Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Archive for January 2011

The pleasures and perils of research

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When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

—Jonathan Franzen, to The Guardian

Recently, I’ve had research on the brain. Over the past month, which I’ve designated as a kind of free sandbox time for Midrash, I’ve read all or part of something like twenty books, along with many articles and old notes. On Sunday, I’m going on a very short trip to London, which means cramming a month’s worth of location research into less than a week. For the next few days, then, I’m going to be talking a bit about research—how a novelist does it, where it fits into the different stages of the writing process, and how to balance it with the other elements of storytelling. Today, though, I’ll be addressing a more general issue, which is whether deep research has any place in a novelist’s life at all.

As I see it, there are two main objections to research in fiction, only one of which can be easily dismissed. The first objection is that research is somehow alien to the true novelist’s art, either because fiction based on research is inherently less valuable than fiction drawn primarily from the author’s own experience, or because information itself is becoming increasingly worthless. The former argument is very old, but the latter has gained new resonance in the information age, as Franzen implies above. Information is everywhere. It’s a mouse click away. So it isn’t hard to conclude that the novelist’s traditional role as an investigator of reality is no longer relevant, or useful.

Franzen is right about one thing: voluminous research, in itself, is no longer enough to make a novel. But was it ever? The role of the novelist has never been simply to acquire facts and details: it’s to arrange those details into a previously unsuspected artistic pattern. If anything, this role is even more valuable these days, when our diet of information tends to consist of specific units of disposable data. The art of the novelist is to uncover order in apparent chaos, even if the ultimate goal is to undermine it. With so many facts at our disposal, but so little knowledge, we need that ordering function more than ever—especially because a novelist is one of the few remaining artists with no choice but to haunt libraries and read the books that nobody else reads.

As for whether research has a place in serious fiction, it’s only necessary to point out that research has served as an indispensable foundation of many great novels—including Franzen’s. Flaubert, the quintessential novelist, deeply researched all of his books. So did Tolstoy. More recently, works as distinct as Atonement and Gravity’s Rainbow have been masterpieces of research and structured imagination. It’s still true that, as Willa Cather said, the basic emotional material of a novelist is acquired by the age of fifteen. But if the novelist is looking for meaning outside his or her own range of experience—to explain “how the world works,” as Zadie Smith puts it—research is the necessary first step. The ordering, the pattern-making, will come later, but not without the raw material that creative research provides.

Which brings us to the second, more relevant objection to research, which is that it can be an excuse to put off the real work of writing. Research is a seductive pastime in itself, and because there’s always another book to read or location to visit, it can be all too easy for a writer to never actually begin the novel. Unlike the previous objection, this danger is very real. Later this week, I’ll be talking more about how to keep research in line with the rest of the writing process. For now, though, I’ll say this: research is not primarily about factual accuracy. It’s about acquiring material for dreams. Ultimately, it’s about freeing your mind to play the most serious game in the world. It’s true, from a factual perspective, that you can never have enough information. But before long, perhaps before you realize it, you’ll have more than enough material to play the game.

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January 31, 2011 at 10:15 am

Quote of the Day

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I suppose that a novelist’s life is not more full of embarrassments than anybody else’s. There is no art or profession, except possibly higher mathematics, which one can practise without exposing oneself to amateur criticism and interference.

A novelist’s trade, however, is the only one in which his acquaintances insist on coming right into the workshop and playing with the tools.

Evelyn Waugh, “People Who Want to Sue Me”

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January 31, 2011 at 8:09 am

Some useful advice from Proust

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There is no man…however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded. I know that there are young fellows, the sons and grandsons of famous men, whose masters have instilled into them nobility of mind and moral refinement in their schooldays. They have, perhaps, when they look back upon their past lives, nothing to retract; they can, if they choose, publish a signed account of everything they have ever said or done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile. We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you are not the result of training at home, by a father, or by masters at school, they have sprung from beginnings of a very different order, by reaction from the influence of everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory.

Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove

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January 30, 2011 at 1:29 am

John Irving on plot

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Titles are important; I have them before I have books that belong to them. I have last chapters in my mind before I see first chapters, too. I usually begin with endings, with a sense of aftermath, of dust settling, of epilogue. I love plot, and how can you plot a novel if you don’t know the ending first? How do you know how to introduce a character if you don’t know how he ends up? You might say I back into a novel. All the important discoveries—at the end of a book—those are the things I have to know before I know where to begin.

