Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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One breath, one blink

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Gene Hackman in The Conversation

A few weeks ago, my wife, who is a professional podcaster, introduced me to the concept of the “breath” in audio editing. When you’re putting together an episode, you often find yourself condensing an interview or splicing together two segments, and you can run into trouble when those edits interfere with the speaker’s natural breathing rhythms. As an excellent tutorial from NPR explains it:

Breaths are a problem when they are upcut or clipped. An upcut breath is one that is edited so it’s incomplete (or “chopped”)—only the first or last part is audible…Missing breaths are just that—breaths that have been removed or silenced. They sound unnatural and can cause some listeners to feel tense…Breaths are also problematic when they don’t match the cadence of the speech (i.e. a short, quick breath appears in the middle of a slower passage)…

When editing breaths, listen closely to the beginning and end. If replacing a breath, choose one that matches the cadence and tone of the words around it.

For example, a short, quick breath is useful during an interruption or an excited, quick-paced reply. A longer breath is appropriate for a relaxed, measured response…As a rule of thumb, do not remove breaths—it sounds unnatural.

As I read this, I grew particularly interested in the idea that a poorly edited breath can make the listener feel anxious without knowing it, which reminded me of what the film editor Walter Murch says in his book In The Blink of an Eye. Murch writes that when he was editing Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, he noticed that Harry Caul, the character played by Gene Hackman, would frequently blink around the point where he had decided to make a cut. “It was interesting,” Murch says, “but I didn’t know what to make of it.” Then he happened to read an interview with the director John Huston that shed an unexpected light on the subject:

To me, the perfect film is as thought it were unwinding behind your eyes…Look at that lamp across the room. Now look back at me. Look back at that lamp. Now look back at me again. Do you see what you did? You blinked. Those are cuts. After the first look, you know that there’s no reason to pan continuously from me to the lamp because you know what’s in between. Your mind cut the scene. First you behold the lamp. Cut. Then you behold me.

Murch was fascinated by this, and he began to pay closer attention to blinking’s relationship to emotional or cognitive states. He concluded that blinks tend to occur at instants in which an internal separation of thought has taken place, either to help it along or as an involuntary reflex that coincides with a moment of transition.

Walter Murch

As Murch writes: “Start a conversation with somebody and watch when they blink. I believe you will find that your listener will blink at the precise moment he or she ‘gets’ the idea of what you are saying, not an instant earlier or later…And that blink will occur where a cut could have happened, had the conversation been filmed.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that an editor should worry about when the actors are blinking, but that if he or she is making the cut in the right spot, as a kind of visual punctuation, the blinks and the cuts will coincide anyway. Apart from Murch’s anecdotal observations, I don’t know if this phenomenon has ever been studied in detail, but it’s intriguing. It’s also evident that breathing in audio and blinking in film are two aspects of the same thing. Both are physiological phenomena, but they’re also connected with cognition in profound ways, especially when we’re trying to communicate with others. When we’re talking to someone else, we don’t stop to breathe in arbitrary places, but at moments when the sense of what we’re saying has reached a natural break. Hence the function of the comma, which is a visual marker that sets apart clauses or units of information on the page, as well as a vestigial trace of the pause that would have occurred in conversation, even if we don’t stop when we’re reading it silently to ourselves. And I’ve spoken elsewhere of the relationship between breathing and the length of sentences or lines of poetry, in which the need to breathe is inseparable from the necessity of pausing for consolidation or comprehension.

What makes these issues important to editors is that they’re essentially playing a confidence trick. They’re trying to create an impression of continuity while assembling many discrete pieces, and if they fail to honor the logic of the breath or the blink, the listener or viewer will subconsciously sense it. This is the definition of a thankless task, because you’ll never notice it when it works, and when it doesn’t, you probably won’t even be able to articulate the problem. I suspect that the uneasiness caused by a badly edited stretch of audio or film is caused by the rhythms of one’s own body falling out of sync with the story: when a work of art is flowing properly, we naturally adjust ourselves to its rhythms, and a dropped or doubled breath can shake us out of that sense of harmony. After a while, addressing this becomes a matter of instinct, and a skilled editor will unconsciously take these factors into account, much as an author eventually learns to write smoothly without worrying about it too much. We only become aware of it when something feels wrong. (It’s also worth paying close attention to it during the revision phase. The NPR tutorial notes that problems with breaths can occur when the editor tries to “nickel and dime” an interview to make it fit within a certain length. And when James Cameron tried to cut Terminator 2 down to its contractual length by removing just a single frame per second from the whole movie, he found that the result was unwatchable.) When we’re awake, no matter what else we might be doing, we’re breathing and blinking. And it’s a testament to the challenges that editors face that they can’t even take breathing for granted.

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February 14, 2017 at 9:08 am

Quote of the Day

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January 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

The temple of doom

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Steven Spielberg on the set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

I think America is going through a paroxysm of rage…But I think there’s going to be a happy ending in November.

—Steven Spielberg, to Sky News, July 17, 2016

Last month, Steven Spielberg celebrated his seventieth birthday. Just a few weeks later, Yale University Press released Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films by the critic Molly Haskell, which has received a surprising amount of attention for a relatively slender book from an academic publisher, including a long consideration by David Denby in The New Yorker. I haven’t read Haskell’s book, but it seems likely that its reception is partially a question of good timing. We’re in the mood to talk about Spielberg, and not just because of his merits as a filmmaker or the fact that he’s entering the final phase of his career. Spielberg, it’s fair to say, is the most quintessentially American of all directors, despite a filmography that ranges freely between cultures and seems equally comfortable in the past and in the future. He’s often called a mythmaker, and if there’s a place where his glossy period pieces, suburban landscapes, and visionary adventures meet, it’s somewhere in the nation’s collective unconscious: its secret reveries of what it used to be, what it is, and what it might be again. Spielberg country, as Stranger Things was determined to remind us, is one of small towns and kids on bikes, but it also still vividly remembers how it beat the Nazis, and it can’t keep from turning John Hammond from a calculating billionaire into a grandfatherly, harmless dreamer. No other artist of the last half century has done so much to shape how we feel about ourselves. He took over where Walt Disney left off. But what has he really done?

To put it in the harshest possible terms, it’s worth asking whether Spielberg—whose personal politics are impeccably liberal—is responsible in part for our current predicament. He taught the New Hollywood how to make movies that force audiences to feel without asking them to think, to encourage an illusion of empathy instead of the real thing, and to create happy endings that confirm viewers in their complacency. You can’t appeal to all four quadrants, as Spielberg did to a greater extent than anyone who has ever lived, without consistently telling people exactly what they want to hear. I’ve spoken elsewhere of how film serves as an exercise ground for the emotions, bringing us closer on a regular basis to the terror, wonder, and despair that many of us would otherwise experience only rarely. It reminds the middle class of what it means to feel pain or awe. But I worry that when we discharge these feelings at the movies, it reduces our capacity to experience them in real life, or, even more insidiously, makes us think that we’re more empathetic and compassionate than we actually are. Few movies have made viewers cry as much as E.T., and few have presented a dilemma further removed than anything a real person is likely to face. (Turn E.T. into an illegal alien being sheltered from a government agency, maybe, and you’d be onto something.) Nearly every film from the first half of Spielberg’s career can be taken as a metaphor for something else. But great popular entertainment has a way of referring to nothing but itself, in a cognitive bridge to nowhere, and his images are so overwhelming that it can seem superfluous to give them any larger meaning.

Steven Spielberg on the set of Jaws

If Spielberg had been content to be nothing but a propagandist, he would have been the greatest one who ever lived. (Hence, perhaps, his queasy fascination with the films of Leni Riefenstahl, who has affinities with Spielberg that make nonsense out of political or religious labels.) Instead, he grew into something that is much harder to define. Jaws, his second film, became the most successful movie ever made, and when he followed it up with Close Encounters, it became obvious that he was in a position with few parallels in the history of art—he occupied a central place in the culture and was also one of its most advanced craftsmen, at a younger age than Damien Chazelle is now. If you’re talented enough to assume that role and smart enough to stay there, your work will inevitably be put to uses that you never could have anticipated. It’s possible to pull clips from Spielberg’s films that make him seem like the cuddliest, most repellent reactionary imaginable, of the sort that once prompted Tony Kushner to say:

Steven Spielberg is apparently a Democrat. He just gave a big party for Bill Clinton. I guess that means he’s probably idiotic…Jurassic Park is sublimely good, hideously reactionary art. E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are the flagship aesthetic statements of Reaganism. They’re fascinating for that reason, because Spielberg is somebody who has just an astonishing ear for the rumblings of reaction, and he just goes right for it and he knows exactly what to do with it.

