Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George Lucas

Writing by numbers

leave a comment »

Writers spend so much time dealing with words that we often forget how useful numbers can be. Every book consists of some flexible sequence of individual chapters or scenes, and once this kind of framework exists, it can be broken down numerically in ways that often shed a surprising light on the story’s structure. I’ve quoted the young George Lucas on this point before, but I may as well do it again:

In the end I want to end up with a list of scenes. And the way I work generally is I figure a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes depending on which scale you want to work on. A thirty scene thing means that each scene is going to be around four pages long. A sixty one means that every scene is going to run twenty pages long…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out.

In the most extreme case, screenwriters can turn into obsessive scene- and page-counters, to the point where certain screenwriting guides advise you to put the inciting incident on page 10, the “all is lost” moment on page 75, and the second turning point on page 90. And although this kind of quantitative approach may seem to have little place in writing a novel, there are times when it helps to reduce a book to the numbers, in order to guide or supplement a more intuitive approach.

As I noted yesterday, when I realized that my rough draft of Eternal Empire was about 15,000 words too long, I began by cutting it like a sculptor, looking at each page and crossing out paragraphs that seemed to break the visual rhythm of the scene, while also trimming chapters that felt too long when I was flipping through the manuscript. This top-down, predominantly intuitive method got me partway there, but in the end, I still had a lot of material to cut if I wanted to get the draft anywhere near 100,000 words. As any writer can attest, once you’ve passed a certain point in cutting, it gets much harder—the extraneous material isn’t standing there in plain sight, but is buried within otherwise tight-looking paragraphs in the form of an extra sentence, an unnecessary line of dialogue, or a clause that only repeats information that the reader already knows. To get the length down any further, I had to cut this book to the bone. And the obvious way to do this was to focus on chapters that were objectively on the long side.

I responded with what I often do when faced with a problem like this: I made a spreadsheet. I began by listing each chapter, its point of view character, its length, and whether or not it was predominantly transitional. (A transitional chapter, roughly speaking, provides a moment of relative downtime between the more intense moments and set pieces. Such quiet spots are essential, because a book that was nothing but high points would quickly become exhausting, but they also need to advance the story in some way, and should probably be kept on the short side.) Looking at the ensuing list, I saw that most of the major chapters were about 2,000 words long, while transitional chapters tended to be closer to 1,500. This, then, was my benchmark: any chapter that was longer than its characteristic length would have to be cut down. This could mean cutting fifty words or several hundred, but the result would be a draft in which no chapter was longer than its narrative peers without reason. And my spreadsheet gave me a good sense of where to start.

If this sounds crazy, well, maybe it is. (I’m often reminded of Daniel Okrent in the documentary Wordplay, in which he explains that he keeps a notebook recording all of his solving times for the New York Times crossword puzzle “because I’m an obsessive creep.”) And I would never recommend this approach to anyone whose mind didn’t lend itself to these kinds of solutions—I like putting together spreadsheets, and naturally tend to use them to organize projects. But there’s a larger point here that I think applies to every writer. It may seem ridiculous to worry about whether a chapter is 1,750 words long or only 1,500, but this approach, in general, will draw your attention to parts of the story that are relatively more likely to be in need of cutting. And any cut you can make will almost always be a good one. The real test, obviously, lies in reading the novel itself, in which an objectively short chapter may drag and a lengthy chapter may seem just right. But looking at the numbers will guide the scalpel to places that might not be obvious to the naked eye. In the end, I cut several thousand more words out of the draft, and I don’t even know where they went. The result was a much stronger novel. And I can thank the numbers for this.

