Engineering Suspsense

Engineering Suspsense

I’m coming to terms with the fact that much of my fiction work has one foot planted in the thriller genre. The defining ingredient of a thriller is its suspense which has me thinking whether we could isolate and examine that which makes a scene, and the overarching plot itself, suspenseful. I’m hopeful.

Here’s what Hitchcock has to say on the subject:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

The most functional example of Suspense I can think of is the “Bad Dates” scene in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. A bad man who hangs out with bad monkeys poisons a bowl of dates before a little Belushi-child brings the dates to the table where Jones and Sallah are discussing boring-ass archaeologist bullshit. The audience knows that the dates are poisoned and feels a sense of dread as Jones carries the fruit around, pausing to reflect on the information dump Sallah is delivering. Jones pops the date in the air, the audience shits, Sallah sees the dead monkey (a traumatizing experience for every 90’s child) and catches the fruit before it hits Jones’s mouth. Bad Dates. It ends on a grim joke. This scene works to hide the exposition necessary for the plot– a kind of misdirection that engages the viewer while also cramming heavy plot points down their throats. Indiana Jones should be a boring movie (it’s about an archaeologist goofing off with Bible antiques for chrissakes) but it cleverly engages the audience with high-stakes suspense at every twist.

It’s all about information control. That scene wouldn’t have worked without showing the bad man adding the poison. Without it, there’s just a dead monkey and an asshole Sallah obstructing a tasty snack. But it also doesn’t work without a scene roughly ten minutes earlier when Indiana Jones offers Marion the fruit and tells her, “Hey babe, it’s dates, you eat ’em, what is you stupid?” By controlling that information and doling it out at the right time, the audience has been forced to ask the question, “What’s going to happen with those dates, bruh?”

Timing the information is key and where you position this information is going to force the audience to ask different questions. Let’s talk about Tarantino, as he has a flair for torquing suspense during long passages of dialogue.

The opening scene of Inglorious Basterds is a perfect example. You know it’s unsettling because of the historical subtext (uh, Nazis) and because of the direct subject matter of the conversation (Casual anti-semitism and the bureaucratic banality of  the Holocaust). You understand that there’s a power dynamic at play here, and certain elements are played comedically (the size of the pipes, par examplé), but essentially it’s just a friendly conversation between a German officer and a French farmer, the former asking the latter about his neighbors. And then the camera pans below the floorboards and the audience now understands what’s at stake and the tension skyrockets. Were you nervous when the Nazi’s arrived? Of course. But you weren’t afraid about the outcome of the conversation until the camera informed you that you had a reason to feel that way– and then the conversation continues and dangles the outcome on a taut wire.

Here’s a failure in suspense: The stadium scene of The Dark Knight Rises. The audience is told, via exposition, that Bane is laying explosive-laden concrete around Gotham and after some kid sings the national anthem, Bane detonates the lot and we cut around to the mayor dying, the stadium exploding, the tunnel exploding, and bridges collapsing. For so much destruction, the scene plays out fucking languid. We just learned that shit was about about to blow up and there was no countdown. It’s functional, I guess, to move the plot forward, but the destruction showed onscreen wasn’t necessarily in the viewer’s mind as a stake in the villain’s scheme. The audience was relatively uninformed and the result is a diminished legacy to what could have been a perfect Batman trilogy. It’s strange to think that this movie came from Christopher Nolan, given that his bread and butter is creating thrilling, unexpected filmic narratives, perhaps quintessentially achieved in Memento, which keeps asking the audience “How did we get here?” through a disciplined control of information sequencing through a believable, if not convenient, perspective.

So let’s talk about how perspective impacts the release of information to create suspense.

The revelation in Silence of the Lambs is Buffalo Bill is making lady suits. The audience probably understands this before Clarice does, but only after a slow drip of clues allows the viewer to stitch it together for themselves. The way information is controlled in that narrative makes the viewer hink on the question “What the fuck?” while Clarice asks “Why the fuck?” and fills in the plot for us. Onward, the viewer is always ahead of Clarice. We know that Jame Gumb is the killer. She gets wise (because of moths and shit) and then the movie puts the audience further ahead by assuming the night-envisioned perspective of Gumb watching her stumble through the dark. Suspense is achieved by making us understand that the hero is vulnerable. However, in Lector’s escape plotline, the viewer is given only the information that Lector is alone with two unconscious guards and the film suddenly follows the perspectives of the police officers attempting to find and subdue him. We know nearly as little as they do and, although our hairs are up, we’re still trying to piece together the how? The reveal is a faceless corpse springing into an elevator car and we go, “Ohhhh fuuuuuu–” while our brains catch up to speed with everything we’ve been shown, even before Lector sits up to pull the skin from his face.

And I think it’s in perspective that we find how to measure the release of information to keep our audience enraptured, and to figure out what kinds of dilemmas are suitable for the story you’re trying to keep, well, suspended. The Raiders example couldn’t work without an omniscient camera. Silence of the Lambs wouldn’t work without limited perspective. Proper tool for the proper job.

It’s generally understood that this level of tension is harder to accomplish in writing than it is in film. What an insert shot on an object or an actor’s expression can accomplish can easily set up a certain expectation to prime the viewer’s attention. That being said, written narrative has more access to the reader’s direct psychology than film and that can be exploited to create similar, if not greater, experiences of suspension.

