Posts Tagged ‘William Goldman’
You’ve seen this baguette before. In any movie or television show in which a character is shown carrying groceries, a big loaf of french bread is invariably seen peeking out over the top of the bag. On the few occasions when it isn’t there, a similar role is assumed by a leafy bunch of carrots, or, in exceptional cases, celery. As the comically detailed TV Tropes entry on the subject points out, you’ll see the baguette among groceries carried by the unlikeliest of characters, like Liam Neeson in Taken, who carries not one, but two. (He’s in Paris, after all.) And given how often this loaf of bread turns up, it was only a matter of time before a clever screenwriter, in this case Tony Gilory in Michael Clayton, gave us a grocery bag full of nothing but baguettes. In this instance, it’s partially intended as a reflection of the unstable mental state of the character played by Tom Wilkinson, but it’s also a nod to a cinematic convention that, over time, has come to seem like a particularly ludicrous visual cliché.
And yet that baguette is there for a reason. For one thing, it’s a convenient prop that is unlikely to wilt under hot studio lights or after hours spent on location. It’s also a handy bit of narrative shorthand. If we see a character carrying a paper bag without any clues about what it contains, we immediately start to wonder what might be inside. The baguette poking out over the top is a visual flag that, paradoxically, actually makes the bag less visible: as soon as we understand that it’s just a bag of groceries, we stop worrying about it. (Thomas Harris, a shrewd exploiter and creator of narrative tropes, even utilizes it as a plot point in Red Dragon, when Francis Dolarhyde, the killer, uses a big bunch of leafy celery as camouflage in his escape from a crime scene: “He stuffed his books and clothing into the grocery bag, then the weapons. The celery stuck out the top.” And when he passes the police a moment later, carrying what is obviously just a bag of groceries, they don’t give him a second glance.)
Most clichés, after all, start out as a piece of authorial shorthand that allows the reader or viewer to focus on what really matters. William Goldman, who is close friends with Gilroy, makes a similar point in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell? He ticks off some of the most notorious examples of how the movies depart from real life—the hero can always find a parking space when he needs one, the local news invariably happens to be talking about a necessary plot point when a character turns on the television, taxi fares can always be paid with the first bill you happen to grab without looking down at your wallet—and goes on to make an excellent observation: all of these clichés are about saving time. In a good movie, everything that isn’t relevant to the story goes out the window, which is why we see so many ridiculously convenient moments that allow us to move on without pausing to the next important scene. That baguette serves a useful purpose. If they gave awards to props, it would at least merit a nod for Best Supporting Actor.
The trouble, of course, is that as soon as a narrative device proves its usefulness, it’s immediately copied by every writer in sight. And it’s easy to understand why: such tricks are worth their weight in gold. In my own novels, I’m constantly trying to find the right balance between advancing the plot and avoiding story beats that seem too obvious or convenient. (For example, in both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles, there’s a scene in which a suspect cracks a bit too easily under interrogation, just because I wanted to get on to the next big thing. I try to disguise such moments as best as I can, but I can’t claim the effect is entirely successful.) And whenever a writer discovers a novel piece of shorthand, or a clever spin on an old cliché, it’s like stumbling across a new industrial process. You’d like to patent it, but once it’s in print, it’s there for anyone to use. So the search for new tropes goes on, as it should. Because a baguette, as we all know, doesn’t stay fresh for long.
There are no rules in screenwriting, as we all know, but one of them is this: you must never ever open your first draft screenplay with a courtroom scene.
—William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell?
He’s right. At first, a courtroom scene might seem like a decent opening for a movie. It satisfies the crucial requirement, as laid out usefully by screenwriter Terry Rossio, that every scene in a script be built around a clearly identifiable situation—and there’s nothing more familiar than a courtroom. We know the location, the players, the rules of engagement, and as a result, it gives us a convenient vehicle for generating suspense or drama. The sticking point, the pitfall that makes it impossible to use this as an opening scene, is the huge cast it involves. As Goldman points out, starting a screenplay in court involves laying out multiple characters in quick succession, and after we’ve been introduced to “Melvin Marshall, a bulldog in the courtroom” and “the legendary Tommy ‘the Hat’ Marino” and “Judge Eric Wildenstein himself,” our eyes start to glaze over. In a movie, this kind of scene works fine—we can use the faces of the actors to tell them apart. But in a printed screenplay, or a novel, all these names just blur together. Prose fiction is good at a lot of things, but one of its weaker points, especially at the start of a story, is introducing a large cast in a short period of time without confusing or annoying the reader.
Most good authors seem to understand this, but it’s one of the most common mistakes I find in beginning fiction. When I was reading submissions for my college literary magazine, almost without exception, I’d read the first paragraph of a new story, pause, and then read it over again, because the author was introducing too much information at once. There’s the protagonist, Gerald, and his sister, Sarah, talking about a third person, Horatio, whom we haven’t met yet, and they’re in the kitchen and it’s somewhere in Delaware and maybe there’s some kind of a war, and although I’ve been given a lot of material, I don’t have a single narrative thread to follow. Readers can handle a lot of complexity, but not when it’s deployed in one big lump. And while this sort of problem is much less common in professional short stories that have gone through an editor or two, it’s surprisingly common in science fiction. A lot of the stories in Analog, for instance, begin with a page that makes my head hurt, as we’re introduced to an exotic setting and some advanced technology and a bunch of alien names, and while certain readers seem to enjoy the process of puzzling out what the story is trying to say, I’m not among them.
The best thing a writer can do is begin by focusing on a single character with a clearly defined objective, and then gradually expand the narrative from there. You can, if you like, give us two characters in conflict, but no more than that, at least not until we’ve been adequately grounded in the players we’ve seen so far. Three is definitely a crowd. While editing the sound for THX-1138, Walter Murch discovered that when two characters were walking on screen, he had to carefully sync the sound of their footsteps to the movement of their bodies, but when there were three or more, he could lay the footsteps in anywhere—it was impossible for the audience to match the sound of individual steps to what was on the screen. This made his job easier, but it also led him to conclude that audiences, in general, have trouble keeping track of more than three elements at once. And this applies to more than just sound. Metcalfe’s Law tells us that the value of a social network—like a cast of characters—is proportional to the square of the number of players, and while this complexity can be wonderful when it comes to the overall shape of a story, when presented to us all at once, our natural response is to become frustrated and bored. Presenting the characters one at a time, and giving them clear objectives, is the smartest way to avoid this.
