Archive for June 2012
At the outset of the design process, make your spaces about 10 percent larger than they need to be to meet the assigned program. During the design process, additional spatial requirements will arise—for mechanical rooms, structural columns, storage, circulation space, wall thicknesses, and a hundred other things not anticipated when the building program was created.
The point of overdesigning is not to design a larger building than is necessary but to design one that is ultimately the right size. In the unlikely event the extra space turns out to be unnecessary, you will find it easier to shrink an overlarge building than to create more space where it doesn’t already exist.
As the triumphant conclusion to the fifth season of Mad Men recently made clear, we’re living in an age of great television, at least for those willing to seek it out. It’s also a time in which the role of the television writer has achieved greater prominence in popular culture than ever before. This is partly because of the shows themselves, which are increasingly eager to engage in layered, serialized storytelling; because writers have a much wider range of platforms to discuss their work, whether in the media, at conferences, or on commentary tracks; and because of the emergence of highly articulate fandoms that have made cult heroes out of showrunners like Joss Whedon and Dan Harmon. In my own case, television has inevitably played a large role in my life—everything I’ve ever gotten paid for writing owes something to The X-Files—but it’s only more recently that I’ve begun to think about the specific lessons that television has for writers in any medium.
Over the next two weeks, then, I’m going to be talking about ten episodes of television, in chronological order, that have shaped the way I think about writing. This isn’t meant to be a list of the greatest TV series of all time—unless my plans change, I won’t have a chance to discuss such recent high points as The Wire or Breaking Bad. Rather, these are episodes that illustrate what television has taught me about such important matters as telling complex stories over time; dealing with constraints; managing a large cast of characters; and, crucially, finding a way to end it all. The shows I’ve chosen reflect the haphazard nature of my television education, which was first informed by Nick at Nite and resumed in real time in the early nineties, right around the time Twin Peaks and The Simpsons premiered only four months apart. In short, it’s inseparable from the rhythms of my own life. For the next couple of weeks, I’m going to do my best to explain what the effects have been.
On Monday: Why I wanted Rob Petrie’s job.
If you want to make people weep, you must weep yourself. If you want to make people laugh, your face must remain serious.
As soon as I became a loner in my own mind, that’s when I got what you might call a “following.” As soon as you stop wanting something you get it.
The September 2012 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact is on newsstands now, featuring my novelette “The Voices,” which is sort of an homage to Little, Big by way of H.P. Lovecraft. Analog calls it “psychological fiction in the most literal, yet engaging, sense,” and since it may be my last story there for a while—I sadly haven’t had time to write anything new this year—I’m very glad to see it in print. As usual, I’ll be talking about the story’s origins in some detail later this month, so if you have a chance, please pick up a copy, which you can buy at Barnes & Noble or online here.
Comedy, as we all know intuitively, is largely built on threes. It often shows the same thing three times with slight variations, followed by a kicker at the end, which is why so many jokes are built around three different nationalities, religions, or professions, like those about the mathematician, the physicist, and the engineer. There’s the famous comedy triple, in which two items set up a pattern, followed by a third that serves as a punchline. (There are countless examples, but I’ve always liked this one from The Simpsons: “Well, little girl, I’ve had a lot of jobs in my day: whale hunter, seal clubber, president of the Fox network…”) A similar rule applies to magic, which depends on the basic pattern of setup, development, and surprise climax. In Magic and Showmanship, Henning Nelms describes a trick in which a color-changing fan is used to magically dye handkerchiefs different colors, and then says:
Commercial color-changing fans can display four different hues. But this is bad showmanship. Dyeing one is trivial. Dyeing two arouses interest. Dyeing three provides your climax. There is no reason to add an anticlimax simply because you are prepared to do so.
So why is the number three so powerful? For the same reason that one point is just a point, two points is a line, and three points, suddenly, is structure. Our brains are wired to look for patterns, and it takes three items to confirm or deny that a pattern exists—and it can be very satisfying either to be given the payoff we’ve been expecting or to be shown how cleverly we’ve been misled. Writing about The Godfather, David Thomson speaks of “the sinister charm of action foreseen, spelled out, and finally delivered,” as when Michael kills Sollozzo and McCloskey. “It is a killing in which we are his accomplices,” Thomson says, and three is the minimum number of story points required for the reader to actively conspire in the narrative. This is why most of our stories, from jokes to fairy tales to novels, still consist of a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Or, as Philip Larkin puts it, “a beginning, a muddle, and an end.”)