The question of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest moves from “Can the Continental Op persuade an entire town’s kingpins to murder each other?” to “Did the Continental Op become so tainted from his involvement with murderers that he murdered Dinah Brand with an ice-pick when he blacked out from gin and laudanum?” That question drives the third act of the novel, after the initial goal was seemingly achieved. The reader, who has no doubt come to like the main character’s wiles, has to wrestle with this unknown, internal quantity. What’s more, the reader knows as little as the Continental Op, narrating his experience. Information control within perspective.

Starting your third act with the main character’s hand around an icepick stuck into a gamblin’ woman’s tit is one way of injecting suspense into a story (editorial: it’s a pretty cool one). There are others.

First person is particularly a hard nut to crack with this– you only have the character’s point of view to play with, making the “bomb beneath the floorboards” harder to establish. But you also have a tool that objective POV’s do not– a breadth of interiority. Take it for granted that the character’s reactions to certain stimuli will generally bleed into the reader’s mind. Now make the character obliviously acknowledge something obviously dangerous. Or began stacking idiosyncrasies from the character’s perspective to make a person or object dubious. Have the character run gut-checks. Make the reader ask the question, “Why is this the focus?” before revealing the payoff.

A favorite device of mine is to employ several first person narratives. Where one experience is incomplete, another fills in the gaps and gives the other narrative a more pronounced sense of danger and vice versa. It is not unlike a game of tennis.

With Third Person Omniscient, you can establish anything you want in any sequential order which, unfortunately, does not make this job easier. The trick, again, is to control the amount of information. If you place a scene which follows a man planting a bomb in a post-office box and in the next scene it explodes, then just like The Dark Knight Rises, you’ve squandered your moment. However, if you wrote the same sequence of events from a removed perspective, where all you saw was a man who deposited a package into the box and looked over his shoulders before he walked away, well, then we’re watching the mailbox now, aren’t we? Remove it further. Let’s say a hotdog vendor with a hearing-aid can’t get a certain beeping out of head. He complains all day. Our hero buys a hotdog, says something dismissive to the man’s complaint and walks away– only to witness an explosion a dozen yards away, and he’s covered in letters and postcards.

To instill suspense, one must make the audience understand danger. To make that understood, one must inform the audience of that danger one way, or another. When and how you do that is up to you but you do need to realize the questions you are proposing to your audience. If they’re asking “What is happening?” then you’re either a surrealist, a lazy surrealist, or a lazy writer. If they’re asking “Why is this happening?” you can rest more assuredly that you’ve provided enough information to have them ask, “What’s going to happen next?”

 

The End of the World as We Nevermind

The End of the World as We Nevermind

A joke I’ve seen circulating social media quite often is this: “Stop writing dystopian fiction, you’re only giving the government ideas.”

The joke, I guess, is that because dystopias are often written to underline specific and problematic societal and political norms by satirically torquing those values to their ridiculous breaking point, that it eventually and unintentionally normalizes the extreme examples that the author used to point out the absurdities of modern living.

Ha. Ha.

And to that point I’ll challenge the notion that George Orwell was some kind of prophet. 1984 stands as the quintessential dystopian novel, portraying a harrowing world of an omni-present yet ambiguous authority and panopticonical surveillance. And one leaps to think that Orwell is describing the future that we now live in, given how many things line up with our modern experiences with totalitarianism and the invasive practices of the NSA. I don’t want to diminish the modern relevance of the work. It’s currently significant, but what I want to make clear is that it was as significant when Orwell wrote it. He wasn’t a prophet so much as he was a scholar of how fascism operates through the arms of bureaucracy. Nazis rewarded those who provided information about their Jewish neighbors; spy networks have almost always been a tactic of every militarily-minded society; population surveillance has been the wet dream of dictatorships everywhere (it used to look like intercepting written letters, now it’s tapping into Smart TVs and that goddamn Alexa as well as examining piles of metadata); fascists have a tendency to make their face ubiquitous with pithy catchphrases underneath; populations, as a whole, have a tendency to react to things emotionally instead of rationally (compare the 2 Minute Hate to Tweet Storms about anything). I could go on, but the point I’m making here is this: George Orwell wasn’t trying to depict the future, he was describing his present using allegorical science fiction.

Let’s back up. All the way up. We wouldn’t have dystopias without utopias. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, a fictional travelogue that came out in the early 1500’s, describes an outsider’s perspective of an ethical, puritanical island that operates under a strict set of benevolent rules that serves everybody’s best interests.

Everybody’s best guess is that Utopia is a satire, aping medieval Europe’s more liberal tendencies. It is, in fact, it’s own dystopia. If it was considered satire by More’s contemporaries, modern thought would look at it as a fucked up 4th world country. Slavery, pre-marital bonin’ punished by a lifetime of celibacy, women strictly relegated to the role of home-making, etcetera. Utopias don’t purely exist in fiction (and don’t give me Paradiso as an example, that shit is boring as… well, not hell, because Inferno was ultimately more satisfying to read.) because there is no under-riding conflict. If that sound familiar, then GOOD. That means you read my dumb musings on conflict months ago. Have a chocolate.

And so we’re back to dystopias. How come we love them so much? And does that reason vary from culture to culture?

