Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

How to take a shortcut

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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.

Written by nevalalee

February 6, 2012 at 10:11 am

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