Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Which Lie Did I Tell?

Blazing the trail

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When I’m looking for insights into writing, I often turn to the nonliterary arts, and the one that I’ve found the most consistently stimulating is film editing. This is partially because the basic problem that a movie editor confronts—the arrangement and distillation of a huge mass of unorganized material into a coherent shape—is roughly analogous to what a writer does, but at a larger scale and under conditions of greater scrutiny and pressure, which encourages the development of pragmatic technical solutions. This was especially true in the era before digital editing. As Walter Murch, my hero, has pointed out, one minute of film equals a pound of celluloid. A movie like Apocalypse Now generates something like seven tons of raw footage, so an editor, as Murch notes, needs “a strong back and arms.” At the same time, incredibly, he or she also has to keep track of the location of individual frames, which weigh just a few thousandths of an ounce. With such software tools as Final Cut Pro, this kind of bookkeeping becomes relatively easier, and I doubt that many professional editors are inclined to be sentimental about the old days. But there’s also a sense in which wrestling with celluloid required habits of mind and organization that are slowly being lost. In A Guide for the Perplexed, which I once described as the first book I’d recommend to anyone about almost anything, Werner Herzog writes:

I can edit almost as fast as I can think because I’m able to sink details of fifty hours of footage into my mind. This might have something to do with the fact that I started working on film, when there was so much celluloid about the place that you had to know where absolutely every frame was. But my memory of all this footage never lasts long, and within two days of finishing editing it becomes a blur in my mind.

On a more practical level, editing a movie means keeping good notes, and all editors eventually come up with their own system. Here’s how Herzog describes his method:

The way I work is to look through everything I have—very quickly, over a couple of days—and make notes. For all my films over the past decade I have kept a logbook in which I briefly describe, in longhand, the details of every shot and what people are saying. I know there’s a particularly wonderful moment at minute 4:13 on tape eight because I have marked the description of the action with an exclamation point. These days my editor Joe Bini and I just move from one exclamation point to the next; anything unmarked is almost always bypassed. When it comes to those invaluable clips with three exclamation marks, I tell Joe, “If these moments don’t appear in the finished film, I have lived in vain.”

What I like about Herzog’s approach to editing is its simplicity. Other editors, including Murch, keep detailed notes on each take, but Herzog knows that all he has to do is flag it and move on. When the time comes, he’ll remember why it seemed important, and he has implicit faith in the instincts of his past self, which he trusts to steer him in the right direction. It’s like blazing a trail through the woods. A few marks on a tree or a pile of stones, properly used, are all you need to indicate the path, but instead of trying to communicate with hikers who come after you, you’re sending a message to yourself in the future. As Herzog writes: “I feel safe in my skills of navigation.”

Reading Herzog’s description of his editorial notes, I realized that I do much the same thing with the books that I read for my work, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Whenever I go back to revisit a source, I’ll often see underlinings or other marks that I left on a previous pass, and I naturally look at those sections more closely, in order to remind myself why it seemed to matter. (I’ve learned to mark passages with a single vertical line in the outer margin, which allows me to flip quickly through the book to scan for key sections.) The screenwriter William Goldman describes a similar method of signaling to himself in his great book Which Lie Did I Tell?, in which he talks about the process of adapting novels to the screen:

Here is how I adapt and it’s very simple: I read the text again. And I read it this time with a pen in my hand—let’s pick a color, blue. Armed with that, I go back to the book, slower this time than when I was a traveler. And as I go through the book word by word, page by page, every time I hit anything I think might be useful—dialogue line, sequence, description—I make a mark in the margin…Then maybe two weeks later, I read the book again, this time with a different color pen…And I repeat the same marking process—a line in the margin for anything I think might make the screenplay…When I am done with all my various color-marked readings—five or six of them—I should have the spine. I should know where the story starts, where it ends. The people should be in my head now.