The most recent episode of Wizard and the Bruiser brought up an excellent point about Akira: that a dystopic representation of Tokyo (re-imagined as Neo-Tokyo, 30 years after the Akira fallout, written in the 1980’s, 30ish some years after the Atomic fallout) where parentless gangs run the streets at night while the military tries to maintain order, is reminiscent of 1950’s Japan when the country was recovering from a devastating war and the victim of two Atomic bombs dropped on two of their civilian cities. In the same way that Gojira served to sublimate the horrors of the bomb in a way audiences could emotionally process, Akira is a digestion of the chaos the country experienced while rebuilding.

In America, I believe the shared fascination with dystopias digs at two things.

The first we are often hesitant to address– this country has been devastated. The genocide of Native Americans has been traditionally shoehorned into Cowboy vs. Indians John Wayne narratives, wherein the natives are either savage murderers or aides for Manifest Destiny. There’s a collective guilt there that’s been pushed down for centuries now but no matter how many times America tries to push a traditional western through, it sings the same old story. Dystopias, if you haven’t noticed, tend to put the atrocities mankind is capable of front and center. And there’s a reason why most post-apocalyptic fiction sets back technology and infrastructure  back to a familiar, nearly western setting. Various reasons, probably, but the one I’m poking at is the coping mechanism for the blood spilled on the frontier.

The second thing to address, is the culminate fear of where society is heading. A lot of that is moralistic hand-wringing, to be sure, but many of those fears are not unprecedented. Nuclear holocaust is an anxiety we currently bear day-to-day, and have since the bomb’s inception. Again, here we have a means to digest that fear in narrative form that ultimately cherishes optimism. The Road ends on an optimistic note, despite all of the horrific and tragic build-up. The Mad Max series, while exploring survivalistic depravities, tends to end its chapters on a victory. You see the gore, you still get a (hard earned) happy(ish) ending and piece by piece, a little bit of that fear of the future is smoothed out just enough so you can get out of bed in the morning.

But whether the social consciousness feels regret about the past, or anxiety about the future, the sharpest gear in the mechanics of dystopias is set in the human brain’s inability to process reality. The world’s got some beautiful shit. The rest is kind of just… shit? And it’s not hard to understand why people willingly ignore the evil in the world. We get nauseated at the sight of blood. And yet, reality persists. For mental health reasons, everyone gives the news a break and doubles down on what is truly important to them because a day feels like a year if you keep up with everything. And that’s fine. To paraphrase Camus, you can’t live in the desert your entire life, otherwise you’ll go insane. Or, to quote A Tribe Called Quest, “VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with. Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality and for a salary I’d probably do that shit sporadically.” [punctuation mine]

Reality is hard to swallow. There’s a limit of what a person can emotionally process before they turn off and numb out. While directly reporting the distressing information about how the world turns is a necessary journalistic imperative, fiction isn’t bound to the same precedent while still remaining just as relevant. Dystopian fiction offers a method of telegraphing modern and relevant social pain and institutional betrayals within the world using the element of just enough fantastical devices to keep it distant enough to process with an indirect emotional stake. Example given: as someone who studied genocide for a semester in college, more people are comfortable discussing how despicable Death Eaters are than the brutal actions of the Khmer Rouge. Dystopias sublimate the horror of reality into an easily digestible parable.

And really, where the fuck else are you going to have the delicious opportunity to have a bedraggled Ronald Reagan fight a woman in football shoulder-pads, brandishing a sword made out of knee-caps or some bullshit?

That shit doesn’t happen in westerns.

 

Pierre’s most recent dystopian odyssey is available on Amazon. It’s called The Least of 99 Evils and you aren’t ready. 

Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

Sex and Violence, Mostly Violence

First of all, here’s this.

Second of all, I spoil the grossest thing in The Road.

Whether you like it or not, violence is a part of our daily media intake. It’s always been controversial, from Quentin Tarantino to Marilyn Manson, Doom and Grand Theft Auto, but now, I feel, we’ve reached a saturation point where portrayed violence inhibits every corner of our entertainment– how many award winning television series are there on Netflix that don’t shed a drop of blood? Okay, a couple, sure, but those have tits in spades, releasing our other primal reflexes.

I think it’s worth examining the language of violence in media, because violence itself, is a language. In narrative, it’s a cathartic language. Similar to humor and sex, portrayed violence carries out modern anxieties out to a sublimated pasture of fantasy where it can die peacefully: instead of the primal urge to kill getting on top of you and you wake up next to the head of your neighbor because he wouldn’t stop blasting J Beib’s latest single, you watch an episode of Fargo and go to bed understanding the complexities of murder without actually committing any.

In America, portrayals of violence are more common than portrayals of sex. Bruce Campbell has a legendary quote about Hollywood: “You can cut off a breast, you just can’t kiss it.”  A huge part of that is the sex-negative mentality of the USA, but it almost stands at odds with the hyper-sexualization of women in media. Sex sells, after all. Which is true, but when you look at how sex is generally portrayed in Television and Film it’s almost always associated with a point of conflict, trauma, or the highest goal of a sustained relationship instead of something that just happens naturally. Anyway you cut it, sex is the end of something in media. It’s a punctuation.

Whereas violence exists as a means to an end. It’s a driving force that threads the hero along. You think of Obi Wan slicing off that guys arm in the cantina and your inner cave-dweller goes “FUCK YEAH.” And the scene progresses because of it. Our action narratives thrive on the promise of fucking somebody up. No one really cares when John McClain reunites with his wife, that was a given from the start, but serves mostly as a happy bonus– the money shot of the movie is the cruel schadenfreude of watching Hans fall to his death.

