Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘M. Night Shyamalan

The good idea trap

with 3 comments

Raymond Chandler

Ideas are poison. The more you reason, the less you create.

—Raymond Chandler

As I’ve noted on this blog many times before, good ideas are cheap. Today, I’d like to make the case that they’re also dangerous, at least when it comes to bringing a story to its full realization. And I say this as someone who has a lot of good ideas. Nearly every novel or short story I’ve written hinges on a clever twist, some of them better than others. (I’m still pleased by the twist in “Kawataro,” and wish I’d done a slightly better job with the one in “The Voices.”) It’s partly for this reason that I tend to focus on suspense and science fiction, which are genres in which conceptual ingenuity is disproportionately rewarded. In some cases, as in many locked-room mysteries and the kind of hard science fiction we find in my beloved Analog, the idea or twist is all there is, and I’m probably not alone in occasionally saving time by skipping ahead to the surprise at once, without having to sit through all the bother of plot or characterization.

Which isn’t to say that a dynamite idea is always a bad thing. A story like Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star,” for instance, turns almost entirely on the revelation in its final sentence, but that doesn’t make the rest of it any less satisfying—although it also doesn’t hurt that the story itself is relatively short. The real mistake is to assume that the creative process hinges on the idea. As I mentioned in my recent post on Shakespeare, a story’s premise is often the least interesting thing about it: nearly every idea has been done before, and the more it lends itself to being expressed in a single knockout sentence, the more likely someone else has written it already. As a result, an artist who commits himself to the cult of the idea, rather than its execution and elaboration, will eventually start to seem desperate, which goes a long way toward explaining the curious downward arc of a man like M. Night Shyamalan, a director with a sensational eye and considerable talent long since betrayed by his ideas.

M. Night Shyamalan

It should come as no surprise, then, that good ideas can be the most dangerous, since they’re inherently seductive. A writer with a great original idea is more likely to overlook problems of plot, structure, or language, when a merely decent idea that demands flawless execution may ultimately result in a more satisfying story. I’ve said before that a writer is best advised to start out from a position of neutrality toward his own material, and to allow his passion to flow from the process, and I still think that’s good advice. I’ve learned to be very suspicious of ideas that grab me at once, knowing that it’s going to be hard for me to remain objective. And I’ve found that sustained detachment, which allows me to evaluate each link of the chain on its own merits, is much more valuable than an early rush of excitement. Otherwise, I run the risk of turning into the producer described by David Mamet in On Directing Film, who “sees all ideas as equal and his own as first among them, for no reason other than he has thought of it.”

And the more talented the writer, the greater the risk. All writers have their moments of cleverness and ingenuity; the labor of turning a bad sentence into a good one is the sort of work that encourages the development of all kinds of tricks, and a writer who knows how to get published consistently can only get there with a lot of shrewdness. It’s worth remembering, then, that there are two sides to craft. The word evokes a set of proven tools, but it also carries a negative connotation: when we describe a person as “crafty,” that isn’t necessarily a compliment. The real point of craft is to cultivate the ability to treat all premises as fundamentally equal, and which rise or fall based only on how honestly the author follows through. It treats the best premise in the world as if it were the worst, or at least as if it required the same amount of time and effort to reach its full realization—which it does. It’s the author, not the idea, that makes the difference. And it’s frightening how often a great idea can turn a good writer into a bad one.

Written by nevalalee

May 29, 2013 at 9:12 am

Let’s twist again, like we did last summer

with 2 comments

Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense

Let’s face it: surprises are no longer very surprising. These days, with every thriller and horror movie and serialized drama required to deliver a mandatory plot twist or two, it’s hard to react to any but the most unexpected developments with more than a yawn—or, at best, a mental ranking of how the twist stacks up against the best of its predecessors. Twists aren’t necessarily bad in themselves: it can be fun to watch a show like The Vampire Diaries pile up one implausible plot development after another, and very occasionally, you still see a twist with real impact. (This usually happens in a genre when you aren’t expecting it, which partially explains why the most pleasing twist I saw all year was in Wreck-It Ralph.) But it’s no wonder that audiences have become jaded. We’ve all seen television shows bump off major characters in the middle of the season, or movies that reveal that the victim was the killer the entire time, and by now, we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Once surprises become obligatory, they start to feel like mechanical impositions from the outside, when the finest twists arise organically from the material, or at least should seem like they do.

At first, it might seem that the best way to surprise the audience is for the author to surprise himself, by a development that arises unexpectedly in a work already in progress. If the writer doesn’t see a plot twist coming, the logic goes, the reader isn’t likely to anticipate it either. There’s some merit to this argument, and in fact, each of my own novels contains a major plot point that I didn’t foresee until I was halfway through the first draft. In The Icon Thief, this involves the murder of a major character who was originally going to die in any case, but whose ultimate fate ended up not only affecting the novel’s ending, but the rest of the series. City of Exiles surprised me in a somewhat different way: I’d written the first half of the book on the assumption that one of the characters had an important secret. When the time came to actually write it, however, I found that I couldn’t make it work. Consequently, I had no choice but to dig through the cast of characters I’d already developed to see if someone else was available to play this particular role. The result surprised me a lot, and because the first half of the novel remains largely as it was originally written, I’d like to think that it surprises readers as well.

The cast of The Cabin in the Woods

But there are limits to this kind of surprise, which is why, in Eternal Empire, I’ve taken pains to weave the twists more securely into the fabric of the story itself. A twist that occurs to the author partway through the story has the advantage of being unexpected, but it can also seem arbitrary, or like an afterthought. The very best surprises, by contrast, are implicit in the premise of the narrative itself. By now, the ending of The Sixth Sense has become a cliché, but we shouldn’t allow this to undermine our appreciation of what remains the most elegant of all modern twist endings. It’s an ending that forces us to reevaluate much of what we’ve seen before, casting previous scenes in a new light, and it more or less demands a second viewing of the movie to fully appreciate. This isn’t the kind of thing that you can make up on the fly. Love it or hate it, it’s compelling in a way that few such twists ever are, because it isn’t just the ending that surprises us: we’ve been set up for it throughout the entire movie. (And as much as M. Night Shyamalan seems to have fallen short of his own early standard, that’s more than I can say for J.J. Abrams, who seems to think that a surprise is something you create by pretending it’s there in the marketing materials.)

In short, as Lermontov says in The Red Shoes, “Not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.” Good writing is based on paradoxes of craft, and just as an unpolished prose style is generally the result of painstaking work, and an apparently unstructured plot requires more planning than any other, a good surprise demands methodical work in advance. Like any form of sleight of hand, it hinges on making the result of careful preparation seem casual, even miraculous. And that sad part is that it’s unlikely to be rewarded. The best kind of surprise is one that makes us realize that we aren’t being told the story that we thought we were, which strikes a lot of people as something slightly unpleasant: as I noted in my review of The Cabin in the Woods, most viewers only like to be surprised when they’re told so in advance, not when a work of art deliberately frustrates their assumptions. A mechanical plot twist may feel like a surprise, but it’s really just fulfilling our expectations for the genre. This isn’t necessarily bad; I’ve been guilty of it myself. But it’s no substitute for the real thing.

%d bloggers like this: