Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Bond

“I need you to get me some information…”

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"I need you to get me some information..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 54. You can read the previous installments here.

“You know, like [James] Bond doesn’t have scenes with other men,” the screenwriter Jez Butterworth once told The New Yorker. “Bond shoots other men—he doesn’t sit around chatting to them. So you put a line through that.” To be fair, this isn’t entirely true: Casino Royale, which is probably the finest installment in the whole canon, has an entire second act that consists of little except for Bond chatting in a room with other men. But I understand his point. Few of the Bond films have what we might describe as conventionally good scripts, but they remain useful as a kind of laboratory for a certain sort of film writing, produced under conditions of high pressure. The history of the series, its basic formula, and the need to please a star and a handful of production executives who are answerable to nobody else all create an incentive to cut everything that doesn’t enhance the brand. If it doesn’t fit, you put a line through it. Butterworth’s track record here isn’t perfect—he worked on both Skyfall and Spectre, with notably mixed results in the latter case—but it’s still worth listening to what he has to say. And when you look at the Bond films through the lens of removing whatever isn’t central to what the franchise represents, it goes a long way toward explaining some of their more inexplicable moments.

Take the uranium bullets in Skyfall. If you’ve seen the movie, you probably remember that after Bond’s return from the dead, he removes a fragment of a slug from the wound in his shoulder and hands it over to the lab for testing. The results reveal that it’s made of depleted uranium, which only three assassins in the whole world are known to use, and a glance at their photographs allows Bond to narrow it down to one. Setting aside the fact that being struck by such a bullet should have cut Bond in half, or that MI6 evidently failed to perform any such analysis on the hundreds of spent rounds at the scene, it seems rather careless for a hired killer to leave such a distinctive calling card. You could invent a rationale for this—perhaps the assassin deliberately wants to put his signature on every hit—but it still takes us out of the movie for a few seconds. When you apply Butterworth’s rule, though, you can start to see the reasoning behind it. The plot point with the bullet feels a lot like an attempt to compress what used to be two beats into one. If the lab had managed to narrow down the universe of possible killers using, say, passport tracking, and then had layered the ballistic analysis on top to drill down even further, we probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But it would have meant a longer scene of Bond chatting with a man, so it had to go.

"Give me ten minutes..."

The trouble, obviously, is that when you push this kind of compression too far—or at the wrong moment in the story—the audience is likely to object. As a rule of thumb, viewers or readers tend to be more willing to follow the hero through a few intermediate steps of reasoning in the first act than in the third, so the kind of shortcut that Skyfall presents here might well have gone unnoticed in the last twenty minutes of the movie, when we’ve been conditioned to expect the narrative to take a logical leap or two for the sake of momentum. (In this connection, I always think, for some reason, of the penultimate scene of Die Hard With a Vengeance, in which John McClane figures out the villain’s whereabouts using the words on the bottom of an aspirin bottle. We buy it, sort of, because we’re so close to the climax, but it wouldn’t have worked at all earlier on.) A thriller is engaged in a constant balancing act between plausibility and forward movement, and the terms of the equation shift based on where you are in the plot. It isn’t just a matter of what you do, but of when you do it. In general, you can get away with greater gaps in the logic when the surrounding action is furious enough to drown out any implausibilities that would seem glaring if the characters were conversing in a quiet room. Which, in fact, goes a long way toward explaining why Bond can’t be shown chatting with other men: with every such scene, the plausibility of the narrative, which is already so tenuous, comes closer to collapsing entirely.

You can clearly see this principle at work in Chapter 54 of Eternal Empire. Wolfe has just arrived in Sochi in the aftermath of the drone attack, and in order for the plot to proceed, she needs to figure out the location of the launch site with nothing but the information she has at her disposal. The steps in her deductive process are, I think, fairly plausible. The attackers would have wanted to stay off the satellite networks; the drone would have been controlled through line of sight; given its size and the number of rockets it fired, it would have needed enough room for takeoff, or maybe even a pneumatic launcher; and it would have required privacy and a high level of security. Glancing at a map, she concludes that the assault must have been launched from a dacha to the north of the port. Powell, on the phone, says that he’ll pass along whatever he finds, and we later learn that she identified the correct location on her third try. Looking back at the scene from the distance of a few years, I think that I compressed her chain of reasoning just enough, especially because there are so many competing forces at this stage that are propelling the narrative forward. It’s particularly instructive to compare it to the similar series of deductions that Wolfe makes in Chapter 9, which end with her finding a body in East Acton. In that case, instead of unfolding in a couple of paragraphs, it occupies a few unhurried pages—which was just right for that point in the story. The closer you are to the end, the faster it has to be. And you always have to keep your target in sight…

