Posts Tagged ‘On Directing Film’
Last week, the podcast 99% Invisible devoted an episode to the editing and sound design tricks used by the makers of nature documentaries. For obvious reasons, most footage in the wild is captured from a distance using zoom lenses, and there’s no equivalent for sound, which means that unless David Attenborough himself is standing in the shot, the noises that you’re hearing were all added later. Foley artists will recreate hoofbeats or the footsteps of lions by running their hands over pits filled with gravel, while animal vocalizations can be taken from sound catalogs or captured by recordists working nowhere near the original shoot. This kind of artifice strikes me as forgivable, but there are times when the manipulation of reality crosses a line. In the fifties Disney documentary White Wilderness, lemmings were shown hurling themselves into the ocean, which required a helping hand: “The producers took the lemmings to a cliff in Alberta and, in some scenes, used a turntable device to throw them off the edge. Not only was it staged, but lemmings don’t even do this on their own. Scientists now know that the idea of a mass lemming suicide ritual is entirely apocryphal.” And then there’s the movie Wolves, which rented wolves from a game farm and filmed them in an artificial den. When Chris Palmer, the director, was asked about the scene at a screening, it didn’t go well:
Palmer’s heart sank, but he decided to come clean, and when he did, he could feel the excitement leave the room. Up to this moment, he had assumed people wouldn’t care. “But they do care,” he realized. “They are assuming they are seeing the truth…things that are authentic and genuine.”
When viewers realize that elements of nature documentaries utilize the same techniques as other genres of filmmaking, they tend to feel betrayed. When you think about the conditions under which such movies are produced, however, it shouldn’t be surprising. If every cut is a lie, as Godard famously said, that’s even more true when you’re dealing with animals in the wild. As David Mamet writes in On Directing Film:
Documentaries take basically unrelated footage and juxtapose it in order to give the viewer the idea the filmmaker wants to convey. They take footage of birds snapping a twig. They take footage of a fawn raising its head. The two shots have nothing to do with each other. They were shot days or years, and miles, apart. And the filmmaker juxtaposes the images to give the viewer the idea of great alertness. The shots have nothing to do with each other. They are not a record of what the protagonist did. They are not a record of how the deer reacted to the bird. They’re basically uninflected images. But they give the viewer the idea of alertness to danger when they are juxtaposed. That’s good filmmaking.
Mamet is trying to make a point about how isolated images—which have little choice but to be “uninflected” when the actors are some birds and a deer—can be combined to create meaning, and he chose this example precisely because the narrative emerges from nothing but that juxtaposition. But it also gets at something fundamental about the grammar of the wildlife documentary itself, which trains us to think about nature in terms of stories. And that’s a fiction in itself.
You could argue that a movie that purports to be educational or “scientific” has no business engaging in artifice of any kind, but in fact, it’s exactly in that context that this sort of manipulation is most justified. Scientific illustration is often used when a subject can’t be photographed directly—as in Ken Marschall’s wonderful paintings for Dr. Robert D. Ballard’s The Discovery of the Titanic—or when more information can conveyed through an idealized situation. In Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson writes of Sarah Landry’s detailed drawings: “In the case of the vertebrate species, her compositions are among the first to represent entire societies, in the correct demographic proportions, with as many social interactions displayed as can plausibly be included in one scene.” Landry’s compositions of a troop of baboons or a herd of elephants could never have been captured in a photograph, but they get at a truth that is deeper than reality, or at least more useful. As the nature illustrator Jonathan Kingdon writes in Field Notes on Science and Nature:
Even an outline sketch that bears little relationship to the so-called objectivity of a photograph might actually transmit information to another human being more selectively, sometimes even more usefully, than a photograph. For example, a few quick sketches of a hippopotamus allow the difference between sexes, the peculiar architecture of amphibious existence in a giant quadruped, and the combination of biting and antlerlike clashing of enlarged lower jaws to be appreciated at a glance…”Outline drawings”…can represent, in themselves, artifacts that may correspond more closely with what the brain seeks than the charts of light-fall that photographs represent.