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2012 at 10:08 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

Write like a hedgehog, think like a fox

leave a comment »

“The fox knows many things,” Archilochus writes, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” And ever since Isaiah Berlin wrote his great essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, readers and critics have been dividing up writers into one category or the other—foxes who range widely over the world without any central philosophy, and hedgehogs who focus on one big idea. Really, however, most writers tend to alternate between the two roles: they’re foxes when gathering material and hedgehogs when the time comes to sit down and write. Writers have a dauntingly wide range of interests and obsessions, but in their actual fiction, they often rely on a handful of the same tricks—which is exactly how it should be. One or two good tricks that a writer has thoroughly internalized can be more valuable than an entire shelf’s worth of undigested literary wisdom. And while I’ve previously shared my ten rules of writing, I thought it might be worth distilling them down to the three big, hedgehog-level tricks on which I rely whenever I’m writing something new, even after everything else has fallen away:

1. Structure your stories one objective at a time. As Kurt Vonnegut points out, if you can make your central character want something right away, even if it’s just a glass of water, it will keep the reader reading. The key insight of my writing life is that if you maintain a laserlike focus on the character’s objectives at each successive beat of the story, without worrying about what comes next, the result will have a shapeliness and authenticity that you never could have achieved by planning from the top down. A character who has convincing objectives from moment to moment will also be convincing when you step back to regard him as a whole—and it’s both easier and more effective to concentrate on each beat in succession. This argument is emphatically made in David Mamet’s On Directing Film, the best book on storytelling I know, which I recommend to everyone who cares about writing. The result may not always be inspired—Mamet’s own films can come off as flat and a little bloodless—but if you write a rough draft with this rule in mind, the damned thing will at least work. And that’s really all you can ask of it.

2. Think of the story in threes. George Lucas, who at his best was one of the great methodical, not natural, storytellers of all time, expresses a similar point in the famous Raiders of the Lost Ark story conference: “The way I work generally is I figure out a code, a general measuring stick parameter. I can either come up with thirty scenes or sixty scenes…I have a tendency to work rather mathematically about all this stuff. I found it easier and it does lay things out.” And he’s right: it’s a lot easier when you have a number. In my own case, instead of the thirty or sixty scenes that Lucas talks about, I start with a pattern of three rough acts, which I know I’m aiming for even before I know what the story is about. Not every story lends itself naturally to a three-act structure, but it’s nice to have it in mind, both because it’s an intuitively appealing story formula with a beginning, middle, and end, and because, as Lucas points out, it gives you some useful parameters. And you can drill down even deeper, on an almost fractal level: I find myself dividing sections, chapters, and even individual scenes into three subsidiary units. This kind of structure, as arbitrary as it may seem, is an essential step toward finding a story’s organic shape. Which brings me to my third point…

3. Cut wherever possible—and at least ten percent. Just because you’ve structured a story in threes, and as a series of discrete objectives, doesn’t mean you need to keep all of them in the final version. In fact, the whole point of structuring the story so mechanically is to give you something to change—a solid substructure that you can refine based on how the resulting story reads in real time. If you’ve done your work properly, your rough draft will be a functional object that you can then shape at your leisure, knowing that you can always fall back on the earlier version when necessary. In practice, this often means pruning away the structure you’ve laboriously imposed: in particular, you’ll often cut the first and third beats of a given unit, leaving only the crucial middle. And, of course, you’re seeking to condense wherever possible. If you follow Stephen King’s dictum that the second draft equals the first draft minus ten percent, I promise that magical things will happen. These are simple, stupid rules, based on a couple of basic numbers—one, three, ten—that even a hedgehog can understand. But it’s the only way to release your inner fox.

Written by nevalalee

September 18, 2012 at 9:57 am

Indy movies

leave a comment »

On Saturday, my wife and I spent seven hours at the River East theater in Chicago, watching a marathon of the Indiana Jones movies, which I still insist on calling a trilogy, in advance of their release tomorrow on Blu-ray. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen all three films on the big screen—I spent a wonderful day watching them all at the sadly departed UC Theater in Berkeley over a decade ago—but it had been a long time since I’d seen them from start to finish. The experience, I’m happy to say, was close to perfect: the digital prints were gorgeous, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, and the movies were as satisfying as ever. And the fact that we left before Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t diminish my appreciation for what the original trilogy achieved. Like everyone else, I’m critical of George Lucas: he remains, as David Thomson notes, the saddest of moguls, and his career over the last twenty years has consisted of one long retreat. And yet with these three films, he shaped and enriched my inner life more than any other filmmaker, and for that, I’m forever grateful.

Of the three, Raiders is by far the most cinematically exciting: it was made when Steven Spielberg was still only thirty-four, with the greatest natural eye in movie history, and the result is dazzlingly assembled—it may be his most technically thrilling film of any kind. A great deal of this can be credited to the screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, which pulls off the difficult job of moving between set pieces conceived by the director and producer while lavishing every scene with ingenious and delightful beats. (Even so modest a sequence as the “bad dates” scene is a small masterpiece of acting, writing, editing, and direction.) The script for Temple of Doom, by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, is far more problematic, and the connective material is considerably less graceful, but the big set pieces—the opening sequence in Shanghai, the spike room, the mine car chase—reach dizzying heights. By comparison, the action in Last Crusade is competent, inventive, but less divinely inspired, and there isn’t an action sequence here that really holds up with the best of the first two movies.

Yet Last Crusade has always been my favorite of the three, and one of my favorite movies of any kind, which gets at a very important point: these films aren’t about action or special effects, as fine as they may be, but about a certain spirit, a promise about the kinds of experiences and adventures that the movies can offer us, and Last Crusade captures that spirit perfectly. It’s both endearingly innocent and highly sophisticated, and it expresses, as Truffaut would have said, both an idea of life and an idea of cinema—and the fact that the ideas are straight out of a boy’s book of adventures doesn’t make them any less moving or less true. Looking back, I’ve begun to realize that it’s as responsible as any movie for the direction my own life has taken: I saw it when I was about ten years old, and it was arguably the first in a sequence of books, movies, and television shows that convinced me that I wanted to tell stories for a living. Other movies have since become more important to me, and I fully see its limitations, but few works of art have ever seized my imagination in quite the same way.

And its spirit is one that I’ve been trying to recapture in my own work ever since. One night after college, I was watching Temple of Doom with my family when I dozed off near the end and awoke as the closing credits began to roll. Somehow, in that moment between sleep and waking, I heard something in the score by John Williams—it’s the unbearably beautiful theme that appears in “Slave Children’s Crusade”—that I’d never heard before: it seemed to crystallize, in a few bars of music, everything that I hoped to accomplish as a storyteller. My first novel, a long adventure story set in India, may have been my subconscious effort to work out that one moment of dreamlike inspiration. And while that novel remains unpublished, one of the great challenges I now face as a writer is gradually nudging my work back to that theme, which has been reduced to a subtle, almost imperceptible note in my published novels and stories. I’m still trying to figure out what shape it will take. But it’s there. And I have a hunch that Indy will be the one to show me the way.

The Fandom Menace

leave a comment »

What does it mean to be a true fan? I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days, ever since watching the documentary The People Vs. George Lucas, a loving portrait of the vocal, passionate fringe of Star Wars fandom. “If it says Star Wars on it, I’ll buy it,” one fan gleefully admits, while others say that, yes, they didn’t care much for The Phantom Menace, but they still saw it ten times in the theater. Fandom is stronger than one’s like or dislike of any individual film or piece of merchandise: even more than the movies themselves, it’s about the shared experience of caring deeply about something, and about being around others who know how you feel. For the sake of that sense of community—of being part of something larger than yourself—sitting repeatedly through a movie you don’t really like is a small price to pay. And if you don’t feel that the franchise is living up to its potential, there are plenty of ways to address the situation on your own, whether through fan edits, conventions, or simply venting your feelings online.