But everyone knows that books are more fucked up than films when it comes to violence, or really, anything. We all know that American Psycho was a much more depraved novel than its silver screen counterpart, but why is that? Is dropping a chainsaw on a woman objectively less terrifying than turning a woman into a human rat-maze? Perhaps. Perhaps the written violence disturbs us deeper because of the more explicit sexual component the novel adds to its morbidity. But I think, at least in a large part, it’s something else entirely:

You’re forced to imagine it yourself. You become culpable for the detestable creation in your mind. You, as the reader, are now a co-conspirator in this depravity and are now, in some capacity, responsible.

But what about the writer’s responsibility in portraying violence? In the forward for A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess bemoans that the original US release (and Kubrick’s film adaptation) refused to see the main protagonist as anything other than a violent delinquent, both having excised the final chapter of suggested redemption via free will. Yet, Burgess admits the following:

It seems priggish or pollyanniaish to deny that my intention in writing the work was to titillate the nastier propensities of my readers. My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy. It is the writer’s innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself.

That second bit I’ll take issue with, as I don’t believe the people who write fucked up stuff are necessarily fucked up people (some, surely) so much as I believe that they are using a certain language to cathartically expunge a host of emotions in singular gestures. To Burgess’s point, I will say that there’s a lot of dark psychology that is also expunged from the writer’s mind when writing horrific flourishes– I’m of the school of thought that believes Horror and Dark Fantasy writers are probably the happiest people on earth– which happens to resonate, cathartically, with the reader who will inevitably share a similar shade of a dark mind. In that way, the creative yoke of violence is shared between author and reader such that everyone benefits.

The first part of that quote is about the glee one feels having written something truly disturbing. While drafting The Least of 99 Evils, I wrote perhaps the most gruesome scene in my entire writing career. I immediately went downstairs and told my roommate what I’d just done, laughter spilling out of my mouth. He was disgusted which only elevated my elation higher. You can’t deny that pushing the boundaries of discomfort is a satisfying experience. I call it the discomfort zone.

But let’s talk about how violence gets telegraphed in written narratives, shall we? The overarching principle of writing violence is a gentle touch, followed by a perusal of the aftermath. Everything else is all style.

You have writers who use short, and blunt language to drive home the punches of the scene. James Ellroy excels at this. The most heartbreaking death scene in LA Confidential is a sentence that can’t be longer than half a tweet. You’re left with the sudden realization that this character is dead and you don’t have time to follow up on any details because the rest of the action is moving way too fast. It puts you in the perspective of the other characters and is retrospectively very realistic. Real-world events happen fast. You fill in the details while you color in your memory.

Using medical terminology distances the reader from the grisly details. At first. The realization of the cruelty bestowed becomes clear as the reader translates the terms in their mind and finds (or feels) that spot on their own body. It’s an outside-in strategy that works like a grenade: it takes a couple of seconds, but once it sinks in it’s a repulsion-explosion.

Likewise, you can use metaphor in a similar way. “He held his heart like a rotten apple,” is effective because it forces the reader to imagine holding an apple, bringing the violence (abhorrent behavior) closer to home by suggesting a common, shared experience. And then the wave crashes back when the reader realizes they know what it’s like to hold a human heart.

These two are examples of implicative violence. The reader has to fill in the blank to fully flesh out the scene. In comic writing, implicative violence is frowned upon because it lacks a dynamic image to carry the scene through. Panel one will have a character about to punch another. Panel two is a sunburst that says “POW.” Panel three is the other character with a dent in their forehead. It doesn’t work visually… but in written narrative you have the readership doing your dirt for you and a sequence that portrays a before and after moment can capitalize on the reader’s repulsion reflex in a powerful way. Take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example. In the most grotesque chapter you have a scene that portrays some travelers progressing through the wasteland and one of them is a pregnant woman. The protagonists hole in for the night, wary of these people. In the morning they inspect the travelers’ fire pit and find [UGH]. All of the abhorrent behavior is out of sight, but the resounding image of the aftermath haunts you long after you put the book down.

Which I suppose brings us to explicative violence. I’ve already talked about American Psycho. I’ve already talked about the gleeful plunge into unthinkable acts. It’s fun. Who doesn’t love a zombie’s head exploding with the thunderous clap of a Desert Eagle? But explicative violence can get lost in its own purpose and circularly justifiable in its own narrative presence that I feel the stories that go whole-hog generally read a little flat. An exception is (because I’m on something of a kick) Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian which ups the ante further and further in it’s depravity with every chapter. There’s a lot to be said about that book, but the portrayal of violence never ceased to, quite frankly, amaze me with how low the characters go and how absent their conscience is throughout. McCarthy uses a conglomeration of techniques to get this across. He utilizes metaphor quite a bunch, but isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what’s occurring. He doesn’t use medical terminology so much as he does archaic phrases (in and of themselves in modernity, a metaphorical language). To wit: when a significant player in this madness finally meets his end, his death with an axe is described as “split […] to the thrapple.” It’s obscure, but you know exactly what it means.