On some level, nature documentaries fall into much the same category, providing us with idealized situations and narratives in order to facilitate understanding. (You could even say that the impulse to find a story in nature is a convenient tool in itself. It’s no more “true” than the stories that we tell about human history, but those narratives, as Walter Pater observes of philosophical theories, “may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us.”) If anything, our discomfort with more extreme kinds of artifice has more to do with an implicit violation of the contract between the filmmaker and the audience. We expect that the documentarian will go into the field and shoot hundreds of hours of footage in search of the few minutes—or seconds—that will amaze us. As Jesse David Fox of Vulture wrote of the stunning iguana and snake chase from the new Planet Earth series: “This incredible footage is the result of the kind of extreme luck that only comes with hard work. A camera crew worked from dusk to dawn for weeks filming the exact spot, hoping something would happen, and if it did, that the camera would be in focus.” After shooting the hatchlings for weeks, they finally ended up with their “hero” iguana, and this combination of luck and preparation is what deserves to be rewarded. Renting wolves or throwing lemmings off a cliff seems like a form of cheating, an attempt to fit the story to the script, rather than working with what nature provided. But the boundary isn’t always clear. Every documentary depends on a sort of artificial selection, with the best clips making it into the finished result in a kind of survival of the fittest. But there’s also a lot of intelligent design.
Lord Rowton…says that he once asked Disraeli what was the most remarkable, the most self-sustained and powerful sentence he knew. Dizzy paused for a moment, and then said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
—Augustus J.C. Hare, The Story of My Life
Disraeli was a politician and a novelist, which is an unusual combination, and he knew his business. Politics and writing have less to do with each other than a lot of authors might like to believe, and the fact that you can create a compelling world on paper doesn’t mean that you can do the same thing in real life. (One of the hidden themes of Astounding is that the skills that many science fiction writers acquired in organizing ideas on the page turned out to be notably inadequate when it came to getting anything done during World War II.) Yet both disciplines can be equally daunting and infuriating to novices, in large part because they both involve enormously complicated projects—often requiring years of effort—that need to be approached one day at a time. A single day’s work is rarely very satisfying in itself, and you have to cling to the belief that countless invisible actions and compromises will somehow result in something real. It doesn’t always happen, and even if it does, you may never get credit or praise. The ability to deal with the everyday tedium of politics or writing is what separates professionals from amateurs. And in both cases, the greatest accomplishments are usually achieved by freaks who can combine an overarching vision with a finicky obsession with minute particulars. As Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, who was both a diplomat and literary critic, said of Tolstoy, it requires “a queer combination of the brain of an English chemist with the soul of an Indian Buddhist.”
And if you go into either field without the necessary degree of patience, the results can be unfortunate. If you’re a writer who can’t subordinate yourself to the routine of writing on a daily basis, the most probable outcome is that you’ll never finish your novel. In politics, you end up with something very much like what we’ve all observed over the last few weeks. Regardless of what you might think about the presidential refugee order, its rollout was clearly botched, thanks mostly to a president and staff that want to skip over all the boring parts of governing and get right to the good stuff. And it’s tempting to draw a contrast between the incumbent, who achieved his greatest success on reality television, and his predecessor, a detail-oriented introvert who once thought about becoming a novelist. (I’m also struck, yet again, by the analogy to L. Ron Hubbard. He spent most of his career fantasizing about a life of adventure, but when he finally got into the Navy, he made a series of stupid mistakes—including attacking two nonexistent submarines off the coast of Oregon—that ultimately caused him to be stripped of his command. The pattern repeated itself so many times that it hints at a fundamental aspect of his personality. He was too impatient to deal with the tedious reality of life during wartime, which failed to live up to the version he had dreamed of himself. And while I don’t want to push this too far, it’s hard not to notice the difference between Hubbard, who cranked out his fiction without much regard for quality, and Heinlein, a far more disciplined writer who was able to consciously tame his own natural impatience into a productive role at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.)
Which brings us back to the sentence that impressed Disraeli. It’s easy to interpret it as an admonition not to think about the future, which isn’t quite right. We can start by observing that it comes at the end of what The Five Gospels notes is possibly “the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus.” It’s the one that asks us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, which, for a lot of us, prompts an immediate flashback to The Life of Brian. (“Consider the lilies?” “Uh, well, the birds, then.” “What birds?” “Any birds.” “Why?” “Well, have they got jobs?”) But whether or not you agree with the argument, it’s worth noticing that the advice to focus on the evils of each day comes only after an extended attempt at defining a larger set of values—what matters, what doesn’t, and what, if anything, you can change by worrying. You’re only in a position to figure out how best to spend your time after you’ve considered the big questions. As the physician William Osler put it:
[My ideal is] to do the day’s work well and not to bother about tomorrow. You may say that is not a satisfactory ideal. It is; and there is not one which the student can carry with him into practice with greater effect. To it more than anything else I owe whatever success I have had—to this power of settling down to the day’s work and trying to do it well to the best of my ability, and letting the future take care of itself.