Kushner, of course, later became Spielberg’s most devoted screenwriter. And the total transformation of the leading playwright of his generation is the greatest testament imaginable to this director’s uncanny power and importance.

In reality, Spielberg has always been more interesting than he had any right to be, and if his movies have been used to shake people up in the dark while numbing them in other ways, or to confirm the received notions of those who are nostalgic for an America that never existed, it’s hard to conceive of a director of his stature for whom this wouldn’t have been the case. To his credit, Spielberg clearly grasps the uniqueness of his position, and he has done what he could with it, in ways that can seem overly studied. For the last two decades, he has worked hard to challenge some of our assumptions, and at least one of his efforts, Munich, is a masterpiece. But if I’m honest, the film that I find myself thinking about the most is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It isn’t my favorite Indiana Jones movie—I’d rank it a distant third. For long stretches, it isn’t even all that good. It also trades in the kind of casual racial stereotyping that would be unthinkable today, and it isn’t any more excusable because it deliberately harks back to the conventions of an earlier era. (The fact that it’s even watchable now only indicates how much ground East and South Asians have yet to cover.) But its best scenes are so exciting, so wonderful, and so conductive to dreams that I’ve never gotten over it. Spielberg himself was never particularly pleased with the result, and if asked, he might express discomfort with some of the decisions he made. But there’s no greater tribute to his artistry, which executed that misguided project with such unthinking skill that he exhilarated us almost against his better judgment. It tells us how dangerous he might have been if he hadn’t been so deeply humane. And we should count ourselves lucky that he turned out to be as good of a man as he did, because we’d never have known if he hadn’t.

The pickup artists

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Felicity Jones in Rogue One

Over the last few decades, we’ve seen a series of mostly unheralded technological and cultural developments that have allowed movies to be shaped more like novels—that is, as works of art that remain malleable and open to revision almost up to the last minute. Digital editing tools allow for cuts and rearrangements to be made relatively quickly, and they open up the possibility of even more sophisticated adjustments. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for instance, includes shots in which an actor’s performance from one take was invisibly combined with another, while the use of high-definition digital video made it possible to crop the frame, recenter images, and even create camera movement where none was there before. In the old days, the addition of new material in postproduction was mostly restricted to voiceovers that played over an existing shot to clarify a plot point, or to pickup shots, which are usually inserts that can filmed on the cheap. (It would be amusing to make a list of closeup shots of hands in movies that actually belong to the editor or director. I can think of two examples off the top of my head: The Conversation and The Usual Suspects.) In some cases, you can get the main cast back for new scenes, and directors like Peter Jackson, who learned how useful it could be to have an actor constantly available during the shooting of The Lord of the Rings, have begun to allocate a few weeks into their schedule explicitly for reshoots.

As I was writing this post, my eye was caught by an article in the New York Times that notes that the famous subway grate scene in The Seven Year Itch was actually a reshoot, which reminds us that this isn’t anything new. But it feels more like a standard part of the blockbuster toolbox than it ever did before, and along with the resources provided by digital editing, it means that movies can be continually refined almost up to the release date. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the full range of such tools are available only to big tentpole pictures, which means that millions of dollars are required to recreate the kind of creative freedom that every writer possesses while sitting alone at his or her desk.) But we still tend to associate reshoots with a troubled production. Reports of new footage being shot dogged Rogue One for most of the summer, and the obvious rejoinder, which was made at the time, is to argue that such reshoots are routine. In fact, the truth was a bit more complicated. As the Hollywood Reporter pointed out, the screenwriter Tony Gilroy was initially brought in for a rewrite, but his role quickly expanded:

Tony Gilroy…will pocket north of $5 million for his efforts…[He] first was brought in to help write dialogue and scenes for Rogue’s reshoots and was being paid $200,000 a week, according to several sources. That figure is fairly normal for a top-tier writer on a big-budget studio film. But as the workload (and the reshoots) expanded, so did Gilroy’s time and paycheck.