Which lands us in a place where we have to merge the two. How can you be explicative and implicit at the same time? Noir authors know. Harkening back to the cold, surgical language above, a body that has sustained terrible damage until death (and usually some more afterwards) is a device that is used to at once remove and include the reader to the shock. And there are interesting ways the author can format this. James Ellroy (again) puts the body front and center in the beginning of the novel and includes details that nearly made me barf. Raymond Chandler uses a body, in shocking, ironic terms to the casual breeze of Marlowe’s verbiage, as a way of connecting the story to real-life stakes: grisly death.

But it’s Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 that capitalized on this technique to an effect that still haunts me. He wrote all of the implicative violence it in police reports which, by nature, tend to be cold and surgically accurate. Around 200 pages of police reports about the serial femicide are written in stoic fashion. Just one after the other. It centers around the fictional city of Santa Teresa, recalling a calamity of real, unfortunate events that actually happened in Ciudad Juárez. Knowing that only makes the book harder to digest.

For knowing all that I know about the world, and having read a pile of fucked up books, I’ll say this: we’re just animals who learned how to write…

Animals with a good appreciation for not actually killing each other. The reality of which stings in our nostrils.

And so we write fucked up shit sometimes.

Scene Anatomy: Turning on Conflict

Scene Anatomy: Turning on Conflict

Here’s a joke a drunk woman who claimed to be an assassin told me in the back of my favorite café the other day:

“A gorilla walks into a bar and orders a banana-tini. The bartender thinks it’s really strange that a gorilla is ordering a drink, much less speaking English to him. He begins to shake up the order when he wakes up. He realizes that he’s been dreaming and he turns to his wife to explain this absurd experience. His wife isn’t there because his marriage is falling apart.”

This joke seems lazy at first but it works.  It works because it turns well. It turns twice, in fact.

Let’s talk about scenes in narrative fiction. Without really looking anything up, I’d define a scene as a largely non-exposition, action driven piece of writing involving at least one character. The scene itself has a beginning, a middle, and an end and needs to resolve itself cleanly, while also furthering the broader story.

Real quick though, let’s talk about scene length. According to Shawn Coyne‘s analysis of The Silence of the Lambs, the perfect scene length is 1,500 – 2,000 words. That’s the “potato chip” size that’s long enough to accommodate the needs of the story without losing the reader’s interest. The goal here, kind of operating on the same psychological weakness that drugs, alcohol and app developers exploit, is to satisfy the reader with minimal effort such that they will be willing to do “just one more.”

This is dark magic we’re fucking with here.

But that 1,500 word chapter would be just a meaningless number if it doesn’t turn. Scenes need to exist on a hinge, otherwise they become useless exposition. Maybe useless exposition is your style. Maybe you’re making a point. That’s cool. But you’re pretty likely to piss off the readers you want to support you so why don’t you put down your pipe and take off your graduation robes. It’s goddamn July, you high-fallutin-nobody-understands-my-art chunk of ass-granite. You can be subtle and experimental but we’re talking about being accessible here.

Here’s what I’ve learned about turning a scene: you want to use that first 50 words to re-engage the reader with of what is happening– if you did your job right with the last chapter, this shouldn’t be too hard. It’s important to contextualize (but no need to go overboard) because people read books at different speeds. I chew through them like Skittles because I’ve really got nothing better to do. Still, others will read maybe three pages at a time and put it down. They’ll give up if they pick the book back up again and can’t figure out what’s happening. So give them a little help. You’ll notice that in TV shows, the plot of the episode is summarily explained in two pieces of dialogue at the beginning of the third act so that insufferable channel surfers have something to latch onto:

Joey: “No, I didn’t do it because I think you’re ugly, I stabbed your sexdoll because you slept with my sister!”

Joeghy: “Bro!”

(Dan Harmon writing table, here I come.)

In that contextualization, there should already be a conflict present as a continuation of the previous scene. By giving context to what’s happened prior, you’ll ensure that this scene can stand on its own. The remaining 450 words should explore the scene. Are your characters stuck in a tree? What’s that like? This is the best opportunity to flesh out characters and scenery because while you can and should certainly have this later in the scene, it might feel a little sluggish. Think of the introduction to every scene as a reintroduction to the book, because (ifyoudidyourjobrightlasttime) the book has changed since the last chapter.

From the Mother conflict, emerges another, or rather, a complication of the initial conflict, by the characters attempting to solve the previous problem (or from the “exploration” you took earlier). They can solve their immediate situation, but that only lands them into hotter waters. That’s how the next 500 words are used: the bartender wakes up which resolves his cognitive dissonance about serving booze to an ape and he sets himself up for the punchline.

Which blends into the final 500 that should definitively resolve the initial conflict and then maintain the emergent conflict for the next scene. I’m saying conflict a lot. Think of the joke: It’s been resolved that the gorilla ordering a drink was just a dream. The punchline is the grim realization that the bartender is alone and forgets that fact for a brief moment of sleepy vulnerability. HILARIOUS. If the joke existed in a chaptered novel, that would set us up pretty well for the next scene (does he try to date, do we see what his actual workplace is like, does he call his ex-wife to try and explain the dream? the possibilities are endless).

Here’s how I write a complete scene these days: I don’t think in terms of threes, because, if I do it right, that’ll happen naturally. I think in terms of twos. A night’s assignment looks like 750 words the first night, taking the previous chapter into mind, recontextuliazing it to progress along the character’s path and once the character’s figure out what immediate problem plagues them,  I stop and go to bed. The next day I brush my teeth, go to work, think about the shitty situation I’ve left to these poor defenseless characters, laugh (because I’m a sadist), and when I get home, I know exactly how to begin because all I have to do is respond to the conflict set up for them.

