Of Hobbits and habits and sharks, why sometimes less is more in writing and movies.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013
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I stumbled across a series of separate but related articles today that sort of helped me gel something I've known for a long time about similarities in writing and in movies:

Sometimes, less is more. Far more.

Apparently this is never as true as Peter Jackson's recent experiment with using a high frame rate speed on The Hobbit. In some theaters, it released in two or three versions -- 2D (24 frames per second, or FPS), 3D, and 3D HFR (high frame rate).

I haven't seen any of the three versions, so I can only go by third-party reports. People are saying they get a better experience viewing the 2D version over the 3D or 3D HFR versions (which are shot at 48 FPS, twice the speed of regular film). One of the many repeated complaints is that at the higher frame rate, sets look fake, prosthetic make-up is very noticeable, and the movie is a sometimes physically painful experience for viewers when their eyes have difficulty focusing on any given part of the screen. Worse, parts of the movie that should have been magic, such as battle scenes and CGI sections resembled little more than video game footage to some people in the 48 FPS versions.

What?

The whole point of Peter Jackson's experiment was to give viewers a more immersive experience. To put them in the film. Congratulations, he apparently did just that, but not in the way he intended. People felt like they were standing on the set and seeing the mayhem behind the "magic" of filmmaking.

Definitely not what Jackson intended, I'm sure.

Yes, innovation is key. Innovation is necessary. If we didn't have innovation, we'd still be flinging our own poo at each other while we waited for something to eat us, so to speak.

Now, pair this with a talk Steven Soderbergh gave at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival on the state of cinema. Read through the whole thing. If you're in the publishing industry and don't have your head firmly wedged up your ass or under a rock, you'll see some glaring similarities between "New York" publishing versus indie and self-publishing sectors.

What does all this mean? Why am I rambling on?

I'll tell you.

Who here hasn't seen Jaws? (If you raised your hand, I'll slap you later. Go get the frickin' movie and watch the whole thing. It's a masterpiece of storytelling. Then get your ass back here so I can continue without it being a spoiler.)

When did you first see the shark make his appearance in the film? If you said in the opening sequence when the female swimmer got eaten, let me slap you now and also send you out to go watch the movie.

The shark doesn't actually appear on film until 81 minutes into a 124-minute movie.

Think about that for a little bit.

 Yes, it was due in no small part to the shark actually malfunctioning, allowing relative newbie director Steven Spielberg to borrow a valuable lesson from Alfred Hitchcock and his "less-is-more" school of moviemaking.

And it scared the hell out of countless moviegoers and swimmers alike when it came out.

Do you think Jaws would be as effective a movie if it were made exactly like that only filmed in 48FPS? (Bear with me.)

Hell no. You'd see every single flaw, catch every tiny oopsie of the mechanical shark, lose all of the magic.

Now, here's where I bring my two trains of thought into the same railyard: Why is it some writers insist on telling more than their story needs? Show, don't tell.

I harp on this constantly. We don't need to know the color of the wallpaper in the dining room unless it's a key point later in the plot. We don't need to know every last frickin' detail of the heroine's dress. We don't need THREE FRICKIN' PAGES of description about one damn thing just to prove that you spent twenty-five-eleventy-thousand hours of research on Wikipedia to get the damn thing right!

MOVE THE FRAK ON.

You are like Peter Jackson trying to force our eyeballs into accepting a higher frame rate that we not only cannot effectively process, but does the exact opposite of what's intended, it exposes the weakness and fakeness in the picture on the screen. (Or, in this case, in your writing.)

I don't care if you've read every book on Elizabethan frilly underwear there is to read. I don't care that you're an expert in neolithic sex practices.

I don't care that Peter Jackson wanted to experiment with a higher frame rate.

What does this mean to me as a writer? I tend to go toward less description. I give the reader the barebone-basics and let them take off from there, because that's the kind of writing I love reading the best. Yes, there are sometimes I flavor the stew with a little bit of description for my own tastes. But you won't read me waxing melodic about how it took the heroine three months to make up her mind between low-pile and Berber carpeting, unless that point is specifically included to demonstrate how wishy-washy she is.