This has important implications for both writers and politicians, as well as for progressives who wonder how they’ll be able to get through the next twenty-four hours, much less the next four years. When you’re working on any important project, even the most ambitious agenda comes down to what you’re going to do right now. In On Directing Film, David Mamet expresses it rather differently:
Now, you don’t eat a whole turkey, right? You take off the drumstick and you take a bite of the drumstick. Okay. Eventually you get the whole turkey done. It’ll probably get dry before you do, unless you have an incredibly good refrigerator and a very small turkey, but that is outside the scope of this lecture.
A lot of frustration in art, politics, and life in general comes from attempting to swallow the turkey in one bite. Jesus, I think, was aware of the susceptibility of his followers to grandiose but meaningless gestures, which is why he offered up the advice, so easy to remember and so hard to follow, to simultaneously focus on the given day while keeping the kingdom of heaven in mind. Nearly every piece of practical wisdom in any field is about maintaining that double awareness. Fortunately, it goes in both directions: small acts of discipline aid us in grasping the whole, and awareness of the whole tells us what to do in the moment. As R.H. Blyth says of Zen: “That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.” And don’t try to eat the entire turkey at once.
Forty years ago, the cinematographer Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam. It was a stabilizer attached to a harness that allowed a camera operator, walking on foot or riding in a vehicle, to shoot the kind of smooth footage that had previously only been possible using a dolly. Before long, it had revolutionized the way in which both movies and television were shot, and not always in the most obvious ways. When we think of the Steadicam, we’re likely to remember virtuoso extended takes like the Copacabana sequence in Goodfellas, but it can also be a valuable tool even when we aren’t supposed to notice it. As the legendary Robert Elswit said recently to the New York Times:
“To me, it’s not a specialty item,” he said. “It’s usually there all the time.” The results, he added, are sometimes “not even necessarily recognizable as a Steadicam shot. You just use it to get something done in a simple way.”
Like digital video, the Steadicam has had a leveling influence on the movies. Scenes that might have been too expensive, complicated, or time-consuming to set up in the conventional manner can be done on the fly, which has opened up possibilities both for innovative stylists and for filmmakers who are struggling to get their stories made at all.
Not surprisingly, there are skeptics. In On Directing Film, which I think is the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read, David Mamet argues that it’s a mistake to think of a movie as a documentary record of what the protagonist does, and he continues:
The Steadicam (a hand-held camera), like many another technological miracle, has done injury; it has injured American movies, because it makes it so easy to follow the protagonist around, one no longer has to think, “What is the shot?” or “Where should I put the camera?” One thinks, instead, “I can shoot the whole thing in the morning.”
This conflicts with Mamet’s approach to structuring a plot, which hinges on dividing each scene into individual beats that can be expressed in purely visual terms. It’s a method that emerges naturally from the discipline of selecting shots and cutting them together, and it’s the kind of hard work that we’re often tempted to avoid. As Mamet adds in a footnote: “The Steadicam is no more capable of aiding in the creation of a good movie than the computer is in the writing of a good novel—both are labor-saving devices, which simplify and so make more attractive the mindless aspects of creative endeavor.” The casual use of the Steadicam seduces directors into conceiving of the action in terms of “little plays,” rather than in fundamental narrative units, and it removes some of the necessity of disciplined thinking beforehand.
But it isn’t until toward the end of the book that Mamet delivers his most ringing condemnation of what the Steadicam represents:
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” one might say, “if we could get this hall here, really around the corner from that door there; or to get that door here to really be the door that opens on the staircase to that door there? So we could just movie the camera from one to the next?”