Fandom, as I see it, is primarily a quest to keep a certain set of feelings alive. It’s the feeling you get when you see a great movie for the first time, or when you’re a child playing with a few plastic toys that seem capable of having endless adventures on their own. It’s about a moment in which the world—or at least the world of narrative possibility—seems full of limitless potential, with an infinite number of stories that could be told. To recapture that feeling, you want to spend as much time in this world as possible. You extend the experience in every way you can, either by revisiting the works that first triggered the emotion or exploring the expanded universe. But after a certain point, a new comic book or video game doesn’t expand the universe of stories. Rather, it contracts them, either by closing off unspoken possibilities or reducing them to yet another mediocre spinoff. Great storytelling, after all, is a rare commodity. Very few franchises have managed to sustain it for even three movies.

That’s when fandom starts to curdle—and not necessarily for the right reasons. Looking at the new movies and toys we’ve been given, and how much worse they are than the ones that encouraged us to love this world in the first place, we can only conclude that George Lucas just doesn’t care as much as we do. It never occurs to us that the first two Star Wars movies might have been outliers, and that even Return of the Jedi represents a regression to the mean. (My wife and I watched the Despecialized Edition of Jedi the other night, and the fall in quality from Empire—one of the greatest movies of all time—was painfully clear.) If the prequels were disappointing, it isn’t because Lucas wasn’t trying, although he may have suffered from hubris and lack of oversight: it’s because it’s unlikely that all these pieces would fall into place again in just the right way. And if that’s true of the movies, it’s doubly true of everything else. If we’re lucky, a franchise will give us one or two great films. Given the vagaries of any kind of artistic production, it’s unrealistic to expect anything else.

But of course, we do expect more, and it’s those expectations that bind fans together, as quixotic as they might be. Fandoms thrive on the sense of being endangered, or at least of being part of a vocal minority pitted against a complacent mainstream. Plenty of Star Wars fans like to think of themselves as the loyal opposition to Lucasfilm, and, even more radically, to the vast number of ordinary moviegoers who see Star Wars as just another movie—or, worse, make no distinction between the prequels and the original trilogy. As The People Vs. George Lucas points out, kids love Jar Jar Binks, and the generation that grew up on the prequels is graduating from college with their good feelings for these movies intact. Fans see their role as that of holding the franchise to a higher standard—to the one that they remember, rightly or not, as their first experience of this world. The fact that this ideal may not exist doesn’t enter into the equation. Indeed, their power comes from the fact that, like Yoda, they want the impossible.

Written by nevalalee

June 19, 2012 at 10:06 am

Revenge of the Fan Edits

leave a comment »

“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft,” H.G. Wells said, and he was perfectly right—except, of course, for the passion among certain fans to create their own version of Star Wars. Over the past few days, I’ve found myself sucked into the curious world of Star Wars fan edits, thanks to the wonderful documentary The People Vs. George Lucas, which I watched twice in a row one night last week. Fan edits are a sort of fanfic executed with Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro: a chance for enthusiastics to engage directly with their favorite—or most hated—works of art, in a way that is guaranteed to reach a small but receptive audience. In the case of Star Wars, fan editors recut, restructure, and even radically augment the original films to fix problems, address perceived shortcomings, or serve an artistic agenda of their own. Fan edits, at their best, can serve as a showcase for considerable talent in editing, film restoration, and special effects. And like fanfic, they often reveal surprising things not just about the fans involved, but about how we think about storytelling in general.

In the world of fan edits, there are two prevailing tendencies, which I’ll refer to as the preservationist and the revisionist (although there’s a lot of overlap). The preservationists are the ones concerned, and rightly so, with the fact that no adequate high-definition print of the original, unaltered Star Wars films is currently available, and Lucasfilm seems to have no interest in ever providing it. The result is a community of intelligent, informed preservationists who are as concerned with restoring the correct color balance to The Empire Strikes Back as they are with making sure Han shoots first, with the undisputed masterpiece of the form being Harmy’s Despecialized Edition, which painstakingly restores the original trilogy to something like its pristine state. In many cases, the apparent restoration is an illusion, with new mattes and rotoscoping used to recreate the original effects, but it’s an incredibly compelling one. I’ve been watching it with something like awe all weekend, and when I finally have the chance to show Star Wars to my own children, this is the version I’m going to use.