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June 2, 2016 at 8:28 am

The song has no ending

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Emilia Clarke on Game of Thrones

Nearly seven years ago, when readers of A Song of Ice and Fire were anxiously awaiting the appearance of A Dance with Dragons, George R.R. Martin published a blog post titled “To My Detractors.” He noted “the rising tide of venom” that had arisen in response to the book’s lateness, and he wrote:

Some of you are angry about the miniatures, the swords, the resin busts, the games. You don’t want me “wasting time” on those, or talking about them here. Some of you are angry that I watch football during the fall. You don’t want me “wasting time” on the NFL, or talking about it here.

Some of you hate my other projects…Some of you don’t want me attending conventions, teaching workshops, touring and doing promo, or visiting places like Spain and Portugal (last year) or Finland (this year). More wasting time, when I should be home working on A Dance with Dragons.

After all, as some of you like to point out in your emails, I am sixty years old and fat, and you don’t want me to “pull a Robert Jordan” on you and deny you your book.

Martin obviously didn’t take such criticisms all that seriously. Last week, however, he published another post that was very different in tone. A Dance with Dragons had finally come out four years earlier, and fans had moved on to clamoring for the release of The Winds of Winter. Martin wrote: “You wanted an update. Here’s the update. You won’t like it.” He acknowledged that the book wasn’t close to being done, and he continued:

Unfortunately, the writing did not go as fast or as well as I would have liked. You can blame my travels or my blog posts or the distractions of other projects and the Cocteau and whatever, but maybe all that had an impact…you can blame my age, and maybe that had an impact too…but if truth be told, sometimes the writing goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, and that was true for me even when I was in my twenties.

This post was widely reported and analyzed, but few observers appear to have noted the extent to which it deliberately echoed its predecessor, almost point for point. Martin seemed to grant that the “distractions” invoked by his detractors might, in fact, have been partially responsible for the delay—and although this sounds like a concession to his critics, it feels more to me like an act of self-wounding from a writer who is already deeply depressed, to use his own words, by his own lack of progress.

George R.R. Martin

And as much as I can understand it, it saddens me. Martin is a gardener, not an architect, and as an avowed architect myself, I can speak with some objectivity about the advantages, as well the disadvantages, of the gardener’s approach. What impatient fans sometimes fail to recognize is that the very elements that they love so much about the series arise from precisely the same place as the factors that have led to these delays. Its density of detail, its attention to character, its sense of taking even its author by surprise: all are inseparable from a creative process that is inherently unpredictable. In a blog post that most famously included the line “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch,” Neil Gaiman got close to the heart of the matter:

It seems to me that the biggest problem with series books is that either readers complain that the books used to be good but that somewhere in the effort to get out a book every year the quality has fallen off, or they complain that the books, although maintaining quality, aren’t coming out on time.

And the tradeoff between time and quality—which might strike regular readers of this blog as familiar—is especially true of a series like A Song of Ice and Fire. If you want to live with the richness and unpredictibility that the gardener provides, you have to be prepared to die by it as well. And if those double-edged qualities weren’t there, you wouldn’t have been drawn to these books in the first place.

But there’s also a very real sense in which the series’s own successes contained the seeds of its downfall. (This is certainly true of Game of Thrones itself, which I’ve stopped watching largely because of issues that were invisibly contained in its conception from the very beginning.) Martin’s approach to writing isn’t wrong, but it’s problematic when linked, like a conjoined twin, to a television series that has to release new seasons on a regular schedule. The idea of a novelist finishing a book series in parallel with its production in other media isn’t unprecedented: J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter did much the same. But the movies are less hungry for plot and more forgiving of delay, and big franchises, like the James Bond series, have weathered long interruptions in production without damaging the brand. A cable series can’t do that, and the pressure on Martin, which is clearly enormous, arises from a structural tension between the kinds of novels he writes and the implacable logic of television—which doesn’t even mention the pressure from his publishing house, which is a huge machine trembling to take action as soon as his manuscript is delivered. Martin, who spent years writing for television, knows this, but he still hoped he could make it work: “I never thought the series could possibly catch up with the books, but it has.” His disappointment in himself is painfully clear, and his sole consolation should be that what he was trying to do was probably impossible. Being unable to write to your satisfaction is the worst thing that can happen to any writer, regardless of the larger systems in which he plays a role, and we can only say to writer’s block what Arya is told to say to death: “Not today.”

