Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for October 2011

In Time and the broken ticking clock

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Ah, the ticking clock. In many ways, it’s both the hoariest and most effective of all suspense tropes: the protagonist has something difficult and dangerous to accomplish, but a limited amount of time, and by the way, the countdown starts now. This convention was mined most brilliantly by the first five seasons of 24, but countless thrillers have made use of it in various ways, to the point where Dean Koontz lists it as one of the three central devices for generating suspense, along with the chase and the anticipation of a violent event. And for all its familiarity, it still works, despite being frequently parodied. (My favorite subversion comes courtesy of Fat Tony on The Simpsons: “You have twenty-four hours to give us our money. And to show you we’re serious…you have twelve hours.”)

You would think, then, that a movie like Andrew Niccol’s In Time would be deliciously suspenseful, with the ticking clock built into the fabric of the story itself. The film takes place in a world in which all humans have been genetically engineered to stop aging after they turn twenty-five, but after that, they only have one year left. Time thus becomes the only form of currency: you can earn, borrow, or steal more, with your remaining time constantly displayed in a glowing readout on your left arm, and once the clock runs out, you die. No exceptions. Clearly, this is a great tool for suspense, since at any given moment, we know that our hero, appealingly played by Justin Timberlake, has only a fixed amount of time to live—and it’s especially tense when the countdown can be measured in minutes or seconds, so it coincides with the real time of the movie itself.

It’s astonishing, then, how little suspense In Time manages to milk from its underlying premise, as if Niccol didn’t understand the promise of his own story. The film’s logic isn’t that hard to understand, but it still has trouble explaining the rules, especially the fact that one’s time is worth more or less in different zones of the city—an omission that makes nonsense of an early scene in which Olivia Wilde’s character, with only a few minutes left, races desperately home for reasons that aren’t made clear. Worse, the movie lets its hero’s remaining time fluctuate enormously: it goes up and down with gifts and gambling and double-crosses, until any sense of momentum is lost. Far better, from a storytelling perspective, to take everything away except an hour and a half, keep the countdown fixed, and let us sweat it out with him in real time. (In fact, there’s a scene where the movie does exactly this, only to drop the issue almost at once, giving up its most promising narrative device in the process.)

Of course, using a fixed countdown to drive the plot would result in a different movie altogether, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. In Time has a great concept and a lot of style, with some nifty art direction by Alex McDowell, but it never quite figures out how to exploit its own premise. Instead of getting caught up in the story, we spend half the movie noticing holes in the plot. And while many of these lapses can be explained away, the point is that it shouldn’t matter. A movie like Children of Men, or even the ludicrous Equilibrium, may or may not have a wholly consistent set of rules, but while we’re watching the movie, we’re too excited to care. Meanwhile, In Time, which has devoted a fair amount of attention to its world’s internal logic, has so little drive that we can’t believe in it at all. The result is superficially smart, but viscerally adrift. It has a ticking clock at its heart, but it’s broken.

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October 31, 2011 at 9:10 am

Quote of the Day

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October 31, 2011 at 7:52 am

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Cyril Connolly on the perils of promise

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Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first call promising…Young writers if they are to mature require a period of between three and seven years in which to live down their promise. Promise is like the mediaeval hangman who after settling the noose, pushed his victim off the platform and jumped on his back, his weight acting a drop while his jockeying arms prevented the unfortunate from loosening the rope. When he judged him dead he dropped to the ground.

Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise

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October 30, 2011 at 8:26 am

Paul Graham on good procrastination

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The most impressive people I know are all procrastinators…They put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

What’s “small stuff?” Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. It’s hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there’s a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes—anything that might be called an errand.

Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work…

Errands are so effective at killing great projects that a lot of people use them for that purpose. Someone who has decided to write a novel, for example, will suddenly find that the house needs cleaning. People who fail to write novels don’t do it by sitting in front of a blank page for days without writing anything. They do it by feeding the cat, going out to buy something they need for their apartment, meeting a friend for coffee, checking email. “I don’t have time to work,” they say. And they don’t; they’ve made sure of that.

