Monday, July 18, 2011

The Importance of Pants

A writer friend once pointed out to me one of the greatest cinematic moments ever. It's a bit of business from the 1958 Western The Big Country, a movie I never much liked because I disagree with the overall theme. But this moment is so packed with meaning, everyone needs to see it. Trust me. This is relevant to writing, I promise.

The bit in question is a lead in to what is considered one of the greatest Hollywood fights ever filmed. (Maybe so. But again, I disagree with the message.) But the fight isn't important. What we're looking at here is a point in the lead-up to the fight.

To briefly set it up, Gregory Peck is an Eastern "dude" who has come west to marry the daughter of a wealthy rancher. There he locks horns with Charlton Heston, lead ranch hand who also has the hots for the rancher's daughter. They've been on the verge of fisticuffs the whole movie, only Peck's character doesn't believe in violence. At least, not in front of other people. But this night, he goes to Heston's bunk house to wake him up for their long-overdue confrontation.

Now again, it's not the fight that's interesting. It's this one tiny moment where Charlton Heston puts on his pants. No, really. I'm going to steal my friend's description of this moment because I love it so much:

"CH gets out of his bunk and, in about one-and-a-half seconds, Puts On His Pants before heading outside to fight. By g*d, it's the manliest, toughest putting-on-of-pants since men have had pants to put on. Charlton Heston is not messing around. This guy is mega-macho, and he's ready to kick Greg Peck's @ss."

You don't have to watch this whole clip. The putting-on-of-pants occurs around 2:32 and lasts only a scant few seconds.

There it is. In just a few seconds, the actor and director tell you so much about the character and his state of mind. He doesn't have to say anything. Nobody needs to explain anything to you. It is all done in one and a half seconds of pants-putting-on. The fight itself goes on for about four minutes, only to underscore the larger theme of the movie. But this business with the pants is such a beautiful expression not only of economy of characterization but also of knowing when and where to use "business" to inform character.

That's where this gets back to writing. I think this scene perfectly illustrates an important writing issue. Sometimes you put on your pants and sometimes you Put On Your Pants. And a writer needs to know if his character is putting on pants or Putting On Pants and treat it accordingly.

See, if William Wyler had shown Charlton Heston putting on his pants like this in every single scene, it wouldn't mean anything. If he'd shown Heston Putting On His Pants in the very first scene--before the tension had built between the two men--it would mean something totally different. But in this moment, in those few seconds, it brilliantly lets you in on who Heston's character is and what he is feeling at a pivotal point in the movie. What would we miss in that scene if it had cut from Heston telling Peck that he'd meet him outside as soon as he put on his pants, thank you very much, right to the fight? The whole balance of the fight would be lost because we wouldn't understand Heston's character as well as we do now. That's how you use pants in fiction.

Think of the difference between a stage play and a movie. In a play, your eye is free to wander across the stage and look at any character at any time. It's different in film (though it took filmmakers a few years to figure this out.) In film, the director "directs" the eye of the viewer to what is important in the story. And the writer is the "director" in the book. You decide where to turn your key light, where to let the "camera" of the narrative linger or zoom as aids to telling the story. But if you pull your camera in on something that doesn't do something, that doesn't move the story or inform character or build tension or portend or something, you risk losing the attention of the reader or even annoying them.

Example: In the British serial Larkrise to Candleford, there is a lot of Putting On Pants when they really should just be putting on pants and mostly keeping that private. The problem with this is that it's extremely distracting because I keep waiting for Stuff to Mean Something and it never does. A recent episode included a number of dramatic shots of unattended blacksmith forge fires, and so I kept waiting for something to burst into uncontrollable flames, but it never did. So why call my attention to the unattended fires? Why say something so loudly when it has nothing whatever to do with your characters or the story you're telling? What do these blacksmith fires have to do with anything? Nothing beyond the fact that this character is a blacksmith, which we already know. Therefore, they don't require this level of notice. It's not only a waste of space, it is a distraction from the real story.

So it's something I'm trying to think about when writing. Am I showing my character Putting On His Pants when he is really just putting on his pants? Or am I missing the opportunity to have him Put On His Pants and tell the reader something very important about him?

WIP Diary: The 2:00 PM Moments

So the other week I was all about the glories of the subconscious in writing, manifested in the "2:00 AM moments" when your subconscious miraculously takes over your writing snarls for you and works them out.

Yeah, that's wonderful stuff, those moments. Mystical and magical. But unfortunately, you can't write a whole book that way. Most of the work has to be done consciously, word by word, like a bricklayer building a house. You can't get around the brutal hard work sometimes. And those are the 2:00 PM moments.

It's that time in the afternoon where the caffeine buzz has worn off, you're a little sleepy from eating lunch and starting to wonder about dinner or what the kids are up to and your brain just isn't interested in the made up people on the screen in front of you. What do you do? The easy thing is to get up from the computer and go do something else. But you'll never finish the book that way. Trust me. Why do you think I'm still working on this damned book after all this time?

Let me let you in on a little secret: when you walk away from your computer, little elves do not show up and finish the book for you. It's shocking but true. You actually have to write the book yourself.

But it's hard at 2:00 PM when inspiration just isn't there. You sit and stare at the same line with the cursor blinking, unmoving, at the end of it until the words dissolve into a jumble of letters that don't mean anything anymore, you've read them over too often.

It can be so easy to quit when that happens. How can you write when your brain won't function? Well, you just have to make it function. First thing you have to do is let go of the idea of inspiration. Remember Thomas Edison and how this is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

We have this odd notion that writing is this ethereal activity when most of the time, it is bloody hard mental work. Don't buy into the idea that every word must flow through you like some gift from above or otherwise it's no good. Sometimes, you have to plunk words down on the page.