Gareth Edwards and Diego Luna on the set of Rogue One

The article continued: “Gilroy started on Rogue One in June, and by August, he was taking a leading role with Edwards in postproduction, which lasted well into the fall. The reshoots are said to have tackled several issues in the film, including the ending.” This is fairly unprecedented, at least in the way it’s being presented here. You’ll occasionally hear about one director taking over for another, but not about one helming reshoots for a comparable salary and a writer’s credit alone. In part, this may be a matter of optics: Disney wouldn’t have wanted to openly replace the director for such an important release. It may also reflect Tony Gilroy’s peculiar position in Hollywood. Gilroy never seemed particularly content as a screenwriter, but his track record as a director has been mixed, so he responded by turning himself into a professional fixer, like a Robert Towne upgraded for the digital age. And the reshoots appear to have been both unusually extensive and conceived with a writerly touch. As editor John Gilroy—Tony’s brother—told Yahoo Movies UK:

[The reshoots] gave you the film that you see today. I think they were incredibly helpful. The story was reconceptualized to some degree, there were scenes that were added at the beginning and fleshed out. We wanted to make more of the other characters, like Cassian’s character, and Bodhi’s character…The scene with Cassian’s introduction with the spy, Bodhi traipsing through Jedha on his way to see Saw, these are things that were added. Also Jyn, how we set her up and her escape from the transporter, that was all done to set up the story better.

The editor Colin Goudie added: “The point with the opening scenes that John was just describing was that the introductions in the opening scene, in the prologue, [were] always the same. Jyn’s just a little girl, so when you see her as an adult, what you saw initially was her in a meeting. That’s not a nice introduction. So having her in prison and then a prison breakout, with Cassian on a mission…everybody was a bit more ballsy, or a bit more exciting, and a bit more interesting.” In other words, the new scenes didn’t just clarify what was already there, but brought out character points that didn’t exist at all, which is exactly the sort of thing that a writer does in a rewrite. And it worked. Rogue One can feel a little mechanical at times, but all of the pieces come together in a satisfying way, and it has a cleaner and more coherent narrative line than The Force Awakens. The strategies that it used to get there, from the story reel to the reshoot, were on a larger scale than usual, but that was almost certainly due to the tyranny of the calendar. Even more than its predecessor, Rogue One had to come out on schedule and live up to expectations: it’s the film that sets the pattern for an annual Star Wars movie between now and the end of time. The editorial team’s objective was to deliver it in the window available, and they succeeded. (Goudie notes that the first assembly was just ten minutes longer than the final cut, thanks largely to the insights that the story reel provided—it bought them time at the beginning that they could cash in at the end.) Every film requires some combination of time, money, and ingenuity, and as Rogue One demonstrates, any two of the three can be used to make for a lack of the third. As Goudie concludes: “It was like life imitating art. Let’s get a band of people and put them together on this secret mission.”

Rogue One and the logic of the story reel

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Gareth Edwards and Felicity Jones on the set of Rogue One

Last week, I came across a conversation on Yahoo Movies UK with John Gilroy and Colin Goudie, two of the editors who worked on Rogue One. I’ve never read an interview with a movie editor that wasn’t loaded with insights into storytelling, and this one is no exception. Here’s my favorite tidbit, in which Goudie describes cutting together a story reel early in the production process:

There was no screenplay, there was just a story breakdown at that point, scene by scene. [Director Gareth Edwards] got me to rip hundreds of movies and basically make Rogue One using other films so that they could work out how much dialogue they actually needed in the film.

It’s very simple to have a line [in the script] that reads “Krennic’s shuttle descends to the planet.” Now that takes maybe two to three seconds in other films, but if you look at any other Star Wars film you realize that takes forty-five seconds or a minute of screen time. So by making the whole film that way—I used a lot of the Star Wars films—but also hundreds of other films, too, it gave us a good idea of the timing.