You Only Write Twice

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The opening titles of Skyfall

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, the playwright and screenwriter Jez Butterworth shares one of his personal rules for his work on the upcoming James Bond movie: “You know, like Bond doesn’t have scenes with other men. Bond shoots other men—he doesn’t sit around chatting to them. So you put a line through that.” Butterworth makes it all sound rather easy—as the rest of the article indicates, he’s a reliable source of pithy observations on craft—but in fact, the process of writing Spectre seems to have been anything but straightforward. As the leaked emails from the Sony hack make clear, work on the script is still ongoing, and a dream team of Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan, and Butterworth himself has been struggling for months to crack the movie’s third act. (A typical line from the leaked correspondence, written in all caps in the original: “We need to cut twenty pages and this whole set piece could go.”) In the meantime, shooting has already started, and it’s never a good sign when writers are still straining to figure out the ending for a $300 million production.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have mixed feelings about discussing the documents from the Sony hack, and as a writer, I’d hate to see notes about one of my works in progress leaked to the public. Yet the handwringing over Spectre is useful in the reminder it provides of how even the most handsomely compensated—and talented—writers in the world remain at the mercy of notes, and how they’re no more capable of solving problems at will than the rest of us, even when the stakes are so high. And if the studio consensus on the draft is accurate, the notes aren’t wrong: the screenwriters seem to be having trouble even with creating a compelling bad guy, which is the one thing that a Bond movie can be expected to do well. (It also gives me pause about the casting of Christoph Waltz, which would otherwise seem like an exciting development. Waltz has been a fantastic presence in exactly two movies, both scripted by Quentin Tarantino, but without a strong character and great dialogue, he tends to fade into the background—he doesn’t bring the same charisma to an underwritten part in the way that, say, Mads Mikkelsen or Javier Bardem have done.)

Jez Butterworth

Of course, plot problems aren’t new to the Bond franchise, even when the series has had ample time to develop a script. There was a gap of four years between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, due mostly to financial problems at MGM, which should have been plenty of time to work out any kinks in the story. When I watched Skyfall again the other day, though, I found myself newly annoyed by the way the plot falls apart halfway through. Bardem’s grand scheme, which involves getting caught on purpose, degenerates into a shootout that has nothing to do with the rest of his plan—he could have saved a lot of time and trouble by simply flying to London and taking a cab to the building where M’s hearing is taking place, which is essentially what he does anyway. And this isn’t a question of plausibility, which doesn’t have much to do with the Bond movies, but rather of simple dramatic payoff: if you’re going to make a big deal about the bad guy’s insanely complicated gambit, he’d better have something good up his sleeve.

What’s worse, it all could have been fixed with a simple change—by having the hearing take place within MI-6 itself, prompting Bardem to get himself caught in order to attack it—but apparently the temptation to indulge in an elaborate subway chase, which is admittedly cool, was too great to resist. More to the point, though, is the fact that we just don’t know. Maybe objections were raised and dismissed; maybe production on certain sets had already begun, forcing the writers to work with what they had; or maybe altering the scene would have caused problems elsewhere in the movie that I haven’t anticipated. (It doesn’t help that Skyfall was the second of three movies released over the course of twelve months, along with The Avengers and Star Trek Into Darkness, that imprison the villain inside a glass cube and include some variation on the line: “He meant to get caught!”) A movie, much more than a novel or play, is a machine with many moving parts, and all a writer can really do is keep from getting caught in the gears. Spectre may yet turn out to be a great movie, and it wouldn’t be the first to survive late problems at the screenplay stage. And if it ends with Bond escaping from certain doom at the last minute, it’ll be based on firsthand experience.