It took me a great deal of effort and still takes me a great deal and will continue to take me a great deal of effort to answer the question thusly: no, not only is it not important to have those objects literally contiguous; it is important to fight against this desire, because fighting it reinforces an understanding of the essential nature of film, which is that it is made of disparate shorts, cut together. It’s a door, it’s a hall, it’s a blah-blah. Put the camera “there” and photograph, as simply as possible, that object. If we don’t understand that we both can and must cut the shots together, we are sneakily falling victim to the mistaken theory of the Steadicam.
This might all sound grumpy and abstract, but it isn’t. Take Birdman. You might well love Birdman—plenty of viewers evidently did—but I think it provides a devastating confirmation of Mamet’s point. By playing as a single, seemingly continuous shot, it robs itself of the ability to tell the story with cuts, and it inadvertently serves as an advertisement of how most good movies come together in the editing room. It’s an audacious experiment that never needs to be tried again. And it wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the Steadicam.
But the Steadicam can also be a thing of beauty. I don’t want to discourage its use by filmmakers for whom it means the difference between making a movie under budget and never making it at all, as long as they don’t forget to think hard about all of the constituent parts of the story. There’s also a place for the bravura long take, especially when it depends on our awareness of the unfaked passage of time, as in the opening of Touch of Evil—a long take, made without benefit of a Steadicam, that runs the risk of looking less astonishing today because technology has made this sort of thing so much easier. And there’s even room for the occasional long take that exists only to wow us. De Palma has a fantastic one in Raising Cain, which I watched again recently, that deserves to be ranked among the greats. At its best, it can make the filmmaker’s audacity inseparable from the emotional core of the scene, as David Thomson observes of Goodfellas: “The terrific, serpentine, Steadicam tracking shot by which Henry Hill and his girl enter the Copacabana by the back exit is not just his attempt to impress her but Scorsese’s urge to stagger us and himself with bravura cinema.” The best example of all is The Shining, with its tracking shots of Danny pedaling his Big Wheel down the deserted corridors of the Overlook. It’s showy, but it also expresses the movie’s basic horror, as Danny is inexorably drawn to the revelation of his father’s true nature. (And it’s worth noting that much of its effectiveness is due to the sound design, with the alternation of the wheels against the carpet and floor, which is one of those artistic insights that never grows dated.) The Steadicam is a tool like any other, which means that it can be misused. It can be wonderful, too. But it requires a steady hand behind the camera.
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
Whether or not you’re a believer, you eventually end up with your own idea of who Jesus might have been. I like to think of him as the ultimate pragmatist. If you accept his central premise—that the kingdom of heaven, whatever it is, is something that is happening right now—then his ethical system, as impossible as it might seem for most of us to follow, becomes easier to understand. It’s about eliminating distractions, focusing on what really counts, and removing sources of temptation before they have a chance to divert us from the true goal. Poverty, as Michael Grant puts it in Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, is a practical solution to a concrete problem: “Excessive wealth might be a positive disadvantage, since its too lavish enjoyment could distract its possessors from the overriding vital matter at hand.” And as Grant observes elsewhere:
Certainly, “blessed are the meek”…but that is because “they shall inherit the earth.” Since nothing less than this is at stake, a contentious spirit is wholly out of place, for it will only distract attention and energy from the preeminent task. It is not even worth hating your enemies…In the urgent circumstances, Jesus believed, it was a sheer waste of time. Love them instead, just as much as you love everyone else; pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek. For why not avoid hostilities and embroilments which, beside the infinitely larger issue, are ultimately irrelevant and distracting?
“Love your enemies,” in other words, is nothing but sensible advice. Which doesn’t it make it any easier to do it for real, rather than merely paying it lip service, when it strikes us as inconvenient.
Take the case of Donald Trump. It’s fair to say that I feel less love toward Trump than I do toward any other American public figure of my lifetime. At my best, I just want to go back to the days when I could safely ignore him; at my worst, I want him to suffer some kind of humiliating, career-ending comeuppance, although I’m well aware that real life rarely affords such satisfactions. (If anything, it’s more likely to give us the opposite.) I’m also uncomfortably conscious that this is exactly the kind of reaction that he wants to evoke from me. It’s a victory. No matter what happens in this election, Trump has added perceptibly to the world’s stockpile of hate, resentment, and alienation. Hating him and what he stands for is easy; what isn’t so easy is trying to respond in ways that don’t merely feed into the cycle of hatred. The answer—and I wish it were different—is right there in front of us. We’re told to love our enemies. Jesus, the pragmatic philosopher, knew that there wasn’t time for anything else. But when I think about doing the same with Trump, I feel a bit like Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, when she realizes that love is the only weapon that will work against IT, the hideous brain that rules the planet of Camazotz:
If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.