This is a striking observation in itself. If Rogue One does an excellent job of recreating the feel of its source material, and I think it does, it’s because it honors its rhythms—which differ in subtle respects from those of other films—to an extent that the recent Star Trek movies mostly don’t. Goudie continues:

For example, the sequence of them breaking into the vault, I was ripping the big door closing in WarGames to work out how long does a vault door take to close.

So that’s what I did, and that was three months work to do that, and that had captions at the bottom which explained the action that was going to be taking place, and two thirds of the screen was filled with the concept art that had already been done and one quarter, the bottom corner, was the little movie clip to give you how long that scene would actually take.

Then I used dialogue from other movies to give you a sense of how long it would take in other films for someone to be interrogated. So for instance, when Jyn gets interrogated at the beginning of the film by the Rebel council, I used the scene where Ripley gets interrogated in Aliens.

Rogue One

This might seem like little more than interesting trivia, but there’s actually a lot to unpack. You could argue that the ability to construct an entire Star Wars movie out of analogous scenes from other films only points to how derivative the series has always been: it’s hard to imagine doing this for, say, Manchester By the Sea, or even Inception. But that’s also a big part of the franchise’s appeal. Umberto Eco famously said that Casablanca was made up of the memories of other movies, and he suggested that a cult movie—which we can revisit in our imagination from different angles, rather than recalling it as a seamless whole—is necessarily “unhinged”:

Only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs. It should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.

After reminding us of the uncertain circumstances under which Casablanca was written and filmed, Eco then suggests: “When you don’t know how to deal with a story, you put stereotyped situations in it because you know that they, at least, have already worked elsewhere…My guess is that…[director Michael Curtiz] was simply quoting, unconsciously, similar situations in other movies and trying to provide a reasonably complete repetition of them.”

What interests me the most is Eco’s conclusion: “What Casablanca does unconsciously, other movies will do with extreme intertextual awareness, assuming also that the addressee is equally aware of their purposes.” He cites Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. as two examples, and he easily could have named Star Wars as well, which is explicitly made up of such references. (In fact, George Lucas was putting together story reels before there was even a word for it: “Every time there was a war movie on television, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri, I would watch it—and if there was a dogfight sequence, I would videotape it. Then we would transfer that to 16mm film, and I’d just edit it according to my story of Star Wars. It was really my way of getting a sense of the movement of the spaceships.”) What Eco doesn’t mention—perhaps because he was writing a generation ago—is how such films can pass through intertextuality and end up on the other side. They create memories for viewers who aren’t familiar with the originals, and they end up being quoted in turn by filmmakers who only know Star Wars. They become texts in themselves. In assembling a story reel from hundreds of other movies, Edwards and Goudie were only doing in a literal fashion what most storytellers do in their heads. They figure out how a story should “look” at its highest level, in a rough sketch of the whole, and fill in the details later. The difference here is that Rogue One had the budget and resources to pay someone to do it for real, in a form that could be timed down to the second and reviewed by others, on the assumption that it would save money and effort down the line. Did it work? I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

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January 12, 2017 at 9:13 am

Exploring “The Proving Ground,” Part 3

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Alfred Hitchcock

Note: I’m discussing the origins of my novella “The Proving Ground,” the cover story for the January/February 2017 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. You can purchase a copy and read a long excerpt of it here.

In the famous book-length interview Hitchcock/Truffaut, the director François Truffaut observes of The Birds: “This happens to be one picture, I think, in which the public doesn’t try to anticipate. They merely suspect that the attacks by the birds are going to become increasingly serious. The first part is an entirely normal picture with psychological overtones, and it is only at the end of each scene that some clue hints at the potential menace of the birds.” Alfred Hitchcock’s response is very revealing:

I had to do it that way because the public’s curiosity was bound to be aroused by the articles in the press and the reviews, as well as by the word-of-mouth talk about the picture. I didn’t want the public to become too impatient about the birds, because that would distract them from the personal story of the two central characters. Those references at the end of each scene were my way of saying, “Just be patient. They’re coming soon.”

