Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Lord of the Rings

The Eye of the Skeksis

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Every now and then, you’re able to date the precise moment when your life incrementally changed. For me, one of those turning points was January 9, 1983, when the documentary The World of the Dark Crystal aired on public television, a few weeks after the movie itself debuted in theaters. (This weekend marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of its initial release.) It seems implausible now that I would have watched it at the time, but fortunately, my dad taped it, and it must have lived in our house for years afterward, like a tiny imaginative bomb waiting for its chance to detonate. As I’ll mention in a second, our copy cut off the first four minutes of the documentary—it must have taken my dad that long to get the videocassette recorder set up—and I didn’t see it in its entirety until decades later. It was preserved for me by chance, and when I look at it today, it feels doubly precious. We’re living in an era when a series like The Lord of the Rings can offer dozens of hours of production footage, much of it beautifully presented, while even the most mediocre blockbusters usually provide a bonus disc packed with special features. The World of the Dark Crystal isn’t even an hour long, but it was enough to fuel my imagination for a lifetime. And it wasn’t just an element of what would eventually come to be known as an electronic press kit, or even an anomaly like Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, but a labor of love in its own right, a document made by creative artists who were convinced that what they were doing was worth recording because it had the potential to change movies forever.

That isn’t how it worked out, but at least it changed me, and the moment in particular that I never forgot comes near the beginning of the documentary. Our copy of the tape abruptly opened with a shot of the artist Brian Froud, who provided the movie’s conceptual designs, wandering across the moor near his home in Devon. Shortly afterward, it cut to a sequence of Froud seated at his drafting table, working on a sketch of a Skeksis and musing on the soundtrack:

Jim [Henson] had feelings about what the major creatures were, and some of their characteristics, and it was my job to show how they looked. I always start with the eye—the eye is the focal point of all these characters. And for the Skeksis, they needed to have a penetrating stare….They are part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.

He drew rapidly for the camera, filling in the details around the eye before extending the illustration—with what struck me at the time as a startling flourish—into the downward curve of the mouth. Watching the movement of the pencil, I experienced what I can only describe as a moment of revelation. If nothing else, it was probably the first time that I’d ever seen an artist actually drawing, and it kindled something in me that has never entirely gone away.

I must have been about six years old when it really took hold, and I reacted much like any other kid when presented with this sort of stimulus: I imitated it. To be specific, I slavishly copied that one drawing, not just in its final shape, but in the process that Froud took to get there. I started with the eye, like he did, and then ritualistically added in the rest. It never would have occurred to me to do otherwise, and I suspect that I drew it hundreds of times, sometimes as a doodle in the margin of a notepad, occasionally more systematically, which doesn’t even include the countless other drawings that I made of creatures that were “part reptile, part predatory bird, part dragon.” It wasn’t so much a reaction to The Dark Crystal itself—which I liked, although not as much as Labyrinth—as to that brief glimpse of a creative mind expressed in the pencil on the page. Combined with a few technical tricks that I picked up from the show The Secret City, which is worth a blog post of its own, it was enough to turn me into a pretty good artist, at least by the standards of the second grade. (It’s worth noting that both The World of the Dark Crystal and The Secret City aired on public television, which is also where Jim Henson made his most lasting impact, and an argument in itself for defending it as a proving ground for the imaginations of the young.) I haven’t done a lot of art in recent years, except when sketching with my daughter, and I knew by the end of college that I didn’t have it in me to be a painter. But I’m grateful to have even a little of it, and I owe it largely to that chance encounter with a Skeksis.

I don’t doubt that there are kids who experienced the same kind of epiphany while watching the lovingly detailed profiles of conceptual designers John Howe and Alan Lee—Froud’s old collaborator—in the special features for The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit provides hours more, and those featurettes, unlike so much else in those bloated box sets, remain fascinating and magical. (The life of a fantasy illustrator must not be a particularly lucrative one under most circumstances, and one of the small pleasures of watching the behind-the-scenes footage from these two trilogies is seeing Howe and Lee growing visibly more prosperous.) But something in the fragmentary nature of The World of the Dark Crystal was stimulating in itself. It wasn’t a textbook, but a series of hints, and it left me to fill in the gaps on my own. You can draw a straight line from that pencil drawing to my interest in science fiction and fantasy, not just as fan, but as someone with an interest in the practicalities of how it all gets done. The forms have changed, but the underlying impulse remains the same. And what really haunts me is the fact that the scene at the drawing table occurs just a minute and a half after our tape started, and my dad could easily have missed it. If it had taken him a few minutes longer to cue up the recorder that night, he might have skipped it entirely, and opened instead with the sequence in which the creatures that Froud designed were coming to life in Jim Henson’s workshop. And maybe I would have become a puppeteer.

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December 15, 2017 at 8:28 am

The desolation of slog

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Over the last few months, I’ve developed a hobby that I’d have trouble justifying even to myself—I’ve spent countless hours watching the special features for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, a series that I don’t even like. (It would be nice to pretend that I’ve been celebrating the eightieth anniversary of the publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novel, which took place last week, but I frankly wasn’t even aware of it until the other day.) My deep dive into Hobbit featurettes came out of a confluence of circumstances that I doubt will ever recur. I’ve always loved the production videos for The Lord of the Rings, which I’ve compared elsewhere to a film school in a box set, and for years, they’ve served as my evening comfort food of choice, especially on days when I’m so tired from work and parenting to do anything but stare blankly at a television screen. During a period when I was exceptionally busy with the book, I worked through most of them yet again, proceeding backward from The Return of the King to Fellowship. Before long, though, I’d burned through them all, and it occurred to me that I might be able to get a similar fix from that other series of movies about Middle-earth. A glance at Amazon and some good timing revealed that I could buy the extended editions of all three Hobbit films for about ten dollars apiece. I’d been meaning to check out the special features ever since seeing the extraordinary authorized video that highlighted Jackson’s exhaustion during the filming of The Battle of the Five Armies, and shelling out thirty bucks for fifteen DVDs seemed like it would provide a decent return on investment.

As it turned out, it did. Not because of the featurettes themselves, which for the most part are a step down from their equivalents for The Lord of the Rings, but because of the light that they inadvertently shed on what went wrong with The Hobbit. Viewers hoping for Peter Jackson’s equivalent of Burden of Dreams or Hearts of Darkness are likely to be disappointed—the tone of the bonus features is relentlessly upbeat, and there are only occasional admissions of the possibility that anything might be going sideways. (Jackson’s graying hair, fluctuating weight, and visible tiredness tell us more than anything that he says aloud.) What sticks with you, unfortunately, is the length and tediousness of most of these videos, which seem like an expression of the same misconceptions that went into the movies themselves. The Hobbit trilogy reunited much of the original cast and crew for a project that, on paper, had no excuse for not reproducing at least some of the magic of its predecessor. Yet it feels for all the world like an attempt at reverse engineering, based only on the qualities of the first trilogy that could be most efficiently replicated. The Lord of the Rings consisted of three movies that came close to three hours each; therefore, so does The Hobbit. Viewers loved the epic battle scenes of the earlier films, so The Hobbit gives them lots of the same. A badass action sequence in which Legolas defies gravity? Check. A love triangle? Why not? Fan service reappearances from Elrond, Saruman, Galadriel, and other characters we liked the first time around? Of course.  And when the characters couldn’t return, The Hobbit finds their non-union equivalents. Bard the Bowman is called “the Aragon of The Hobbit” so often in the bonus features that I lost count.

By now, many viewers have come to see The Hobbit as a kind of simulation of the original, recreating it in broad, quantitative strokes while missing most of the qualitative factors that made The Lord of the Rings special. What surprised me, at this late date, was the discovery that the bonus features did exactly the same thing. The Lord of the Rings featurettes expanded to epic length because there was simply so much to explore, from conceptual design to training the horses to the workers at Weta who made so many suits of chain mail that they literally rubbed away their fingerprints. With The Hobbit, the special features seem to be just as long, if not longer, and they seem to have been driven by the same logic that went into the movies. Viewers love having multiple discs of bonus material, the reasoning goes, so we’ll give it to them—and if you’re simply weighing the physical size of these editions against the Lord of the Rings box sets that you already own, you’ll be happy. (It’s the opposite of the metric preferred by Apple, which uses thinness as a proxy for quality.) But it’s hard to convey how bloated these videos are. To give just one example, there’s a scene in The Desolation of Smaug in which the Master of Laketown, played gamely by Stephen Fry, eats a plate of goat testicles for breakfast. As the bonus features take pains to inform us, they aren’t real testicles, but carefully molded meatballs, although Fry still had to gulp them down in vast quantities. In a Lord of the Rings featurette, this detail might have merited a cutaway shot, a funny outtake, and a dry witticism during Fry’s talking head. With The Hobbit, it goes on for minutes on end. I had my laptop out while I was watching it, and when I glanced up after what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, they were still talking about testicles.