John Irving, to The Paris Review

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January 29, 2011 at 1:19 am

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My ten favorite screenplays

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Any list of favorite movies—much less one of favorite screenplays, where the writer’s contribution can be so hard to separate from that of the director and editor—ends up being more about the compiler than anything else. My own list betrays a personal fondness for dense, complicated stories over quiet simplicity, which is arguably the harder of the two to pull off. All in all, though, I’ll stand by these choices—though I’m somewhat surprised to see that one of my top films stars Kevin Spacey, another stars Gabriel Byrne, and another, perhaps inevitably, stars both:

1. Seven Samurai. As far as I’m concerned, this the greatest screen story of all time—a massively detailed film of more than three hours that establishes its central conflict in the first minute, involves us in the lives of more than a dozen important characters, and treats us to the immense satisfaction of seeing epic action foreshadowed, spelled out, and unforgettably delivered. Writers: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni.

2. L.A. Confidential. A script so good that it forever fooled me into thinking that there was a place in Hollywood for layered, complicated stories, saturated with ideas and atmosphere, with three central characters but no obvious hero. Well, there isn’t. But watching this movie makes you almost believe otherwise. Writers: Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson, based on a novel by James Ellroy.

3. The Red Shoes. All of Powell and Pressburger’s screenplays are amazing, but this is the one that fills me with the most awe. Like L.A. Confidential, it effortlessly establishes three major characters—and many minor ones—while ushering us into a world that seems both strange and familiar, with a range of tones that spans realism, surrealism, melodrama, and, in the end, merciless tragedy. Writers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

4. The Usual Suspects. The closest thing I’ve seen to a perfect clockwork screenplay, layered with small visual and verbal delights in every scene, all leading up to that famous closing surprise (which makes increasingly less sense to me as time goes on). To quote theater critic Walter Kerr, The Usual Suspects is a watch that laughs—and there’s a hell of a cuckoo inside. Writer: Christopher McQuarrie (though many of the best moments, including the closing montage of dialogue, were created in the editing room).

5. Casablanca. The first forty minutes, in particular, are the best I’ve seen in any movie, in terms of serenely establishing character, location, and conflict in a way that seems as natural as wandering into Rick’s Place out of the hot desert night. The second act has a few narrative lumps—I’m not a fan of flashbacks in general, even when they feature Bogart and Bergman in Paris—but as for the finale, well, nothing more needs to be said. Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s.

6. Miller’s Crossing. It took me years to warm up to this movie, but now that I know it inside and out, I can only marvel at how beautifully all the pieces fit, even if the writers evidently made it up as they went along. (They wrote Barton Fink, on a break, while trying to figure out how to resolve the plot.) It’s still the last of the great color noirs. Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen.

7. The Last Temptation of Christ. I was going to put Taxi Driver here, but this is really Schrader’s—and Scorsese’s—masterpiece: marvelously structured, moving, and more intelligent than so deeply religious a movie has any right to be. The last half hour rarely fails to bring me to tears, though never at the same place twice. Writer: Paul Schrader, based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.

8. The Third Man. The perfect blend of plot, location, and atmosphere, sinister yet romantic, with grotesque supporting characters lurking in the ruins like gargoyles. It all builds to that heartbreaking final image—the greatest closing shot in the history of movies—which wasn’t in the original script at all. Writer: Graham Greene (though Orson Welles wrote his own speech about the cuckoo clocks).

9. Psycho. Yes, yes, the closing psychiatrist’s speech is terrible. But up until that final moment, it’s perfectly structured and paced, with the greatest narrative fake-out of all time—one that works so well that I’m still faintly shocked, whenever I first see the Bates Motel sign, at remembering which movie I’m really watching. Writer: Joseph Stefano, based on a novel by Robert Bloch.

10. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Pauline Kael called it “endlessly inventive,” and it is, cobbling together a plot, as I’ve described elsewhere, from six different screenplay drafts and a random handful of science fiction elements, and having it all seem relaxed, witty, and inevitable. Writers: Credited to Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards, but really Nicholas Meyer.

Honorable mention: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Chinatown, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blue Velvet, A Hard Day’s Night, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and many others on the definitive Writer’s Guild list.

Quote of the Day

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Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.