In fact, my idea of her house will probably look completely different than how the reader pictures her house, other than the skeleton of detail I threw in there. She's neat or a slob. Or it's lived-in and comfortable, somewhere between the two extremes. Maybe she collects art and straightens a crooked frame, or maybe there isn't a picture in the place. Maybe she likes bold, strong, dark paint colors, or maybe it's a white-washed beach house.

Does it fricking matter? Not really.

If you have a place in your book that doesn't forward the plot, create conflict, or lay a foundation for your characters that pays off later in the book, GET RID OF IT. "You're boring people, sweetie," as Penny tells Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory.

And yes, you are.

And too many writers worry about "big names" that New York houses sign and sell. They want to write like them.

I've got news for you, buttercup, you need to write like YOU write and not worry about what anyone else is writing. Following a trend means you're already behind it. Focus more on writing strong stories from your heart, stories you as a reader first are proud of. Because every quarter, Amazon and others release sales numbers that show New York no longer has the stranglehold on publishing it used to. Let New York keep doing what it's doing. You need to follow the people pursuing indie publishing houses and self-publishing routes and write stories. Don't just write books.

In other words, make cinema. Don't just make a movie.

Make a GOOD story, don't try to shove the reader around in the narrative. Good storytelling (and cinema) is when you don't notice the writer or the writing (or the director or film techniques) while in the process of reading (viewing).

In fact, a GOOD story should feel like a cinematic experience.

So drop the gimmicks. Go back to basics. Study not only great books in different genres, but also great movies. Watch from a director's (or writer's) point of view.

And remember that your biggest ally can be your reader's brain, if you let them in on the partnership. You don't need to spoon-feed them the story. Sometimes a little ambiguity in a book is a good thing. Sometimes it makes it richer, creates layers the narrative might not otherwise have.

It also means you can't be lazy. (And yes, writing all that extra, unnecessary description IS lazy writing.) It means you need to have a story strong enough to stand on its own without the fluff. Change your writing habits. Get yourself out of the rut of what feels comfortable and force yourself to stretch as a writer. Create new habits, stronger habits, better habits that will improve your writing in the long run and make your readers happier.

So put away that goddamned shark until 81 minutes in, and leave the fancy, new-fangled camera at home. You'll be a better writer for it in the long run.

8 reader comments:

  1. Carol Edwards said...:

    Right on! How frustrating the stories that skip over some thing that would truely add to the reader's enjoyment. Also, those stories that contain a thrown in extra scene to "make quota" or so it seems.

  1. I Love that you mentioned that we your readers are your allies. I love picturing in my head what things will look like. I value a chance to expand my imagination. Thanks Tymber

  1. Thank you for the post! Great info. Once again you rock!
    Shae Shannon

  1. And anyone who's been on the tour at Universal knows it's not necessarily best to see things too clear and up close. Bruce the shark loses a lot of credibility (and terror) in high definition.

    I prefer description that gives the setting personality, something that either mirrors or rejects what is going on around it. The descriptive items become useful characters, not meaningless set dressing.

    Thanks for the post!

  1. CaroleDee said...:

    thank you! I wish more authors would realize this. In one UF series that I read the author feels the need to describe the heroines kitchen down to the very last detail..... in every book! I read it the first time, I don't need to hear about her stainless steel appliances 6 more times, thank you very much :)

    And for way too much detail you only have to look at Stephen King. After reading the description of a door for 8 pages I gave up my one and only attempt at reading one of his books. (this was years ago btw. who knows maybe all of his books aren't that bad.)

    On a side note, I hate 3D movies. They hurt my eyes and the stupid glasses leave a big red dent on my nose when I walk out of the theater. lol

  1. Dawn said...:

    This is probably why I like reading your stuff so much. You get to the fricking point! I am one of those readers that will read every pain staking word the first time I read a book but when I read it again (as I do with all my favorite stories) I skip over all that crap because it really didn't make the storyline move forward, it was just fluff to add to your word count. Someday, when I am brave enough to send my writing to a publisher, I want them to see what you just said. That I tell an engaging story and get to the damn point! :)

  1. Thanks for all the comments! :)