Goldman doesn’t say this explicitly, but he implies that if a passage struck him on multiple passes, which he undertook at different times and states of mind, it’s likely to be more useful than one that caught his eye only once. Speaking of a page in Stephen King’s novel Misery that ended up with six lines in the margin—it’s the scene in which Annie cuts off Paul’s foot—Goldman writes: “It’s pretty obvious that whatever the spine of the piece was, I knew from the start it had to pass through this sequence.”

And a line or an exclamation point is sometimes all you need. Trying to keep more involved notes can even be a hindrance: not only do they slow you down, but they can distort your subsequent impressions. If a thought is worth having, it will probably occur to you each time you encounter the same passage. You often won’t know its true significance until later, and in the meantime, you should just keep going. (This is part of the reason why Walter Mosley recommends that writers put a red question mark next to any unresolved questions in the first draft, rather than trying to work them out then and there. Stopping to research something the first time around can easily turn into a form of procrastination, and when you go back, you may find that you didn’t need it at all.) Finally, it’s worth remembering that an exclamation point, a line in the margin, or a red question mark are subtly different on paper than on a computer screen. There are plenty of ways to flag sections in a text document, and I often use the search function in Microsoft Word that allows me to review everything I’ve underlined. But having a physical document that you periodically mark up in ink has benefits of its own. When you repeatedly go back to the same book, manuscript, or journal over the course of a project, you find that you’ve changed, but the pages have stayed the same. It starts to feel like a piece of yourself that you’ve externalized and put in a safe place. You’ll often be surprised by the clues that your past self has left behind, like a hobo leaving signs for others, or Leonard writing notes to himself in Memento, and it helps if the hints are a little opaque. Faced with that exclamation point, you ask yourself: “What was I thinking?” And there’s no better way to figure out what you’re thinking right now.

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April 20, 2017 at 9:08 am

The lives of the robots

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Jeffrey Wright on Westworld

Note: Spoilers follow for the Westworld episode “The Stray.”

There’s a clever moment in the third episode of Westworld when Teddy, the clean-cut gunslinger played by James Marsden, is finally given a backstory. Teddy has spoken vaguely of a guilty secret in his past, but when he’s pressed for the details, he doesn’t elaborate. That’s the mark of a good hero. As William Goldman points out in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, protagonists need to have mystery, and when you give them a sob story, here’s what happens:

They make [him] a wimp. They make him a loser. He’s just another whiny asshole who went to pieces when the gods pissed on him. “Oh, you cannot know the depth of my pain” is what that seems to be saying to the audience. Well, if I’m in that audience, what I think is this: Fuck you. I know people who are dying of cancer, I know people who are close to vegetables, and guess what—they play it as it lays.

Of course, we know that Teddy is really an android, and if he doesn’t talk about his past, it’s for good reason: as Dr. Ford, his creator, gently explains, the writers never bothered to give him one. With a few commands on a touchscreen, a complete backstory is uploaded into his system, and Teddy sets off on a doomed quest in pursuit of his old enemy, Wyatt, against whom he has sworn undying revenge. We don’t know how this plot thread ties into the rest of Dr. Ford’s plan, but we can only assume that it’s going somewhere—and it’s lucky for him that he had a convenient hero available to fill that role.

There are several levels of sly commentary here. When you’re writing a television show—or a series of novels—you want to avoid filling in anybody’s backstory for as long as possible. Part of the reason, as Goldman notes above, is to maintain a sense of mystery, and for the sake of narrative momentum, it makes sense to avoid dwelling on what happened before the story began. But it’s also a good idea to keep this information in your back pocket for when you really need it. If you know how to deploy it strategically, backstory can be very useful, and it can get you out of trouble or provide a targeted nudge when you need to push the plot in a particular direction. If you’re too explicit about it too soon, you narrow your range of options. (You also make it harder for viewers to project their own notions onto the characters, which is what Westworld, the theme park, is all about.) I almost wish that Westworld had saved this moment with Teddy for later in the show’s run, which would underline its narrative point. We’re only a third of the way through the first season, but within the world of the show itself, the park has been running for decades with the same generic storylines. Dr. Ford has a few ideas about how to shake things up, and Teddy is a handy blank slate. Television showrunners make that sort of judgment call all the time. In the internal logic of the park, this isn’t the first season, but more like its fifth or sixth, when a scripted drama tends to go off the rails, and the accumulation of years of backstory starts to feel like a burden.