It isn’t hard to guess what happened. The creators of the bonus features—who, it must be said, know how to put together an attractive, professional product—were expected to produce a certain volume of footage, on the assumption that fans would be happy with hours of anything. As a result, the most trivial byways of the production, like the fake testicles, get the same loving treatment as the hallway fight in Inception. I don’t blame the makers of the featurettes, who were just doing their best, but the mindset of the producers who gave them a brief that measured the quality of the outcome by how many discs it managed to fill. (Some of it, I hasten to add, is worth watching. Aside from the weirdly candid postmortem of The Battle of Five Armies that I mentioned above, there’s a fascinating treatment of the orchestrations for The Desolation of Smaug, and my attention perks up whenever Richard Taylor, Alan Lee, or John Howe appear onscreen.) But I keep going back to the fatal flaw of The Hobbit movies themselves. After a certain point, you lose track of why you’re here, so you fall back on benchmarks and targets that worked the first time around. You forget that people didn’t love The Lord of the Rings because each movie was three hours long, but the movies were long because there was so much there that people would love. The tale grew in the telling, as Tolkien famously said, but it’s a mistake to confuse that growth for the imaginative impulse that nurtured it. Bonus features might seem like a modest form of art, but the Lord of the Rings featurettes were a masterpiece of their kind, and those for The Hobbit bear exactly the same relationship to their predecessors as the films did. What was lacking in both cases was a basic clarity of thought. As John Fowles wrote in his great novel Daniel Martin, about an English screenwriter in Hollywood: “Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation.”

The pickup artists

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Felicity Jones in Rogue One

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

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

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

Gareth Edwards and Diego Luna on the set of Rogue One

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

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

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

The two kinds of commentaries

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The Principal and the Pauper

There are two sorts of commentary tracks. The first kind is recorded shortly after a movie or television season is finished, or even while it’s still being edited or mixed, and before it comes out in theaters. Because their memories of the production are still vivid, the participants tend to be a little giddy, even punch drunk, and their feelings about the movie are raw: “The wound is still open,” as Jonathan Franzen put it to Slate. They don’t have any distance, and they remember everything, which means that they can easily get sidetracked into irrelevant detail. They don’t yet know what is and isn’t important. Most of all, they don’t know how the film did with viewers or critics, so their commentary becomes a kind of time capsule, sometimes laden with irony. The second kind of commentary is recorded long after the fact, either for a special edition, for the release of an older movie in a new format, or for a television series that is catching up with its early episodes. These tend to be less predictable in quality: while commentaries on recent work all start to sound more or less the same, the ones that reach deeper into the past are either disappointingly superficial or hugely insightful, without much room in between. Memories inevitably fade with time, but this can also allow the artist to be more honest about the result, and the knowledge of how the work was ultimately received adds another layer of interest. (For instance, one of my favorite commentaries from The Simpsons is for “The Principal and the Pauper,” with writer Ken Keeler and others ranting against the fans who declared it—preemptively, it seems safe to say—the worst episode ever.)

Perhaps most interesting of all are the audio commentaries that begin as the first kind, but end up as the second. You can hear it on the bonus features for The Lord of the Rings, in which, if memory serves, Peter Jackson and his cowriters start by talking about a movie that they finished years ago, continue by discussing a movie that they haven’t finished editing yet, and end by recording their comments for The Return of the King after it won the Oscar for Best Picture. (This leads to moments like the one for The Two Towers in which Jackson lays out his reasoning for pushing the confrontation with Saruman to the next movie—which wound up being cut for the theatrical release.) You also see it, on a more modest level, on the author’s commentaries I’ve just finished writing for my three novels. I began the commentary on The Icon Thief way back on April 30, 2012, or less than two months after the book itself came out. At the time, City of Exiles was still half a year away from being released, and I was just beginning the first draft of the novel that I still thought would be called The Scythian. I had a bit of distance from The Icon Thief, since I’d written a whole book and started another in the meantime, but I was still close enough that I remembered pretty much everything from the writing process. In my earliest posts, you can sense me trying to strike the right balance between providing specific anecdotes about the novel itself to offering more general thoughts on storytelling, while using the book mostly as a source of examples. And I eventually reached a compromise that I hoped would allow those who had actually read the book to learn something about how it was put together, while still being useful to those who hadn’t.

Peter Jackson

As a result, the commentaries began to stray further from the books themselves, usually returning to the novel under discussion only in the final paragraph. I did this partly to keep the posts accessible to nonreaders, but also because my own relationship with the material had changed. Yesterday, when I posted the last entry in my commentary on Eternal Empire, almost four years had passed since I finished the first draft of that novel. Four years is a long time, and it’s even longer in writing terms. If every new project puts a wall between you and the previous one, a series of barricades stands between these novels and me: I’ve since worked on a couple of book-length manuscripts that never got off the ground, a bunch of short stories, a lot of occasional writing, and my ongoing nonfiction project. With each new endeavor, the memory of the earlier ones grows dimmer, and when I go back to look at Eternal Empire now, not only do I barely remember writing it, but I’m often surprised by my own plot. This estrangement from a work that consumed a year of my life is a little sad, but it’s also unavoidable: you can’t keep all this information in your head and still stay sane. Amnesia is a coping strategy. We’re all programmed to forget many of our experiences—as well as our past selves—to free up capacity for the present. A novel is different, because it exists in a form outside the brain. Any book is a piece of its writer, and it can be as disorienting to revisit it as it is to read an old diary. As François Mauriac put it: “It is as painful as reading old letters…We touch it like a thing: a handful of ashes, of dust.” I’m not quite at that point with Eternal Empire, but I’ll sometimes read a whole series of chapters and think to myself, where did that come from?

Under the circumstances, I should count myself lucky that I’m still reasonably happy with how these novels turned out, since I have no choice but to be objective about it. There are things that I’d love to change, of course: sections that run too long, others that seem underdeveloped, conceits that seem too precious or farfetched or convenient. At times, I can see myself taking the easy way out, going with a shortcut or ignoring a possible implication because I lacked the time or energy to do it justice. (I don’t necessarily regret this: half of any writing project involves conserving your resources for when it really matters.) But I’m also surprised by good ideas or connections that seem to have come from outside of me, as if, to use Isaac Asimov’s phrase, I were writing over my own head. Occasionally, I’ll have trouble following my own logic, and the result is less a commentary than a forensic reconstruction of what I must have been thinking at the time. But if I find it hard to remember my reasoning today, it’s easier now than it will be next year, or after another decade. As I suspected at the time, the commentary exists more for me than for anybody else. It’s where I wrote down my feelings about a series of novels that once dominated my life, and which now seem like a distant memory. While I didn’t devote nearly as many hours to these commentaries as I did to the books themselves, they were written over a comparable stretch of time. And now that I’ve gotten to the point of writing a commentary on my commentary—well, it’s pretty clear that it’s time to stop.

“And my bow!”

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Orlando Bloom in The Lord of the Rings

Note: I’m on vacation until tomorrow, so I’ve been republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 9, 2014.

In the nine and more hours of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as directed by Peter Jackson, Legolas speaks to Frodo exactly once. Their sole interaction consists of three words: “And my bow!” (I owe this information to Reddit, which also notes that in the original trilogy, Legolas doesn’t say much of anything. All of Orlando Bloom’s lines could fit comfortably within a page of ordinary text, which speaks to both his charisma and his limitations: he makes an extraordinary impact here with minimal dialogue, but does less well when asked to carry, say, a Cameron Crowe movie.) Granted, Legolas and Frodo are separated for most of the story, and it’s only in the second half of The Fellowship of the Ring—and the last few minutes of The Return of the King—that they share any screen time at all. And the role of Legolas, is anything, is considerably expanded from his part in the books. But it’s still a surprise to discover that two characters who occupy a fair amount of mental real estate in one of the most successful franchises of all time have so little to say to each other.

That said, when you have so many characters competing for space, there are bound to be hiatuses, both here and in other ensembles. Edmund, incredibly, never says a word directly to King Lear, and the two men only occupy the stage together in the closing scenes of the play. In the film version of L.A. Confidential, Jack Vincennes only speaks once to Bud White—”White, you better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody”—and Bud doesn’t even respond. Yet we still tend to think of them all as pairs, or at least as counterbalancing forces in a narrative that propels itself forward through contrasts. Lear’s story runs in counterpoint to Edmund’s, and each gains enormous resonance from the other. Jack and Bud are opposing points in a triangle, with Ed Exley occupying the final corner, and the story is structured in such a way that we naturally draw comparisons. With Legolas and Frodo, the parallels are less pronounced, but there’s a sense in which the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy is a dialogue between the kind of physical bravery required to take down a mumakil singlehandedly and the plodding, unglamorous courage that carries us step by step into Mordor.

Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins

And what this all demonstrates is the subtle way in which juxtapositions, and not just interactions, allow characters to inform one another as they follow their separate destinies. I’ve written before about the power of ensembles, which, by Metcalfe’s Law, grow correspondingly more potent as the number of players increases. It’s easiest to understand this in terms of potential pairings, each one of which offers possibilities for interest or drama. (The legendary Samson Raphaelson, whose The Human Nature of Playwriting is one of the most useful—and hardest to obtain—books on storytelling around, suggests that authors turn to such pairings when trying to crack the plot: “I make a list of my principal characters and check to see if each character has had a major scene with every other character…I would say a good play, all other things being equal, should have thorough exploration of each other by all the major characters.”) But the pairings don’t necessarily need to take place within the action of the story itself. If the cast is vivid and rich enough, the pairings will naturally occur in the reader’s mind, even if the reader, or author, isn’t conscious of the process.