Paul Graham, “Good and Bad Procrastination”

Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2011 at 8:02 am

A preview of coming attractions

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After several weeks of focusing on the new house, this blog, and a few interim projects, events are finally starting to pick up on the writing front. It’s been a month since I delivered City of Exiles, the sequel to The Icon Thief, to my publisher, and I’ve just heard that my editor finished reading it the other day. Advance word is very positive, but there will always be notes, which I’m expecting to receive soon. At that point, I hope to have the rewrite done within the next few weeks, with the goal of delivering the final draft shortly before Thanksgiving. Two days after that, I’m heading off on a vacation to Hong Kong and China, so this month is looking to be pretty intense.

In the meantime, things are moving at a nice clip with The Icon Thief, the galleys of which went out to a handful of advance readers last week. My author page on Facebook is also up and running, so please drop by when you have a chance. Finally, and perhaps best of all, an advance book trailer for the novel is now online. Authors and editors seem divided on whether a trailer adds any value to a novel’s marketing campaign, but it was a lot of fun to put together, and I hope to share another one with you soon. (The music, incidentally, is Claude Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral, which is meaningful in itself: Debussy, according to certain sources, was a Rosicrucian. But that’s a story for another day.)

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October 28, 2011 at 8:40 am

Quote of the Day

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October 28, 2011 at 7:52 am

Why suspense matters

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Over the past few days, I’ve invoked the example of Hitchcock more than once, and for good reason. As the likes of Truffaut and Cahiers du Cinéma understood in the fifties, and audiences across the world knew much earlier than that, the films of Alfred Hitchcock are central to our experience of the movies. His goal was as simple as possible—to play the audience like a piano—but his methods were endlessly complex. As a result, the great Hitchcock thrillers are like laboratories for the investigation of storytelling, in everything from plot construction to art direction to cinematography and editing, not to mention iconic performances from the actors he sometimes claimed to despise. And if the machinery is more visible here than it is in, say, Bergman, it’s because of the genre that Hitchcock perfected. Suspense is the most basic emotion that narrative cinema can evoke, and Hitchcock, as we all know, was its master.

What isn’t always acknowledged is how central suspense is to other forms of art, especially fiction. Years ago, in a review of Nabokov’s Glory, John Updike spoke of a novel’s “obligation to generate suspense,” and suspense remains, in some ways, the most fundamental of all genres: nine times out of ten, any good novel is, at heart, a novel of suspense, even if the suspense centers on emotion rather than external action. In his classic book Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz observes that of all genres, suspense has the fewest overt requirements—simply the need to keep the reader intensely interested in what happens next—which implies that other genres can be understood as overlays on the suspense form. Science fiction is suspense in the future; mystery is suspense where the emphasis is less on stopping the killer than on figuring out who it is. And without a solid foundation of suspense, readers in any genre aren’t likely to keep turning the pages.

This is one reason why I turned to suspense when I began to write for a living, and currently find myself writing something close to pure thrillers. These weren’t necessarily the novels I read the most growing up, but for a relatively young writer still learning the tricks of the trade, it seemed like a good idea to begin with storytelling in its most general form. The lessons you learn from writing suspense—anticipation, momentum, converging structure, and especially clarity of action and motivation—can be applied to any sort of fiction you later choose to tackle. There’s simply no way to forget these things once you’ve internalized them. And while it’s often necessary to set them aside—one of the weaknesses of the suspense form, along with its underlying coldness, is the constant need for things to always be happening—they’re still the ultimate safety net, a sort of writer’s insurance policy when other tools fall short.

And they can lead you to surprising places. Back in the seventies, Koontz noted that most books marketed as mainstream fiction are really suspense novels in disguise, and that remains true today. A novelist like Ian McEwan is essentially an author of suspense, but one whose work has been elevated by intelligence and taste to the point where he can contend for a Booker Prize. Elsewhere, competition with other media has forced serious novelists to pace even ambitious literary novels like page-turners, as Jonathan Franzen says to Time: “It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist.” I’d much rather read a big literary novel written by an author who understands suspense than one who hasn’t served the same apprenticeship, and for my part, I think it’s all but inevitable that I’ll try to make that leap one day. But not yet. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from writing suspense, it’s that there are always more lessons to come.

Written by nevalalee

October 27, 2011 at 9:00 am

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