This is where I am right now. Plunking words down. It's not fast and it's not fun but it's progress and I'll take it for now.

WIP Diary: The 2:00 AM Moments

You know what those are, right? That's when your brain wakes you up at 2:00 in the morning because it just had the most brilliant idea for either a new story or a solution to a plot problem or a more clear character motivation. Your brain can't wait until a civilized hour to have these revelations. No. they always happen at 2:00 in the morning. And you ignore them at your peril. (You also--at your peril--fail to write them down immediately, thinking you'll be able to remember them later. You won't, you know.)

Well, I've been having a lot of those 2:00 AM moments with this WIP. And it occurred to me this morning that one of the reasons is that I've been pushing the writing instead of letting it roll out organically. I've been pushing characters to do things to move the plot along rather than taking the time to figure out what they would really do. Then at night, when I'm sleeping, my subconscious apparently has access to my files and noses through them (yes, my subconscious has a nose) and comes and tells me how I've screwed things up.

Usually, my conscious knows something is wrong. It knows it in that down-dragging, grump-inducing "Crap, I know something is wrong but I don't know what or how to fix it" kind of way that makes you stomp petulantly through the house and take your mood out on the chicken breasts.

It also makes moving forward in the story tough because you know that somewhere behind you, you've done your characters wrong. And while maybe they won't tell you flat out, but they keep looking reluctantly over their shoulders like actors who know the director has gone nuts.

Example: Here's what woke me up at two this morning:

So I knew that these two characters had to kiss at some point and I figured Chapter 43 was a good a time as any. We had the "big reveal." The MC knew most all there was to know. A kiss would help her decide the next step to take. Right? Right? Of course right.

Wrong. I wrote through the whole next chapter--where my MC was actually walking from one place to another--and I could feel her dragging her imaginary little feet the whole way. She knew something was wrong. I knew she knew but I didn't want to admit it because.....

Okay, let's just admit it. Because I didn't want to have to think too hard about where that kiss really belonged and why.

There. I am lazy. Okay? The problem with that is that I always always always end up working harder when I try to take a short cut because I always always always end up screwing things up.

Thank goodness I still have a functioning subconscious to keep me in line and figure things out for me. At the end of chapter 44, there is the perfect place for the kiss. It's not even really a "place," like I went looking for a parking spot for it. It is what would happen. It is what these two people would do in the course of events. And I would have figured it out, maybe, if I hadn't been pushing so hard to fit everything in that I thought needed to be in there.

So memo to me: just write this @#$%& thing out first. Follow the characters. Worry about where everything fits later. Because we are getting too old to be awakened at 2:00 AM every day.

I'm going to need a nap.

WIP Diary: Let Me Explain This To You

I am at the point in this novel (fina-freaking-ly) that I have been thinking of as The Big Reveal. It is at one and the same time a huge relief and a massive pain in the posterior.

Because this means it's time for all of the backstory to come out. Yes, I know there are many nifty techniques to weave backstory into a novel, even if your novel is written in first person present tense and your POV character is utterly ignorant of said backstory. Yeah, you can still get it in there.'s important to keep the reader ignorant as well.

Keeping the reader ignorant without pissing them off has been one juggling act. Now I have to tell the reader everything I've been withholding from him and make it seem natural. And you know what? That's not even the biggest problem!!!

The biggest problem is that there is a supernatural aspect to this story and I am constantly resisting the urge to over-explain it. This is because I am of a pragmatic turn of mind, myself and like everything to have a logical explanation.

But there's that thing called the willing suspension of disbelief and I think in fantasy, it's even more willing than usual. A reader who picks up a fantasy book is already halfway suspended. Not that you can get away with the completely illogical, but you don't need to dissect everything, either, and that's what I have to keep stopping myself from doing.

But it's hard! It's like expecting me not to pester my kids about picking up their dirty clothes! It requires sheer force of will. As I am writing along, I have to keep explanation alert on full blast. When I find myself explaining too much, I cut out the explanation and stick it to the bottom of the ms. That way, I know it's down there if I decide I truly do need it later.

But you know what? So far, it's all still down there.

Idle and Possible Pointless Thoughts on Storytelling and Old TV

So I've been watching old TV shows on YouTube and because I like to try to justify my time-suck activities, I will now draw a comparison between 70s action shows and writing. Ta da!

One thing I notice (besides the crappy music) is the use of copious and lengthy establishing shots. You know, like the camera will linger lovingly over the exterior of a hospital so that you, the viewer knows for damned sure that we're in the hospital now.

The director takes the viewer very gently by the hand and leads you along in this manner. It's quite sweet, actually, but it serves to seriously drag down the action.

Weirdly, though, back in 1976, I didn't notice it. It didn't feel draggy. But now it makes me want to scream. I wonder if this is symptomatic of a general shift in the way we live and think, with information instantly available at our fingertips, with life lived at a faster speed, we expect stories to move along at the same clip. Or maybe we've been trained to accept more abrupt transitions in stories. It's not just in establishing shots, either. In modern TV series, I think the viewer is expected to infer more than in older shows. You have to be able to keep up and fill in blanks on your own.

One thing you notice when you watch these things on YouTube--with the commercials cut out--is that the running time for hour-long series from the sixties and seventies is about eight minutes longer than hour-long series today. So maybe the precise editing is more about expediency than storytelling choices, making room for more commercials to offset increasing production costs.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting and it made me wonder if it's one of the things that drives the current popularity of YA fiction. YA--in general--employs a different pacing than adult fiction, a different focus and highlights different aspects of story. It "cuts to the chase" and maybe in our impatient new world, people are more comfortable with that.