Which applies to more than character alone. We think of a novel or movie as a linear work of art that moves from one event to the next, but when we remember the books or films we love the most, even those that follow a strict line of action, we have a way of seeing everything simultaneously, with each piece commenting on every other. (In a way, it’s the opposite of how we think about dreams, which seem to appear in the brain in short, compressed bursts of imagery, only to fit themselves into a more conventional narrative when we recall them after the fact.) It’s also how an author often thinks of a work in progress—and one of the hardest parts of writing is balancing that impression of simultaneity with the linear experience of a reader encountering the story for the first time. When I think of Lawrence of Arabia, the memory takes the form of overlapping moments or images that are really separated by vast distances of celluloid: the famous cut from the match to the sunrise, Ali appearing like a dot on the horizon, Lawrence slumping on his camel with exhaustion or collapsing in despair at the Turkish hospital. Legolas and Frodo, or other narrative elements, may barely interact, but they’re part of a fellowship of the imagination.

“A kind of symbolic shorthand…”

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"A kind of symbolic shorthand..."

Note: This post is the thirty-seventh installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 36. You can read the previous installments here.

When we remember a story after the fact, our minds have a way of producing juxtapositions and connections that weren’t there before. Most fans, for instance, are aware that Kirk and Khan are never in the same place at the same time in Star Trek II, and their only real face-to-face confrontation, courtesy of a viewscreen, consists of a single scene. Still, they’re indelibly associated in our imaginations, certainly more so than the modern incarnations of the same two characters who shared so much screen time in a far less memorable movie. Similarly, in the movie version of L.A. Confidential, Jack Vincennes says just one line to Bud White—”White, you better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody”—and Bud doesn’t even bother responding. Yet we rightly think of Vincennes and White as two points in the movie’s central triangle, even if they interact largely through the contrasting shapes that they assume in our heads. As I wrote in a post on Legolas and Frodo, who also interact only once over the course of three Lord of the Rings movies: “We think of a novel or movie as a linear work of art that moves from one event to the next, but when we remember the books or films we love the most, even those that follow a strict line of action, we have a way of seeing everything simultaneously, with each piece commenting on every other.” When the book is closed and put back on the shelf, all the pages overlap, and links appear between characters that aren’t really there when the story is experienced as a sequence.

You could also make the case that separating characters can paradoxically result in a closer relationship than if they were physically together. When two characters share a scene, they can’t help but be themselves; when they’re further apart, each one begins to seem like a commentary on the other. Closeness tends to emphasize dissimilarity, while distance stresses the qualities they share. Some movies do this deliberately—like Heat, which keeps Pacino and De Niro separated and invites us to draw the parallels—while others do it by accident. (In L.A. Confidential, it seems to have been a little of both: Vincennes and White simply wouldn’t have much to talk about, and trying to force them into a conversation would have subtly diminished both men.) Movies and books benefit from the way we’ve been taught to read them, in which we assume that two lines of action will eventually converge. It’s a narrative technique as old as the Odyssey, and it can be used to create anticipation and lend structure to the story even if it never quite pays off. The first season of Fargo devoted a lot of time to foreshadowing a confrontation between two characters, played by Allison Tolman and Billy Bob Thornton, that it ultimately didn’t feel like providing. This worked well enough as a strategy to unite a lot of disconnected action, but the second season, which has consisted of a series of immensely entertaining collisions between disparate characters, reminds us of how satisfying this kind of convergence can be if it’s allowed to play out for real.

"I'm not responsible for what you've heard..."

And one of the unsung arts of storytelling lies in drawing out that distance as much as possible without losing the connection. One of the basic rules of visual design is that two elements in a composition, like two dots on a canvas, create a tension in the space between them that didn’t exist before. Elsewhere, I’ve written:

Two dots imply a line…No matter how far apart on the page the dots are placed, as long as they’re within the viewer’s visual field, they’re perceived in relation to one another, as well as to such larger elements as the edge of the paper. An impression of order or disorder—or stillness or dynamism—can be created by how close together they are, whether or not the implicit line runs parallel to the edges, or whether one dot is larger than the other. What was absolute becomes relative, and that shift carries our first big hint of design, or even story…In fiction, any kind of pairing or juxtaposition, whether it’s of two words, images, characters, or scenes, implies a logical relation, like a dream where two disconnected symbols occur together. We naturally look for affinity or causality, and for every line, we see a vector.

The tricky part is the placement. Put your dots too far apart, and they no longer seem related; too close together, and we tend to see them as a single unit. Much the same goes for characters, and it’s no accident that many of the fictional pairings we remember so vividly—like Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, or Holmes and Moriarty—consist of two figures who spend most of their time apart, which only adds to the intensity when they meet at last.

I thought about this constantly when I was cracking the plot for Eternal Empire, in which Wolfe mostly keeps her distance from Maddy and Ilya, the two other points in the narrative triangle. Maddy and Ilya eventually converge in a satisfying way, but Wolfe isn’t brought into their story until the very end, and even then, their interactions are minimal. In the case of Maddy, they consist of a voice message and a long conversation in the last chapter of the book; with Ilya, Wolfe has little more than a charged exchange of glances. Yet I think that Wolfe still feels integrated into their stories, and if she does, it was because I devoted a fair amount of energy to maintaining that connection where I could. Wolfe spends a lot of time thinking about Maddy and following her movements, and even more so with Ilya—who also gets to send her a message in return. In Chapter 36, I introduce the concept of the “throw,” a symbolic shorthand used by thieves to send messages. An apple cut in half means that it’s time to divide the loot; a piece of bread wrapped in cloth means that the police are closing in. And when Wolfe finds a knot tied in a dishtowel at the crime scene in Hackney Wick, she realizes that Ilya is saying: I’m not responsible for what you’ve heard. As a narrative device that allows them to communicate under the eyes of Ilya’s enemies, it works nicely. But I also love the idea of a visual symbol that allows two people to speak over a distance, which is exactly what happens in many novels, if not always so explicitly. As Nabokov puts it so beautifully in his notes to Eugene Onegin, which I read while plotting out this trilogy: “There is a conspiracy of words signaling to one another, throughout the novel, from one part to another…”

A change of hobbit

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Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

When I’m working through my beloved special features on the Lord of the Rings box set, I sometimes need to remind myself that they aren’t the primary work, and that it’s the films themselves that should matter most. Yet it’s easy to get caught up in the supplemental materials—the richest I’ve seen on any home video release—to the point where you start to neglect the movies they’re supposed to document. And there seems to be something about Tolkien himself, or the world he created, that encourages this kind of attitude. When you look at the endless shelves of notes, discarded drafts, and miscellaneous backstory that Christopher Tolkien has published from his father’s archives, you begin to feel as if the original novels were just one possible manifestation of the author’s underlying decades of thought. That’s true of any work of art, to some extent, but the degree to which Tolkien’s creative process has been documented makes it seem as if the books were created to enable the work behind them, rather than the other way around. (Tolkien, who wrote the trilogy initially as an excuse to develop his Elvish languages, might have agreed.) And the same philosophy seems to have affected the Peter Jackson adaptations, which chronicle the production process so exhaustively that the movies themselves can come off as incidental. And while this might be unfair to The Lord of the Rings, it’s less so with The Hobbit, which still strikes me, to quote Bilbo, as “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

I still haven’t seen The Battle of the Five Armies, but I may need to check out the special edition, judging from a production featurette that was recently released online. Bryan Bishop of The Verge describes it as “the most honest promotional video of all time,” and in fact, it provides some startling—and discouraging—insights into why The Hobbit turned out to be so underwhelming. Even in the earliest footage released from the shoot, Peter Jackson looked tired and discouraged, and in this glimpse behind the scenes, we start to understand why. According to the featurette, Guillermo Del Toro’s abrupt departure from the production and Jackson’s equally sudden arrival left every creative department scrambling to catch up, and they never managed to get ahead of the game. The Weta design guru Richard Taylor, who is one of my secret heroes, says that they were constantly delivering the props needed for each day’s filming, and he waxes nostalgic about The Lord of the Rings, in which they had over three years to prepare, with entire racks of armor ready months in advance. In the words of production manager Brigitte Yorke: “Peter never got a chance to prep these movies. I can’t say that. But he didn’t!” Jackson came straight from Tintin, got sick for six weeks, and had only two months to restart the process from scratch before shooting commenced. For much of that time, he was operating on three hours of sleep a night, hoping to keep going in any way he could. As Taylor puts it: “You’re laying the tracks directly in front of the train.”

Peter Jackson

By Jackson’s own account, he was able to “wing it” fairly well—telling the crew to take a long lunch while he puzzled out problems alone on the set, even as the scripts continued to be rewritten—until he had to film the titular Battle of Five Armies itself, when his lack of time to think finally caught up with him. Andy Serkis’s second unit was banking entire rolls of generic fight elements when Jackson told them to stop, and production was halted, much to the shock of the crew, until the following year. Jackson says: “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” And as much as this explains some of the problems that clearly afflicted The Hobbit from the beginning, it’s hard to understand why everyone is being so candid. (In The Verge, Bishop writes: “I’m frankly shocked that any promotional clip would be this straightforward about the problems the film had, but hey—whatever gets people talking about the movie.”) Part of it is probably due to the fact that documenting every stage of the production had turned into a habit itself, and it’s hard to stop that process even when the shoot itself goes sideways. It doesn’t go quite so far as such documentaries as Hearts of Darkness or Burden of Dreams, but as far as bonus features are concerned, the shift in tone captured here seems unique. Not even The Lovely Bones, which produced some of the most painstakingly assembled featurettes imaginable for a fatally flawed film, gives you quite the same sense of a movie spiraling out of control.