The italics, as always, are mine. It isn’t too much to ask. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this, and quite another to grant that we’re obliged to do it for someone like Donald Trump.
So here’s my best shot. Trump grew up wanting nothing more than to please his own demanding father. Early in his career, he was just one real estate developer among many. He ended up concluding that the only values worth pursuing were the acquisition of money and power, abstracted from any possible benefit except as a way of keeping score. What’s worse, he received plenty of validation that his assumptions were correct. He’s never had any reason to grow or change. Instead, as we all do, he’s become more like himself as he’s aged, while categorizing the human beings around him as sources of income, enemies, or potential enablers. Behind his bluster, he’s deeply insecure, as we all are. He refuses to take responsibility for his actions, he can’t admit a mistake, and he blames everyone but himself when things go wrong. (When he says that the first debate was “rigged” because someone tampered with his mike and the moderator was against him, I’m reminded of what David Mamet says in On Directing Film: “Two reasons are equal to no reasons—it’s like saying: ‘I was late because the bus drivers are on strike and my aunt fell downstairs.’”) He seems unhappy. It’s hard to imagine him taking pleasure in reading a book, preparing a meal, or really anything aside from trolling the electorate and putting his name on buildings and planes. He appears to have no affection for anyone or anything, except perhaps his own children. And he’s the creation of forces that even he can’t control. He’s succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, but only by becoming the full-time monster that was only there in flashes before. Trump uses the system, but it also uses him. He has transformed himself into exactly what he hopes people want him to be, and he’s condemned to do it forever. And when the end comes—”As it must to all men,” the newsreel narrator reminds us in Citizen Kane—he’ll have to ask himself whether it was worth it.
I know that this comes perilously close to what the onlookers say after seeing Marge Simpson’s nude portrait of Mr. Burns: “He’s bad, but he’ll die. So I like it.” But it’s the best I can do. I can’t love Trump, but I can sort of forgive him, and pity him, for becoming what he was told to be, and for abandoning what makes us human and valuable—empathy, compassion, humility—in favor of an identity assembled from who we are at our worst. In a way, I’m even grateful to him, for much the same reason that George Saunders expressed in The New Yorker: “Although, to me, Trump seems the very opposite of a guardian angel, I thank him for this: I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail. But I imagine it that way now.” If Trump didn’t exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. He’s a better cautionary tale than any I could have imagined, because he won the trappings of success at a spiritual cost that isn’t tragic so much as deeply sad. He’s like Charles Foster Kane, without any of the qualities that make Kane so misleadingly attractive. When I think of the abyss of his ego, which draws like a battery on the love of his supporters and flails helplessly in every other situation, it feels like the logical extension of a career spent in the pursuit of wealth and celebrity divorced from any other consideration beyond himself. Like all mortals, Trump had exactly one chance to live a meaningful life, with greater resources than most of us ever get, and this is what he did with it. The closest I can come to loving him is the acknowledgment that I might have done the same, if I had been born with his circumstances and incentives. He’s not so different from me, as I fear I might have been in his shoes. And if I love Trump, in some weird way, it’s because I’m thankful I’m not him.
In general, an author should try to write active protagonists in fiction, for much the same reason that it’s best to use the active voice, rather than the passive, whenever you can. It isn’t invariably the right choice, but it’s better often enough that it makes sense to use it when you’re in doubt—which, when you’re writing a story, is frankly most of the time. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and Write list the reasons why the active voice is usually superior: it’s more vigorous and direct, it renders the writing livelier and more emphatic, and it often makes the sentence shorter. It’s a form of insurance that guards against some of the vices to which writers, even experienced ones, are prone to succumbing. There are few stories that wouldn’t benefit from an infusion of force, and since our artistic calculations are always imprecise, a shrewd writer will do what he or she can to err on the side of boldness. This doesn’t mean that the passive voice doesn’t have a place, but John Gardner’s advice in The Art of Fiction, as usual, is on point:
The passive voice is virtually useless in fiction…Needless to say, the writer must judge every case individually, and the really good writer may get away with just about anything. But it must be clear that when the writer makes use of the passive he knows he’s doing it and has good reason for what he does.
