time calls a prybar, etc), but most of it was just trying to recall how Doyle portrayed the characters and told the tale.

I wasn't trying to duplicate Arthur Conan Doyle, but I wanted a sense of continuity between the stories, so it felt like it fit in.  I think I did all right with that, given my own twist on things.  I made Holmes a bit less of an arrogant jerk and Watson a bit less of a fumbling credulous dupe, with the presumption that Watson did that as literary devices rather than honest accounting.

I have read a lot of articles about writing intelligent characters, and some were pretty useless (equating "intelligent" with "technologically savvy").  But one in particular had some great ideas, and sadly when my hard drive blew up I lost the link.  He noted that the really intelligent character has easily and quickly figured out what the other characters take time to understand and work out.  They have it in a flash of brilliance, a combination of intuition and fast thinking.  The others have to take time to puzzle it out.  Another aspect is that the really intelligent person is able to connect things that seem unconnected or are not apparently tied together, into something new and useful.

This is important for me, because at some point I want to write a story about a mage, a wizard, and he necessarily must be very intelligent.  I want to portray that rather than just have him throwing fireballs about.  And to do so convincingly and usefully, I need to present the mage as being not intelligent because he has a pointy hat and casts spells, but because he'd be smart anywhere.

I'm reading Father Brown short stories right now, one before bed each night.  G.K. Chesterton does a brilliant job of showing Brown as being catastrophically more intelligent than everyone around him.  He sees, understands, and connects things that nobody around him can, instantly, and completely.  Almost no mystery goes by without Brown immediately knowing what is going on from the slightest clues, then working out how to save the person before they get worse.  That's been informative as well.

So, there you have it; the mystery and why its done.  Hopefully it's an enjoyable read and helps me write a better book next time.