And although movies and television are significantly better than prose fiction at presenting us with a large cast, the best of them approach the problem in the same way. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no better introduction to an enormous cast than the opening scene of The Godfather, with does precisely what I’m advocating here: it starts with an extended close-up of a minor character, Amergio Bonasera, and allows him to fully explain his situation before cutting to Don Corleone’s response. Later, at the wedding, we’re introduced to each of the major characters in turn, and each is defined by a clear problem or objective. As the movie progresses, these characters will acquire staggering complexities—but it’s that first, simple introduction that locks each of them into place. A similar process occurs in the pilot for Cheers, in which the regular characters enter one at a time until the show’s world is fully populated. By establishing the characters gradually and clarifying their relationships one by one, you’ll prepare the reader or the audience for the complications to follow. Once all the characters have been introduced, you can take full advantage of the possibilities that a large ensemble presents. But don’t do it all at once.
Recently, as I prepare to make the last round of cuts and revisions to my third novel, I’ve been reading one of my favorite books, Charles Koppelman’s Behind the Seen. The book’s rather cumbersome subtitle is How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro and What This Means for Cinema, and while this may not sound like a page-turner to most people, it’s one of the five or six best books on film I know. As I’ve made clear before, Walter Murch—the man whom David Thomson describes as “the scholar, gentleman, and superb craftsman of modern film,” and whom Lawrence Weschler calls, more simply, “the smartest man in America”—is one of my heroes, and for those who are interested in narrative and technical craft of any kind, this book is a treasure trove. Yet here’s the thing: I don’t much care for Cold Mountain itself. I watched it dutifully when I first read the book, and although I’ve since revisited Koppelman’s account of Murch’s editing process countless times, nothing of the actual movie has lingered in my memory. I was startled last night, for instance, to realize that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an important supporting character: his performance, like the rest of the movie, has simply melted away.
This paradox grows all the stronger when we examine the rest of Murch’s filmography. The English Patient, as I’ve said elsewhere, is an intelligent movie of impressive texture and skill, and Murch deserved the two Oscars he won for it. But as with Cold Mountain, I can barely remember anything about it, with only a handful of images left behind even after two viewings. I couldn’t get more than halfway through Hemingway & Gellhorn, despite being fascinated by Murch’s account of his work on it at last year’s Chicago Humanities Festival. Murch has worked as a sound designer on many great movies, above all Apocalypse Now, but when it comes to his primary work as an editor, his only unqualified masterpiece remains The Conversation. (As strange as it sounds, of all the movies that he’s edited, the one I enjoy the most is probably The Godfather Part III.) I have no doubt that Murch approached all these projects with the same care, diligence, and ingenuity that shines through all of his published work and interviews, but in movie after movie, that last extra piece of inspiration, the one that might have given a film a permanent place in my imagination, just isn’t there.
Part of this may be due to the inherent limitations of an editor’s role, since even the most inventive and resourceful editor is ultimately constrained by the material at hand and the quality of his collaborators. But I prefer to think of it, in a larger sense, as a warning about the limits of technique. Movies, for the most part, are technically wonderful, and they’ve been advancing along all the dimensions of craft—cinematography, sound, art direction—since the invention of the medium. Progress in art is never linear, but with respect to craft, progress is continuous and ongoing, with each generation adding to its predecessor’s bag of tricks, and as a result, movies look and sound better now than they ever have before. Moreover, nearly without exception, professionals in film are good at their jobs. Even the directors we love to hate, like Michael Bay, arrived at their position after a fierce process of natural selection, and in the end, only the most tremendously talented and driven artists survive. (Bay, alas, has one of the greatest eyes in movies.) Not everyone can be as articulate or intelligent as Murch, but for the most part, movies these days, on a technical level, are the product of loving craftsmanship.
So why are most movies so bad? It has nothing to do with technique, and everything to do with the factors that even the greatest craftsmen can’t entirely control. When you look at a student project from any of our major film schools, the technical aspects—the lighting, the camerawork, even the acting—are generally excellent. It’s the stories that aren’t very good. For all the tricks that storytellers have accumulated and shared over a century of making movies, decent scripts are either tantalizingly elusive or destroyed along the way by the hands of studio executives—which is one role in the movie business where talent does not tend to rise to the top. And the proof is everywhere, from John Carter on down. If there’s one movie artist who rivals Murch for his intelligence, good advice, and willingness to discuss aspects of his craft, it’s screenwriter William Goldman, who hasn’t written a movie since Dreamcatcher. Technique only gets you so far; the rest is a mystery. And even Murch understands this. On the wall of his editing studio, we’re told, hangs a brass “B.” Koppelman explains what it means: “Work hard to get the best grade you can—in this world, a B is all that is humanly attainable…Getting an A? That depends on good timing and the whims of the gods.”
“I don’t want to be the man who learns—I want to be the man who knows.” This is author William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade, quoting an unnamed movie star whom I’ve always pictured as Steve McQueen, although it probably wasn’t. Goldman is making a slightly cynical point about how a screenwriter needs to give every good moment in the script to the star, and especially can’t show the hero asking questions or carrying the burden of exposition. On a deeper level, however, this quote gets close to the heart of what we, in the audience, want from our heroes. Everyone has a different sense of the qualities of the ideal movie hero, but at the top of my own list is competence. When I’m looking for escapism, I like movies and books about men and women who are good at their jobs, who are smart and resourceful, and who embody the kind of confidence, or at least conviction, that I’d like to see in myself. As Emerson said of Napoleon, heroes are like the rest of us, except quicker, more decisive, and always sure about what to do next. Which only means that a hero is someone who sees at a glance what it took the screenwriter weeks to figure out.
I’ve been thinking about this recently while reflecting, once again, on the appeal of The Silence of the Lambs, which was inexplicably left out of the A.V. Club’s recent rundown of the fifty best movies of the ’90s. (Honestly, I’m not the kind of person who usually complains when a list like this omits one of his favorite films, but really, this is beyond comprehension.) Hannibal Lecter is one of our great villains—he’s at the top of the AFI list—but he’s also, weirdly, one of the most compelling heroes of the past several decades, and a lot of this is due to the reasons that I mention above. He isn’t just brilliant, but hugely resourceful. His escape from the security facility in Tennessee consists of one audacious move after another, and even if we can’t buy every detail, it’s hard not to be swept up by the result. And his ingenuity is really just a distillation and acceleration of the craft of Thomas Harris. That’s the beauty of fiction: a plan that took Harris months, if not years, to work out on paper occurs to Lecter in real time, over the course of twenty dense pages. And that kind of unnatural clarity of action is what fictional heroism is all about.