And most of the same arguments apply to active characters. All else being equal, an active hero or villain is more engaging than a passive victim of circumstance, and when you’re figuring out a plot, it’s prudent to construct the events whenever possible so that they emerge from the protagonist’s actions. (Or, even better, to come up with an active, compelling central character and figure out what he or she would logically do next.) This is the secret goal behind the model of storytelling, as expounded most usefully by David Mamet in On Directing Film, that conceives of a plot as a series of objectives, each one paired with a concrete action. It’s designed to maintain narrative clarity, but it also results in characters who want things and who take active measures to attain them. When I follow the slightly mechanical approach of laying out the objectives and actions of a scene, one beat after another, it gives the story a crucial backbone, but it also usually leads to the creation of an interesting character, almost by accident. If nothing else, it forces me to think a little harder, and it ensures that the building blocks of the story itself—which are analogous, but not identical, to the sentences that compose it—are written in the narrative equivalent of the active voice. And just as the active voice is generally preferable to the passive voice, in the absence of any other information, it’s advisable to focus on the active side when you aren’t sure what kind of story you’re writing: in the majority of cases, it’s simply more effective.
Of course, there are times when passivity is an important part of the story, just as the passive voice can be occasionally necessary to convey the ideas that the writer wants to express. The world is full of active and passive personalities, and of people who don’t have control over important aspects of their lives, and there’s a sense in which plots—or genres as a whole—that are built around action leave meaningful stories untold. This is true of the movies as well, as David Thomson memorably observes:
So many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.
One of the central goals of modernist realism has been to give a voice to characters who would otherwise go unheard, precisely because of their lack of conventional agency. And it’s a problem that comes up even in suspense: a plot often hinges on a character’s lack of power, less as a matter of existential helplessness than because of a confrontation with a formidable antagonist. (A conspiracy novel is essentially about that powerlessness, and it emerged as a subgenre largely as a way to allow suspense to deal with these issues.)
So how do you tell a story, or even write a scene, in which the protagonist is powerless? A good hint comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” This draws a useful distinction, I think, between the two functions of the active mode: as a reflection of reality and as a tool to structure the reader’s experience. You can use it in the latter sense even in stories or scenes in which helplessness is the whole point, just as you can use the active voice to increase the impact of prose that is basically static or abstract. In Chapter 55 of Eternal Empire, for example, Maddy finds herself in as vulnerable a position as can be imagined: she’s in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a woman whom she’s just realized is her mortal enemy. There isn’t much she can plausibly do to defend herself, but to keep her from becoming entirely passive, I gave her a short list of actions to perform: she checks her pockets for potential weapons, unlocks the door on her side as quietly as she can, and looks through the windshield to get a sense of their location. Most crucially, at the moment when it might be possible to run, she decides to stay where is. The effect is subtle, but real. Maddy isn’t in control of her situation, but she’s in control of herself, and I think that the reader senses this. And it’s in scenes like this, when the action is at a minimum, that the active mode really pays off…
If you really want to learn how a story works, you should try telling it to a three-year-old. Over the last twelve months, as my daughter has begun to watch longer movies, I’ve developed a sideline business as a sort of simultaneous interpreter: I’ll sit next to her and offer a running commentary on the action, designed to keep her from getting restless and to preemptively answer her questions. If it’s a movie I’ve seen before, like My Neighbor Totoro, I don’t need to concentrate quite as intently, but on the handful of occasions when I’ve watched a movie with her for the first time in theaters—as we’ve done with The Peanuts Movie, The Good Dinosaur, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Zootopia—I’ve had to pay closer attention. What I whisper in her ear usually boils down to a basic description of a character’s emotions or objectives, if it isn’t already clear from action or dialogue: “He’s sad.” “She’s worried about her friend.” “He wants to find his family.” And I’ve come to realize that this amounts to a kind of reverse engineering. If a movie often originates in the form of beat sheets or storyboards that the filmmakers have to turn into fully realized scenes, by breaking down the action in terms that my daughter can understand, I’m simply rewinding that process back to the beginning.