The revisionist tendency is somewhat more problematic. The Star Wars prequels, for obvious reasons, have inspired the most revision, starting with the famous Phantom Edit, which removes much of The Phantom Menace‘s exposition, its talk of trade disputes and midichlorians, and most of Jar Jar Binks. The result is a stronger film, but also less interesting: by removing the worst of its excesses, we’re left with just another bland space opera. Much more ambitious is Adywan’s Star Wars Revisited, an obsessive fan edit of A New Hope. Continuity errors have been fixed; special effects have been cleaned up and enhanced; entire sequences have been reedited or created from scratch. Sometimes the changes are fun—as when the soundtrack swells with the Imperial March, which originally didn’t appear until the second movie—but they occasionally cross the line: Revisited radically reedits the final assault on the Death Star, for instance, as if the original weren’t exciting enough on its own, and it even fixes Han Solo’s floppy wrist motion as he fires his blaster in one scene.

These changes are perfectly fine when viewed as a sort of elaborate fan criticism, or as a demo reel to show off the reviser’s skills at editing and visual effects (which are impressive…most impressive). But I disturbed by the implication on one forum that for some fans of the film, this has become their preferred way to watch the movie—or even to introduce it to viewers seeing Star Wars for the first time. At that point, their philosophy begins to shade into that of Lucas himself, who apparently would be quite happy if all copies of the original version of Star Wars were somehow destroyed—as they will be, in time, if they aren’t adequately preserved. The original Star Wars isn’t perfect, and that’s part of its charm: it’s a film made by real men and women on real sets, under considerable constraints, with solutions invented on the fly, without the luxury of digital retouching. It’s a film made lovingly by hand, and I like even the things that bug me about it. In one shot, for instance, you can see a crew member crouching behind a droid at the Jawa Sandcrawler, dressed to blend in with the background. You can erase him, of course—but why would you want to lose that connection to that day’s shooting, out in the hot Tunisia sun?

Written by nevalalee

June 18, 2012 at 10:21 am

Frank Darabont and the screenplay of doom

leave a comment »

Writers are hired and fired from movies all the time, but few departures were more widely reported than Frank Darabont’s exit from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Darabont himself has expressed amazement that the media cared so much: “Where were you guys when that other script four years ago went in the shitter? You weren’t paying attention because it wasn’t Spielberg, and it wasn’t Lucas, and it wasn’t Indiana Jones.” But it was hard not to care, especially when the movie itself turned out to be such a disappointment. For all its other problems, the story was especially weak, and it was common knowledge that Darabont had written a draft that Spielberg loved, but Lucas rejected. (As I’ve said before, Hollywood is the kind of place where the man who wrote The Shawshank Redemption is getting script notes from the guy who wrote Attack of the Clones.)

So it became almost an article of faith that the Darabont version would have resulted in a much better movie. And yet Darabont’s Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods, which I finally read over the weekend, isn’t all that great either. It’s incrementally more interesting than the final version, with some nice action scenes and a much better understanding of the relationship between Indy and Marion. There’s a pleasant air of intrigue and a few inspired double-crosses (which makes the insipid “triple agent” of the final version all the more infuriating). But the machinery of the plot takes a long time to get going, the central adventure never quite takes hold, and I missed Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, if not Shia LaBeouf’s Mutt. If I had been Lucas, I probably would have asked for a rewrite as well. But the real takeaway is that no rewrite could have made up for the shakiness of the underlying conception.

The trouble is that in any version, the crystal skull simply isn’t an interesting artifact. Darabont himself seems slightly bored by it, and doesn’t bother explaining what it does or why it matters until the script is halfway over. Even in the last act, when we finally enter the City of the Gods, we aren’t quite sure what the big deal is. Compared to a movie like Last Crusade, which had a wonderful screenplay by Jeffrey Boam that made the emotional stakes exceptionally clear, it’s hard to forgive this kind of narrative confusion, especially when the payoff is so underwhelming. (Its treatment in the final version of the script, as written by David Koepp, is even less satisfying: instead of searching for the skull, most of the movie is devoted to putting it back where it came from, which isn’t the best way to build narrative momentum.)