Of course, Lecter has since degenerated as a character, and although I’ve talked about this far too many times before, it hints at an important truth. In his book Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card draws a useful distinction between cleverness and intelligence:
[I]n our society with its egalitarian ideals, any obvious display of intelligence or erudition suggests elitism, snobbery, arrogance…Yet we love a character who is clever enough to think of solutions to knotty problems. Does this seem contradictory? It is contradictory…The audience loves a character who solves problems and knows exactly the right facts when he needs them—but they don’t like a character who flaunts his superior knowledge or acts as if he knows how clever he is.
As an example, Card cites the case of Indiana Jones, who is intellectually brilliant by definition, but slightly bumbling whenever we see him in the classroom—and endlessly inventive and resourceful when pressed into action. And Lecter is a cautionary counterexample. We don’t like Lecter because he can quote Renaissance poetry and appreciate fine wine, but because he outsmarts his enemies and deals ingeniously with problems presented by the story. The trouble with Hannibal and its sequel is that in the end, we’re left with nothing but Lecter the cultured epicure, to the point where his taste for the finer things in life becomes actively annoying, while his acts of violence grow increasingly baroque and grotesque. This, more than anything else, is where Harris faltered.
Which just means that a hero is only as good as the plot in which he finds himself. If you’ve constructed a surprising story in which the protagonist reacts in engaging ways, you’ve already solved most of the problems of writing a convincing hero, including the issue of making him seem too competent. You can always build flaws into your protagonist—Smiley’s miserable domestic life, Lawrence’s inner torment, Indy’s tendency to get in over his head—but really, if your plot is a match for the hero you’ve constructed, those qualities will take care of themselves. This is why James Bond, even in the best of the early films, is both a seductive icon and a narrative void: the plots are just too arbitrary and absurd to present him with any real challenge. It also explains why Casino Royale is, by a large measure, the best of all the Bond films, not because it goes out of its way to present us with a flawed Bond, but because the story around him, for once, is worthy of the character’s inner resources. Bond is still the man who knows, but in this case, the filmmakers knew just a little bit more. And that’s exactly how it should be.
One of my favorite quotations about creativity of any kind comes from the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, as quoted in the wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell? by the screenwriter William Goldman:
I cannot write a bad song. You begin it here, build, end there. The words will lay properly on the music so they can be sung, that kind of thing. You may hate it, but it will be a proper song.
At the risk of sounding presumptuous, and with no thought of comparing myself to either Sondheim or Goldman, I sometimes like to think that the same point applies, at least to some extent, to my own short fiction. I’ve worked hard at developing my writing skills, and I know a lot of useful tricks—laying in the narrative hook, starting the story as late as possible, structuring each beat around a clear objective—within a specific tonal range. Give me two weeks, and I can start from nothing and end up with a technically sound short story or novelette. It won’t stray too far from my comfort zone, and whether or not anyone else will want to read it, much less pay money for it, is another question entirely. But it will be a proper story.
Of course, some stories are more proper than others. (As Goldman says of his screenplay for Absolute Power: “The first draft was proper as hell—you just didn’t give a shit.”) And when I look back at my novelette “The Voices,” my first thought is that I wish I’d done a better job. It isn’t a bad story by any means: if nothing else, it got published, which is more than I can say for a lot of other things I’ve written. I wouldn’t change much, if anything, in the first half, which I think is pretty strong. But as I noted yesterday, the ending left many readers confused, and when I read over the last few pages now, I see a lot of things I’d like to fix, especially in Dr. Iyer’s final speech, in which I alternate between spelling things out too clearly and not clearly enough. Like much of my work, “The Voices” also suffers from having too many ideas: I don’t think we necessarily need the discussion of how people born in winter months are more likely to suffer from schizophrenia—hence January’s name—or the point that some of the symptoms of schizophrenia can be alleviated by smoking. These are nice ideas, but they distract from the main line of the story, and I have a hunch that I’d cut them now if I had the chance.
All of this is highly subjective, and if you asked some of my more critical readers what they disliked about this story, they’d probably come up with an entirely different list. Still, my own tastes are the ones I trust the most, and to my eyes, of all the stories I’ve published in Analog, “The Voices” is the only one I think would benefit substantially from another draft. The funny thing, of course, is that I’ve had plenty of time to repent at leisure: I wrote the initial version in about two weeks, and it was accepted soon thereafter, but as usual, the wheels of Analog turn slowly, and the story appeared close to a year later. (Authors are also actively discouraged from making any changes, no matter how minor, in the interval between acceptance and publication.) If I ever see it printed again in another form—like the anthology that I’d love to put together once I have enough published stories, which at my current rate will occur sometime within the next forty years—it’s likely that I’ll tweak it a bit more to my own satisfaction.
In the meantime, I’ve learned an important lesson, which is that I should hold off on submitting stories like this until I’ve had time to appraise them with a cooler eye. Most of the problems with “The Voices,” real or imaginary, would have been avoided if I’d set it aside for a week after completion, turning back to other projects in the meantime, and taken one day at the end for a final reading and polish—which is exactly what I intend to do when I write my next story, which will hopefully happen sometime in September. When it comes to writing this kind of fiction, speed is a virtue—as I’ve said before, given my current schedule, I can’t really justify taking more than two weeks to write a story like this—but when the publication cycle can run close to a year, there’s no harm in waiting a few extra days to make sure the draft is as strong as it can be. I still like “The Voices.” It’s a proper story. But when I look at the version before me, I can’t help but wonder, if I’d been just a little more careful, if it could have turned into something more.
Note: Today at 4:30 pm, I’ll be appearing on my first panel at the World Science Fiction Convention here in Chicago, a session for new writers also featuring S.J. Chambers, Emma Newman, Hanna Martine, and Thomas Olde Heuvelt. Hope to see some of you there!