Written by nevalalee

December 17, 2014 at 9:08 am

Laugh and let die

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Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle

Note: Minor spoilers follow for American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Ever since the Golden Globes, there’s been a lot of talk about the state of modern cinematic comedy, and especially about how the category has expanded to include films that we wouldn’t necessarily classify with the likes of Airplane! Two of the year’s presumptive Oscar frontrunners, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, are ostensible comedies that are really closer in tone to Goodfellas, and along with the other nominees for the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy—Her, Nebraska, and Inside Llewyn Davis—they made for a rather melancholy slate. Which isn’t to say that these movies aren’t consistently, brutally funny. David O. Russell has become the hottest director in America thanks largely to his ability to marry a compassionate view of his characters to a prankish, almost anarchic humor, and Scorsese has long been a stealth comic master. (Most of Scorsese’s great classics, with the possible exception of Raging Bull, could be recut into savage comedies, although probably at the expense of a “Layla” montage or two.) And what we’re seeing here is less a new development than a confirmation that comedy can, and should, emerge from some unexpectedly dark places.

I’ve noted before that the line between comedy and tragedy is finer than you might suspect, even at the highest levels: give Romeo and Juliet a happy ending, and you have a play that is tonally indistinguishable from All’s Well That Ends Well. Shakespeare incorporates the threat of death into many of his problem comedies, and although it’s narrowly averted in the end, we’re still left with a sense that it could have gone either way. You might even argue that it’s the relative absence of death that allows American Hustle and Wolf to squeak into comedic territory. Nobody dies in American Hustle—unless you count a brief flashback, almost too quick to process, to an unrelated contract killing—and the stakes are exclusively emotional: Russell prefers to mine conflict from his characters, rather than generating suspense in more conventional ways, and we’re too interested in their interactions to be overly concerned about whether they’ll get away with their central con, much less get whacked by the mob. The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t contain much in the way of death, either, and the most lamented character is a distant relative whose offscreen demise leaves millions of dollars inconveniently stranded in Switzerland. (Jordan Belfort’s grief at this, needless to say, is perfectly genuine.)

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

And yet the idea of risk, physical and emotional, is central to both movies, as it is to many of the greatest comedies. If contemporary comedies suffer from one flaw, it’s that they often take place in a sanitized world devoid of danger, when it’s really in response to danger that laughter is most cathartic. Many of the biggest laughs I’ve had at the movies have been at lines or moments that stand in contrast to a mood of mounting tension or excitement: think of the Indiana Jones trilogy, the films of Quentin Tarantino, or the Bruce Willis movie of your choice. It’s perhaps no accident that both American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street are joined, oddly, by musical homages to James Bond: a cover of “Goldfinger” plays in the background of Belfort’s lavish wedding, and Jennifer Lawrence’s showstopping rendition of “Live and Let Die” may be Hustle‘s single most memorable moment. The Bond movies, many of which are thinly disguised comedies in themselves, know that we’re more likely to be amused by a gag when it emerges in counterpoint to action or violence. Bond’s frequently derided one-liners—“Shocking!”—have become a cliché, but like most other clichés in these movies, they exist because they fundamentally work.

That may be why there are surprisingly few “pure” comedies among my own favorite movies. When a film wants nothing more than to make us laugh, I’m likely to find it a little unsatisfying: the best jokes are all about surprise, or catching us with our guard down, which is why a movie that tries to spring a gag every minute can start to seem thin and forced. (This also works the other way around: a movie that is unrelentingly grim can feel equally untrue to life.) Humor is at its most powerful when it’s set against a dramatic baseline, however exaggerated, that provides a contrast to the moments when the comedy erupts. The best movies of Wes Anderson, not to mention Woody Allen, are strangely preoccupied with death, and Kubrick’s genius lay in constructing movies that were so finely poised between comedy and tragedy that they evolve in our own minds between viewings: The Shining becomes a richer, more baroque comedy each time I see it, and Eyes Wide Shut is really a farce played at the speed of a dirge. My favorite description of any of Kubrick’s films is Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on Barry Lyndon: “When I saw it, I thought it was very serious, and then I saw it the second time, and I said, ‘This is fucking hilarious!'” And that’s the zone in which real comedy thrives.

“When the dead man’s face was revealed…”

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"When the dead man's face was revealed..."

