Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Which Lie Did I Tell?

“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.

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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…

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April 12, 2013 at 9:43 am

In praise of the cinematic baguette

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Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton

You’ve seen this baguette before. In any movie or television show in which a character is shown carrying groceries, a big loaf of french bread is invariably seen peeking out over the top of the bag. On the few occasions when it isn’t there, a similar role is assumed by a leafy bunch of carrots, or, in exceptional cases, celery. As the comically detailed TV Tropes entry on the subject points out, you’ll see the baguette among groceries carried by the unlikeliest of characters, like Liam Neeson in Taken, who carries not one, but two. (He’s in Paris, after all.) And given how often this loaf of bread turns up, it was only a matter of time before a clever screenwriter, in this case Tony Gilory in Michael Clayton, gave us a grocery bag full of nothing but baguettes. In this instance, it’s partially intended as a reflection of the unstable mental state of the character played by Tom Wilkinson, but it’s also a nod to a cinematic convention that, over time, has come to seem like a particularly ludicrous visual cliché.

And yet that baguette is there for a reason. For one thing, it’s a convenient prop that is unlikely to wilt under hot studio lights or after hours spent on location. It’s also a handy bit of narrative shorthand. If we see a character carrying a paper bag without any clues about what it contains, we immediately start to wonder what might be inside. The baguette poking out over the top is a visual flag that, paradoxically, actually makes the bag less visible: as soon as we understand that it’s just a bag of groceries, we stop worrying about it. (Thomas Harris, a shrewd exploiter and creator of narrative tropes, even utilizes it as a plot point in Red Dragon, when Francis Dolarhyde, the killer, uses a big bunch of leafy celery as camouflage in his escape from a crime scene: “He stuffed his books and clothing into the grocery bag, then the weapons. The celery stuck out the top.” And when he passes the police a moment later, carrying what is obviously just a bag of groceries, they don’t give him a second glance.)

William Goldman

Most clichés, after all, start out as a piece of authorial shorthand that allows the reader or viewer to focus on what really matters. William Goldman, who is close friends with Gilroy, makes a similar point in his wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell? He ticks off some of the most notorious examples of how the movies depart from real life—the hero can always find a parking space when he needs one, the local news invariably happens to be talking about a necessary plot point when a character turns on the television, taxi fares can always be paid with the first bill you happen to grab without looking down at your wallet—and goes on to make an excellent observation: all of these clichés are about saving time. In a good movie, everything that isn’t relevant to the story goes out the window, which is why we see so many ridiculously convenient moments that allow us to move on without pausing to the next important scene. That baguette serves a useful purpose. If they gave awards to props, it would at least merit a nod for Best Supporting Actor.

The trouble, of course, is that as soon as a narrative device proves its usefulness, it’s immediately copied by every writer in sight. And it’s easy to understand why: such tricks are worth their weight in gold. In my own novels, I’m constantly trying to find the right balance between advancing the plot and avoiding story beats that seem too obvious or convenient. (For example, in both The Icon Thief and City of Exiles, there’s a scene in which a suspect cracks a bit too easily under interrogation, just because I wanted to get on to the next big thing. I try to disguise such moments as best as I can, but I can’t claim the effect is entirely successful.) And whenever a writer discovers a novel piece of shorthand, or a clever spin on an old cliché, it’s like stumbling across a new industrial process. You’d like to patent it, but once it’s in print, it’s there for anyone to use. So the search for new tropes goes on, as it should. Because a baguette, as we all know, doesn’t stay fresh for long.

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2012 at 10:08 am

Three (or more) is a crowd

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There are no rules in screenwriting, as we all know, but one of them is this: you must never ever open your first draft screenplay with a courtroom scene.

—William Goldman, Which Lie Did I Tell?

He’s right. At first, a courtroom scene might seem like a decent opening for a movie. It satisfies the crucial requirement, as laid out usefully by screenwriter Terry Rossio, that every scene in a script be built around a clearly identifiable situation—and there’s nothing more familiar than a courtroom. We know the location, the players, the rules of engagement, and as a result, it gives us a convenient vehicle for generating suspense or drama. The sticking point, the pitfall that makes it impossible to use this as an opening scene, is the huge cast it involves. As Goldman points out, starting a screenplay in court involves laying out multiple characters in quick succession, and after we’ve been introduced to “Melvin Marshall, a bulldog in the courtroom” and “the legendary Tommy ‘the Hat’ Marino” and “Judge Eric Wildenstein himself,” our eyes start to glaze over. In a movie, this kind of scene works fine—we can use the faces of the actors to tell them apart. But in a printed screenplay, or a novel, all these names just blur together. Prose fiction is good at a lot of things, but one of its weaker points, especially at the start of a story, is introducing a large cast in a short period of time without confusing or annoying the reader.

Most good authors seem to understand this, but it’s one of the most common mistakes I find in beginning fiction. When I was reading submissions for my college literary magazine, almost without exception, I’d read the first paragraph of a new story, pause, and then read it over again, because the author was introducing too much information at once. There’s the protagonist, Gerald, and his sister, Sarah, talking about a third person, Horatio, whom we haven’t met yet, and they’re in the kitchen and it’s somewhere in Delaware and maybe there’s some kind of a war, and although I’ve been given a lot of material, I don’t have a single narrative thread to follow. Readers can handle a lot of complexity, but not when it’s deployed in one big lump. And while this sort of problem is much less common in professional short stories that have gone through an editor or two, it’s surprisingly common in science fiction. A lot of the stories in Analog, for instance, begin with a page that makes my head hurt, as we’re introduced to an exotic setting and some advanced technology and a bunch of alien names, and while certain readers seem to enjoy the process of puzzling out what the story is trying to say, I’m not among them.

The best thing a writer can do is begin by focusing on a single character with a clearly defined objective, and then gradually expand the narrative from there. You can, if you like, give us two characters in conflict, but no more than that, at least not until we’ve been adequately grounded in the players we’ve seen so far. Three is definitely a crowd. While editing the sound for THX-1138, Walter Murch discovered that when two characters were walking on screen, he had to carefully sync the sound of their footsteps to the movement of their bodies, but when there were three or more, he could lay the footsteps in anywhere—it was impossible for the audience to match the sound of individual steps to what was on the screen. This made his job easier, but it also led him to conclude that audiences, in general, have trouble keeping track of more than three elements at once. And this applies to more than just sound. Metcalfe’s Law tells us that the value of a social network—like a cast of characters—is proportional to the square of the number of players, and while this complexity can be wonderful when it comes to the overall shape of a story, when presented to us all at once, our natural response is to become frustrated and bored. Presenting the characters one at a time, and giving them clear objectives, is the smartest way to avoid this.

And although movies and television are significantly better than prose fiction at presenting us with a large cast, the best of them approach the problem in the same way. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s no better introduction to an enormous cast than the opening scene of The Godfather, with does precisely what I’m advocating here: it starts with an extended close-up of a minor character, Amergio Bonasera, and allows him to fully explain his situation before cutting to Don Corleone’s response. Later, at the wedding, we’re introduced to each of the major characters in turn, and each is defined by a clear problem or objective. As the movie progresses, these characters will acquire staggering complexities—but it’s that first, simple introduction that locks each of them into place. A similar process occurs in the pilot for Cheers, in which the regular characters enter one at a time until the show’s world is fully populated. By establishing the characters gradually and clarifying their relationships one by one, you’ll prepare the reader or the audience for the complications to follow. Once all the characters have been introduced, you can take full advantage of the possibilities that a large ensemble presents. But don’t do it all at once.

Written by nevalalee

October 30, 2012 at 9:59 am

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