That’s really the point here: Conflict is the narrative drive of story. To make a scene interesting, it needs to turn on conflict. Problems make the world go round because problems get solved.

And writing, if nothing else, is just solving a bunch of problems that you’ve made for yourself.

Because you have a problem.

 

Myth of the the Writer’s Identity

Myth of the the Writer’s Identity

A question that seems to come up time and time again on podcasts, blogs and forums is this: “When do I know that I’m a writer?”

Answers and advice vary in profundity. There’s: “Not until you’ve written your 5th book;” “When you get paid;” “Believe in yourself that you are a writer and you become a writer;” “a writer writes.”

All of which is a crock of shit, because the question itself is flawed. Here’s a crass allegorical joke:

It’s Scotland, somewhat stereotypically. A man walks into the bar and asks the bartender for a drink. The bartender pours up a beer and slides it over to his patron.

The bartender says, “Pre’y good beer, thar, dunchoo thank?” and the patron agrees that it’s a good beer. “But they doon’ call meh McClarty the beer pourer, naw doo thay?” The patron assumes that people do not call him by that particular name. “Pre’y nice bar here, dunchoo thank? But they doon’ call meh McClarty the bar builder, naw doo thay?” Again, the patron assumes that they do not. “Und such ah nice stone wall outside, duncha thank? But they doon’ call meh McClarty the stone masun, naw doo thay?” The patron is getting a little anxious for the point.

McClarty says, “But yeh fuck ONE goat…” 

The point being is that you’re often recognized for the things that you do and that may or may not be the things that you want to get recognized for. That’s beyond your control. The world is going to label you a certain way and that’s generally fine because there’s a 90% chance you’re a decent person– you’ll be labeled as a nice friend, a compassionate parent, a brilliant engineer… or you might be a bad person. Did you know that Stalin wrote poetry? Your high school friends will remember the cringe-iest things about you and that’s fine because you’ll hold their biggest embarrassments at ransom.

You might not get recognized for your writing, at least not in any critical capacity, and that’s fine too.

There are ways, though, to increase your odds, which is, you know, to write as often as you can, constantly improve your work and maintain a decent regimen to produce quality work worthy of recognition. Focus on your writing habits and open yourself to criticism; focus on projects that culminate in cohesive products so that you may move onto the next one.

You might be wondering, then, why I put “a writer writes,” in the bullshit category of common quips? Because, while true, it’s still in the hopes of attaining the “writer” status and while the advice asks you to focus on the grindstone, it’s still an ego trip. Although perhaps “trap” is the better word. As I’ve said before, buttressing your ego with art probably isn’t the healthiest move.

A lot of people want to have written a book and the belief is that you must be a writer to have written one. That perpetuates a certain fantasy that’s detrimental to the actual two components that are required to create anything: time and effort. That fantasy stands as a prohibitive wall between your goal of writing your novel, or screenplay, or mollusk-based erotica (you know, whatever you’re into) that prevents you from devoting that essential time and effort.

Actually writing isn’t sexy. It’s lonesome work that robs your loved ones of your time. It’s studying narrative structure in books and film until it’s ingrained into your fingers. It’s reading the same sentence over and over again until it doesn’t make sense. It’s trying to make sense of a history of stories in such a way that your own can wedge itself into. That doesn’t get a whole lot of light in the “Hollywood” portrayal of writers. The much maligned Californication doesn’t focus on the actual writing (an entire novel is apparently written off screen, hunted and pecked on a typewriter no less) so much as it fixates on the booze and the tits and the oh good lord my life is shit because I’m a shitty but handsome personMidnight in Paris doesn’t focus on the writing either, favoring instead to examine the ways authors compare themselves to the classics. While that movie does a better job about describing the work (“writing and re-writing and re-writing the re-writes…”), it still fails to snare an honest moment of writing. Even one of my favorite movies, Wonderboys, which does an excellent job of depicting the distractions and pressures of “writers block” and the fetishization of manuscripts, still doesn’t have a scene longer than two seconds of actual writing. In fact, Goddammit, one of my most hated movies probably has the most accurate portrayal of writing– Goddamn Gatsby has Nick Carraway, in a montage, stressing over his manuscript and organizing the pages fastidiously. But Gatsby doesn’t count, because the movie is garbage and it still seeks to romanticize the art. Which is what movies about writers do. They make the title a tantalizing trophy for the shelf.

I think these movies/series exemplify the nefarious side of the ego-trapped coin. That many seeking to be a writer want the validation of having written a book without applying the effort to actually write one. The reason being, I think, is that they assume it makes them sound intelligent enough to get laid. These chuckleberries don’t understand the self-loathing, disappointment, or solitary ecclesiastic heights of the creative process, or the frustration of mild success. After some years of this, I stand aghast. Why would you want to pretend to be a writer? Don’t you know that this is a sickness?

Don’t pretend to write to get laid. Don’t write to get laid (because that’s just not gonna happen, friend). Don’t get down on yourself because you’re not famous. Don’t let the title of craft steer you away from the craft itself.  Don’t give yourself a title at all. Dig into the work because you’re lucky enough to be crazy enough to enjoy this literary parade. It’s better to think of yourself as just someone who writes than a writer. 

And if anyone claims to be a writer at a party and claims Hank Moody as one of their influences absolutely do not fuck them.

And keep the goat alone.

Literary Lessons in Punk Rock: Fractals and Emergence

Literary Lessons in Punk Rock: Fractals and Emergence

Let’s get something straight: I love punk rock.

Concerned friends and family often ask me, “How come? It’s just the same three chords in every song! It all sounds the same!”

And in a lot of regards they have a point there. A lot of punk rock is indeed the same three chords over and over again and I can see, for the uninitiated, why that might appear to be overly-simple and repetitive.

But hold on there, cowboy, before we get into the complexities of Punk Rock, let’s take a look at the theory of Emergence. In my simplest terms, Emergence is how chaos organizes when confronted with entropy. Here’s how economist Jeff Goldstein describes it:

“…the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.”

It’s why our solar system looks the way that it does (9 different planets, coherently formed depending on the weight and density of it’s material in relation to it’s proximity to the sun’s gravity). Radiolab has a neat episode explaining how cities evolve due to this principle and there have been many theories put forward that Emergence is also the driving principle behind biological evolution as well– that novel divergences occur within the fractal genetic code.

Ahem. A fractal is a self-repeating sequence. Now you know that, nerd. 

Let’s get back to punk rock for a moment. You have this basic three chord song structure (self-replicated within the genre, just like a fractal) that is seemingly played ad nauseam throughout the genre’s history. But divergence and novelty will out. Bands like Jawbreaker or Nerfherder will take those three chainsawin’ buzz chords and arrange them in such a way that it becomes operatic. Screeching Weasel’s Edge of the World is perhaps the perfect example of this: it’s a pop-punk song with a standard verse and chorus structure (complete with whoa-oh harmonies) but after a certain point (when the distortion cuts in) Ben Weasel simply repeats the refrain (“I’m falling… off the edge… of the world”) over and over and over until the phrase is reduced to a primal howl, while still being vaguely understandable. The meaning of the phrase emerges. The effect is not dissimilar to the Romantic Poets’ notion of Sublimity.

Indulgent Punk Rock Tangent: That could be why adding punk sensibilities has preserved certain traditional music– by introducing the variable of vocal aggression, classic Irish music has a modern place with The Pogues, country has a more northernly American appeal with groups like The Cowmen and political folk has more emotional resonance with Mischief Brew (RIP, Erik Petersen). 

How does all this, in any coherent way, relate back to writing? Broadly, I’m referring to a larger creative anxiety but let’s stick with what I know. There’s a lot of fear of redundancy in the creative world. Phrases like “It’s been done,” or “The Simpsons did it,” keep a lot of people from experimenting with the ideas that they’ve come up with. While a certain level of awareness of common tropes and clichés is probably a beneficial thing to keep in mind, succumbing to creative paralysis because you want to be purely original is ultimately fatalistic to the creative process. That’s the secret that punk understands: “It’s been all done before… but not by me.”

There’s the repetitive format to look at first. A friend told me that a study was done between two groups of design students. One group was told to focus on quantity, the other on quality. In this anecdote, the quantity-focused group turned in much better projects because they had reduced the process to muscle-memory, with which they could then innovate upon, while the quality group largely failed, having spent all term trying to craft ingenuity from the bottom up. Keeping things simple and learning those simple things first is paramount before moving onto more ambitious projects.

And then there’s the individual level, the writer has a lot to inject into a story. Your understanding of human relationships, conflict, and character psychologies is going to be unique to your own experience as a person. Literally, you can’t recreate what somebody else has done. Back to Punk: famously, Smells like Teen Spirit was Cobain’s attempt to rip off The Pixies. In turn, Blur’s Song 2 was their attempt to make fun of America’s grunge scene that Nirvana encapsulated. And yet the differences between the three are actually pretty staggering. Because you can’t help but put yourself, for better or worse, into the projects that you want to succeed.

It’s not that I’m saying you should plagiarize wholesale and produce cookie-cutter knockoffs for a cash grab. Don’t do that. That’s killing the world intellectually. I’m saying, in the realm of art, and especially in the realm of punk’s DIY mentality, you are inevitably going to imitate that which you are most interested in. In that process you are going to learn a certain language. In Punk’s case, the language is three chords, a sense of youthful world-weariness and whoa-ohs. In Noir’s case, the language is a dead body, a femme fatale and a sense of earned world-weariness. Or what have you with your preferred genre.

Once you’ve learned the language, that fractal of the same ever-repeating story, go ahead and write the story that you want to. Do it yourself. It might fall into the same categories that came before you– Futurama ripped off Star Trek which ripped off Shakespeare’s greatest works which ripped of the Greeks which ripped off what all of our ancestors shared huddled together in a cave… but this one will be yours and it’ll reflect the times that you live in. Even if it feels the same to something you’ve read recently, remember that Screeching Weasel and The Queers shared (stole?) songs freely and, despite their similarities, persist as completely different, currently-touring entities to this day.

Don’t be afraid to try something that’s been done. You’ll find in the process that novelty and structure, will, uh, uh, emerge*.

So long as you do the work. 

*Jeff Goldblum reference.

 

Lolita: The Power of Narrative Voice

Lolita: The Power of Narrative Voice

Reading Lolita is an interesting experience. It’s supremely uncomfortable for the obvious reasons. A more subtle reason for the discomfort, is that Humbert Humbert is an eloquent, even funny, narrator that is seemingly fully aware of how reprehensible his behavior and thoughts are. He uses beautiful language to slow down moments and twists them into scenes. It’s not the language of a monster. That irony serves a dual purpose– it unwittingly ensnares a reader into sympathizing (possibly more accurately, pitying) or simply engaging with Humbert which then discomfits the reader further when Humbert’s monstrosities come to light.

It’s to Nobokov’s credit that he was able to do this in the voice of the narrator. In an interview with the Paris Review, he dismissed the notion that Humbert “retains a touching and insistent quality,” by saying outright, “Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching.”

It’s an incredible feat, then, for Nobokov to have written a character in which he despised from the perspective of the despicable who affects an elevated language in order to garner the reader’s sympathy (the whole thing is essentially Humbert pleading not to be put to death).

What you have to remember is that Humbert is the quintessential unreliable narrator. Because he’s very forthcoming with the crimes that he’s committed and of his own repulsive desires, it’s tempting to call Humbert an honest, if not utterly damaged, man. And the objective events of the book I took pretty much at face value. He probably is relating the story the way that it happened.

Kind of. I trust that he reports the objective events of the following: Humbert moved into the house, he married Charlotte, Charlotte died, he kidnapped Dolores, raped her for two years, Dolores escaped, Humbert murdered Quilty.

Where Humbert’s account gets dubious is his own interior thoughts. He takes every opportunity to state how disgusted he is with himself as much as he does to place himself on the moralistic high ground (AKA justification). He takes great pains to discuss what a good father figure he was to Dolores, teaching her tennis and French. He refuses to say the F word, or any curse word higher than “bitch”-caliber. (Don’t trust people who don’t swear, kids.)

Meanwhile he does what he can to slander, ever so subtly, the other characters in the book. He describes a dopey villain of the other pedophile, Quilty, distancing himself from the badder guy (and describes their “final battle” with such lethargic energy and grace that it seems that he’s almost trying to make the whole thing seem mutually dignified)Charlotte’s described as desperate and embarrassingly clingy (which doesn’t quite add up to her refusal to trust Humbert before her death or the fact that her confessional love note was mysteriously ripped to pieces and flushed down the toilet, a flourish in the letter itself that Humbert admits to adding himself in its recreation). And then there’s the infamous through-line of Dolores being a contemptible, promiscuous little brat. All of that is meant to make Humbert seem more like the reasonable, albeit troubled, fellow that he presents himself to be amidst a cast of rather “crazy” characters.

Because his trip is about love, right? He waxes poetic about Dolores and unravels long-winded soliloquies about her beauty and her more benevolent qualities. You might believe him and critics definitely did (it says on the cover of my copy that it is “the only convincing love story of the century.”). But that too might be pure horse shit. Humbert’s interior journey ends when he claims that he is finally capable of loving Dolores now that her good looks have been ruined at the ripe old age of 17. That’s a pretty solid hint that what he sees as redemption is still mired in the psyche of his disease.

His elevated style breaks down when confronted by violence, at which point he becomes what he truly is– crass. As much as he expounds on the quality of the stitching on Dolores’s blouse, he uncharacteristically sums up the scene of Charlotte’s death rather abruptly and crudely: “the top of her head a porridge of bone, brains, bronze hair and blood” (p. 98).

Sidenote: It’s unclear in Humbert’s confession whether or not he killed Charlotte. I’m nearly convinced that he did given that the only other (flimsy) explanation for Charlotte being struck by a car is a  mysterious puddle of ice that flung her into traffic, the softer way that Humbert recalls Charlotte’s memory after this point, and the fact that he’s a total fuckin’ liar– this is when he claims that poets cannot be murderers (I believe, apropos of nothing) while later admitting that he is a murderer later in the novel.

The way that he dismisses the scene in such a short, blunt manner indicates that Humbert Humbert cannot extravagantly explore the brutal reality of what he is or the consequences of his actions– but he also can’t deny them. It’s in this moment (and a few others) where Nobokov cuts the flowery bullshit and we see a hint of Humbert’s actual character: a pathetic, insane, murderous pedophile that wishes to delude the audience (as well as himself) as to the severity of his crimes. Humbert’s a man that wears a mask of intelligence to hide his barbarism.

In that Paris Review, Nobokov refers to his non-Humbert characters as “eidolons,” which the nerdier Final Fantasy set of you already understand as “a conjured spirit.” It’s a peculiar, metaliterary phrase for Nobokov to use, but one that distills a proper vision of the whole novel: while Lolita is Nobokov’s brainchild, every character described in the novel is 90% a feature of Humbert’s imagining of the events. Remember, Humbert is a novelist himself. And his story is a coward’s fantasy to appeal to the sympathies of his jury.

This book speaks to the power of voice as a literary instrument. It’s definitely in the Aikido Writing School  of thought in which the narrator is able to use his own lyrical flow against the reader and fling them, in this case, into the vulnerable territory of sympathy. And for for the investigative reader, distrust and ultimately the very basic shadow story underlying the entire thing. (Perhaps Nobokov is Ninja.)

If nothing else, Lolita endures as a novel that confuses many, angers some, and still stands as a nigh perfect execution of utilizing narrative craft.

It’s also the worst book to read on the bus, bar none.