Yet there’s another explanation that gets closer to the heart of the matter. The video that we see here feels like the first half of a narrative familiar from all creative stories, cinematic or otherwise: the triumph over impossible odds. Despite formidable setbacks, the artist wins out in the end over all the constraints that time, money, and energy imposed, and the result vindicates the years he devoted to the acquisition of his craft. And for the first Lord of the Rings trilogy—which was beset by its share of production woes—that narrative made sense. (It also absorbs the myth that we find in the stories themselves, in which a ragtag fellowship triumphs over the seemingly invincible forces of Sauron.) If The Battle of the Five Armies had emerged as a masterpiece, the pessimistic tone of this featurette would more than satisfy the narrative function it was meant to fill, as Gandalf’s deep breath before the plunge. Instead, it gives us the first half of the cliché but not the second, and the mediocre quality of the resulting movie makes its candor seem bewildering. But that’s a lesson in itself. On this blog, I’ve often glamorized the role that constraints play in the creative process: “To achieve great things,” Leonard Bernstein is supposed to have said, “two things are needed—a plan, and not quite enough time.” But that’s usually as true of bad works of art as of good. We tend to remember the successes and forget the failures. That can be a hard truth to swallow. And if the example of The Hobbit has any value, it’s to remind us that not every creative road leads out of Mordor.

The thousand and one footnotes

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Arabian Nights by Sir Richard Francis Burton

In recent years, whenever I’ve bought a movie on Blu-ray, it’s been with as much of an eye to the special features as to the quality of the film itself. The gold standard remains the special edition of The Lord of the Rings, which is practically a film school in a box, but when I look at my shelves, I see plenty of titles—ranging from The Lovely Bones to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—that I don’t think I’d own at all if it weren’t for their featurettes and supplements. These days, with sales of home media falling everywhere, bonus content is one proven way of convincing consumers to pay for a physical disc, and it appeals to our natural interest in commentaries, ephemera, and glimpses into the creative process. In some ways, you could see them as an updated version of the original bonus feature: the footnote. Footnotes and endnotes originally evolved to meet a utilitarian end, but as everyone from the compilers of the Talmud to Nicholson Baker have long since realized, they can provide peculiar pleasures of their own, a kind of parallel narrative to the main work that allows for asides and digressions that don’t fit within the primary argument. A long footnote is often more interesting than the text to which it refers, precisely because it feels so superfluous, and an entire industry has sprung up around copiously annotated editions of our favorite books, of which The Annotated Sherlock Holmes remains the undisputed champion.

I got to thinking about this after scoring a copy of what amounts to the most extraordinary collection of footnotes in the English language. It’s the sixteen-volume translation by Sir Richard Francis Burton of the Arabian Nights, or rather The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, which I picked up for a song this weekend at the Newberry Library Book Fair in Chicago. I’ve coveted this set ever since I first saw it in the library at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and when I see it in my office now, I feel like pinching myself. Much of the book’s fascination emerges from the figure of Burton himself, an unlikely combination of James Frazer, T.E. Lawrence, and Indiana Jones who comes as close any real historical figure to the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials. He was a British adventurer, soldier, spy, and explorer who spoke close to thirty languages; he was among the first Europeans to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, in disguise, under constant threat of discovery and death; he searched, unsuccessfully, for the source of the Nile; he survived a spear through the face in Africa. His legend tends to obscure his real achievements, but as Jorge Luis Borges notes in his fine essay “The Translators of the Thousand and One Nights,” it’s the legendary Burton who survives. (Burton was clearly an enormous influence on Borges, and you see echoes of him everywhere in the latter’s stories, particularly in his lists of arcane facts and exotica.)

Sir Richard Francis Burton

And while I’m not sure I’ll make it through all sixteen volumes, I have every intention of reading every single one of Burton’s notes, which have a well-deserved reputation for raciness. Burton notoriously embraced the sexual and scatological elements of the original stories, to the point where the set was originally published in a private limited edition designed to get around the obscenity laws of the time. And there’s little question that his readers saw the annotations as a major selling point. Burton’s challenge, as Borges puts it, was “to interest nineteenth-century British gentlemen in the written version of thirteenth-century oral Muslim tales.” And in order to appeal to “the respectable men of the West End, well equipped for disdain and erudition but not for belly laughs or terror,” he loaded up his work with special features:

The text’s marvels—undoubtedly adequate in Kordofan or Bulaq, where they were offered up as true—ran the risk of seeming rather threadbare in England…To keep his subscribers with him, Burton abounded in explanatory notes on “the manners and customs of Muslim men.”

The result was the nineteenth-century equivalent of a deluxe box set with a commentary track and a fat disc of supplements, and I suspect that many of the set’s original purchasers, like me, were more interested in Burton’s special features—with their vast repository of sexual, ethnographical, and anecdotal material—than in the stories themselves.

As Borges concludes: “At fifty, a man has accumulated affections, ironies, obscenities, and copious anecdotes; Burton unburdened himself of them in his notes.” And boy, did he ever. Among the translation’s unique characteristics is an entire index devoted to the footnotes alone—presumably as a convenience to readers who just wanted to get to the good parts—and browsing through it feels like a trip to a bazaar of indescribable, vaguely dirty riches. (A few of the entires, chosen at random, include: “Female depravity going hand in hand with perversity of taste,” “Hymeneal blood resembles that of pigeon-poult,” and “Women, peculiar waddle of.”) Borges rightly observes that Burton’s commentary “is encyclopedic and seditious and of an interest that increases in inverse proportion to its necessity,” which is true of all footnotes, but especially here. A brief reference in one story to contraception, for instance, inspires two long paragraphs on the history of the condom, complete with prices and advice on usage, and the appendix includes what was then the longest discussion of homosexuality ever to appear in English. A lot of the material seems to have been chosen for its appeal to the idealized male reader of the time, in a sort of anticipation of the articles in Playboy, and as calculated as it all feels, it certainly works. It’s the richest collection of bonus features ever published, and thanks to Burton’s legacy, it comes across as even more. As Borges says, it’s like listening to a commentary track recorded by Sinbad the Sailor himself.

Hanging a lantern on it

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John Rhys-Davies in The Return of the King

For Christmas, I finally got my own copy of the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray. About a year ago, I’d laboriously worked my way through all the commentary tracks and special features on the discs I’d borrowed from my brother-in-law, and I realized that it was a real treasure trove of insights into filmmaking and storytelling—the closest thing I’ve found to a film school in a box set. Not surprisingly, I decided that I had to own it for myself. Playing it again now, I’ve started to see that part of the reason these supplementary materials are so fascinating is because they show us a director and creative team coping with a subject larger than they’d ever confronted before. The Lord of the Rings movies are fantastic, but not perfect, and much of the fun of the commentaries is hearing Peter Jackson and his collaborators discussing what they might have done differently, or analyzing problems that they were never quite able to crack. You’ll often get richer insights from a director talking about an unworkable project than about one in which the pieces just seemed to fall into place: I find The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo more interesting to think about than The Social Network, even though I vastly prefer the latter movie, and I have the feeling that I’d learn a hell of a lot from the commentaries to The Hobbit.

There’s one particular moment in The Return of the King that I’ve been thinking about recently. Aragorn has just succeeded in raising the army of the dead at the White Mountains, and with its help, he’s routed the orcs at the siege of Minas Tirith. Later, with an expedition looming against Mordor itself, the king of the dead asks Aragon to release them from their oath, leading to this aside from Gimli: “Bad idea. Very handy in a tight spot, these lads, despite the fact they’re dead.” Aragorn, of course, lets them go—and it’s a good thing he does, at least within the context of the movie we’re watching. As Jackson points out in his commentary, an invincible army of ghosts is a fatal narrative device: if they can’t be killed, there’s no suspense in any battle. He goes on to say that he hated the idea, but felt that he had to include it out of fidelity to the books, so he did what he could to delay their involvement and them out of the way as soon as possible. Even in its final form, their appearance still feels like something of a cheat, with all the prior action we’ve seen on the battlefield rendered more than a little irrelevant. But the movie buys back a lot of credibility with Gimli’s muttered observation, in which he basically speaks, as he often does, for the audience.

The Return of the King

In other words, the movie anticipates the viewer’s objection, and instead of ignoring it or rewriting the story to remove it, it calls attention to it. And while this may not be the best solution, it kind of works. In the past, I’ve talked about the anthropic principle of fiction, which briefly states that the most fundamental aspects of a story should be built around its least plausible elements. If the narrative hinges on a coincidence, a freak occurrence, or some odd fact of nature—as we often see in mystery and science fiction—it’s not too much to tailor the setting, the major beats of the plot, and even the primary characters to make a tenuous idea more credible when it comes. (My favorite example from my own work is my short story “Ernesto,” which ended up being set in the Spanish Civil War and featuring Ernest Hemingway as the lead simply so I could justify an undiagnosed outbreak of erysipelas.) This approach tends to work better in short fiction, in which every element can be introduced to ultimately serve a specific twist or pivotal moment. A longer work, like a novel or feature film, pushes back a little more: the story is so large that not every detail can be contingent on a single narrative problem. And in practice, you often end up with necessary but infuriatingly uncooperative moments that don’t quite track, but can’t be cut.