Note: This post is the tenth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 9. You can read the earlier installments here.)

There are moments when writing feels less like an art form than a search for a new industrial process. You’re putting together a complicated machine that has to pass through a series of distinct phases—research and development, design, assembly, testing—and you’re often constrained by the parts you have available. Time and again, you find yourself confronted by the same handful of problems: how to generate suspense, how to painlessly deliver exposition, how to describe your main character’s appearance. In response, writers invent a range of solutions, some more effective than others, and because they can’t be patented, any good device is quickly appropriated by others. If so many books and movies end with a jury scene, for instance, it’s because it’s as foolproof a way as any of delivering a shot of suspense: when the jury returns, the foreman hands the folded verdict to the judge, and the defendant is told to rise, you’re interested in what comes next, however indifferent the rest of the story may have been until now. The same is true of the big game or the climatic title fight. These are clichés, yes, but they still work, and it doesn’t require a lot of skill to get them to pay off.

The trouble, of course, is that any “foolproof” scene eventually becomes tired from overuse, until it turns into a joke. This is particularly true of formulas designed as an excuse to deliver exposition—ultimately, viewers come to recognize when they’re being subtly conned. A famous example is what Roger Ebert called the fallacy of the talking killer, familiar from the Bond films, in which the antagonist captures the hero, takes this as an opportunity to reveal his entire evil plan, then leaves the room to allow for a convenient escape. It’s funny now, and it’s been subjected to endless parody, but there was a point at which it undeniably worked: if you’re going to deliver exposition, you may as well strap your hero into a torture device first. (These days, a more fashionable variation involves the villain being captured, and preferably installed behind glass, a device that we seen in everything from Skyfall to Star Trek Into Darkness.) And what’s especially interesting is that when you look at the trademark beats that recur most often in a movie or television series, they’re almost always designed to convey exposition. Bond’s initial briefing with M or the captain’s log in Star Trek are devices to tell us where we are and where we’re going, but if we’re fans of the formula, we don’t really mind. We may even start to regard them with affection.

"Lewis finished examining the plastic sheet..."

That’s some high-level narrative grifting, since it convinces viewers that a lump of exposition isn’t a bug, but a feature. It’s also why so many television shows seem to consist of nothing but autopsy scenes. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, an autopsy is an ideal setting for conveying information and advancing to the next plot point: you’ve got a clearly defined location, a sprinkling of jargon and tradecraft, a touch of gore, and enough flexibility to cover whatever you need to move the story along. Whenever you see a coroner or medical examiner listed as one of the characters in the opening credits, you’re looking at someone whose primary job is to feed data to the protagonist, often from behind a green surgical mask, and if you can pack your cast with similar players, so much the better. A show like CSI at its best moves so effectively because the tools of exposition are baked right into the premise: you can afford to stuff each episode with plot because you’re working with characters who deliver exposition for a living. And even if you aren’t fortunate enough to be operating in a genre that allows you to move from one forensic scene to the next, it’s nice to be able to fall back on it when necessary.

Hence a sequence like Chapter 9 of City of Exiles, which comes as close as anything in these novels to a classic autopsy scene. All the ingredients are here: a charred body, a dash of science, even a red herring. (This would be the burnt scrap of paper in the dead man’s pocket, which at first looks like the women’s name Ainha, and is later revealed to be Rainham, a neighborhood in London—a touch of which I’m still proud.) And it’s no accident that it occurs here, at a transitional point in the narrative. If you watch procedural shows on a regular basis, you start to notice that the trip to the coroner’s office tends to occur around the same time in every episode, usually as the story requires a piece of exposition to pass from the first act to the second, and this one is no exception. Until now, the plot has been focused on investigation and cleaning up crime scenes after the fact, but now it’s a race to prevent the next crime before it happens. These hinge moments are some of the trickiest parts of any novel: you need to give the reader enough information to clarify the next phase of the action without slowing things down in the meantime. And sometimes all it takes is a trip to the morgue…

