Archive | March, 2015

Villains and Villainy

10 Mar
"Villainc" by Caricature by J.J., Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Villainc” by Caricature by J.J., Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter is probably my favorite villain of all time. I am, of course, referring to Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal in the film, Silence of the Lambs. You can see a ‘bad guy’ done perfectly here. His motives are understandable – if repugnant – and his actions have the weight of inevitability. The way he manipulates other characters is amazing – reaching two or three connections out from the people he touches – and if you deconstruct the story, you see that there is no other way it could have gone. And for all his power and gravity, Dr. Lecter is only on screen for a few minutes. He doesn’t get in the way of the story, but the story could not exist without him.

By contrast, Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White, in Breaking Bad, was all character study. It was exquisite, yes (even Anthony Hopkins was awed by it), but in so many ways, Walter White is part of the problem with villains and villainy. Every action and forward movement in his story comes at a high cost of humanity and goodness. And while it is the theme of the story to show how very bad things can go, there is nothing left in the end. Walter White is unlikeable, but the series is constructed so that you sympathize while he brings everything around him into Hell. It is sleight of hand – a trick. The entire story is held together with spit and the promise of resolution, somewhere down the line.

I’m sure much more has been written, by smarter, more attractive people than myself, on this subject. I cannot leave it alone. So much of my life revolves around understanding how and why stories work. And at the core of much of it lies conflict, overcoming obstacles, and the clash between characters. I can’t just sit back and enjoy Star Wars, without taking apart Darth Vader. Is this the story of the ‘Black Knight’? Is it redemption? Or is that just the background, and it’s really about the two different ways of wielding power?

( ( Oh, and by the way: this is why Episodes 1, 2, and 3 were terrible. Who cares about Anakin Skywalker? Huh? He grows up to be a bad guy – a very important bad guy – but that don’t make him interesting. Ya dig? Now, Obi-Wan on the other hand… ) )

Sometimes, this is how writing feels - other times, it's no fun at all

Sometimes, this is how writing feels – other times, it’s no fun at all

Okay, this is how I get all turned around. I avoid conflict in my real life. Arguments, fights – all the normal please-don’t-hit-me kind of stuff. I’m not pathological about it, but I think I’m a considerate, conscientious person. And when I’m hip deep in a story, when the body count is rising, when the good guys and the bad guys are getting ready to rumble… I sabotage myself. It is easy for me to come up with ways for the conflict to get put aside, for the characters to find common ground. After all, in real life that is what I would do. It takes an act of will for me to push those people into the fight. Sometimes, this is exactly what throws me from my groove.

But if all my characters are set up – if my villain and all the little obstacles are right – then the conflict writes itself. I don’t have to justify their actions, or even spell them out for the reader. It can be a simple, beguiling tale, that draws the reader inevitably towards the conclusion. And it doesn’t have to be heavy handed. No one wants to watch Bad Guy Presents: Bad Guy, in Story Title – starring Bad Guy. I mean, maybe that’s what some people want. But to go back to Silence of the Lambs for a moment: this is a story about Clarice Starling, and the way she deals with the evil she comes into contact with. It is beautifully done.

I am still studying my craft, working on it every day. And this problem – villains, antagonists, foes – is what is on my desk right now. The next big project I am making notes on relies on who the ‘bad guy’ is, and what different characters want. Like everything else, it feels like a puzzle that doesn’t have a definitive solution – just workable measures. Maybe there is a lesson in that as well?

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Analysis and Surgery

5 Mar
Stories within stories, wheels within wheels

Stories within stories, wheels within wheels

I just finished editing a neat little short story. The setting is pretty bizarre (shocking, right?), but the underlying emotional content is supposed to be real. It is an element of craft that I find very attractive. How would real characters react when faced with the unusual, fantastic, or supernatural? And more importantly, how can I convey their very real inner lives? It’s the kind of thing I’ve been working on/with since before I ever heard the words ‘slipstream’ or ‘magical realism.’

The first (revised) draft weighed in at just under 3,000 words. Not bad. I was worried about how the story was balanced and paced, so I did something I almost never do: I analyzed my work. Determined to chop it apart – to vivisect, if you will – I broke out the excel spreadsheet. I hacked the text into bits and made notes on what happened in each scene, how many words were in that scene, and where in the story it took place. Then I rendered two graphs, which looked like this:

 

the progression of the word count

the progression of the word count

the word count in each scene

the word count in each scene

It’s not terribly instructive, really, but it gives me a rough idea of structure. And the visualization makes me happy. I can see pretty clearly how the story builds, and what I placed the most emphasis on. If there is too much in one scene/section, but another seems slight, maybe I ought to dive in and carve it up.

Then I had a thought: What if I excised ALL of the fantastical elements? So I did. The work was simple, but time-consuming. Every sentence (or part of thereof) that referred to or described something out of the ordinary fell under my cruel editor’s knife. Here is an example, from early in the story. This scene:

            Five days before, just after midnight, he and Heather had stood in a crowd next to those swings as the giant alien spaceship had moved towards the city. The disk had slid into view from the south, having just destroyed Los Angeles. A million tiny, yellow and white lights illuminated its hull, and it filled the sky like some kind of imported constellation. Pete had wrapped his arm around Heather’s shoulders. Her skin was cold, even though the warm night air felt humid and still. She had pulled away from him, and they watched as the enormous starship stopped in the sky. It shook, fell apart, and the pieces began to rain down to the earth below. None of them knew why or how it had been destroyed, but any relief they felt turned sour as hundreds of tiny fireballs began to hit the ground.

After chopping out any references, it became this scene:

            Five days before, just after midnight, he and Heather had stood next to those swings. A million tiny, yellow and white lights filled the sky. Pete had wrapped his arm around Heather’s shoulders. Her skin was cold, even though the warm night air felt humid and still. She had pulled away from him and the stars stopped in the sky.

The story is essentially about a guy who gets dumped by his girlfriend, because he’s been an ass. The setting happens to be during some strange, alien invasion, apocalyptic events. By chopping out the ‘weird’ stuff, I was able to look at the meat of the story, without any fancy bits – sometimes in the middle of a sentence. In all, I only put in two new words, and I cut out a thousand. That told me that only a third of my story was about crazy stuff. I dug into it again.

This time, I took on Pete’s smoking. Cigarettes are fucking terrible, but they can be very useful props for characters to interact with. After cutting out the cigarettes and all references to them, I had ditched another three hundred words. I was pleased. My story was lean and smooth, but I didn’t enjoy it so much.

I put the crazy/end of the world/alien invasion business right back where it belonged. And then I reworked the start of the tale. Like I said, it’s not hard work, but it does eat up a lot of time. My final draft, after one more edit is right about 2,700 words. It’s not perfect, maybe, but it might be as good as it gets.

What have I learned? That is a damn good question. I think I need to take a more critical look at my assumptions about my work. I will definitely use this graph/analysis technique again. And if I have the time, I will absolutely rip apart my living story and perform home surgery on whatever seems out of place. It makes me feel a bit like a mad scientist, to be honest. I’m building these little monsters, and I want to do my best. I am sure I’m not the first or last to tread this path, but it seems like a good direction to go.

Building a Mystery

2 Mar
~ original image from wiki commons ~

~ original image from wiki commons ~

I am no stranger to writing myself into corners. As a lifelong ‘pantser’ I frequently stop writing and wonder what the hell has happened to my narrative. Seat of the pants can still work for me, especially with short fiction. I love the weird surprises and unnatural connections that spring to mind when I’m putting together a short story. In those cases, it’s usually my readers who are wondering what the hell happened (hopefully in a good way).

The worst experiences I’ve had with this kind of work is with mysteries. I’ve dabbled in all manner of genres, and my brain was somehow designed to get a thrill out of mixing things up. But the strange constraints of mysteries and detective stories hurt my brain. And the more I write about double-crosses, red herrings, and dangerous coincidences, the more I get lost. Even straightforward tales seem to curl up and die after I run out of steam. Honestly, some of my favorite work has been abandoned too soon, just because I can’t untangle the mess I’ve made of things.

Looking back at my favorite authors offers some help. My love of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Arthur Conan Doyle have all informed me in various ways. I’ve pretty well run through their work and have moved on to Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) for a more modern turn of the screw. But I still feel like I’m doing things the hard way.

As an aside, here are some choice words that Chandler had to say about Hammett:
“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish… He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”

This inspires me to simplify, tell the goddamn story, and not get caught up in being cute about it. I try, but it is a ongoing chore just keeping a lid on my weirdness. After a long distance from this kind of work, I am diving back in. I am plotting, working out the bugs, and outlining my schemes. I’ve been honing up on my “rules” of the game, and I have some fun ideas. But this is a kind of writing that I’ve never felt successful at before. I have an appetite to do the work, and yet it somehow still feels like work. That’s an unpleasant feeling.

If this focused effort doesn’t bear any fruit, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Probably drugs. Or something. Maybe take notes from both Hemingway and Hunter? Perhaps the seat of my pants has been the wrong place to drive this process from? Well, sooner or later, some kind of combination of hard work, planning, and illicit chemicals ought to shake something loose. We’ll see if it turns out to be readable.