All you can do, in the end, is make it seem intentional, by spotlighting it to the point where the reader can’t accuse you of overlooking it through carelessness. In television, it’s called lampshading or hanging a lantern, while Brian Eno, in his Oblique Strategies, says: “Magnify the most difficult details.” Or, in the language of software development: “It isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.” You see it whenever a novelist points out that a plot point is exactly like the kind of thing you’d see in a bad novel, or when a writer claims that he’d hesitate to mention an improbable coincidence if he weren’t describing factual events, or when Bruce Willis simply says: “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” This isn’t anyone’s idea of a great solution, and it should only be used as a last resort. (If nothing else, it’s an example of authorial desperation masquerading as cleverness and then drawing attention to itself, none of which are enviable qualities in fiction.) Sometimes, though, the end justifies the means—even if it isn’t the kind of thing you want to do more than once per story, if at all. A novelist needs to be a good liar, and the greatest deceivers, as we all know, don’t press the point too much. When you’re called on it, there are times when you have to double down. But it’s better not to give yourself away in the first place.

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2015 at 9:32 am

The holy grail of props

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Grail diary from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What movie prop would you love to own?”

Twenty years ago, when I first saw Jurassic Park, the moment that stuck with me the most wasn’t the raptor attack or even Jeff Goldblum’s creepy laugh: it was the park brochure that appears briefly onscreen before Laura Dern tramples it into the mud. We see it for little more than a second, but the brevity of its role is exactly what struck me. A prop artist—or, more likely, a whole team of them—had painstakingly written, typeset, and printed a tangible piece of ephemera for the sake of that fleeting gag. In a way, it seemed to stand in for the unseen efforts that lie behind every frame of film, those invisible touches of craft and meticulous labor that add up to make the story a little more real. Looking back, I recognize how showy that shot really is: it wasn’t captured by accident, even if it’s staged like a throwaway, and it calls attention to itself in a degree that most good props probably shouldn’t. And my reaction makes me feel uncomfortably like the hypothetical moviegoers that Pauline Kael imagined being impressed by Doctor Zhivago: “The same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.”

But it’s still delightful. I’ve always been fascinated by movie props, perhaps because they feel like the purest expression of the glorious waste of filmmaking: an object is lovingly crafted and aged by hand simply to be photographed, or to sit out of focus in the background of a single shot. My appreciation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy went up another notch after I watched hours of production featurettes last winter, many of which focused on the prop department. I learned, for instance, that the artisans who made the hundreds of sets of chain mail wore down their own fingerprints in the process, and that Theoden’s armor included a golden sun stamped on the inside of the breastplate, where no one but Bernard Hill would ever see it. Each touch is imperceptible, but in the aggregate, they add up to a vision of a world that remains totally convincing: even if we quibble over Peter Jackson’s narrative choices, it’s impossible not to be impressed by his determination to build up so much detail before an audience even existed to see it—if they ever noticed it at all. Props are designed to serve the story, not to dominate it, and I’d be inclined to call it a thankless task if I weren’t so profoundly grateful for the result.

Brochure from Jurassic Park

Maybe because I’m an author, I’ve always been especially taken by props that involve written text, whether they’re John Doe’s notebooks from Seven or the obsessively detailed newspapers of the future that we glimpse in Children of Men. I think I find such props so fascinating because they feel like a reversal of the way words and filmed images naturally relate: if a screenplay serves as the engine or blueprint of the movie as a whole, these words exist only for their visual properties, which can only be convincing if someone has taken the time to treat them as if they were meant to be read in their own right. When a movie falls short here, it can pull you out of the story even more drastically than most comparable mistakes: my favorite example is from The Godfather Part III, which prominently displays a headline from The Wall Street Journal with text that seems to have been copied and pasted from a computer instruction manual. (These days, movies seem aware of how much every shot is likely to be scrutinized, so they’re more likely to take the time to write something up for the sake of viewers and their pause buttons, like Captain America’s to-do list.)

As far as I’m concerned, the greatest prop of them all has to be the grail diary in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We see it clearly for maybe a total of thirty seconds, but those few glimpses were enough to fuel a lifetime’s worth of daydreams: I sometimes think I owe half of my inner life to Henry Jones’s battered little notebook. As it happens, you can read the whole thing online, or some simulacrum of it, thanks to the efforts of such prop replica masters as Indy Magnoli, whose work goes on eBay for nine hundred dollars or more—and I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted, years ago, to pick up one for myself. Recently, the original prop went up for auction at Christie’s, and while I’ve love to be able to tell you that I was the one who shelled out $30,000 for it, sadly, it wasn’t me. Still, I’m probably better off. Up close, a prop rarely has the same magic that it had in the scant seconds you saw it onscreen; an object that seemed unbearably precious can turn out to be made of pasteboard and hot glue. If we believed in it for the brief interval of time in which it appeared on camera, it succeeded. Which is true of everything about the movies. And if we dreamed about it afterward, well, then it belongs to us all the more.

“And my bow!”

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Orlando Bloom in The Lord of the Rings

In the nine and more hours of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as directed by Peter Jackson, Legolas speaks to Frodo exactly once. Their sole interaction consists of three words: “And my bow!” (I owe this information to Reddit, which also notes that in the original trilogy, Legolas doesn’t say much of anything. All of Orlando Bloom’s lines could fit comfortably within a page of ordinary text, which speaks to both his charisma and his limitations: he makes an extraordinary impact here with minimal dialogue, but does less well when asked to carry, say, a Cameron Crowe movie.) Granted, Legolas and Frodo are separated for most of the story, and it’s only in the second half of The Fellowship of the Ring—and the last few minutes of The Return of the King—that they share any screen time at all. And the role of Legolas, is anything, is considerably expanded from his part in the books. But it’s still a surprise to discover that two characters who occupy a fair amount of mental real estate in one of the most successful franchises of all time have so little to say to each other.

That said, when you have so many characters competing for space, there are bound to be hiatuses, both here and in other ensembles. Edmund, incredibly, never says a word directly to King Lear, and the two men only occupy the stage together in the closing scenes of the play. In the film version of L.A. Confidential, Jack Vincennes only speaks once to Bud White—”White, you better put a leash on your partner before he kills somebody”—and Bud doesn’t even respond. Yet we still tend to think of them all as pairs, or at least as counterbalancing forces in a narrative that propels itself forward through contrasts. Lear’s story runs in counterpoint to Edmund’s, and each gains enormous resonance from the other. Jack and Bud are opposing points in a triangle, with Ed Exley occupying the final corner, and the story is structured in such a way that we naturally draw comparisons. With Legolas and Frodo, the parallels are less pronounced, but there’s a sense in which the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy is a dialogue between the kind of physical bravery required to take down a mumakil singlehandedly and the plodding, unglamorous courage that carries us step by step into Mordor.

Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins

And what this all demonstrates is the subtle way in which juxtapositions, and not just interactions, allow characters to inform one another as they follow their separate destinies. I’ve written before about the power of ensembles, which, by Metcalfe’s Law, grow correspondingly more potent as the number of players increases. It’s easiest to understand this in terms of potential pairings, each one of which offers possibilities for interest or drama. (The legendary Samson Raphaelson, whose The Human Nature of Playwriting is one of the most useful—and hardest to obtain—books on storytelling around, suggests that authors turn to such pairings when trying to crack the plot: “I make a list of my principal characters and check to see if each character has had a major scene with every other character…I would say a good play, all other things being equal, should have thorough exploration of each other by all the major characters.”) But the pairings don’t necessarily need to take place within the action of the story itself. If the cast is vivid and rich enough, the pairings will naturally occur in the reader’s mind, even if the reader, or author, isn’t conscious of the process.

Which applies to more than character alone. We think of a novel or movie as a linear work of art that moves from one event to the next, but when we remember the books or films we love the most, even those that follow a strict line of action, we have a way of seeing everything simultaneously, with each piece commenting on every other. (In a way, it’s the opposite of how we think about dreams, which seem to appear in the brain in short, compressed bursts of imagery, only to fit themselves into a more conventional narrative when we recall them after the fact.) It’s also how an author often thinks of a work in progress—and one of the hardest parts of writing is balancing that impression of simultaneity with the linear experience of a reader encountering the story for the first time. When I think of Lawrence of Arabia, the memory takes the form of overlapping moments or images that are really separated by vast distances of celluloid: the famous cut from the match to the sunrise, Ali appearing like a dot on the horizon, Lawrence slumping on his camel with exhaustion or collapsing in despair at the Turkish hospital. Legolas and Frodo, or other narrative elements, may barely interact, but they’re part of a fellowship of the imagination.

In the country of the mind

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Super Mario Galaxy

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What fictional country would you most like to visit?”