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood on Westworld

“The Stray,” in fact, is essentially about backstory, on the level both of the park and of the humans who are running it. Shortly after filling in the details of Teddy’s past, Dr. Ford does exactly the same thing for himself: he delivers a long, not entirely convincing monologue about a mysterious business partner, Arnold, who died in the park and was later removed from its corporate history. At the end of the speech, he looks at Bernard, his head of programming, and tells him that he knows how much his son’s death still haunts him. It’s a little on the nose, but I think it’s supposed to be. It makes us wonder if Bernard might unknowingly be a robot himself, a la Blade Runner, and whether his flashbacks of his son are just as artificial as Teddy’s memories of Wyatt. I hope that this isn’t the big twist, if only because it seems too obvious, but in a way, it doesn’t really matter. Bernard may or may not be a robot, but there’s no question that Bernard, Dr. Ford, and all the other humans in sight are characters on a show called Westworld, and whatever backstories they’ve been given by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy are as calculated as the ones that the androids have received. Even if Bernard’s memories are “real,” we’re being shown them for a reason. (It helps that Dr. Ford and Bernard are played by Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright, two actors who are good at giving technically exquisite performances that draw subtle attention to their own artifice. Wright’s trademark whisper—he’s like a man of great passion who refuses to raise his voice—draws the viewer into a conspiracy with the actor, as if he’s letting us in on a secret.)

The trouble with this reading, of course, is that it allows us to excuse instances of narrative sloppiness under the assumption that the series is deliberately commenting on itself. I’m willing to see Dr. Ford’s speech about Arnold as a winking nod to the tendency of television shows to dispense backstory in big infodumps, but I’m less sure about the moment in which he berates a lab technician for covering up a robot’s naked body and slashes at the android’s face. It’s doesn’t seem like the Dr. Ford of the pilot, talking nostalgically to Old Bill in storage, and while we’re presumably supposed to see him as a man of contradictions, it feels more like a juxtaposition of two character beats that weren’t meant to be so close together. (I have a hunch that it also reflects Hopkins’s availability: the show seems to have him for about two scenes per episode, which means that it has to do in five minutes what might have been better done in ten.) Westworld, as you might expect from a show from one of the Nolan brothers, has more ideas than it knows how handle: it hurries past a reference to Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind so quickly that it’s as if the writers just want to let us know that they’ve read the book. But I still have faith in this show’s potential. When Teddy is ignominiously killed yet again by Wyatt’s henchmen, it forces Dolores to face the familiar attackers in her own storyline by herself—an ingenious way of getting her to where she needs to be, but also a reminder, I think, of how the choices that a storyteller makes in one place can have unexpected consequences somewhere else. It’s a risk that all writers take. And Westworld is playing the same tricky game as the characters whose stories it tells.

“Yet she was still a woman…”

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"More curiosity than respect..."

Note: This post is the forty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 48. You can read the previous installments here.

“When I start a play, I’ll think, does it matter if this character is a man or a woman?” David Lindsay-Abaire once said. “And if it doesn’t, I make it a woman.” I do pretty much the same thing. And I’d like to think that we both take this approach for an utterly unsentimental reason: it results in better stories. There’s a tendency for writers, male and female alike, to use male characters as default placeholders, especially in genres that have traditionally been dominated by men. By systematically visualizing women instead—even if it’s nothing more than an initial sketch—you’ve already redirected your thought processes at a slightly different angle, which can only be good for the outcome. Whenever I read stories from the golden age of science fiction, I’m struck by the absence of women, which seems less like a sin than a mistake. It’s hard to think of a story from that era that wouldn’t have been improved by turning half of the men into women, without any other revisions aside from the relevant pronouns, as was done, much later, with Ripley in Alien. And I would have addressed this advice squarely to those pragmatic hacks who were only interested in making a living. There are so few writing rules of any value that a professional ought to utilize anything that works on a consistent basis, and the fact that so many of the women we see in these stories are either love interests or secretaries, even in the far future, feels like a missed opportunity.