Ben Hecht, in a telegram to Herman J. Mankiewicz

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January 28, 2011 at 12:00 am

Putting down stakes

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So you’ve decided to outline your novel. What next? Chances are that you’ll want to build it around some kind of narrative structure. A shapeless succession of scenes in which no visible progress is made will rarely result in a satisfying book. (Even shapelessness itself, when pursued as a conscious narrative strategy, has its own kind of structure and logic.) All novels begin in one place and end up somewhere else, if only because we have no choice but to experience them one page at a time. But what should it look like in the middle?

Fortunately, or not, a writer has a bewildering number of structural options at his or her disposal. There’s the plot pyramid, the three-act structure, the hero’s journey, and even those slightly insane screenwriting manuals that put the central dramatic question on page 3, the inciting incident on page 10, and so on. All these methods have their merits—although I’m skeptical of that last one—and they’ve all served various writers well. Personally, I tend to favor the three-act structure, which is why even my short stories tend to fall naturally into three parts. But the structure you choose is far less important than the fact that you have a structure in the first place.

The reason for choosing and sticking with a structure, like most of my advice on writing, is less aesthetic than functional. As I said yesterday, you’re more likely to finish a novel if you have an outline, and your outline is more likely to be useful if it follows some kind of established pattern, at least at first. In the process of writing, of course, that structure is bound to be revised beyond all recognition. The transitions will be gradual, even invisible, but the overall shape will be there. More importantly, the story will flow naturally from the point of view of a reader experiencing it one sentence at a time. After all, we don’t experience a house by studying its blueprints; we move from room to room. But without a good plan, the house will often seem uncomfortable or crazy.

One of my heroes, the architect Christopher Alexander, describes the process of designing a house in ways that I think are relevant here. Instead of starting with a standard blueprint, he recommends going to the site and laying out a plan on the ground itself, using stakes and string. Then, as he writes in The Timeless Way of Building:

It is very likely—almost certain—that you will modify the building as you have so far conceived it. The stakes are so vivid that you will almost certainly begin to see all kinds of subtlety, which you could not imagine before, now that the stakes and rooms are actual, right out there on the ground.

Modify the position of the stakes, a foot here, a foot there, until they are as perfectly placed as you can imagine; and until the layout of the rooms seems just exactly right.

The outline of a novel is pretty much like those stakes in the ground. Are they a house? No. But they’re an indispensable first step. And while you could theoretically lay out a house any way you liked, in practice, certain patterns are going to be more useful than others. In his masterpiece, A Pattern Language, Alexander describes over a thousand different patterns for architects—some as large as a city, others as small as a window seat. Writers, too, have their patterns, which have slowly emerged from thousands of years of storytelling. And if you follow a pattern that makes sense for you, you’re more likely to build a novel that can stand by itself.

(It’s important to remember, by the way, that the plot pyramid, the hero’s journey, and most of the other plot structures I’ve mentioned here were originally descriptive, not prescriptive. When Aristotle wrote the Poetics, he wasn’t necessarily trying to teach anyone how to write: he was describing a structure that he had empirically observed by watching successful tragedies. Most of the novelists whose books we still read didn’t think consciously in terms of exposition, rising action, and climax: they wrote a story, revised it until it read well, and usually ended up with a structure that looked more or less like that of other successful novels. That said, now that these structures have been defined and quantified, it’s much easier to write a novel, especially the first time around, with these patterns showing the way.)

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January 27, 2011 at 5:51 am

Quote of the Day

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A map is not the territory.

Alfred Korzybski

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January 27, 2011 at 5:38 am

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To outline or not to outline?

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Many novelists hate outlines. And with good reason. If followed too slavishly, they can result in a novel that feels artificial and contrived. They make it hard to follow your characters wherever they’re willing to go. They discourage, or so it seems, those happy accidents that are the high points of every writer’s life. And, perhaps most dangerously, they can lead to boredom on the part of the author, which, if left unchecked, usually carries over to the reader as well.

Me? I outline the living hell out of everything. I outline like it’s my second job. For Kamera and for all of my short fiction, I tend to outline things down to the level of the individual paragraph—and sometimes the sentence as well. One portion of my outline for “Kawataro,” a novelette that is coming out in Analog in June, was 1,800 words long, with more than two hundred separate items, for a section that ended up being just over 3,800 words in the final draft. And while this is an extreme example—a short story is usually much more compressed than a novel—it isn’t entirely atypical. I love outlines. And I couldn’t write much of anything without them.