This also applies to a story’s constituent parts. Narratives tend to have a sort of fractal structure: an individual chapter or scene will often have the same three-act structure as the story as a whole. This often applies to the movie scenes we tend to remember most vividly, which are structured as miniature plays—think of Holly’s first meeting with Harry in The Third Man. My own novels and stories are usually structured in three acts, to the point where I use numbered sections even in short novelettes, and that applies to individual chapters as well. When I’m outlining a chapter, I’m generally thinking in threes, even before I know what will happen: I’ve learned from experience that three story beats is a strong foundation on which to build a chapter, for the same reason that a tripod needs three legs to stand, so I always make sure that the chapter falls into three roughly similar parts, at least in the first draft.
And yet here’s the funny thing: when it comes to the final draft of a chapter, the first and third parts often don’t need to be there. I’ve spoken before about the importance of writing the middle—that is, of cutting the opening and closing sections of a chapter and jumping from the middle of one scene to the next—and I’ve often noticed that rough drafts spend too much time moving toward and away from the real center of interest. In short, the rule of three is invaluable for structuring a first draft, but in the final version, much of it can be thrown away. In my experience, it’s best to reserve the full three-act treatment for big, climactic scenes, while for transitional chapters or sequences, usually only the middle is necessary. The reader can fill in the first and last parts on his or her own—but only if they’ve been written and cut in the first place. They’re still there, but they’re invisible. And that’s how you use the rule of three.
I’m not too keen on characters taking over; they do as they are damn well told.
There’s a memorable moment in the novel Gravity’s Rainbow, set during the closing years of World War II, in which a Japanese naval officer named Ensign Morituri—one of the more effective of Pynchon’s deliberately bad character puns—strikes up a friendly conversation with Tyrone Slothrop, the novel’s ineffectual hero. Morituri says:
“I want to see the war over in the Pacific so that I can go home. Since you ask. It’s the season of the plum rains now, the Bai-u, when all the plums are ripening. I want only to be with Michiko and our girls, and once I’m there, never to leave Hiroshima again. I think you’d like it there. It’s a city on Honshu, on the Inland Sea, very pretty, a perfect size, big enough for city excitement, small enough for the serenity a man needs…”
The scene takes place in the summer of 1945. While this is a fairly obvious example, it isn’t the only time in which Pynchon uses the historical setting of his novel to create a fierce sort of irony for a reader who knows what comes next. And the trick of setting a novel or other work of art in the recent past, so the author can shape his narrative to look forward to future events, is a powerful tool indeed—although it needs to be treated with caution.
It’s also a very old device. Right now I’m reading Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, which takes place on a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic several years before World War II, allowing the author to indulge in such moments as when a German passenger, speaking of the travelers in steerage, says: “I would put them all in a big oven and turn on the gas.” On a much higher level, we see the same strategy in The Magic Mountain, whose characters debate the future of Europe in the years leading up to the Great War. The device allows the author to set up certain characters as insightful or naive, measured simply by their sense of what we know is coming, and it also gives the writer’s own pronouncements about the future more authority, since we know that at least some of them will come true. (In fact, the critic Edward Mendelson identifies this as one of the characteristics of the encyclopedic novel, which is nearly always set in the recent past. On a humbler plane, it’s also true of The Icon Thief and its sequels.)
The trouble is that a trick like this can easily be misused. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s tempting to feel smarter than characters who ignore the rise of Nazi Germany or the threat of Stalinist Russia, for instance, which conveniently overlooks the fact that much of the world made the same mistake. It also leads to books like The Help, which allows us to admire certain characters and dislike others simply by transferring today’s social attitudes to characters in the past. And a work of art like this can go either way. When I first heard the premise of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, I thought it was very clever: a television series about a cable news program set in the recent past, allowing us to watch characters work their way through actual breaking news events—the Gulf oil spill, the death of Osama Bin Laden—in real time. Such a structure yields countless opportunities for irony and suspense, which often boil down to the same thing: the viewer knows something that the characters do not. And when done properly, it could provide enough stories to fuel a series forever.