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2013 at 9:02 am

The hardware of suspense

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Sean Connery as James Bond

Suspense novels, as we all know, have a lot of hardware. As regular readers are probably aware, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the role of hardware in my own books, which contain detailed information on guns, weaponry, and tradecraft to an extent that might seem surprising in the work of a confessed moderate liberal. When I wrote The Icon Thief, I don’t think I spent much time worrying about this: to my mind, it was a convention of the genre I was happy to embrace, since it fit in nicely with my love of research and real-world information. Later on, I began to see it as a way of enhancing verisimilitude: if the writer can describe small technical details accurately—or at least convincingly—the reader is more likely to accept the story’s larger leaps of logic. I still believe this, but I’m also uncomfortably aware that it can be taken too far, as in the corporate jet with its “dual Pratt & Whitney engines” that intrudes into one scene in The Lost Symbol. And it’s only recently that I’ve begun to figure out why certain forms of hardware are distracting while others immerse you more fully into a novel’s world.

My initial clue, oddly enough, came from Ian Fleming, who might not be the first novelist you’d consult for advice on the unobtrusive use of detail. Fleming once wrote an excellent essay called “How to Write a Thriller,” which while amusingly dated in some respects—he says that his books “are written for warm-blooded heterosexuals in railway trains, aeroplanes and beds”—is surprisingly insightful on the subject of hardware. Fleming writes:

My plots are fantastic, while being often based upon truth. They go wildly beyond the probable but not, I think, beyond the possible. Even so, they would stick in the gullet of the reader and make him throw the book angrily aside—for a reader particularly hates feeling he’s been hoaxed—but for two technical devices: first, the aforesaid speed of the narrative, which hustles the reader quickly beyond each danger point of mockery and, secondly, the constant use of familiar household names and objects which reassure him that he and the writer have still got their feet on the ground. A Ronson lighter, a 4.5 litre Bentley with an Amherst-Villiers supercharger (please note the solid exactitude), the Ritz Hotel in London, the 21 Club in New York, the exact names of flora and fauna, even Bond’s Sea Island cotton shirts with short sleeves. All these details are points of reference to comfort and reassure the reader on his journey into fantastic adventure.

Ian Fleming

At first glance, the 4.5 litre Bentley with its Amherst-Villiers supercharger may not seem that far removed from Brown’s dual Pratt & Whitney engines, but there’s a crucial difference. Brown doesn’t give us any indication that the character in this particular scene would take any interest in the engines flying his plane, but Ian Fleming is talking about James Bond, who might well be expected to care a great deal about the specifications of his Bentley. In short, the details here tell us something about the protagonist, his point of view, and the things he finds important, from his martinis to his weapons to his custom-made Morland cigarettes with the three gold bands on the filter. Fleming, as it happens, smoked the same brand of cigarettes himself, and he gave Bond many of his own personal habits, such as his love of scrambled eggs, which only helps with the identification between the author, the character, and most of all the reader. The brand names and hardware in these books are an expression of Bond himself—as if he’s willing the world around him into existence—which is a point often lost on Fleming’s many imitators.

In other words, hardware in a thriller works because it’s an expression of the personality that occupies the center of the narrative, whether it’s a cop, a spy, or a hit man. The novelist Steve Rasnic Tem has a wonderful essay called “One View: Creating Character in Fantasy and Horror Fiction,” available in this collection, in which he compares this approach to the way dreams are created:

An analogy I’ve always found useful for the relationship between characters and their settings is the relationship those same elements have in dreams. A particular theory of gestalt dream interpretation suggests that every object in a dream is a piece of the dreamer. A chair, a table, a car, another human being—each would represent some aspect of the dreamer…But whether you agree with its validity as a method of dream interpretation or not, I think it suggests a useful approach for fiction making…[And] the approach to characterization I’m suggesting here puts increased weight on the individual details that make up a story.

Tem is speaking mostly of fantasy and horror, but this approach also has fascinating implications for the thriller. If every aspect of the story and setting is expressive of the protagonist, the details will naturally tend to center on what he notices and cares about the most, which in suspense is likely to revolve around hardware. When it’s done poorly, it’s less an issue of excessive research than a failure in point of view: those Pratt & Whitney engines reveal less about the character than about the writer. When done well, as in The Day of the Jackal, it functions as a sort of metonymy: the Jackal is his rifle, just as Bond is his martini, and we learn a great deal about both men in the process. Ultimately, hardware is all very well and good, but character is the software that makes it run.

Written by nevalalee

May 1, 2013 at 8:52 am

The man who knows

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“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.

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