There’s even a handy empirical test that you can use to verify this. Take a story from any genre in which the genders of the main characters are mostly irrelevant—that is, in which you could rewrite most of the men as women, or vice versa, while leaving the overall plot unchanged. Now mentally change a few of the men into women. The result, in most cases, is more interesting: it generates registers of meaning that weren’t there before. Now mentally turn some of the women in the original story into men. I’m willing to bet that it has the net opposite result: it actually saps the narrative of interest, and makes the whole thing flatter and duller. If you don’t believe me, just try it a few times. Even better, do it when you’re constructing a story, and see which version you like better. In the book Which Lie Did I Tell?, the screenwriter William Goldman writes:

I remember once being in an office with a studio guy and a couple of people were sitting around, fighting the story. And once of the people said this: “What if they’re all women?” Now the story, as I remember, was a male adventure flick. And the studio guy commented on that—“This is an adventure movie here, how stupid a suggestion is that?” Naturally the writer was finished for that day.

The truth, as Goldman points out, is that it was an excellent idea: “Making them all women opened up the world. I use it a lot myself now.” And that’s all the more reason to do it automatically at the earliest possible stage.

"Yet she was still a woman..."

Which isn’t to say that you can just change the names and pronouns and be done with it. This exercise is only useful if you follow through on the implications that come with making a character a woman, especially in a genre like suspense, which defines itself so casually in terms of action and violence. In my novels, you could change most of the women to men without affecting the main outlines of the plot, but there would be a real loss of meaning. In part, this is because I unconsciously situated these characters in worlds in which women face particular challenges. For Maddy, it was the world of art and finance; for Wolfe, of law enforcement; and for Asthana, of thieves and criminals. These tensions are mostly just implied, but I’d like to think that they quietly affect the way we see these characters, who are enriched by the choices they must have made before the story began. In retrospect, this explains, for instance, why Wolfe is so much more interesting than Alan Powell, to whom I devoted a third of The Icon Thief before mostly shelving him in Eternal Empire. Wolfe would have had to prove herself in ways that someone like Powell never would, and it shows, even if it’s unstated. And I have a hunch that my endless struggles with Powell as a character might have been avoided entirely if I’d done the logical thing and made him a woman as well.

There’s another missed chance in this series, and it involves the character of Asthana. The only time I come close to exploring the peculiar position she holds—as a woman of color in a criminal world—is in Chapter 48 of Eternal Empire, in which she enters a house in Sochi occupied entirely by Russian thieves. Her thoughts turn briefly to the fact that she’ll always be regarded as an outsider, and I try to show how she establishes herself in the pecking order by being a little smarter than the men around her. But I don’t do nearly enough. Part of this is simply due to a lack of space, and to the fact that it felt more important to define Asthana in relation to Wolfe. Still, her presence here raises a lot of questions that go mostly unanswered, and I can’t help but feel that I could have touched on them more. (If I were doing it all over again today, I would have remembered what Christopher McQuarrie says about Rebecca Ferguson’s character in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation: “They’re not men. They’re women that are not trying to be men…You’re here on your own terms and you’re in a shitty situation created by people in power above you. How do you escape this situation and maintain your dignity?”) If anything, the result would have made Asthana an even more formidable antagonist for Wolfe. And although there’s a showdown coming soon between these two women, the most interesting parts of this story will mostly remain unspoken…

Nice to meet you, Harwin—or is it Hullen?