And it’s taught me some surprising lessons about storytelling. It reminds me a little of a piece that ran last year in The New York Times Magazine about Rasha Ajalyaqeen, a former interpreter for the United Nations. Like Ajalyaqeen, I’m listening to a story and translating it into a different language in real time, and many of the tips that she shares apply equally well here: “Be invisible.” “Leave your opinions behind; your voice should reflect the speaker’s feelings.” “Forget pausing to find the right word.” And most of all:
Word-for-word translation can result in a nonsensical mess. Instead, break longer, complicated phrases into shorter units of single concepts. “A good translator does not interpret words; he interprets meaning,” says Ajalyaqeen, who grew up in Syria. Be prepared to dive into sentences without knowing where they are going grammatically…”Sometimes you start and you don’t know what your subject is—you’re waiting for the verb.”
“Waiting for the verb” is as good a way as any to describe what I often have to do with my daughter: I’m not sure where the scene is going, but I have to sustain her interest until the real action kicks in.
This is a valuable exercise, because it forces me to engage with the story entirely in the present tense. I’ve spoken here before of how a story can best be understood as a sequence of objectives, which is the approach that David Mamet articulates so beautifully in On Directing Film, the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read. In practice, though, it’s easy to forget this. When you’re the writer, you find yourself thinking in terms of the story’s overall shape, and even if you’re just the reader or a member of the audience, you often skip ahead to anticipate what comes next. When you’re trying to explain it to a three-year-old, there isn’t time for any of this—your only goal is to explicate what is happening on the screen right now. After you’ve done this for a dozen or more movies, you start to appreciate how this approximates how we subconsciously experience all stories, no matter how sophisticated they might be. A good movie or novel doesn’t just put one scene after another, like a series of beads on a string, but that’s how we absorb it, and it needs to be told with clarity on that simple sequential level if its larger patterns are going to have any meaning. Like a properly constructed improvisation, an engaging story comes down to a series of “Yes, and…” statements. And the fact that it also needs to be more doesn’t excuse it from its basic obligation to be clear and logical with each individual beat.
And talking your way through through a movie like this—even if the three-year-old you’re addressing is an imaginary one—can lead to unexpected insights into a story’s strengths and weaknesses. I came away even more impressed by Zootopia because of how cleverly it grounds its complicated plot in a series of units that can be easily grasped: I don’t think Beatrix was ever lost for more than a few seconds. And when I watched Aladdin with her this morning, I became uncomfortably aware of the golden thread of fakery that runs through the center of that story: it’s a skillful script, but it hits its beats so emphatically that I was constantly aware of how it was manipulating us. (Compare this to Miyazaki’s great movies, from Kiki’s Delivery Service to Ponyo, which achieve their effects more subtly and mysteriously, while never being anything less than fascinating.) I’ve even found myself doing much the same thing when I’m watching a television show or reading a book on my own. When you try to see the story through a child’s eyes, and to frame it in terms that would hold the attention of a preschooler, you quickly learn that it isn’t a question of dumbing it down, but of raising it to an even greater level of sophistication, with the story conveyed with the clarity of a fairy tale. Anyone who thinks that this is easy has never tried to do it for real. And at every turn, you need to be asking yourself a toddler’s favorite question: “Why?”
Like a lot of other people, I spent most of yesterday afternoon wrapping my holiday presents. It sounds like it should be a relaxing activity—A Charlie Brown Christmas playing on vinyl, a hot beverage, rolls of paper and ribbon on the floor by the tree—but it’s always a little more frustrating than I expect, even without a three-year-old insisting that she can wrap everything herself. Some packages, like books or big rectangular boxes, are satisfying and easy to wrap. Yet there are always a few gifts that stubbornly refuse to cooperate. They’ve got weird shapes, or protrusions, or they’re soft and amorphous, and since you never have all the gift bags you need, you end up trying to adapt your simpleminded method of wrapping a box to something that isn’t a box, and the result is always a bit hideous. Even boxes themselves can be tough: a small box is much less forgiving than a large one, and if your estimate of how much paper you’ll need is off by even a centimeter, you often have to start all over again. (It’s for much the same reason that short fiction can be harder to write than a novel.) I always think that there has to be a better way, and, of course, there is. The trouble is, like most people, I wrap presents only a few times a year, with weeks or months going by between birthdays and holidays, so I’ve never bothered to develop that particular skill set. Whenever I do it again, I feel as if I’m figuring out how to wrap a present for the first time. If I did it more frequently, or if I had to wrap hundreds of presents at once, I’d probably come up with a few good tricks. As it stands, I get pretty good at it by the end of each wrapping session, and the next time around, I find that I’ve forgotten everything I learned.