Which isn’t to say that you should do the same. Outlining, like everything else that goes into a novel, is a very personal thing. Some writers will be happy with a page of notes that lays out the novel’s structure in very general terms, while others will want an index card for every paragraph. Every writer eventually works out his or her own favorite approach. And that’s fine. But I strongly believe that you need some kind of outline before you begin writing, even if you take for granted—and you should—that the outline will change drastically before you’re done.

Why? It’s simple: a novel with an outline is about ten times more likely to be finished than a novel without one. This is true for literary fiction, mainstream, genre, and everything in between. Finishing a novel is hard enough even with an outline; without it, and many writers aren’t likely to get past the first few chapters. It’s just too easy to lose your way. Yes, it’s true, as E.L. Doctorow says below, that you can get home at night using only your headlights—but only if you’ve driven the road before. Or have a map. An outline is a combination of both.

What about the risk that an outline will rob the novel of surprise? In my experience, it doesn’t happen. For one thing, the creation of the outline itself can be full of surprises, assisted by some of the creativity tools I talk about here, here, and here. More importantly, when I sit down to write every day, I have no real idea what to expect. I can experiment, I can take a different tack than planned, but only because I know I have an outline to fall back on. Example: in Kamera, a dead body is discovered in the second chapter. Halfway through the writing of the novel, the identity of the killer shifted from one character to another. It surprised the hell out of me. But I knew that the rest of the outline was sound, which gave me the confidence to make the change. And it elevated the entire novel.

Another point: I believe that the first draft of a novel should be written as quickly as possible. Kamera took more than two years to bring from initial conception to final manuscript, but less than three months, spread out over a longer period, was spent physically typing the first draft, often at the pace of a chapter per day. Why so fast? As I’ve said before, writing is revision, and the sooner you have that shitty first draft, as Anne Lamott says, the sooner you can make it good. If you get stuck on a problem in the first chapter, you may find the answer in the twentieth. And it’s much easier to focus on perfecting individual sentences when the weight of the entire novel is reassuringly there in the background. It exists. And the only way to write a first draft so quickly is with an outline.

Basically, an outline is a sketch. You put it down lightly on paper, make it as detailed or vague as you like, but not so heavy that you can’t erase it later. Once you’ve got a sense of the overall shape, you fill in the blanks, keeping what works, throwing out what doesn’t. And as these stills from Clouzot’s Mystery of Picasso illustrate—and as you can see more clearly in the video here—the overall composition can continue to evolve long after you’ve begun laying down the paint. But make that sketch first. Six months from now, when you’re still staring at that canvas, you’ll be glad you did.

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January 26, 2011 at 10:26 am

Quote of the Day

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It’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

E.L. Doctorow on writing, to The Paris Review

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January 26, 2011 at 7:55 am

The Godfather and the secret of plot

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Several months ago, when I first started this blog, my introductory post described the single most useful piece of storytelling advice I know. It’s from David Mamet’s book On Directing Film, and it’s so important to artists of all kinds that I’m going to quote it again:

The nail doesn’t have to look like a house; it is not a house. It is a nail. If the house is going to stand, the nail must do the work of a nail. To do the work of the nail, it has to look like a nail.

Which means, as I’ve said before, that the role of the writer is to ensure that the smallest units of the story do the work for which they have been intended—and no more. It’s easy for an author to fall into the trap of trying to make a particular moment carry more meaning than it can bear. The writer knows that he’s got a great story to tell, but all the good stuff is pages away. What to do? Maybe he hints at what’s coming with a coy aside to the reader, or puts a mood of foreboding into the weather, or inserts a discordant note into a line of dialogue, so that the reader senses that the dashing cadet will strangle the beautiful shepherdess on page twelve.

This is a mistake. Even the most intricate plot is nothing more than a sequence of individual moments that a reader experiences one by one. Each moment needs to do its own work—no more, no less. You start by figuring out the meaning of the moment at hand, e.g., The dashing cadet wants to sit next to the beautiful shepherdess. You find ways of expressing that meaning as cleanly and concisely and uninflectedly as possible: He brings her a handful of posies. (Not: He murderously brings her a handful of posies.) Then you move on to the next moment. And the next. And if you’ve done your job, that sequence of moments, written in isolation, will result—as if by magic—in a plot.

But what exactly is the “meaning” of a scene? Nine times out of ten, it’s the answer to the following question: What does the main character want? As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out the other day, it doesn’t need to be something big. It can be a drink of water. Or to sit next to a beautiful shepherdess. But each scene will work best if you structure it around a specific, tangible objective of the main character, and end it as he succeeds or fails (or, as is often better, slightly before). And the scene will be  more comprehensible, and hence more interesting, if you don’t get distracted by what’s coming next. The cadet says to the shepherdess: “Here, I brought you these poises.” He doesn’t say: “Mind if I sit next to you, because I’m going to murder you in a few pages?”

For the best possible illustration of this principle, I know of no stronger example than The Godfather. Watch it again, or read the screenplay here. The opening sequence, in the wrong hands, could be a nightmare: there’s no action, only dialogue at a wedding, and we’re introduced to something like twelve important characters in the space of twenty minutes. And yet it works beautifully. Why? Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo structure the opening, in essence, as a series of self-contained short scenes, each of which centers on a character with a clearly defined objective. Bonasera wants revenge for his daughter; Don Corleone wants Michael in the photograph; Sonny wants the FBI to get the hell off his property; and so on. For the most part, these are small moments. No real action. No violence. Not yet. But by the time the wedding is over, we know these people.

If this all looks disarmingly simple, that’s because it is. And it’s also the hardest thing in the world. One more time: Plot is a series of objectives. If you can structure each scene around an objective that the main character pursues in a logical fashion, your plot is halfway done. Tomorrow, we’ll be talking about the other half.

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January 25, 2011 at 10:18 am

Quote of the Day

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To do great work a man must be very idle as well as very industrious.

Samuel Butler

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January 25, 2011 at 12:00 am

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The joys of plot

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The joy is in the surprise. It can be as small as a felicitous coupling of noun and adjective. Or a whole new scene, or the sudden emergence of an unplanned character who simply grows out of a phrase. Literary criticism, which is bound to pursue meaning, can never really encompass the fact that some things are on the page because they gave the writer pleasure.

Ian McEwan, to The Paris Review

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about plot—what it is, how to construct it, and why it matters. I’ve spoken to other aspiring writers about this, and have been dealing with it constantly while assembling an outline for the sequel to Kamera (which, now that the proposal has been officially accepted, I can finally say will be called Midrash). Over the next few days, I’ll be looking at plot from various angles, both in fiction and in film. Today, however, I want to talk about something more fundamental: the joy of plot from the perspective of the writer, who gets to play the greatest game in the world.

First, though, I want to address a major misconception. There’s a common assumption, reinforced by many critics and writing instructors, that plot is somehow inferior to other aspects of fiction, notably character and theme. (I’m not going to talk about language here, if only because language should, ideally, arise organically from those other three aspects.) And it’s true that a novel driven solely by plot can feel thin or unsatisfying. But here’s the important point: in nine cases out of ten, a novel driven solely by character and theme will, in the end, prove unsatisfying as well, if it’s published at all. A good novel needs all three legs of the tripod. And a strong plot, more than anything else, is what draws the reader along to the final page.

So why do so many critics—James Wood, for instance—tend to dismiss plot? It’s rather mysterious, but my sense is that those who undervalue plot are often those with the least experience of writing a novel themselves. Personally, I don’t think that any major novelist can dismiss plot. Or would want to. Because the construction of plot is one of the great joys and compensations of the writer’s life. Part instinct, part luck, part planning and preparation, it’s the most challenging thing that an artist can do: a process of intellectual engagement, drawing on all sides of the brain and personality, that can span months or years. It’s a game, but also deadly serious. And when it works, it’s something that no writer would willingly relinquish. As McEwan says:

A writer whose morning is going well, whose sentences are forming well, is experiencing a calm and private joy. This joy itself then liberates a richness of thought that can prompt new surprises. Writers crave these moments, these sessions….Nothing else—cheerful launch party, packed readings, positive reviews—will come near it for satisfaction.

And why is plot so satisfying for the writer? My guess is that it’s the aspect of writing that comes closest to capturing the deepest pleasures of craft. The writer begins with a handful of isolated pieces—a character, a location, an incident—and gradually moves outward. He thinks, dreams, and does research, casting his net as wide as possible, hoping that a chance conversation or a stray sentence in another book will set him off in another promising direction. Once he has amassed enough material, he looks for patterns, connections, affinities. He orders the pieces one way, thinks it over, and reorders them again. This process continues, in various forms, long after the actual writing has begun. And any writer who has really experienced it, even once, would never give it up, much less disallow it to others.