William Goldman, the dean of American screenwriters, likes to tell the story of how Tony Gilroy saved the day. In Which Lie Did I Tell?—my favorite book on screenwriting, and one of the most entertaining books I’ve read of any kind—Goldman goes into great detail about his travails in adapting the novel Absolute Power, with its huge number of characters and infuriating structure, which kills off the protagonist halfway through and doesn’t have anything resembling a useable ending. Frustrated, Goldman found himself at a basketball game with Gilroy, a much younger writer who agreed to take a look at the project. The following day, Gilroy came in with a number of fixes, all of which diverged dramatically from the book. When Goldman objected, Gilroy shot back: “Forget about the novel—I haven’t read the novel—my main strength is that I haven’t read the novel—the novel is killing you.” In the end, Goldman saw the light, made the changes that Gilroy suggested, and finished the screenplay at last.
It’s a great story that has contributed significantly to Tony Gilroy’s current standing in Hollywood, which is similar to the one that Goldman occupied forty years ago—the smartest screenwriter in the room, the man who can fix any script. Yet there’s something deeply comic about the story as well. These are two incredibly smart, talented writers giving their all to the script of Absolute Power, a movie that didn’t exactly set the world on fire. When you look at Gilroy’s history ever since, you see a deep ambivalence toward his own reputation as a genius fixer. This comes through clearly in the title character of Michael Clayton, who says bitterly: “I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor.” It’s made even more obvious by a famous New Yorker profile, which reveals that not only was Gilroy unhappy about how his work was treated on The Bourne Supremacy, but he wrote a draft of The Bourne Ultimatum only on the condition that he wouldn’t have to talk to director Paul Greengrass. Not surprisingly, then, his goal has long been to get to a place where he can direct his own movies.
And the results have been fascinating, if not always successful. Let’s start with The Bourne Legacy, which is a singular mix of expertise and almost unbelievable amateurishness. At its best, its set pieces are stunning: a grim workplace shooting in a government laboratory is almost too harrowing—it takes us right out of the movie—but the followup, in which Rachel Weisz’s character is visited by a pair of sinister psychologists, is a nice, nasty scene that Hitchcock would have relished. The movie, shot by the great Robert Elswit, looks terrific, and it holds our attention for well over two hours. But it never establishes a clear point of view or tells us who Jeremy Renner’s Bourne successor is supposed to be. Its attempt to layer its plot over events from The Bourne Ultimatum is interesting, but unnecessary: all of those clever connective scenes could be cut without any harm to the story. And its ending is ludicrously abrupt and unsatisfying: it concludes, like all the Bourne movies, by playing Moby’s “Extreme Ways,” but it might as well be a techno remix of “Is That All There Is?”
Still, I have huge admiration for Tony Gilroy, who has taught all of us a lot about storytelling. (In my limited experience, I’ve found that he’s the writer whose work tends to come up the most when literary agents talk about what they want in a suspense novel.) But his work as a director has been frustratingly uneven. Michael Clayton is a great movie that benefits, oddly, from its confusion over whether it’s a thriller or a character piece: its story is layered enough to encompass a satisfyingly wide range of tones. Duplicity was a real passion project, but so underwhelming that it became a key example in my formulation of the New Yorker feature curse. And what The Bourne Legacy demonstrates is that for all Gilroy’s considerable gifts, being a director may not be his first, best destiny. There’s no shame in that: Goldman, among others, was never tempted to direct, and the number of great screenwriters who became major directors is shatteringly small. Gilroy may not be a born director, but he’s one of the smartest writers of movies we’ve ever had. Is that really so bad a legacy?
Done, as a certain social media company likes to remind us, is better than perfect. Not everything we do can be flawless in every respect, and in many cases, it’s better to take shortcuts where possible in order to focus on what really matters. Yesterday, I quoted the historian Arnold Hauser on the pragmatism of Shakespeare, who took certain creative approaches “only because they represented the most simple, convenient, and quickest solution of a difficulty to which the dramatist did not find it worth his while to devote any further trouble.” This Olympian ability to zero in on what counts, rather than becoming distracted by side issues, simply magnifies one of the qualities that we find in nearly all great popular writers: the willingness to use a shortcut, or even blatant sleight of hand, to get from one point in a story to another, and the understanding that such measures not only don’t detract from the quality of the work, but may even add to its richness and unpredictability.
One obvious example is the use of stock characters, which remain as useful today as they did in Shakespeare’s time. Stereotypes have no place among one’s leads, of course, but it’s hard to think of a complex work of art, from the Iliad to Downton Abbey, that doesn’t rely, to some extent, on stock types to people its world. For one thing, it saves time. Here’s Roger Ebert on The Godfather:
Although The Godfather is a long, minutely detailed movie of some three hours, there naturally isn’t time to go into the backgrounds and identities of [all the] characters…Coppola and producer Al Ruddy skirt this problem with understated typecasting. As the Irish cop, for example, they simply slide in Sterling Hayden and let the character go about his business.
Every writer sometimes finds it necessary, when pressed for time, to let a stock character go about his business without further introduction. And while most of us don’t have the chance to “simply slide in Sterling Hayden“—if only we could!—there’s no reason to feel guilty about using stock types in small parts. If anything, a fully rounded character in an insignificant part can be a flaw in the narrative: if we mention that the clerk at the hotel where the hero is staying is named Bill, for instance, this sets up an expectation in the reader’s mind that Bill will return in some significant way. If he doesn’t, it’s an unnecessary distraction, when an anonymous clerk would simply have been accepted as part of the fabric of the story.
The same rule holds for many of those clichés or conventions that can annoy attentive readers, as chronicled exhaustively on TV Tropes. We all have our own private list of the amusing ways in which fiction diverges from reality: the fact that the hero can always find a parking space, for instance, or inevitably has the correct change for a taxi. As William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, however, all these conventions have something in common: they’re all about speed. They save time. And they allow the story to get on with it, gliding past what isn’t important to focus on what is. And although such shortcuts may irritate nitpickers after the fact, if we’re caught up in the story, we don’t care. Once again, it’s about knowing what matters, as in editor Walter Murch’s famous Rule of Six, in which everything from continuity to visual logic is subordinated to the emotion of the moment. Because emotion is the one place where shortcuts can’t be taken.