Hitchcock continues: “This is why we have an isolated attack on Melanie by a sea gull, why I was careful to put a dead bird outside the schoolteacher’s house at night, and also why we put the birds on the wires when the girl drives away from the house in the evening. All of this was my way of saying to the audience, ‘Don’t worry, they’re coming. The birds are on their way!’”

I kept this advice constantly in mind while plotting out “The Proving Ground,” which is the closest I’ve come to an outright homage to another work of art. (My novelette “Inversus” contains many references to Through the Looking-Glass, but the plot doesn’t have anything in common with the book, and the parallels between “The Whale God” and George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant” didn’t emerge until that story was almost finished.) I knew that I had to quote from the movie directly, if only to acknowledge my sources and make it clear that I wasn’t trying to put anything over on the reader, which is also why I open it with an epigraph from Daphne du Maurier’s original short story. When I tried to figure out where to put those references, however, I realized that it wasn’t just a matter of paying tribute to my inspiration, but of drawing upon the very useful solutions that Hitchcock and screenwriter Evan Hunter had developed for the same set of problems. Any story about a series of bird attacks is going to confront similar challenges. You have to build up to it slowly, saving the most exciting moments for the second half, which leaves you with the tricky question of what to do in the meantime. Hitchcock and Hunter had clearly thought about this carefully, and by laying in analogous beats at approximately the same points, I was able to benefit from the structure that they had already discovered. “The Proving Ground” follows The Birds overtly in only a handful of places—the first attack on Haley, the sight of the birds perching on the trellises of the wind tower, the noiseless attack in the supply shed, the mass assault on the seastead, and Haley inching through the silent ranks of birds at the end. But they all occur at moments that play a specific role in the story.

Tippi Hedren in The Birds

The result taught me a lot about the nature of homage. I was well aware that “The Proving Ground” wasn’t the first attempt to draw on The Birds to deliver an environmental message, and I even thought about including an explicit reference to Birdemic, which is one of my favorite bad movies. If there’s a difference between the two, and I hope that there is, it’s that I ended up at The Birds in a roundabout fashion, after realizing that it lent itself nicely to the setting and themes at which I had independently arrived. At that point, I had already filled out much of the background, so I was able to use Hitchcock’s movie as a kind of organizing principle to keep this unwieldy mass of material under control. It wasn’t until I actually sat down and started to write it that I realized how big it was going to be: it became a novella, although just barely, and the longest thing I’d ever published in Analog. This was partially due to the fact that the background had to be unusually detailed, and the story would only make sense if I devoted sufficient space to the geography of the Marshall Islands, its environmental situation, and the physical layout of the seastead. I also had to sketch in the political situation and provide some historical context, not just because it was interesting in itself, but because it clarified the logic behind the protagonist’s actions—the Marshallese have had to deal with the problem of reparations before, and Haley is very mindful of this. This meant adding several thousand words to a story that might have played just as well as a novelette, at least from the point of view of pure action, and I found that the structure I borrowed from Hitchcock allowed it to read as a unified whole, rather than as a collection of disparate ideas united only by the setting.

This became particularly helpful after the circle of associations expanded yet again, to encompass the history of the atomic bomb tests that the United States government conducted at Bikini Atoll. I hadn’t planned to set the story on Bikini itself, but it eventually became clear that it was the obvious setting, simply from the point of view of the logistics of the seastead. An atoll provides a natural breakwater against waves—Bikini is even mentioned by name in the relevant section in Patri Friedman’s book on seasteading—and the location had other advantages: it was uninhabited but livable, with plenty of infrastructure and equipment left behind from the nuclear tests. Placing the seastead there added another level of resonance to the story, and instead of trying to reconcile the different elements, I ended up placing the components from The Birds side by side with the material about Bikini, just to see what happened. As it turned out, the two halves complemented each other in surprising ways, and I didn’t need to tease out the connections. “The Proving Ground,” as the title implies, is about a proof of concept: the Marshall Islands were chosen for Operation Crossroads because they were remote and politically vulnerable, and they end up as a test case for the seastead for similar reasons. Haley tries to use the lessons of the first incident to guide her response to the second, but the birds have other plans. In both du Maurier and Hitchcock, the attacks are left unexplained, while in this story, they’re an unanticipated side effect of a technological solution to a social and ecological problem. Any attempt at an explanation would have ruined the earlier versions, but I think it’s necessary here. The birds are an accidental but inevitable consequence of a plan that initially failed to take them into account. And that’s how they ended up in the story, too.