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The cast of Game of Thrones

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post in which I tried to use Metcalfe’s Law to explain why ensemble casts on television can be so useful. It’s a formula that states that the value of a social network, such as a telephone exchange, is proportional to the square of the number of connected individuals (or, more precisely, n(n-1)/2). Any network, whether it consists of users linked by computers or characters on a show like Mad Men, gains its power less from the individual units than through their interactions, and with every additional member, the number of potential connections grows exponentially. That’s why television relies so much on ensembles: once you’ve run for a season or two, you’re constantly in search of interesting pairings that haven’t yet been explored in stories. A show with three major cast members has only three possible combinations, but with six characters, the number rises to fifteen, and while some of these pairings can be more fruitful than others—Monica and Chandler are more fun than, say, Ross and Phoebe—the odds of finding something that works increase with the number of theoretical interactions. Or so you’d hope.

In practice, of course, that level of connective density can pose problems of its own, especially in written form. When you’re reading a novel for the first time, you’re engaging in a complicated set of mental adjustments, which aren’t any less impressive for being so routine. You’re learning the rules of the world that you’re entering, making decisions about how fully to commit to the logic of the story, and figuring out who the hell everybody is. And the more names you’re asked to process at once, the harder it can be to surrender. In the first couple of pages of the opening chapter of A Game of Thrones, for instance, we’re introduced in quick succession to Bran, Robb, Eddard, Theon, Jon Snow, Jory Cassel, Harwin, and Hullen, all without a lot of handholding. This can be part of the fun of epic fiction, but I don’t think I’m alone in saying that my head started to hurt a little with every new name. Reading ought to be a left-brained process, and it can be exhausting when the right hemisphere is tasked immediately with keeping track of a dozen characters and their various relationships. It starts to feel less like entertainment than bookkeeping, or like being whisked through a series of introductions at a party at which you forget each name as soon as you hear it.

The cast of Game of Thrones

And we’re talking about George R.R. Martin, an old pro who is consciously testing the limits of how much information a reader can handle. In the hands of lesser writers, the chore of keeping the players straight can sap all the pleasure from the opening pages. (I sometimes feel this way when reading a story in Analog, in which I’m thrown a bunch of new names at once while trying to figure out what planet I’m on.) And it’s good for a writer to develop the habit of easing the transition into the story’s world as much as possible, especially in those crucial early stages when the costs of putting a book down are much lower than those of continuing. It helps, for instance, to introduce one major character at a time; to include short descriptive tags whenever convenient (“Bran’s bastard brother Jon Snow”); to omit names for minor figures, like the innkeeper we see once and never meet again; to keep the names you do use distinctive; and to make sure, above all, that each relationship is relatively clear before moving on to the next. There are times, obviously, when a writer will want to withhold this kind of information for a legitimate reason. In general, though, the cost to narrative momentum is so great that the situations where this makes sense are rare.

It’s also worth noting how much easier it is to keep track of the characters I’ve listed above on the television version of Game of Thrones. On television, in film, or on the stage, handling a large cast is a easier, both because we can rely on an actor’s physical presence to distinguish him from others and because our eyes are better at processing material like this than our brains are alone. (It’s a little like the difference between playing mental chess and looking at the pieces on the board: it’s harder to play a reasonable game when you’re preoccupied with remembering where everything is.) In Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman advises writers to never open a script with a courtroom scene, since the stage directions can quickly degenerate into a list of names—the judge, the defense team, the prosecuting attorney, the client, the witnesses. He goes on to say that it’s fine to open a movie this way, since we’ve got the faces of the actors to help keep it all straight, and finally concludes: “I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t ask the screenplay to do what it has trouble with. Information overload is one of those trouble spots.” And this applies as much to fiction as to screenwriting. Your characters may be vivid in your own imagination, but to the reader, they’re just names on the page. And you’ve got to proceed with care and consideration if you want to turn those names into people.

Written by nevalalee

August 6, 2014 at 9:55 am

The Tone Ranger

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Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger

Last night, I watched The Lone Ranger. Given the fact that I haven’t yet seen 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, or Before Midnight, this might seem like an odd choice. In my defense, I can only plead that on those rare evenings when my wife is out of the house, I usually seize the opportunity to watch something that I don’t think she’ll enjoy—the last time around it was Battle Royale. I’ve also been intrigued by The Lone Ranger ever since it flamed out in spectacular fashion last summer. Regular readers will know that I have a weakness for flops, and everything I’d read made me think that this was the kind of fascinating studio mess that I find impossible to resist. Quentin Tarantino’s guarded endorsement counted for a lot as well, and we’re already seeing the first rumblings of a revisionist take that sees the film as a neglected treasure. I wouldn’t go quite so far; it has significant problems, and I’m not surprised that the initial reaction was so underwhelming. But I liked it a lot all the same. It’s an engaging, sometimes funny, occasionally exciting movie with more invention and ambition than your average franchise installment, and I’d sooner watch its climactic train chase again than, say, most of The Avengers.

And what interests me the most is its most problematic element, which is the range of tones it encompasses. The Lone Ranger isn’t content just to be a Western; on some level, it wants to be all Westerns, quoting freely from Dead Man and Once Upon a Time in the West while also indulging in slapstick, adventure, gruesome violence, hints of the supernatural, and even moments of tragedy. It’s a revenge narrative by way of Blazing Saddles, and it’s no surprise that the result is all over the map. Part of this may be due to the sheer scale of the production—when someone gives you $200 million to make a Western, you may as well throw everything you can into the pot—but it’s also a reflection of the sensibilities involved. Director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio had collaborated earlier, of course, on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which gained a lot of mileage from a similar stylistic mishmash, though with drastically diminishing returns. And Verbinski at his best has the talent to pull it off: he combines the eye of Michael Bay with a real knack for comedy, and I predicted years ago that he’d win an Oscar one day. (He eventually did, for Rango.)

Gore Verbinski on the set of The Lone Ranger

But playing with tone is a dangerous thing, as we see in the later Pirates films, and The Lone Ranger only gets maybe eighty percent of the way to pulling it off. Watching it, I was reminded of what the screenwriter Tony Gilroy says in his contribution to William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell? Gilroy starts by listing examples of movies that experiment with tone, both good (Dr. Strangelove, The Princess Bride) and bad (Batman and Robin, Year of the Comet) and concludes:

But tone? Tone scares me…Why? Because when it goes wrong it just sucks out loud. I think the audience—the reader—I think they make some critical decisions in the opening movements of a film. How deeply do I invest myself here? How much fun can I have? Should I be consciously referencing the rest of my life during the next two hours, or is this an experience I need to surrender to? Are you asking for my heart or my head or both? Am I rooting for the hero or the movie? Just how many pounds of disbelief are you gonna ask me to suspend before this is through?

The Lone Ranger tramples on all these questions, asking us to contemplate the slaughter of Comanches a few minutes before burying our heroes up to their necks in a nest of scorpions, and the fact that it holds together even as well as it does is a testament both to the skill of the filmmakers and the power of a strong visual style. If nothing else, it looks fantastic, which helps us over some of the rough spots, although not all of them.

And it’s perhaps no accident that William Goldman’s first great discovery of a new tone came in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s possible that there’s something about the Western that encourages this kind of experimentation: all it needs is a few men and horses, and the genre has been so commercially weakened in recent years that filmmakers have the freedom to try whatever they think might work. It’s true that The Lone Ranger works best in its last forty minutes, when The William Tell Overture blasts over the soundtrack and it seems content to return to its roots as a cliffhanging serial, but when you compare even its most misguided digressions to the relentless sameness of tone in a Liam Neeson thriller or a Bourne knockoff, it feels weirdly like a step forward. (Even Christopher Nolan, a director I admire immensely, has trouble operating outside of a narrow, fundamentally serious tonal range—it’s his one great shortcoming as a storyteller.) Going to the movies every summer would be more fun in general if more megabudgeted blockbusters looked and felt like The Lone Ranger, and its failure means that we’re more likely to see the opposite.

Protecting the throughline

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David Mamet

The life of a screenwriter might seem like an enviable one, but really, it’s a thankless job. You’re generously compensated for your time, with a career that countless other writers are dying to achieve, and in theory, you’re in a position of enormous creative power: without you, there’s no movie. In practice, though, you’re boxed in by constraints on all sides. Your only tools are dialogue and structure, and maybe, if you believe William Goldman, it’s really just structure alone. You’ll get notes from every producer and executive in sight, few of whom are writers themselves, and if you can’t make the requested changes, you’ll be fired, even if it’s your own story. Even after all that, you’ll never get the credit you think you deserve: there simply aren’t any famous screenwriters, at least not to the extent that we reward actors and directors. (As John August says: “Your mom probably doesn’t know any screenwriters other than you.”) And although this state of affairs often leaves screenwriters cynical and bitter, it also clarifies your thinking enormously, like any work done under pressure, about what battles really count and what you can afford to let slide.

Even if you don’t need to worry about studio notes, you can still learn a lot from how screenwriters prioritize what to protect. What matters most is the throughline, which we can temporarily define, for the sake of convenience, as the core of the screenplay that a writer is ready to guard with his life. In the useful interview collection Tales From the Script, the screenwriter Joe Forte says:

People want to change scenes or dialogue. You work with that. But the thing that I try to influence is theme, that emotional throughline. That’s what the movie’s about…It orients everything. It’s the registration mark that goes through your movie. And if you can bring people back to that, that’s why you try to stay involved as much as you can—or are allowed to be.

Elsewhere, while discussing the production of the movie Maverick in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman calls it the spine:

I must explain that I am willing and happy to do any changes here because I am not threatened by anything that’s happening—nothing is altering the spine of the movie…I get very crazy if you mess with the spine. Otherwise I am totally supportive.

William Goldman

So what is the throughline, really? You can think of it, if you like, as the theme or emotional heart of the story, but that’s a little vague, and if nothing else, the throughline needs to be clear, if only so you have a vivid sense of what you’re trying to preserve. To paraphrase David Mamet in On Directing Film—which, as I’ve said many times before, is the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read—the throughline is the essential problem, with a definite end, that occupies the protagonist through the climax of the movie. The castle needs to be taken; the princess has to be rescued; the hero is desperate to get money or respect or physical safety. He or she pursues this objective through a series of logical steps, and when the objective has been achieved, or our protagonist has failed spectacularly, the story is over. That’s really it. Theme, emotion, character, and suspense are all precipitates of that clean, well-defined progression, and without it, the story will just sort of lie there, no matter how good the writing is. And that’s why the throughline needs to be protected above all else.

This is as much true for novelists, who tend to work in solitude, as for screenwriters operating under the scrutiny of a bevy of producers. Novelists may not be getting notes from a dozen different studio executives, but as the rewrites and discarded drafts pile up, it can be just as easy to lose sight of the central thread of the narrative. By the time you hit the fifth or sixth draft, or the fiftieth, you run the risk of focusing on side issues while forgetting what the story is really about. You don’t need to share this information with anyone else, particularly with your readers, and if asked, you might want to maintain a discreet silence. But it’s essential that you at least be able to explain the throughline to yourself, because it’s the only thing that will carry you through the ups and downs, both internal and external, that any writing project has to survive. Because in the end, as Mamet points out so beautifully, the throughline is nothing less than a metaphor for the act of writing itself:

It’s not up to you to say whether the movie is going to be “good” or “bad”; it’s only up to you to do your job as well as you can, and when you’re done, then you can go home. This is exactly the same principle as the throughline. Do your specific task, work until it’s done, and then stop.

Written by nevalalee

October 30, 2013 at 8:47 am

“A solitary figure stood near the basketball courts…”

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"A solitary figure stood near the basketball courts..."

(Note: This post is the forty-third installment in my author’s commentary for The Icon Thief, covering Chapter 42. You can read the earlier installments here.)

In theory, a writer can get to know the characters in his fiction better than anyone in his own life, himself included. I’m often struck by how little information I really have about people—even close friends—I’ve known for years: I’ve generally only spent time with them in one particular context, and I have a hunch that I’d be startled to see what they’re like at the office, say, or with their own families. Go a little further back, to childhood or adolescence, and the picture is even less clear. In fiction, by contrast, we can learn everything about a person, at least in principle. A quick search online turns up countless forms and questionnaires designed to help authors brainstorm every detail of their characters’ appearance, habits, past, and inner life, from their eye color to their favorite hobbies to how they really feel about their parents. It’s more scrutiny than many of us even devote to ourselves, at least at any one time, and the question of how much of this material an author requires to invent fictional but convincing men and women is an issue that every writer needs to confront.

In my own case, I’ve been inclined leave many of these questions unanswered. Part of this is a practical consideration: as I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m not a fan of backstory, and although I spend a fair amount of time thinking about each character’s personal history before I start writing, I know that very little of this material will end up in the finished novel. Human beings, both in fiction and in real life, tend to be more vividly defined by their needs in the moment, and while what happened to them in the past can inform their present wants and decisions, we very rarely embody the full sum of our life stories: one quality tends to predominate over the next from one minute to another, and certain threads of our personality grow in importance while others wither away. As a result, I’ve never tried to create systematic backstories for my characters. Instead, I work out which elements bear most urgently on the present moment and leave the rest in shadow, which is why, for instance, I go into detail about Maddy’s failed attempt to start an art gallery, but still don’t know the names of her parents.

"Ilya's head gave an involuntary jerk..."

But there’s also a more intuitive aspect to this approach. Protagonists, as William Goldman observes in Which Lie Did I Tell?, must have mystery, and they’re often more interesting to the extent that the author withholds crucial information. Part of this has to do with the way we identify with characters in fiction: David Mamet has pointed out that it’s better to say “A hero on a white horse” than “A tall hero on a white horse,” because the more we add unnecessary detail, the harder it is for readers to imagine themselves in the protagonist’s place. (This is one reason why I’m especially resistant to detailed descriptions of a character’s appearance, to an extent that sometimes frustrates my circle of initial readers.) It’s possible, of course, for a writer to leave important elements to implication in the finished work, while privately knowing a great deal about the characters. But I’ve found that I’m happiest when certain aspects remain a mystery to me as well, even as I obsessively think about each character’s objectives from scene to scene.

In Chapter 42 of The Icon Thief, for instance, Ilya is standing near a playground in Brighton Beach, preparing to go after the men who betrayed him, when he sees a little boy and his mother:

“Daniel!” the boy’s mother shouted. At the sound of the name, Ilya’s head gave an involuntary jerk…Watching the boy rejoin his mother, Ilya thought of the many transformations that he had undergone since he had last referred to himself by that name.

This is the only indication in the entire novel, and in the two books that follow, that Ilya was once called something else, or that the name he goes by now is one that he chose for himself. There’s obviously a story here, and it’s possible that when I wrote this passage, I was laying in a hint for something I intended to develop later on. As it turns out, I never did. And if you were to ask me who Ilya was and what he was doing before he was thrown into Vladimir Prison, I’m not sure I could tell you, although there are clues scattered throughout the series. Keeping these details hidden, even to myself, turned out to be a kind of insurance policy: Ilya, I realized, grew more interesting the less he was shown, and by keeping his past deliberately undeveloped, there was no risk that I’d err in revealing too much. What really matters, far more than where he came from, is what he wants now. And at the moment, he wants revenge…

Written by nevalalee

April 12, 2013 at 9:43 am

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