Here’s the big secret: writers value plot because it’s one of the few things that make their lives bearable. Writing is hard work. The simple act of putting words on the page can be torture. And, indeed, if a plot isn’t working—if it refuses to harmonize with the characters or become logically coherent—it can be torture as well. But when the pieces do finally fit, it can feel like magic. At best, there’s something mysterious about the result, as if the universe and the writer were conspiring in secret. Such moments may occur only two or three times in the course of a given novel, and not until after the hard work of research and preparation has been done, but once they fall into place, the writer would rather die than leave them unrealized. Plot, in short, serves the same purpose for writers as for readers: it reassures them that something good is around the corner. And it’s what carries them along to the end.

But none of this would matter if the writer’s joy weren’t also contagious. Reading a novel with a perfect plot—the first half of McEwan’s Atonement, for instance, before the story deliberately blows itself up—gives me, as a reader, an intense kind of pleasure, one that exists on two levels. The first is a shared pleasure at the skill of the author, who has created a vivid, interesting, elegant structure, a narrative house that can stand on its own. The second is rather simpler: it’s the primal, almost childlike satisfaction at seeing the promises of a story kept. Such satisfaction, as I see it, deserves to be ranked at the very height of the reasons we read, or write, fiction in the first place. Without it, and without plot, I don’t think we’d have novels at all.

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January 24, 2011 at 10:21 am

Quote of the Day

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In the early days of the Muppets we had two endings. Either one creature ate the other or both of them blew up. So I’ve always been particular to things eating other things.

—Jim Henson

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January 24, 2011 at 7:44 am

Shoah and the limits of art

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I spent most of Saturday at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, where Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary on the Holocaust, is currently showing as part of its twenty-fifth anniversary run. Counting two intermissions, the film is just over ten hours long, which is probably more than most reasonable people are willing to spend in a theater. (Or are able—at least two audience members at my screening, after a valiant struggle, had fallen asleep by the end of the movie, which got out well after midnight.) And as I suggest below, there are ways of experiencing much of the film’s power without setting aside an entire day for it.

That said, if you’re in Chicago and can possibly do so, I’d encourage you to see the entire movie, which is truly overwhelming. Content aside, a film like this is especially valuable these days, when our attention spans (or at least mine) have been sliced into increasingly smaller increments. There’s something to be said for spending a full day contemplating as large and unforgiving a subject as possible. And the film’s length is the source of much of its impact: with its relentless emphasis on the mundane details of the Holocaust—the logistics of trains, transport, bureaucracy—Shoah slowly overpowers us by sheer quantity of information, until all of our preconceptions on the subject are gone.

Clearly, it’s pointless to hold a film like Shoah to the standards of more conventional movies. Still, Lanzmann is much more interesting when searching for testimony than when trying to affix blame, so the long sequences in which he speaks with Polish peasants who lived near Treblinka, evidently waiting for them to confess that they really don’t miss the Jews at all, belong to a different, lesser movie. (Although the scenes in which Lanzmann uses a hidden camera to capture interviews with former SS officers are riveting and brilliant.) And much of the first half, while consistently compelling, feels shapeless to a degree that I’m not sure is entirely intentional, in a way that the overall magnificence of the second half only serves to underline.

Which is why, if you’re undecided about seeing the entire movie, I’d encourage you to buy a ticket for Part II, and watch at least the first half. The section before the intermission, which runs exactly two and a half hours, is Lanzmann at his best, with testimony from a series of extraordinary witnesses—Filip Müller, the great Raul Hilberg, and others—on the daily operations of the camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz. It’s the most organized, self-contained section of Shoah, and it gives you a good sense of the film’s riches. Above all, it includes one of the greatest sequences in the history of cinema: the testimony of Abraham Bomba, a barber and survivor of Treblinka.

Bomba’s testimony (which you can watch, in two parts, here and here) is as powerful as anything I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it only underlines the difficulty, or pointlessness, of writing fiction about the Holocaust. The Final Solution has been a popular subject for novels, some good, some bad, many indifferent, but the stories contained in Shoah alone make even the most accomplished fiction seem superfluous. Ultimately, Shoah’s very artlessness—no score, no archival footage, just words and uninflected images—comes to feel like the only reasonable approach to this material. And in the end, art itself is left behind altogether, leaving us with only faces, words, and silence.

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Vonnegut on plot

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I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger.

Kurt Vonnegut, to the Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

January 23, 2011 at 1:19 am

Quote of the Day

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Once or twice [James Joyce] dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to [Samuel] Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, “Come in,” and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, “What’s that ‘Come in?’” “Yes, you said that,” said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, “Let it stand.” He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator.

—Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2011 at 8:45 am

Me and David Lynch

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Yesterday was the 65th birthday of David Lynch, a director and artist whose influence on my own life is hard to exaggerate. There was a time, growing up, when I wanted to be David Lynch. And while my own writing has taken me in a markedly different direction, I sometimes regret the fact that I haven’t tried harder to live up to Lynch’s standards. He’s as singular an artist as they come, but his career still stands as as a challenge and inspiration for those of us who insist, despite his example, on moving in less peculiar circles.

The film at the center of Lynch’s work, and of my own imagination, is Blue Velvet, which I think is simply the greatest of all American movies—”as American as Casablanca,” as David Thomson says. I could write an essay or more on any aspect of Blue Velvet’s production—the performances, the cinematography, the sound, the incredible score by Angelo Badalamenti—but for the moment, I’m going to focus on just one element: the story. Because, strange to say, as far out as Blue Velvet is in other respects, on a narrative level, it’s Lynch’s most conventional movie, which has a great deal to do with its success.

Strip away the hallucinatory flourishes, and Blue Velvet is basically a thriller, the most ravishing of Technicolor noirs. It’s really the only film in which Lynch has displayed any interest in the actual creation of suspense—rather than in its forms alone—and you can sense his innocent delight in playing the audience like a piano. (The two major scenes in Dorothy Valens’s apartment, the first near the beginning, the second at the end, are still the most dazzling sequences of their kind I’ve ever seen.) And the fact that Lynch’s ultimate dreamscape is built on a solid foundation of genre is a lesson to artists everywhere. The result is a film that evokes every emotion that we can feel at the movies: amusement, excitement, dread, horror, sentimentality, and, finally, a kind of transcendent joy.

That same range of emotion is also the hallmark of Lynch’s second great achievement: Twin Peaks. When the show premiered on April 8, 1990, I wasn’t even ten years old, but, thanks mostly to my parents, I watched it anyway. Ever since, it has occupied a curiously prominent place in my subconscious. And the strangest thing is that my conception of the show encompasses the pilot, the finale, perhaps five or six other episodes, and the soundtrack, especially the songs sung by Julee Cruise. The rest I can take or leave. But what remains is a kind of invisible force that has left me looking forever for strangeness in small towns and poetry in a cup of coffee. In Twin Peaks, as in all of Lynch’s best work, beauty, humor, and horror live side by side, and they’re often all aspects of the same thing.

This conviction, which sometimes comes off as mysterious even to Lynch himself, is what sets him apart from all other American directors. On a superficial level, the style of Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet is staggeringly easy to imitate, or parody, and Lynch has certainly had his share of followers. Few, if any, have managed to share his fundamental certainty that the strangeness and romance of life are inseparable. If his movies are weird, that’s because their urgent sense of beauty can be expressed in no other way. That’s why his example is so humbling, especially for a writer, like me, who finds it hard to move beyond reason, while Lynch, the great naif and Eagle Scout, is off reinventing movies.

Judging from his most recent work, or the lack thereof, David Lynch is no longer especially interested in being a movie director in any conventional sense. Which is wonderful for him, but it’s also our loss, and a permanent one. For an eyeblink, Lynch was at the center of our culture—on October 1, 1990, he was on the cover of Time magazine. Compared to that, how can the last twenty years feel like anything but a retreat?

Written by nevalalee

January 21, 2011 at 10:26 am

Quote of the Day

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…If you know that you’ve got to be somewhere in half an hour, there’s no way you can achieve [a work of art]. So the art life means a freedom to have time for the good things to happen. There’s not always a lot of time for other things.

—David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish

Written by nevalalee

January 21, 2011 at 7:48 am

The greatest opening shots in movies

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When I sat down to make a list of my favorite opening shots in film—having done the same with closing shots last week—I found that the task was surprisingly difficult. For the most part, an opening shot lacks the same power as its opposite number at the end: instead of a summation of all that has come before, an opening shot is more like a declaration of intentions. As a result, the appeal is to the eye and mind, rather than the heart.

Still, there are some wonderful images here. Note that I’ve restricted myself to one shot per director, if only because Kubrick would have completely taken over otherwise. And for many more possibilities, check out Jim Emerson’s terrific Opening Shots project, to which I owe several of the entries below. Click or mouse over for the titles:

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