Gatsby’s fortune and the art of ambiguity

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F. Scott Fitzgerald

Note: I’m taking a short break this week, so I’ll be republishing a few posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on July 17, 2015. 

In November 1924, the editor Maxwell Perkins received the manuscript of a novel tentatively titled Trimalchio in West Egg. He loved the book—he called it “extraordinary” and “magnificent”—but he also had a perceptive set of notes for its author. Here are a few of them:

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase “old sport”—not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps…

The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course…Now almost all readers numerically are going to feel puzzled by his having all this wealth and are going to feel entitled to an explanation. To give a distinct and definite one would be, of course, utterly absurd. It did occur to me, thought, that you might here and there interpolate some phrases, and possibly incidents, little touches of various kinds, that would suggest that he was in some active way mysteriously engaged.

The novel, of course, ultimately appeared under the title The Great Gatsby, and before it was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald took many of the notes from Perkins to heart, adding more descriptive material on Gatsby himself—along with several repetitions of the phrase “old sport”—and the sources of his mysterious fortune. Like Tay Hohoff, whose work on To Kill a Mockingbird has received greater recognition in recent years, or even John W. Campbell, Perkins was the exemplar of the editor as shaper, providing valued insight and active intervention for many of the major writers of his generation: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe. But my favorite part of this story lies in Fitzgerald’s response, which I think is one of the most extraordinary glimpses into craft we have from any novelist:

I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If I’d known and kept it from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure, I’m going to tell more.

Which is only to say that there’s a big difference between what an author deliberately withholds and what he doesn’t know himself. And an intelligent reader, like Perkins, will sense it.

On Growth and Form

And it has important implications for the way we create our characters. I’ve never been a fan of the school that advocates working out every detail of a character’s background, from her hobbies to her childhood pets: the questionnaires and worksheets that spring up around this impulse can all too easily turn into an excuse for procrastination. My own sense of character is closer to what D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson describes in On Growth and Form, in which an animal’s physical shape is determined largely by the outside pressures to which it is subjected. Plot emerges from character, yes, but there’s also a sense in which character emerges from plot: these men and women are distinguished primarily by the fact that they’re the only people in the world to whom these particular events could happen. When I combine this with my natural distrust of backstory, I’ll frequently find that there are important things about my characters I don’t know myself, even after I’ve lived with them for years. There can even be something a little false about keeping the past constantly present in a character’s mind, as we often see in “realistic” fiction: even if we’re all the sum of our childhood experiences, in practice, we reveal more about ourselves in how we react to the pattern of forces in our lives at any given moment, and the resulting actions have a logic that can be worked out independently, as long as the situation is honestly developed.

But that doesn’t apply to issues, like the sources of Gatsby’s fortune, in which the reader’s curiosity might be reasonably aroused. If you’re going to hint at something, you’d better have a good idea of the answer, even if you don’t plan on sharing it. This applies especially to stories that generate a deliberate ambiguity, as Chris Nolan says of the ending of Inception:

Interviewer: I know that you’re not going to tell me [what the ending means], but I would have guessed that really, because the audience fills in the gaps, you yourself would say, “I don’t have an answer.”

Nolan: Oh no, I’ve got an answer.

Interviewer: You do?!

Nolan: Oh yeah. I’ve always believed that if you make a film with ambiguity, it needs to be based on a sincere interpretation. If it’s not, then it will contradict itself, or it will be somehow insubstantial and end up making the audience feel cheated.

Ambiguity, as I’ve said elsewhere, is best created out of a network of specifics with one crucial piece removed. That specificity requires a great deal of knowledge on the author’s part, perhaps more here than anywhere else. And as Fitzgerald notes, if you do it properly, they’ll be too impressed by your knowledge to protest—or they’ll protest in all the right ways.

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