And if the emotional aspects of a story are sound, the remaining shortcuts can create pockets of space for the reader’s imagination to explore. This is true of nearly all great works of art, which, on closer examination, resemble Citizen Kane, which evokes the vast spaces of Xanadu with a bare set, lighting, and a few simple props, and in the process creates a place that feels much more real to us than all the lavishly detailed sets of Cleopatra. In a similar way, Conan Doyle manifestly didn’t care about the continuity of small details in the Sherlock Holmes stories, like the location of Watson’s wound, which only allowed his readers to furnish the rest of the world on their own. A work of art in which every detail has been determined by the writer, if it sees the light of day at all, will often seem airless and uninviting. But if the writer takes the right kind of shortcuts, not only will he reach his own destination, but the reader will come along for the ride.
You can define the first draft of a novel in all kinds of ways, but what it ultimately is, when you get right down to it, is a series of wrong answers. These can range from a poorly chosen word in a single sentence to an entire subplot that needs to be cut, but big or small, when something changes between the rough and final draft, it means that your initial impulse to use the word “quotidian” rather than “daily,” say, or to send Paul to the dockyards at the end of the third chapter rather than the fifth, was wrong. In fact, nearly every word you type in a first draft will need to be either discarded as unworkable or revised in ways that you can’t foresee. And yet this is far from a waste of time. Because it’s only by going through one or more wrong answers that you have any hope of finding the right one.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I go through the current draft of City of Exiles in preparation for final delivery to my publisher. This novel has already undergone at least four or five extensive revisions that spared nothing, including the title, and yet when I look at it now, almost a year after I started, I still see plenty of things I want to change. The numbers speak for themselves: the rough draft of this novel had something like 2,500 paragraphs, nearly all of which will be substantially revised or cut in the final version. That’s 2,500 wrong answers. But there’s no way around it. Writing a novel, or any extended work of narrative, isn’t about executing a perfect plan: it’s more like an endless process of guess and check.
There are all kinds of ways to picture this. You can think of a rough draft, as I’ve said before, as a kind of sketch for a novel, which will end up repeatedly erased and redrawn. You can think of the path to a novel as less a straight line than a slalom, with many detours and overcorrections on the way to your destination. Or you can think of it in terms of Thomas Edison, who knew a thousand ways not to make a light bulb. But my own favorite expression of this principle comes courtesy of William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?, quoted here before, in a story about the legendary Broadway producer George Abbott. Faced with a choreographer who couldn’t figure out what to have the dancers do next, Abbott responded with a line that has been jangling through my head ever since:
“Well, have them do something! That way we’ll have something to change.”
When in doubt, write something, even if it might be wrong. Because the desire to get things right the first time can be especially dangerous for writers. I know many aspiring novelists who are obsessed with getting each paragraph right before moving on to the next, and as a result, they’ve never produced more than a handful of chapters. Or take the case of a friend of mine who was hired to ghostwrite a children’s book for a wealthy executive. (It was about an elephant working in advertising.) It sounded like fun, but the two of them spent over a year obsessing over the first three chapters, going back and forth with endless revisions, until my friend finally quit, burnt out by the experience. And the book, as far as I know, remains unfinished. Which is a shame. Because in fiction, the only truly wrong answer is one that isn’t written at all.
Yesterday I indulged in another rant about Thomas Harris and the decline of Hannibal Lecter, which brings me to a larger problem of which all writers should be aware: the pitfalls of backstory. Before we begin, I should point out that my views on the subject are somewhat extreme, which has led to occasional disagreements with readers and editors. But after years of writing, reading, and watching film and television, everything I’ve ever seen points toward one conclusion: backstory is deadly. It’s boring, it brings the momentum of the narrative to a halt, and most damningly, it does nothing to enhance our appreciation for the characters in a work of fiction. Characters are defined by what they do over the course of the story. What they’ve done before the story begins just doesn’t matter.
There are at least two reasons for this. The first, as William Goldman points out in Which Lie Did I Tell?, is that characters—especially heroes—must have mystery. Our favorite characters in movies or literature, whether they’re Hamlet, Lecter, or Rick Blaine, leave as many questions unresolved as they answer, which is why they’re so interesting to think about. In my experience, the less we know about a character’s past, the more intriguing he becomes, provided that he’s also interesting now. Conversely, if a character isn’t engaging in the context of the story itself, it doesn’t matter how fascinating you’ve assured us he was in the past. Many writers like to introduce their characters with long biographical digressions, as Carl Sagan does in Contact, but this rarely works as intended. It’s far more important to focus on what the character does in the moment.
For proof, look no further than AFI’s list of the top 100 movie heroes and villains. Many of these characters have since been exhaustively explored in sequels, novelizations, and fanfic, but the striking thing is how little we learn about them in the films where they made their greatest impression. We learn nothing of James Bond’s backstory in Dr. No, or in any of the classic Bond films—and even in Casino Royale, a deliberate attempt to show us the early Bond, his life before the movie is left unexplored. The same applies to Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, to John McClane, and even to Atticus Finch and T.E. Lawrence. And this is doubly true of villains: there’s Lecter, of course, but even Darth Vader, who remains just a man in a mask until the end of The Empire Strikes Back. In many cases, we’ve learned a lot more about these characters since then, but with few exceptions, this has nothing to do with why we fell in love with them in the first place.
So what’s a writer to do? At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’ve made a list of my own highly restrictive rules for backstory, with the caution that these only reflect what works for me:
- Don’t give any backstory in a character’s first appearance. A sentence or two briefly explaining who he is and why he’s here, if necessary, is more than enough. Just slide him directly into the action.
- Don’t worry about motivation. As long as the character’s objective in each scene is clearly defined, you don’t need to explain how he was shaped by events that took place years ago.
- After the character has been established by a handful of good scenes, and his role in the story is clear, then, if you must, insert some backstory. But no more than necessary. And always, if possible, conveyed through action or dialogue, rather than through flashbacks.
One last paradox: if you’ve followed these rules, readers are going to want more backstory. You’re going to get pleas for backstory from readers, from agents, from editors. Resist them if you can. If they want to know more about a character, it means you’ve done your job as a writer. But that doesn’t mean you should give it to them. Just ask Thomas Harris.
Yesterday I finished reading Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant’s Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, which I decided to check out mainly because of a terrific interview they recently gave to The A.V. Club. Lennon and Garant are former cast members of The State and Reno 911! who have also managed to build remarkably lucrative careers for themselves as screenwriters, with their movies, as they remind us repeatedly, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide. (Though only a fraction of these dollars are thanks to movies not named Night at the Museum.) The book is a fast, amusing read, and while its advice on writing is only marginally useful, as a look at the life of a professional screenwriter, it’s candid and fun. Half of its readers, I suspect, will be tempted to move to Los Angeles at once, while the rest will resolve to stay the hell away.
Lennon and Garant’s best stories, like those of every other screenwriter who ever lived, are cautionary tales of studio interference. Horror stories about clueless stars, directors, and studio executives are, of course, a mainstay of screenwriting memoirs, starting with William Goldman’s great Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? (One of my favorite examples is Goldman’s account of his involvement with the doomed Chevy Chase adaptation of Memoirs of An Invisible Man, which inspired this comment after a particularly useless meeting: “AAARRRGHHHH.”) Lennon and Garant are especially good at explaining why some executives seem determined to destroy otherwise decent screenplays. Often it’s because they don’t understand the script, or haven’t bothered to read it, but the reasons can be even more insidious. From the book:
- Sometimes they want to get some ideas of theirs into the movie, even if it doesn’t work, so they can take credit for it, to gain headway in their career at the studio. (“You know that GREAT scene where Godzilla steps on a building—that was mine.”)
- Sometimes they don’t like the executive who bought your movie. Politics are rampant.
- Sometimes they don’t like you. This doesn’t happen often. If you’re a writer, most executives won’t even remember you.
- Sometimes they think they should be president, and they think the way to do that is to develop your movie in some new direction—to prove THEY’RE smarter than the person who bought your movie.
And so on. Which is only a reminder of the fact that a writer, in the course of any career, is going to deal with two kinds of gatekeepers. Gatekeepers are an inevitable part of any creative profession: for a novel, in particular, getting published requires clearing at least four obvious hurdles (the initial query, the agent, the acquiring editor, and the publisher) and probably others that the writer never sees. Each of these gatekeepers, like all ambitious people, have goals of their own, which is exactly how it should be. The best kind of gatekeeper is someone whose goals are aligned with yours—that is, someone whose career success is tied up in your work doing well. This is mostly true of your agent and everyone at the publishing house, from the art department to the copy desk. These people aren’t your friends, exactly, but they are your allies, because if you win, they win.
For a screenwriter, this isn’t necessarily true. A studio executive, as Goldman points out, is like the coach of a professional sports team: he knows that sooner or later, he’s going to get fired, and his only goal is to postpone being fired for as long as possible by signing movie stars to projects. And the writer contributes close to nothing to the executive’s ambitions. Screenwriters are fungible, which means that one can be swapped out for another without anyone even noticing. (According to Lennon and Garant, no fewer than twenty-four screenwriters worked on Herbie: Fully Loaded.) Which means, to put it mildly, that the interests of studio executives are not the same as yours. This doesn’t mean they aren’t good at their jobs: to get where they are, they need to be at least moderately resourceful and ambitious. But as the second kind of gatekeeper, they should be approached with caution. For a healthy dose of that kind of realism, as well as much other good advice, Lennon and Garant’s book is a decent place to start.
Last week, I had dinner with a college friend I hadn’t seen in years, who is thinking about giving up a PhD in psychology to write for television in Los Angeles. We spent a long time commiserating about the challenges of the medium, at least from a writer’s point of view, hitting many of the points that I’ve discussed here before. With the prospects of a fledgling television show so uncertain, I said, especially when the show might be canceled after four episodes, or fourteen, or forty, it’s all but impossible for the creator to tell effective stories over time. Running a television show is one of the hardest jobs in the world, with countless obstacles along the way, even for critical darlings. Knowing all this, I asked my friend, why did he want to do this in the first place?
My friend’s response was an enlightening one. The trouble with writing novels or short stories, he said, is the fact that the author is expected to spend a great deal of time on description, style, and other tedious elements that a television writer can cheerfully ignore. Teleplays, like feature scripts, are nothing but structure and dialogue (or maybe just structure, as William Goldman says), and there’s something liberating in how they strip storytelling down to its core. The writer takes care of the bones of the narrative, which is where his primary interest presumably lies, then outsources the work of casting, staging, and art direction to qualified professionals who are happy to do the work. And while I didn’t agree with everything my friend said, I could certainly see his point.
Yet that’s only half of the story. It’s true that a screenwriter gets to outsource much of the conventional apparatus of fiction to other departments, but only at the price of creative control. You may have an idea about how a character should look, or what kind of home he should have, or how a moment of dialogue, a scene, or an overall story should unfold, but as a writer, you don’t have much control over the matter. Scripts are easier to write than novels for a reason: they’re only one piece of a larger enterprise, which is reflected in the writer’s relative powerlessness. The closest equivalent to a novelist in television isn’t the writer, but the executive producer. Gene Roddenberry, in The Making of Star Trek, neatly sums up the similarity between the two roles:
Producing in television is like storytelling. The choice of the actor, picking the right costumes, getting the right flavor, the right pace—these are as much a part of storytelling as writing out that same description of a character in a novel.
And the crucial point about producing a television series, like directing a feature film, is that it’s insanely hard. As Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant point out in their surprisingly useful Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, as far as directing is concerned, “If you’re doing it right, it’s not that fun.” As a feature director or television producer, you’re responsible for a thousand small but critical decisions that need to be made very quickly, and while you’re working on the story, you’re also casting parts, scouting for locations, dealing with the studio and the heads of various departments, and surviving on only a few hours of sleep a night, for a year or more of your life. In short, the amount of effort required to keep control of the project is greater, not less, than what is required to write a novel—except with more money on the line, in public, and with greater risk that control will eventually be taken away from you.
So it easier to write for television? Yes, if that’s all you want to do. But if you want control of your work, if you want your stories to be experienced in a form close to what you originally envisioned, it isn’t easier. It’s much harder. Which is why, to my mind, John Irving still puts it best: “When I feel like being a director, I write a novel.”
Last week, my good friend Erin Chan Ding interviewed Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City and the recent In the Garden of Beasts, for the Huffington Post. The interview is well worth reading in its entirety, but I was especially struck by Larson’s description of how he got the idea for his latest book, which focuses on the experience of William Dodd, the first United States ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, and his daughter Martha. Larson says:
I mean, the way the whole thing got started was that I was looking for an idea and reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I was following my own advice and reading voraciously and promiscuously when I was looking for an idea. That book had always been on my list of book to read, and I was instantly enthralled…I was looking for characters through whose eyes I can tell that story. At some point, I came across Dodd’s diary and at some point after that, I came across Martha’s memoir…So once I found them, and I got a sense of the interesting characters. Then it was a question of finding as much about them as I could.
What I love about this account is that it treats a writer’s search for ideas as an active, focused process that involves wide reading and deep thinking. This may seem obvious, but it’s not the way we tend to think about creative ideas, which sometimes feel like external events that come to us by luck and happenstance. I’m currently reading Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which argues that until around 1200 BC, humans weren’t fully conscious or introspective in the way they are now, but experienced important decisions as auditory hallucinations originating in the right hemisphere of the brain, which were interpreted as the voices of gods or muses. And while the jury is still out on Jaynes’s overall thesis, it strikes me as very similar to how we still think about the origin of creative ideas.
Ideas, we’re often told, arise from somewhere outside the artist, who is occasionally fortunate enough to catch one as it drifts by. Even the language we use in discussing this problem implies that ideas originate from a specific, mystical place. The very questions “Where do ideas come from?” and “Where do you get your ideas?” implicitly assume, in their wording, that there’s a location, external to the author, where ideas can be obtained. Hence the slightly flip response of authors like Neil Gaiman, who has been known to say that he gets his ideas “from a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,” or Stephen King, who at one point in his career said he got his ideas from Utica. (Perhaps, in the parlance of No Country For Old Men, we can say that we get ideas from “the gettin’ place.”)
Yet the reality is often closer to what Larson describes above, when he says that he “voraciously and promiscuously” sought an idea. And this is as true for novelists as it is for nonfiction writers. The issue is slightly obscured, of course, by the fact that such intellectual voracity is inseparable from a professional writer’s daily routine. But when you look at the origins of great works of fiction, you often find that external inspiration can’t be separated from the deliberate pursuit of ideas. One of the most famous such origin stories, which William Goldman says changed novels and movies forever, was when Peter Benchley was walking along a beach and thought to himself: “What if the shark got territorial?” The idea, apparently, came out of nowhere. But Benchley was already thinking about sharks when the idea came, and spent years researching and developing the idea before he wrote Jaws.
Looking for ideas, then, is something like fishing. Clearly there’s a lot of luck involved: even the best fisherman is constrained, to a point, by what happens to swim by. But there are ways in which you can control the circumstances. You select your equipment, pick your location, know how to use your tools, and above all else, know how to react when you feel that first tug on the line. All of these things come with time and experience. Similarly, as a writer, you hone your craft until it becomes intuitive, choose a promising area to start exploring, and learn to recognize a good idea when you see one. (As a writer, you can even use a net instead of a rod and reel, or, in certain situations, dynamite.) Sooner or later, if you’ve done your work properly, you’ll catch something. And sometimes, very occasionally, it might even be a shark.
So I’m deep into the first volume of Stephen Sondheim’s spellbinding memoir Finishing the Hat, which reprints the collected lyrics from the first half of his career, along with “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.” I’m not even that well up on my Sondheim—my exposure to his work consists of West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and a handful of songs from other shows—but as a writer, albeit of a very different kind, I find his candor and insight irresistible. (For a sample, see my recent post here.)
As is often the case when writers talk about their craft (William Goldman comes to mind), Sondheim is rather more interesting when discussing his failures than his successes. At the moment, I’m working my way through the chapter on Anyone Can Whistle, the ill-fated musical satire that Sondheim created in collaboration with Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book and directed. Especially intriguing is the revelation that David Merrick, the most famous theatrical impresario of his time, passed on producing the show because he didn’t want Laurents to serve as both writer and director. Sondheim writes:
[Merrick] claimed, astutely, that authors, especially authors of musicals, shouldn’t direct the initial productions of their own works. Without a director to argue with, egoistic self-ingulgence might color everything, he claimed…The blessing of a writer serving as his own director is that one vision emerges, there being no outsider to contradict him. The curse, inevitably, is that the vision may turn out to be myopic, there being no outsider to contradict him.
Now, I defy anyone who has been following the latest news from Broadway to read these lines and not think at once of Julie Taymor. The most recent of the many New York Times articles on the ongoing train wreck of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark expresses the theater world’s reservations about Taymor, who was given what amounted to a blank check as the musical’s director and co-writer, in strikingly similar terms:
Julie Taymor signed on as director and co-writer of the script, a dual role that many on Broadway consider risky. Rather than take a strong hand in managing the production, as producers usually do, Mr. [Michael] Cohl [the lead producer of the show] saw his job as aiding and abetting her vision.
The result has been making headlines for months: a visually spellbinding but narratively incoherent show that is already the most expensive musical in the history of Broadway. (In all fairness, I haven’t seen the show yet, and won’t anytime soon, unless I happen to be in New York on a week that TKTS seats are on sale.) And it seems fairly clear, especially after Taymor’s unceremonious departure from the show, that if the director had been subjected to a stronger controlling hand—as she was with The Lion King—the outcome might have been very different.
The lesson here, obviously, is that all artists, even the most creative and idiosyncratic, need someone around to keep them in line. It’s why there are surprisingly few truly great writer-directors in film, and the ones who do exist usually produce their best work with a forceful collaborator pushing back at every step of the way—witness Powell and Pressburger. And it’s why every writer needs strong readers and editors. Without such constraints, you occasionally get a Kubrick, yes, but more often, you wind up with the recent career of George Lucas. Or, it seems, a Julie Taymor. So it’s best to let Sondheim have the last word: “In today’s musical theater, there are two kinds of directors: those who are writers and those who want to be, or, more ominously, think they are.”
Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences.
—Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs
Yesterday I mentioned The Silence of the Lambs as a book that any aspiring writer might want to study to see how, exactly, it works, and with good reason: it’s possibly the most perfect thriller ever written. One could also read, with profit, the two earliest novels by Thomas Harris: Black Sunday is a fine, underrated book, and Red Dragon, though it has some structural problems, is still astonishing. Yet Hannibal, his fourth novel, should be approached with caution, and Hannibal Rising should best be avoided altogether. And the story of how Harris went from being the finest suspense novelist in the world to a shadow of his former self is an instructive cautionary tale.
Harris began his career as a crime writer for the Associated Press, and his background in journalism—like that of Frederick Forsyth, my other favorite suspense novelist—is evident in his earliest novels. Black Sunday is full of fascinating reportage, while Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs are virtual textbooks on forensic profiling and criminal investigation. (While I was writing The Icon Thief, I was almost always rereading one of those three books, along with the best of Forsyth and James M. Cain.) Harris’s writing could be baroque, but he also had a nice ear for technical jargon, and a sense of how smart cops and FBI agents might talk among themselves.
None of these things would have made so great an impact, however, if Harris hadn’t also created Hannibal Lecter, the most vivid and enduring fictional character of the past thirty years. And the really impressive thing is that Lecter originally appeared in only a handful of chapters in Red Dragon and perhaps a quarter of the pages in The Silence of the Lambs. (Anthony Hopkins’s performance in the movie version of the latter consists of only eighteen minutes of screen time.) We don’t learn much about Lecter, we see him only briefly, but we—and the other characters—spend a lot of time thinking and talking about him when he isn’t onstage. And this is crucial to his character’s appeal.
Why? Here’s the big secret: when you shine a spotlight on Hannibal Lecter, he disappears. He’s unbelievable. He’s omniscient, infallible, unfailingly one step ahead of his adversaries. Aside from being utterly insane, he’s perfect. The fact that he’s embedded within a novel that is otherwise incredibly convincing and plausible, down to the smallest details of police procedure, blinds us to the fact that Lecter is a fantasy. And that’s fine. Nearly all the great heroes of popular fiction—and Lecter is a hero, cannibal or not—are fantasies as well, and they don’t hold up to scrutiny. WIlliam Goldman, in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, does a nice job of explaining why, in reference to a very different character:
The character of Rick [in Casablanca], of course, is very old—he’s the Byronic hero, the tall dark handsome man with a past.
Most movie stars—actors, not comedians—have essentially all played that same role. And they have to always face front, never turn sideways—
Because, you see, there’s nothing to them. Try and make them full, try and make them real, and guess what? They disappear.
…Hollywood heroes must have mystery.
Which applies just as much to Lecter, if not more so. It also applies to many of the most popular characters in fiction, who exist entirely in the moment. For all the valiant efforts of Sherlockians, we know almost nothing about the past of Sherlock Holmes. Forsyth’s Jackal doesn’t even have a name. And while it isn’t necessary for every novelist to go so far, remember this: backstory can be deadly. The primary interest of a fictional character comes from what he does, or doesn’t do, in the story itself, not from what happened to him before the story began. Character comes from action. If you’ve written a compelling character, of course, readers are naturally going to want more backstory, which is great—but that doesn’t mean you should give it to them.
Which is precisely where Harris went wrong. In Hannibal, and even more so with Hannibal Rising, Harris forgot that his most famous character absolutely needed to remain a mystery. Lecter was the breakout star of the series, after all, and readers clearly wanted to see more of him. So Harris turned Lecter into the lead, rather than a key supporting character, gave him a massive backstory involving Nazis, cannibalism, and a castle in Lithuania, and finally made him, in Hannibal Rising, almost entirely admirable and heroic. To use Martin Amis’s memorable phrase, Harris had “gone gay” for Lecter. And the series never recovered.
I still hope that Harris comes back and writes another amazing novel. I really do. Even Hannibal, for all its problems, has remarkable moments (although Hannibal Rising is almost entirely worthless). All the same, it’s been four years since we saw a new book from Harris, a notoriously slow and methodical writer, and there hasn’t been a whisper of another project. And the pressure to write another Hannibal Lecter novel must be tremendous. But I hope he resists it. Because an ambitious new thriller by Harris without Lecter would be the literary event of the year, maybe the decade. While another Lecter novel would be thin gruel indeed.
Earlier this year, as I was pushing forward on the final draft of The Picasso Imbroglio—er, I mean, Kamera—I hit a wall. The first third of the novel had always been a challenge: it has a lot of characters and a lot of moving parts, and as I read it over again, I found that there was a stretch of six or seven chapters where the book kept losing momentum. The material was there, the writing was decent, but the pacing wasn’t quite right. And I might never have solved the problem if it hadn’t been for David Morrell, author of First Blood and creator of John Rambo.
Morrell, as one might expect, is a pretty interesting character. He’s the author of twenty-eight novels, a former English professor at the University of Iowa, and one of the world’s leading experts on the postmodern novelist John Barth. As his website notes, “He has been trained in firearms, hostage negotiation, assuming identities, executive protection, and car fighting, among numerous other action skills that he describes in his novels.” So it’s safe to say that his author biography is much cooler than mine.
He’s also the author of Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft, which is the book that saved my neck earlier this year. It’s full of good stories, especially the one about how Morrell nearly forgot to get profit participation in First Blood’s sequels or merchandising, since in the original novel—spoiler alert!—Rambo dies at the end. (Given how things turned out, he’s probably glad he held on to the rights.) And the book also contains a lot of useful advice, including one rule so powerful that it instantly joins the pantheon of great writer’s tricks:
Unless you’re writing a novel whose manner is intentionally that of a nineteenth-century novel, your work will often benefit by cutting the beginning and the end of the [action] in each scene. Start with dialogue. Start with activity. Conclude with something strong….Whenever I sense that the pace of a sequence of chapters is dragging, I try an experiment and cut the first and last paragraphs of each chapter.
Italics are mine, for obvious reasons, because I tried Morrell’s trick on the uncooperative chapters of my own novel, and by God, he was right! I found that I tended to close each chapter with a tidy concluding paragraph, as if I were tying a bow on the scene. In most cases, though, it’s far better just to move on, even before the main action is over. The reader will fill in the rest. And simply by cutting the first and last paragraphs of a few chapters, along with a bit of rewriting, I was able to solve my pacing problems so easily that it seemed almost like magic.
(Note that Morrell credits this advice, in turn, to the great William Goldman, author of Adventures in the Screen Trade, who evidently suggests that “the key to constructing a series of scenes is to omit their beginnings and ends and jump from middle to middle.” I’m a huge Goldman fan, and I own and love Adventures in the Screen Trade, but I haven’t been able to track down this specific reference. If anyone out there can point me in the right direction, I’d be very grateful.)