On the list of books that have profoundly influenced my life, one of the more surprising is The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi. I no longer own a copy—although I’ve been meaning to get one for my daughter’s bookshelf for a long time—but when I first discovered it at twelve or thirteen, it quietly guided me toward a number of books and authors that have deeply shaped the way I think. It’s a big, handsome volume, almost absurdly rich and dense with content, that provides witty but essentially serious entries for upwards of a thousand different locations that were first described in fiction. All of the usual suspects are here: Oz, Narnia, Carl Sandburg’s Rutabaga Stories, and of course the countless cities and countries that fill Tolkien’s pages. I have a feeling that for many young readers, their first exposure to this work led to a lifetime’s love of fantasy fiction, and in my case, the impact went even deeper. Two of the entries that intrigued me the most were those for the Library of Babel and the Abbey of The Name of the Rose, and as soon as I was inspired to check out Borges and Eco for myself, much of my life’s intellectual path was decided. And I have Manguel and Guadalupi to thank for this.

When we think of the process that has been come to be known as worldbuilding, we generally regard it as a preparatory stage for a work of narrative fiction, whether the author’s approach is that of a gardener or an architect. Recently, though, worldbuilding has become something of a pastime in its own right, with hobbyists lovingly creating maps, history, and languages for entire planets, like solitary versions of Borges’s mysterious Orbis Tertius, with no particular aim beyond the satisfaction of the act itself. On some level, this approach has an honorable history: Tolkien wrote his novels to provide a setting for his invented languages, not the other way around, and even if most readers are only tangentially aware of this, the origins of these stories go a long way toward explaining why the geography of Middle-Earth—and, by extension, the characters who populate it—is so persuasive. The Internet has also provided a way for these works to reach a wider audience for the first time. In the past, a diligently rendered gazetteer of an imaginary country might have come off as the work of a misguided teenager or an outsider artist, but now, it’s easier than ever to find others who can appreciate such efforts. (I sometimes feel that Henry Darger, whose work anticipates many of the more obsessive aspects of contemporary fan culture, was born a century too soon.)

J.R.R. Tolkien

The other great factor contributing to the surge in independent worldbuilding—along with the prevalence of scholarship and secondary works, like The Atlas of Middle-Earth, that put all of this background material in one place—has been the rise of video games as an art form. Games have been creating convincing worlds ever since the appearance of the first text adventures, but the real turning point may have been Miyamoto’s Hyrule, the first world on a console detailed and beautiful enough to inspire its own miniature atlas. Gaming is the purest way we have of traveling through an imaginary territory: in a novel or movie, we’re still following the story from one episode to the next, with only a few hints of the landscape at the edges of the frame, while a shrewdly designed game can seem open to endless exploration. Really, though, like the worlds that a novelist creates, this openness is a carefully sustained illusion, and the best games have developed ingenious ways of hiding their boundaries. There are times, in fact, when a game can seem richer with possibilities than life itself: a game rewards curiosity, risk, and investigation, while in our own daily routines, we tend to stick to the same familiar routes, to the point where we might as well be on rails. (It’s only on vacation that we start to regard the world with the same hunger that a video game evokes.)

That’s why, when I think of a fictional country I’d like to explore, I find myself unexpectedly turning to the Mushroom Kingdom, especially the version we find in the Super Mario Galaxy series. It’s true that when we visit it, it seems like a rather dangerous place, but I’d like to believe that we’re only seeing it during periods of unusual crisis. Otherwise, it seems like the kind of country where a nap under a tree would be followed by a swim, a treasure hunt, or a stroll through the clouds. It’s a testament to the genius and ambition of Miyamoto and his collaborators that a game that began as a simple side-scroller has evolved into a country charged with beauty and nostalgia, although none of this would matter much if the games themselves weren’t so enticing. And this may be the ultimate lesson of worldbuilding. The countries we imagine for ourselves are reflections of our wishes and desires for the real world, not so much in the level of detail they contain as in the sense of some higher purpose and harmony: in an imaginary land, we have the feeling that everything is there for a reason, and that the map leads to a genuine goal, however freely it allows us to wander. Real life, alas, doesn’t offer such guarantees—although if we saw it as an beautiful country that we’ve been privileged to explore, we might take more pleasure in the journey.

Withered hardware, lateral thinking

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Super Mario Galaxy 2

If the word “Nintendo” is all but synonymous with video games—as in “I’m buying my grandson that new Nintendo from Sony for Christmas”—it owes this largely to the efforts of two men: Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi. Although he was less famous than Miyamoto, Yokoi was responsible for developing a number of hugely important innovations, including the Game Boy, the ubiquitous controller cross pad, and the game Metroid, but his most lasting legacy was a philosophy he called Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shikō, or “Lateral thinking with withered technology.” It focuses on finding radical new applications for mature technologies, rather than on inventing new hardware on the cutting edge, and it emphasizes gameplay over processing power. And as Lukas Mathis pointed out in a recent blog post, you can track Nintendo’s fortunes surprisingly well based to the extent to which it has followed this approach: consoles like the Gamecube or the Wii U represented a doomed attempt to compete on specs, while the Game Boy or the Wii triumphed as inspired transformations of creaky components.

The disadvantages of this philosophy are obvious—it means that you’ll always lag behind your competitors on graphics or computational speed—but its advantages are equally compelling. It opens up the use of cheap, readily available components, which allows you to compete, crucially, on price. As you force yourself to focus on the essentials, you start to discover which qualities really matter to the majority of consumers: playability, accessibility, convenience, and such mundane but essential factors as battery life, which allowed the Game Boy to remain dominant over more advanced competitors like Game Gear or Lynx. Best of all, by handing you a set of stark technological constraints, it obliges you to think more creatively about ways of delivering a satisfying gaming experience. Watching the evolution of Nintendo from Donkey Kong to Super Mario Bros. 3 is like witnessing the growth, flowering, and maturation of an entire art form, all squeezed from the same generation of hardware. Ingenuity and beauty win the day, and it’s unlikely that these games would have emerged in so elegant a form if they had been able to rely on more expensive technology.

Gunpei Yokoi

You notice this in other media as well. Movies are often compelling in proportion to the constraints they need to confront: when anything is possible, as in a film like The Avengers, even the miraculous starts to seem a little boring. Some of the most memorable visual effects in movie history—I’m thinking of works like Jean Cocteau’s Orphée or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which generate an entire fantasy world out of a handful of simple tricks—are the result of limited resources coupled with limitless resourcefulness. Even a work as amply funded as the original Lord of the Rings trilogy had no choice but to mine wit and beauty out of old-fashioned techniques. At the high end, you have the invention of new technology like the Massive software package, which allows entire armies of artificially intelligent soldiers to be generated on the fly; at the low end, you have shots making use of miniatures, forced perspective, or Billy Boyd shuffling around on his knees. That fusion of digital magic, polyurethane, and real leather and steel is a large part of what makes the trilogy so appealing, and it’s a model that other works could stand to follow.

For writers, the situation is a little different: we’re all operating with the same set of tools, and a novel or short story isn’t limited by budgetary concerns. Yet the struggle to do more with less, or to achieve effects of great complexity from the simplest components, is central to the art of storytelling. If there’s one parameter that more writers could stand to scrutinize, it’s length: I’m constantly asking myself if the story I’m trying to tell could be told in fewer words or scenes, and no matter how many times I cut a manuscript, whenever I go back for the next round, I always find places where the text could be tightened. These are constraints that you need to enforce for yourself, rather than having them imposed from the outside, but it’s necessary to treat them as if they were as inexorable as disk space or processing power. Constraints, on their own, don’t guarantee a good result: Nintendo has certainly released plenty of forgettable games on every console. But if I had to choose between having just slightly too little or a bit too much of a crucial resource, whether it’s time, money, or hardware, I know which one I’d prefer.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2014 at 9:27 am

The road goes ever on

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Cate Blanchett and Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit

For the last few days, my wife and I have been slowly working our way through the commentary tracks for the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which sometimes feels like as long of a journey as any of the characters undertake. So far, we’re sticking to the primary commentaries for each movie, featuring Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens, which barely scratches the surface of the material available: each film has three other commentaries for members of the cast and crew, adding up to something like twelve hours of additional listening, not to mention the countless documentaries, featurettes, and galleries on the three bonus discs. (It’s a borrowed box set—my brother-in-law lent it to us over Christmas—and I doubt we’ll get through even half of it before it’s time to give it back.) It also makes me feel as if I’m a decade late to the party. The commentaries for each movie were recorded and released shortly before the following installments appeared in theaters, which serves as a reminder of how more than ten years can seem to slip by in a flash, as well as a fascinating glimpse into how Jackson and his collaborators felt about each picture at the time.

It’s obvious, for instance, that they regard The Two Towers as the weakest movie in the trilogy. Part of this is due to the fact, as Jackson notes, that it’s arguably the least interesting of the original three volumes, with quintessential second-act problems blown up to a massive scale, but it also appears to have suffered during the production process. Shooting began using a relatively early version of the script, and the filmmakers admit that if they had been given more time, they might have reworked certain elements, particularly Frodo and Sam’s interminable sojourn with Faramir. Postproduction and promotional duties for Fellowship also left them with a tighter working schedule than before. As a result, there’s a mildly defensive, even apologetic tone to many of their comments, which explicitly respond to criticisms that the movie received after its release. We’re repeatedly invited to let certain scenes “play out” in our heads with certain controversial elements removed, so we can see why, for instance, it was the right call to give Aragorn a fakeout death scene at the end of the warg attack, or why Faramir’s character needs to be rewritten to make him more tempted by the Ring.

Ian McKellen in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

These are all valid points, but they also point to a weakness in The Two Towers that, in turn, goes a long way toward explaining why the two parts we’ve seen thus far of The Hobbit are so much less satisfying than their predecessors: it’s written from the head, not the heart. The Two Towers plays less like a story that demanded to be told in its own right than as an ingenious solution to a series of narrative conundrums. On paper, the calls that Jackson and the others made are absolutely right: the big climaxes of Shelob and the confrontation with Saruman were best postponed to the next movie—or, in Saruman’s case, cut out of the theatrical trilogy altogether—and other stories had to be pumped up to take up the dramatic slack. The result, though, is a movie where we can sense the pieces being assembled into a passably coherent whole, rather than one that unfolds under its own momentum. That’s true of The Hobbit as well, except that the seams are even more visible. Jackson and his collaborators deserve a lot of credit for pulling off these movies at all, but it’s a bad sign when we’re equally aware of the logic taking place behind the scenes as of the events unfolding on the screen itself.

And this makes me strangely hopeful about The Hobbit‘s final installment. The two movies released so far have been watchable but underwhelming, and that’s largely because they’ve been thought through rather than felt: a lot of their energy is devoted to inventing satisfying climaxes where none existed before, figuring out an approach to transitional material, and giving characters enough to do while keeping important parts in reserve. In theory, There and Back Again shouldn’t suffer from the same issues—its climaxes are already there, and most of the heavy lifting has been done by the earlier chapters. It’s even possible that the first two movies will seem stronger in retrospect. (I’m also looking forward to the inevitable fan edit that cuts the trilogy together into a single three-hour movie, which I suspect will become the version of choice for a lot of casual viewers.) That’s the funny thing about these films: because we have so much other material to draw upon, from the original books to the extended cuts to the vast amount of conceptual art, they still feel like works in progress. More than any other movies I know, they’re capable of being endlessly revised in our heads, or of allowing us, as Philippa Boyens says in her commentary, to dream of what might have been.

Written by nevalalee

December 30, 2013 at 9:48 am

Why hobbits need to be short

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Ian McKellen in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It’s never easy to adapt a beloved novel for the screen. On the one hand, you have a book that has been widely acclaimed as one of the greatest works of speculative fiction of all time, with a devoted fanbase and an enormous invented backstory spread across many novels and appendices. On the other, you have a genius director who moved on from his early, bizarre, low-budget features to a triumphant mainstream success with multiple Oscar nominations, but whose skills as a storyteller have sometimes been less reliable than his unquestioned visual talents. The result, after a protracted development process clouded by rights issues, financial difficulties, and the departure of the previous director, is an overlong movie with too many characters that fails to capture the qualities that drew people to this story in the first place. By trying to appease fans of the book while also drawing in new audiences, it ends up neither here nor there. While it’s cinematically striking, and has its defenders, it leaves critics mostly cold, with few of the awards or accolades that greeted its director’s earlier work. And that’s why David Lynch had so much trouble with Dune.

But it’s what Lynch did next that is especially instructive. After Dune‘s financial failure, he found himself working on his fourth movie under far greater constraints, with a tiny budget and a contractual runtime of no more than 120 minutes. The initial cut ran close to three hours, but eventually, with the help of editor Duwayne Dunham, he got it down to the necessary length, although it meant losing a lot of wonderful material along the way. And what we got was Blue Velvet, which isn’t just Lynch’s best film, but my favorite American movie of all time. I recently had the chance to watch all of the deleted scenes as part of the movie’s release on Blu-ray, and it’s clear that if Lynch had been allowed to retain whatever footage he wanted—as he clearly does these days—the result would have been a movie like Inland Empire: fascinating, important, but ultimately a film that I wouldn’t need to see more than once. The moral, surprisingly enough, is that even a director like Lynch, a genuine artist who has earned the right to pursue his visions wherever they happen to take him, can benefit from the need, imposed by a studio, to cut his work far beyond the level where he might have been comfortable.

Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

Obviously, the case of Peter Jackson is rather different. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was an enormous international success, and did as much as anything to prove that audiences will still sit happily through a movie of more than three hours if the storytelling is compelling enough. As a result, Jackson was able to make The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as long as he liked, which is precisely the problem. The Hobbit isn’t a bad movie, exactly; after an interminable first hour, it picks up considerably in the second half, and there are still moments I’m grateful to have experienced on the big screen. Yet I can’t help feeling that if Jackson had felt obliged, either contractually or artistically, to bring it in at under two hours, it would have been vastly improved. This would have required some hard choices, but even at a glance, there are entire sequences here that never should have made it past a rough cut. As it stands, we’re left with a meandering movie that trades largely on our affection for the previous trilogy—its actors, its locations, its music. And if this had been the first installment of a series, it’s hard to imagine it making much of an impression on anyone. Indeed, it might have justified all our worst fears about a cinematic adaptation of Tolkien.

And the really strange thing is that Jackson has no excuse. For one thing, it isn’t the first time he’s done this: I loved King Kong, but I still feel that it would have been rightly seen as a game changer on the level of Avatar if he’d cut it by even twenty minutes. And unlike David Lynch and Blue Velvet, whose deleted scenes remained unseen for decades before being miraculously rediscovered, Jackson knows that even if has to cut a sequence he loves, he has an audience of millions that will gladly purchase the full extended edition within a year of the movie’s release. But it takes a strong artistic will to accept such constraints if they aren’t being imposed from the outside, and to acknowledge that sometimes an arbitrary limit is exactly what you need to force yourself to make those difficult choices. (My own novels are contractually required to come in somewhere around 100,000 words, and although I’ve had to cut them to the bone to get there, they’ve been tremendously improved by the process, to the point where I intend to impose the same limit on everything I ever write.) The Hobbit has two more installments to go, and I hope Jackson takes the somewhat underwhelming critical and commercial response to the first chapter to heart. Because an unwillingness to edit your work is a hard hobbit to break.

“Sufficient art, cunning, or material…”

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Map of Middle-earth

I now wanted to try my hand at writing a really, stupendously long narrative and see whether I had sufficient art, cunning or material to make a really long narrative that would hold the average reader right through. One of the best forms for a long narrative is the adage found in The Hobbit, though in a much more elaborate form, of a pilgrimage and journey with an object. So that was inevitably the form I adopted.

J.R.R. Tolkien

As Tolkien knew, every novel, regardless of the scale or modesty of its conception, begins as a test that an author sets for himself. No matter how many times you’ve been through the process before, a novel always presents itself initially as a set of unanswered questions, both about the details of the actual story and about the author’s own talents and capabilities. And the only way of resolving such questions involves many months or years of sustained work that may, in the end, turn out to be fruitless or misguided. Reading the passage above, I’m fascinated by the fact that Tolkien’s original challenge to himself was simply to write a very long book that would hold the reader’s interest—an almost impossible proposition for most writers—and that his most crucial decision, to build the book around a pilgrimage or quest, was in some ways a technical solution to the problem of structuring this massive narrative.

And the key word here is cunning. Tolkien never had any reason to doubt his own intelligence, or his ability to generate extraordinary amounts of material for his imagined legendarium, but the tactical, tricky, flexible craft required to keep the pages turning was another matter entirely, and there’s no particular reason to believe that even a professor of philology at Oxford would have the skills required. (For one thing, they seem to have largely eluded Tolkien’s posthumous editors.) Reading Tolkien’s letters, you get a sense of a very shrewd storyteller who is well aware of the workings and practicalities of his carefully constructed fantasy, as in his treatment of those notorious eagles: “The Eagles are a dangerous ‘machine,'” he writes. “I have used them sparingly, and that is the absolute limit of their credibility or usefulness.” Credibility, usefulness, cunning—these are the words of a writer highly attuned to the tricks of the trade. We’re all on a similar journey. And the road goes ever on.

Written by nevalalee

December 16, 2012 at 9:50 am

How far can a hobbit walk in a day?

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J.R.R. Tolkien

In constructing his lengthy saga, Tolkien freely borrowed from both experience and scholarship…Tolkien used technical points of reference from our world and applied them to Middle-earth. For example, the cycles of the moon in The Lord of the Rings are from the 1942 calendar. And when Tolkien had his characters walk or travel over any great distance, he actually used a British Army ordnance survey manual to find out precisely how far soldiers could move on forced marches.

Daniel Grotta, J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle-Earth

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2012 at 9:50 am

The anxieties of influence

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Can a book be so good that it’s dangerous? As columnist Crawford Kilian has argued on NPR and the Tyee, there are, in fact, novels that offer such compelling examples of voice, style, and originality that they can seduce generations of young writers into following their lead, often with disastrous results. The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, gave Kilian and his peers license to “essentially be a stenographer for [their] own teenage writing”—even though Salinger himself quickly moved in other directions. Other books that Kilian cites as bad influences include The Lord of the Rings, On The Road, and For Whom The Bell Tolls, and while one might argue with his choices—it’s certainly better to be inspired by Tolkien than by any of his imitators, and some of Kilian’s selections, such as Blood Meridian, seem motivated more by personal distaste—you certainly can’t say that he’s wrong. And Atlas Shrugged aside, in most cases, the better and more original the novel, the more dangerous it can be.