After watching the pilot, however, I’m a little skeptical about Sorkin’s approach. The show’s first episode centers on the disaster at the Deepwater Horizon, but instead of giving us characters who are scrambling to catch up with events, it shows them jumping ahead of them almost immediately. Within minutes of hearing the news, it seems, the protagonists have already foreseen the environmental consequences and have predicted, with incredible accuracy, how events will unfold over the following months—which makes them seem much smarter than the characters around them, yes, but only because Aaron Sorkin knows what did happen. This takes the easy way out (it isn’t hard to seem smart today when you have access to tomorrow’s newspaper) and it ignores a lot of potential drama. A show like The Newsroom works best when the audience knows more than the characters, not when the characters know more than everyone else. There’s a lot of promise here, and I hope the show improves, although I can’t say for sure. Because unlike Sorkin’s characters, I don’t know what will come next.
Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.
Note: Spoilers follow for Brave.
It pains me to say this, but there’s no other way: I no longer fully trust Pixar. While I’m aware that this may not be a popular opinion, Brave strikes me as their weakest movie of any kind, weaker even than Cars 2. As I said at the time, Cars 2 had big problems, but it was only a rewrite or two away from being a entertaining movie. Brave, by contrast, comes off as fundamentally misconceived, and in ways that raise troubling questions about Pixar’s vaunted storytelling skills. There’s no doubt Pixar takes its storytelling very seriously, and as we saw with the recent list of narrative tips shared by artist Emma Coats, it’s developed a formidable bag of tricks. But in the case of a movie like Brave, such tricks amount to smart tactics in the service of no strategy whatsoever. Much of Brave works fine on its own terms—it’s consistently beautiful, ambitious, and rendered with a lot of love. But the more I think about it, the more it looks like a story that could only be fixed by being thrown out and radically reconceived.
At its heart, Brave‘s story is startlingly simple: a teenage princess, Merida, annoyed by her mother, Queen Elinor, casts a spell that turns her mother into a bear. This isn’t a bad premise in itself, but as handled by Brave, it suffers from three major problems: 1. Neither Merida nor her mother are strongly developed enough as characters to make the latter’s transformation meaningful. We don’t really know Queen Elinor before she’s transformed and can no longer speak, so the long sequences with Merida and Elinor as a bear can’t build on anything that came before. 2. Elinor’s metamorphosis is supposed to bring mother and daughter closer together, but there’s nothing in the situation that reveals anything new about their relationship. It’s just a generic crisis that doesn’t cast any light on the central conflict, which is that Merida is smarting under her mother’s expectations. 3. The movie’s treatment of magic is casual at best, with Merida essentially getting her spell from a witch who dispenses plot points, and the rules are never really explained, which undermines any narrative tension, especially near the end.
It isn’t hard to think of a version of this story that would have worked better than the one we’ve been given. We could make Elinor, not Merida, the central character, which automatically makes her transformation more interesting. We could turn Elinor’s father, the king, into a bear, and have mother and daughter work together to save him. We could have Merida take a rebellious interest in magic, and be drawn to a witch—not the witch we see here, but perhaps someone more like Maleficent—as an alternative mother figure in place of the queen, with disastrous consequences. Or we could even keep the story we have and approach it with a lighter touch, as Miyazaki might have done. Totoro barely has any plot at all, yet the grace of its conception makes it seem elegant rather than half-baked. Brave‘s technical splendor actually works against it here: it’s so visually compelling that it takes us a long time to realize that we’ve been given a rather simpleminded children’s movie, and that the studio gave less effort to exploring Merida’s motivations than it did to developing her hair.
In the end, we’re left with a deeply muddled movie whose constant harping on themes of destiny only makes its confusions all the more clear. Merida, for all her talk about fate, doesn’t seem to have any particular sense of what she wants out of life, and neither does the movie around her. (Just repeating the word “fate” over and over won’t convince us that you have anything interesting to say on the subject.) And the result is a film that seems less like an ordinary misfire than a tragic waste of resources. It’s possible that the change of directors was to blame, or the fact that, contrary to what the filmmakers have said, the studio was so intent on making a movie with a female protagonist and a fairy tale setting that it forgot to make either distinctive—or to see that Tangled had already done a better job. If I’m being hard on Pixar, it’s because it’s capable of far more, and I’m afraid it may see Brave as the best it can do. But it isn’t: it’s the work of a great studio that has lost its way. And only time will tell if Pixar can manage to change its fate.
The need [in magic] to avoid building too high too soon is the most important case where we must apply the principle of conservation. It is also the hardest lesson in showmanship to learn. Many otherwise gifted performers are unable to resist a temptation to start with a bang or to make a rise so steep that its peak comes before the real climax…
If you work night clubs where half the audience is drunk, you may need a violent opening to secure any attention at all. My friend John Carlance once played a club on New Year’s Eve. Just as pandemonium broke out at midnight, the half-witted manager turned to John and said, “You’re on.”
I would have murdered the manager. John, however, walked on stage and set fire to a handful of flash paper. The resulting flare drew even the bleariest eye in the house. Note that although this seized attention, it was not interesting in itself. In spite of his violent opening, John was able to start his interest curve at the bottom…
[My ideal is] to do the day’s work well and not to bother about tomorrow. You may say that is not a satisfactory ideal. It is; and there is not one which the student can carry with him into practice with greater effect. To it more than anything else I owe whatever success I have had—to this power of settling down to the day’s work and trying to do it well to the best of my ability, and letting the future take care of itself.
“Specialization,” Robert Heinlein wrote, “is for insects,” and recently, I’ve become fascinated by the life of a man named Henning Nelms, aka Hake Talbot, who, as much as any author I know, embodies the idea that a writer needs to know a bit about everything. Nelms was born in Baltimore in 1900, and after obtaining an undergraduate degree from George Washington University, he studied law at the University of Georgia and got his MFA at Yale. He made his living primarily as a lawyer, but also worked in advertising and editing and was the head of the drama department at Middlebury College. In addition to his two mystery novels, one of which is a classic, he wrote plays and published several books on stagecraft and set design, but he’s perhaps best known today as a magician. Indeed, you’ll often find articles on Nelms that refer to him either as a magician or a mystery novelist, mentioning his other field of interest only in passing, when in fact he made an indelible impression in both.
I first got to know Nelms through his wonderful book Thinking With a Pencil, which I read when I was younger and recently bought again after realizing that I needed to own a copy. The title says it all: its 350 pages are packed with insight on basic sketching techniques, tracing, cartooning, figure drawing, perspective, lettering, the creation of diagrams and schematics, the presentation of data in charts and tables, and much more, all of it apparently picked up on the fly in a life of solving problems on the stage and in print. His book Magic and Showmanship takes a similar approach to conjuring: it covers the basics of sleight of hand, the construction of props and effects, and the preparation of stage patter and narrative, all of which are treated as parts of a seamless whole. In short, it envisions magic as a special case of storytelling, and much of its advice applies equally well to the writer as to the magician. For instance:
When you try to achieve a rising curve [of interest], keeping the beginning low is as important as making the ending high. If you start with a strong number, the next few effects will let the curve sag—and you may never be able to make it rise again. Dramatists know this; nearly every play opens with a scene that is deliberately dull. Its only function is to secure attention. If your first effect leaves your audience breathless, you will never be able to top it…Each peak and each valley should be higher than the one before it.
Given all this, it was perhaps inevitable that Nelms would also try his hand at mystery fiction, which was so suited for his particular bag of tricks. He wrote only two novels, under the pseudonym Hake Talbot, but his more famous book, Rim of the Pit, has been voted the second-greatest locked room mystery of all time (behind only John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins, which can be expected to take the top position in any poll). I recently read Rim of the Pit, and while it has some of the weaknesses of the locked room genre in general—everything, including character, is subordinated to the puzzle, and the writing is fair at best—it’s still a fine showcase for Nelms’s talents. A group of potential victims and suspects are gathered in a cabin in the woods for a story that plays like an encyclopedia of impossible crimes: ghosts appear and disappear; a dead body is found in pristine snow, without any footprints nearby; and, of course, a killer vanishes from a room in which there can be no possible escape.