My real problem is that I insist on wrapping every present as if it were a rectangular prism, since that’s the one thing I sort of know how to do. In fact, there’s an objectively right way to wrap any shape, assuming that you’re willing to put the effort into it. (It probably isn’t a worthwhile use of energy for a present that is just going to be torn apart on Christmas Eve, but bear with me here.) Wrapping a package is largely a problem of translation: you’re attempting to capture the essential information about a three-dimensional shape in a two-dimensional form. In design terms, you’re trying to construct a net—a single, two-dimensional piece that locks around itself to enclose a polyhedron. And a net that has been logically conceived is an object of rare beauty. There’s a lovely book called Structural Packaging by Paul Jackson that discusses this in detail, and it handles the topic with a level of clarity and precision that should serve as an inspiration to anyone interested in solving creative problems. Jackson writes: “A net is either absolutely correct and perfect, or incorrect and in need of correction. In design, the concept of perfection is almost unknown—how can a magazine layout, or a color, or a choice of fabric be described as perfect?—but in package design perfection is achievable and necessary.” Elsewhere, he says that he has developed “a simple system—a formula, even—for creating the strongest possible one-piece net that will enclose any volumetric form which has flat faces and straight sides,” and he advises his readers that for the best results, his method “must be followed accurately, almost to the point of obsession—at least at first.”
So how would Paul Jackson wrap a package? The first step, after you’ve figured out the overall shape, is to construct a dummy using sheets of card and masking tape. You cut loose the lid, which is the one set of cuts that you know you have to make, and place a tab on the edge opposite the hinge. The rest of the process, which tells you how to fold the dummy flat, consists of a set of elegant rules of the kind that I find hard to resist. Jackson tells you to cut the shortest edges first, and to continue to cut, proceeding from short edges to long, until the entire net can be unfolded. (This makes intuitive sense: a design that situates its hinges along the longest edges will be the strongest, and it will also occupy the smallest area of the card that will be used to manufacture the finished version.) You then place more tabs on alternate edges, starting with the lid tab—as Jackson notes, any net, no matter how complicated, will have an even number of edges, so this approach always works. Finally, you determine the shape of each tab, one by one, based on the shape of the face to which it will be joined. Jackson notes: “There is no quick way to do this—every tab must be designed carefully and accurately, one at a time.” This is the point, in other words, at which the general rules give way to close observation and analysis. Jackson says that if this method is executed with complete accuracy, it gives you a remarkably strong net; if it’s even slightly less accurate, the net will be noticeably weaker. And he frames the discussion with an important reminder: “Sometimes, creativity comes from thinking freely without limitations, and sometimes it comes from learning something thoroughly and then applying it. Structural packaging is definitely in the latter category.”
And I can’t help but compare this to other kinds of creative thinking, particularly writing, which is the art form I know best. When you’re writing a story, you’re performing a similar act of translation, turning the three-dimensional world around you into a form that conveys the same information on the printed page. And it’s all too easy to approach every subject using the same handful of tricks: trying to cram every story into the same formula—as so many mainstream movies do—isn’t so different from wrapping every present, no matter how unusual its shape, as if it were a box with rectangular sides. In reality, you need to tell each story on its own terms, evaluating the problems it presents according to the basic rules of craft. (As David Mamet puts it in On Directing Film: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate this rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”) And even after you’ve followed the rules to the letter, you still have to put in the tabs, or the connections between scenes and ideas, which can only be done by paying close attention to the shape and relationship of the constituent parts. You learn this only by doing it repeatedly, which is why it’s important to write every day: otherwise, you’re like someone who wraps presents a few times a year and has to figure it out from scratch each time. I’m reminded of another book, How to Wrap Five Eggs by Hideyuki Oka, that seems as far from Jackson as you could possibly get: it’s about the lost art of traditional Japanese packaging, in which eggs were bound together using just a few wisps of rice straw. But both approaches, as Oka says, represent “a kind of crystallization of the wisdom that comes from everyday life.” This can emerge either from systematic theory or from the accumulated experience of generations. The first step is to respect the package itself. And when you’re done, you can tie a bow on it.