The problem, to put it as simply as possible, is that most highly original novels are the product of a long process of development, and when a writer imitates the result while neglecting the intermediate steps, he can miss out on important fundamentals. I should know. In my case, my dangerous book was Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a wonderful novel, but as I’ve confessed elsewhere, I’ve come to agree with Tom Wolfe that it essentially represents a “literary cul-de-sac.” It gave me all kinds of bad habits, especially a tendency to indulge my characters in extended discussions of ideas, and almost twenty years later, I’m just beginning to escape from its influence, a process that required writing and publishing an entire novel that I’m hoping will exorcise it for good. And I can’t help but wonder where I’d be as a writer if I’d followed a less misleading example. As Henry James says, after comparing Tolstoy to an elephant carrying all human life: “His own case is prodigious, but his example for others dire: disciples not elephantine he can only mislead and betray.”

Since then, I’ve become a lot more cautious about my influences, especially when I’m working on a project. Now that I’ve finally begun to develop my own style, it’s probably less a problem now than before, but when I was first starting out, I found myself picking up the tics and habits of the writers I was reading at the time, always in a diminished, embarrassingly derivative form. As a result, as I’ve said before, I tend to avoid reading works by strong, idiosyncratic stylists when I’m working on a story of my own, and also works in translation, on the principle that it’s best to read good prose originally written in my own language. The trouble, of course, is that since I’m always writing these days, I’ve automatically excluded a world of good books from consideration. It took me forever to read Cloud Atlas, for instance, and even now, there are a lot of worthwhile books, ranging from Infinite Jest to, yes, Blood Meridian, that I’ve been avoiding for years for the same reason.

So what books should a young writer read? It might seem best to play it safe and follow the advice of T.S. Eliot, who notes that if a poet imitates Dante’s style, at worst, he’ll write a boring poem, while if he imitates Shakespeare, he’ll make a fool out of himself. The first thing any writer needs to master is simplicity and clarity, so of all contemporary authors, it might make sense to read only writers who embody those virtues—McEwan, say, or Coetzee. But it’s a mistake to start there as well. Like it or not, every writer has to go through a period of being misled by great authors, and perhaps it’s only by writing a bad imitation of Salinger or Jack Kerouac or even Eco that a writer can get it out of his or her system. Clarity and transparency aren’t virtues that are acquired by reading clear, transparent authors to the exclusion of everything else; one arrives at these qualities at the end of a journey that begins with self-indulgence and imitation and finally concludes with simplicity, with plenty of wrong turns along the way. In short, it’s fine to be misled by great books. Just keep the results to yourself.

The dreaded synopsis

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If finding a title is often the most excruciating moment in a novelist’s life, writing a synopsis can’t be far behind. Everything in a writer’s body rebels against the idea: after all, if it were possible to sum up your book in five pages, you’d have written a short story, not a novel, right? (Which is exactly what Borges so shrewdly does.) The thought of writing a synopsis brings back unpleasant memories of high school essay assignments (“Please write five double-spaced pages on the plot of Heart of Darkness“) that you thought you’d left behind forever. And there’s also the unfortunate fact that even the greatest novel of all time sounds insipid when reduced to summary form. Yet a synopsis remains a valuable tool, and it’s one that every writer should know how to use, although not for the reasons you might suspect.

First, a dirty little secret: I’ve never used a synopsis to sell a novel I’ve already written. Years ago, when I was going out to agents, I dutifully put together a detailed synopsis of The Icon Thief, and nobody asked for it. These days, a short query letter with a single paragraph of plot summary, along with a few lines about your own background, is all most agents need to decide whether or not request the full manuscript. And much later, when the novel went out to publishers, nobody asked for a synopsis, either. To this day, I don’t think anyone has seen that summary except for me. So is a synopsis a waste of effort? Not necessarily, as long as you write it at the right time—which is before you’ve written the underlying novel. This may sound like a huge pain in the ass, and it is, but there are still good reasons for doing it first.

I discovered this while working on the novel that eventually became City of Exiles. The Icon Thief had been picked up as part of a two-book deal, which was great, except for the fact that I had conceived the first book as a complete story in itself, and didn’t have any ideas for a sequel. To get my advance for the second book, which was money I needed, I had to write up a detailed proposal, much against my will. Among other things, knowing how much a story can evolve during the writing process, I was afraid of getting locked into a plot I wouldn’t want to write six months from now. But as I grudgingly began to write the synopsis, working from a rough outline I had prepared earlier, I realized a number of things:

  1. A synopsis only needs to be really detailed when it comes to a novel’s first act, when the premise, setting, and conflict are introduced. The second and third acts can be described in fairly general terms, which leaves you with some flexibility in case your plans change, as they almost always do.
  2. When you’re writing a synopsis, you get new ideas. The simple process of turning an outline into clear sentences for another person to read, as well as the physical act of typing, has the effect of clarifying your own thoughts and taking the story in unexpected directions. In other words…
  3. A synopsis helps you see what the novel is really about.

In short, a synopsis is just another creative tool, as useful, in its own way, as an outline or a mind map, which means that a working writer at least needs to consider it. And as annoying as it may be, from now on, I intend to prepare a synopsis during the planning stages of every novel I write, both as a selling tool to publishers and as a way of organizing my thoughts. Once its purpose has been served, of course, the synopsis can go into a drawer, its important points internalized. And it can be a startling experience to go back and reread the synopsis after the novel has been written and say to yourself: “Wow. Is that what I thought I was writing?”

But how should a synopsis look? At some point, I may post the synopses for my own novels, but since they aren’t scheduled to be published at all until March and December of next year, that probably isn’t a great idea yet. In the meantime, you can find plenty of boring examples of the synopsis form online, but for my money, you’re better off looking at the masters: Borges, whose short stories, like “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” are often brilliant synopses of imaginary novels, and Tolkien, whose synopsis of the first two books of The Lord of the Rings, included at the beginning of The Return of the King, is a model of how a conventional synopsis should read. I’ll be reading them endlessly over the next few days, as I prepare to write a synopsis for my third novel. You’ll be hearing more about this soon…

Written by nevalalee

September 22, 2011 at 10:08 am

J.R.R. Tolkien and the why of world-building

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One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, quoted by Humphrey Carpenter

Yesterday, I was at Barnes and Noble in Union Square when, apparently, the earth shook. I didn’t notice it, possibly because I was slightly more preoccupied by another, rather smaller earthquake taking place on this blog. I had been in New York for the past few days, away from my desk, so I wasn’t aware that anything unusual was happening until the comments started flooding my cell phone. I’d like to start, then, by saying what a thrill it was to be featured on Freshly Pressed, and how gratifying it is to see so many new readers and visitors. You never know what to expect when a blog is opened to radically increased traffic, so it’s been heartening to see how universally positive and insightful the comments have been. Thanks so much for coming, and I do hope you stick around!

That said, I suspect that much of the response was due less to the quality of the writing than to the subject of the post itself. The Fellowship of the Ring is, to put it mildly, a movie that unites people. I could feel it last week at Ravinia, and I’ve felt it again over the last twenty-four hours as readers shared their thoughts and memories. We heard from fans who think of movies as The Lord of the Rings and everything else; from viewers for whom the films, and their special features, changed the way they saw filmmaking; and from those whom the trilogy helped through difficult times in their lives. Few other movies can say as much, or inspire such universal good feeling. (I imagine that the response wouldn’t have been quite as positive if I’d posted a rave about, say, Eyes Wide Shut.) And it all comes down to the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson have created a world we want to live in and revisit.

This, it seems to me, is the real point of world-building, which has become such an established convention of fantasy fiction that its original purpose is sometimes forgotten. Invented languages, cultures, and geographies are all very well and good, but they’re a means, not an end. The true goal is to create stories and characters so vivid that we can’t help applying them to our own lives. I’ve certainly felt this myself. Last year, when I was hiking the Lares Valley in Peru, lungs and feet aching, what kept me going—and this is a real nerd confession here—was the thought of Frodo and Samwise trudging through Mordor. Similarly, after seeing Fellowship again last week, I was seized by the urge to write an alternate universe fanfiction epic that would begin with Galadriel taking the ring. Since such a project would probably require 50,000 words and three months of work, it doesn’t seem like a great use of my time. But I’d still like to read it. (Oddly enough, I don’t think such a story exists, although if anybody out there has seen one, please let me know!)

And it’s important to remember that both Tolkien and, to a lesser extent, Jackson and his collaborators were creating worlds out of their own personal compulsions. Tolkien was a linguist and philologist whose work arose from his interest in invented languages; Jackson was a fan of the books who began planning his monumental project long before the current cinematic vogue for epic fantasy. Neither knew if there would be an audience for what he was doing—which was how each of them ended up finding such vast audiences. And at a time when fantasy series sprout appendices, maps, and extra volumes just because Tolkien’s example says they should, and when Hollywood sees fantasy primarily as a lucrative revenue stream, it’s worth recalling that it all began with a solitary professor furnishing a world for his own amusement. And as the past couple of days have made clear, there are still plenty of us who want to follow him there.

Written by nevalalee

August 24, 2011 at 10:22 am

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