The answer, as always, is never quite as satisfying as the mystery itself, but Nelms plays fair, misleads us beautifully, and comes up with a number of really ingenious solutions. (His approach to the problem of the body surrounded by untouched snow is particularly inventive.) And the book reflects Nelms’s remarkable personality: it’s full of magical lore, testifying to his wide reading in the literature of the supernatural, and it even gives him a chance to show off his skills as a draftsman—the map on the back cover of the original edition was drawn by the author himself. These days, Nelms, who died in 1986, isn’t well known outside the circles of magicians and mystery enthusiasts, but he embodies the kind of writer I tend to admire most: the jack of all trades, equal to any challenge, with a deep well of experience derived from surprising places. And if specialization is for insects, then Nelms is a model for all of us who hope to be something more.
There are only two kinds of books which you can write and be pretty sure you’re going to make a living—cookbooks and detective stories.
Earlier this month, the Siskel Center in Chicago began presenting a loving retrospective of the work of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator who, as I’ve argued before, may be our greatest living director in any medium. Of all the contemporary directors whose work I revisit on a regular basis, Miyazaki may be the one who fills me with the most awe, and he’s also the one whose mastery I find hardest to explain. His best films are totally accessible to viewers of all ages, and some, like My Neighbor Totoro, stand out for their apparent simplicity. But while the Pixar style of storytelling can be taken apart and analyzed—at their best, Pixar’s films are beautiful machines of narrative—the work of Miyazaki resists easy explanation. A set of narrative rules tweeted by Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats recently made the rounds online, and they’re full of good advice: “What are the stakes?” “Give your characters opinions.” “Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it.” But what would the rules look like for Miyazaki?
As one possible way in, I’ll start by noting that Miyazaki’s work falls into two different categories, one of which is significantly greater than the other—although I know that a lot of fans would take issue with this. His best work, to my mind, has always been about children: My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo are among the best animated movies ever made, and they’re all significantly different in tone, style, and mood. Totoro is a perfect tone poem about a child’s life in the satoyama, or Japanese countryside, with the gentle rhythms of a bedtime story; Spirited Away is a dense, superbly organized epic of fantasy seen through a child’s eyes; and Ponyo is sort of a hybrid of the two, with scenes of intense joy, humor, and lyricism paired with strange, goofy fantasy. Compared to these three, I find his work centering on older characters—such as Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle—to be rather less interesting. These movies are often brilliant and visually distinctive, but Miyazaki has many rivals here, while there’s no one who matches him at capturing the inner lives of children.
Spirited Away is my favorite Miyazaki movie, but after watching Totoro again last night, I wonder if it might not be the greater accomplishment. I’ve spoken before about the American need to make movies centered on restless movement—on action that breaks out, to use David Thomson’s words. Spirited Away is almost like a Pixar film in this respect, although infinitely weirder and more graceful: it’s packed with incident, action, and spectacular images. Totoro, by contrast, takes its time. It contains only the tiniest sliver of plot or conflict. For most of the film, its magical creatures are offstage: Totoro himself appears for only a few minutes, and most of the movie is devoted to an idyllic but comparatively realistic depiction of the lives of two little girls. And yet the entire movie is riveting and magical. I can understand how Spirited Away works, but Totoro is beyond words. Ponyo lacks Totoro‘s clean lines, but it, too, is full of gorgeous moments that are impossible to explain but indisputably right.
And the childlike perspective here is crucial, because it allows the film to slow down and take in the world with the eyes of a child to whom everything is interesting. What impresses me the most about Miyazaki these days aren’t his flights of fancy but his attention to the small details of everyday life. In Totoro, he notices how an old door or window sticks slightly before you open it for the first time, or how a girl of ten sleeps more or less like an adult while a girl of four sleeps in a tangle of blankets. Ponyo, in turn, mines poetry out of making ramen or starting a generator after a storm. That kind of perspective, when channeled through years of artistic experience, is truly precious, and I watch Miyazaki’s films again and again just for the chance to relive those moments. The craft on display here isn’t the kind that can be easily taught: it requires a good eye and steady hand as well as a generous heart. It can’t be reduced to a set of rules. But if it could, it wouldn’t be magical, would it?
It is a common weakness of young authors to put too much into their papers.