Of course, you could argue that the artifact is less important than the man pursuing it: Temple of Doom, after all, is essentially about the recovery of some sacred rocks. But City of the Gods is an uncomfortable reminder that we aren’t interested in the things Indy does because we like Indiana Jones; we like Indiana Jones because he does interesting things. Without a decent plot, he becomes the Harrison Ford of the past decade, the man David Thomson accurately saw as a “limited, anxious actor” with little interest in charming the audience. Given the right material, Ford can be wonderful, but he was never an actor who could elevate a film simply with his own presence. He needed Indy as much as Indy needed him. And neither Darabont nor his successors, alas, could ever quite figure out how to bring Indy back.

Source Code and the state of modern science fiction

leave a comment »

On Saturday, my wife and I finally saw Source Code, the new science fiction thriller directed by Moon‘s Duncan Jones. I liked Moon a lot, but wasn’t sure what to expect from his latest film, and was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be the best new movie I’ve seen this year. Admittedly, this is rather faint praise—by any measure, this has been a slow three months for moviegoers. And Source Code has its share of problems. It unfolds almost perfectly for more than an hour, then gets mired in an ending that tries, not entirely successfully, to be emotionally resonant and tie up all its loose ends, testing the audience’s patience at the worst possible time. Still, I really enjoyed it. The story draws you in viscerally and is logically consistent, at least up to a point, and amounts to a rare example of real science fiction in a mainstream Hollywood movie.

By “real” science fiction, of course, I don’t mean that the science is plausible. The science in Source Code is cheerfully absurd, explained with a bit of handwaving about quantum mechanics and parabolic calculus, but the movie is unusual in having the courage to follow a tantalizing premise—what if you could repeatedly inhabit the mind of a dead man eight minutes before he died?—through most of its possible variations. This is what the best science fiction does: it starts with an outlandish idea and follows it relentlessly through all its implications, while never violating the rules that the story has established. And one of the subtlest pleasures of Ben Ripley’s screenplay for Source Code lies in its gradual reveal of what the rules actually are. (If anything, I wish I’d known less about the story before entering the theater.)

This may sound like a modest accomplishment, but it’s actually extraordinarily rare. Most of what we call science fiction in film is thinly veiled fantasy with a technological sheen. A movie like Avatar could be set almost anywhere—the futuristic trappings are incidental to a story that could have been lifted from any western or war movie. (Walter Murch even suggests that George Lucas based the plot of Star Wars on the work he did developing Apocalypse Now.) Star Trek was often a show about ideas, but its big-screen incarnation is much more about action and spectacle: Wrath of Khan, which I think is the best science fiction film ever made, has been aptly described as Horatio Hornblower in space. And many of the greatest sci-fi movies—Children of Men, Blade Runner, Brazil—are more about creating the look and feel of a speculative future than any sense of how it might actually work.

And this is exactly how it should be. Movies, after all, aren’t especially good at conveying ideas; a short story, or even an episode of a television show, is a much better vehicle for working out a clever premise than a feature film. Because movies are primarily about action, character, and image, it isn’t surprising that Hollywood has appropriated certain elements of science fiction and left the rest behind. What’s heartening about Source Code, especially so soon after the breakthrough of Inception, is how it harnesses its fairly ingenious premise to a story that works as pure entertainment. There’s something deeply satisfying about seeing the high and low aspects of the genre joined so seamlessly, and it requires a peculiar set of skills on the part of the director, who needs to be both fluent with action and committed to ideas. Chris Nolan is one; Duncan Jones, I’m excited to say, looks very much like another.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,307 other followers

%d bloggers like this: