Saturday, 19 November 2011
Anyway, this is not about my undying love for Joseph Gordon-Levitt in zero gravity or Leonardo DiCaprio's strut, but rather a study in setting. No, not the awesome hotel decor or the matchy-matchy bad guys wearing white in the snow level. This is about using all the bits of your setting to create a world that works for you while you entice the reader to continue reading your work.
We first see setting the second the movie opens, but seriously, the first time we truly interact with setting is when Mal mentions "Postwar British painters". She refers to the artwork in the dream hotel and hey! It's by Francis Bacon. That's not the cool part. That is an easy way to engage setting - and by engage I mean draw the audience's eye toward it. Now for people who hear Postwar and British and Painter, it's a detail. It's dialogue that says she knows what she's talking about. To people who hear that and see the painting and think Francis Bacon, that's a little reach out and say hello to the audience members in the know. We like to feel smart. Some of us may use Google to get there, but we become members of a special club when we figure it out.
That throwaway line, by the way, tells us a lot about Mal. She can spot a postwar British painter for one thing. Now - SPOILER - for the 0.01% of you who haven't seen or possibly heard of Inception, Mal is a figment in Cobb's head. What does that tell us about what Cobb knows?
Anyway, the point of being in people's heads is that we aren't supposed to be there and so the projections in other peoples' heads try to uncover you and then remove you from the landscape, by tearing you limb from limb if they have to. Knowing this, watch the scene where Cobb begins to convince Fisher that something is wrong while he sits at the bar surrounded by rich older people. At one point there is a sound so out of tune with the ambience of the bar that everyone pays attention. Can you imagine that older woman with the shawl and the white hair with blood staining her mouth, fingers curled into claws?
You can now.
I wrote the above about halfway through November and then remembered that I was writing a novel. I was also municipal liaising my region, with roughly 400 people (on paper) and got a little caught up in my newfound productive writing life.
Here we are in the year the world ends (see previously 2000, 1999, and 1997 according to the World Weekly News) and I am a novel richer and half a blog post poorer.
It happens sometimes that you come back to something you were writing in a different head space, physical space, you-space and you realize - hey! This was pretty good! I wonder what happens next. And then you totally blank.
I have no idea where the rest of the post was going. I do, however, know what I would like to say now, 55,000 words later, about scenery and setting and how different and necessary the two are to everything in your story and how your audience perceives your world.
I've been using setting and scenery interchangeably in my previous posts (and if I haven't, I've been doing it in my head) but they really are quite different. Scenery is a necessary part of setting but setting encompasses scenery. Scenery is the vase on the mantelpiece and the stone setting in the hearth and the rich yet threadbare rug under your feet. Setting is the opulent sitting room gone slightly to seed in a story about an old rich family that has possessed wealth so long they have forgotten they have it. You know the type, the ones who wear t-shirts and drive beamers and buy tens of thousands of dollars of diamonds just to say it's Tuesday, I love you.
Take away some of those details and they become nouveau riche, conscientious of what they have and how much they have to show it to the world. Take away other details and they become misers. Suddenly your story is about something else entirely.
The settings may be the easiest to describe later when you're talking about that book you just read, but it's the scenery that makes it so memorable. Scenery, the bangles, the gun, the hidden corpse, the missing figurine on the bookshelf, the details give your story a why without you having to come right out and beat your reader over the head with what you're trying to say.
Getting back to my minor obsession with Inception, let's look at Arthur. He's gorgeous. And now, analytically, let's look at what says competent. It's the slicked back hair, the suits, the fashion forward little touches, the flashy fighting style, and the way he remains calm under any kind of pressure, with or without gravity.
Ariadne, on the other hand, screams college student. If we hadn't met her first in a college, we would quickly place her there in the Inception special anniversary edition paper doll playbook (I would totally buy that, wouldn't you?). There's the brash manner of speaking, the curiosity with none of the temperance borne of what some might call maturity but what we can also call the knowledge of consequence from touching a hot stove. She hasn't had that curiosity slapped down yet. She wears those scarves and coats with rolled up sleeves, stands slightly to the side and watches and learns while the others move.
The settings of Inception and the personal scenery of each of the characters (including where they stand in relation to one another...I guess I have another rewatching to do) require all those little details and more - leave nothing to chance. Your dialogue, character descriptions, workspaces and living spaces advance the reader's understanding of what you are trying to say in your story. Are you talking about money? Love? Evil and our interactions when faced with such a thing?
Now you (and I) get to shave away every detail that doesn't have to do with cementing your answer to the question you are discussing in your work, right down to how your character eats lunch and where and why.
Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Sleepless by Charlie Huston is one of those near future science fiction things you hear about but never realized exists until you hold it in your hands. It's detailed.
Most of the time when someone says 'detailed' he means 'they talked about a space ship a lot and maybe there was a character and stuff happened.' Or maybe the author dedicated forty pages on fashion styles to explain why the protagonist took that parasol with those boots.
Sleepless is detailed in that every part of the world - the WOW game stand-in, the human bombs, the devastating disease - are effortlessly referenced in sentences and phrases before Huston dedicates entire scenes to explaining just what the hell is going on. The background details are such a part of the world that his characters live these pieces of science fiction and the reader can breathe it all in without pausing to admire the damn spaceship for pages on end. Think of the last time you had a fight with a friend on a message board and tried to explain to someone (to whom message boards did not exist) how you had trouble communicating in real time. The important part of the story you are telling this person is not that you have to wait minutes, hours, or days to get the last-last word in, but that you are having an argument with a friend and the bastard won't lay down and accept defeat in light of your brilliance. In between recounting witty repartee, you still have to explain message boards. That's the importance of detail.
As I Nano (only four thousand words behind, it's okay, that's a weekend marathoner, no problem) I have to keep detail in mind because while it's tempting to boost a word count with nonsense like two thousand words of what color sneakers my character has on, the bits I get to keep later while Nanoedmo'ing (National Novel Editing Month) are the pieces that advance the story while maintaining a careful snare around the reader's attention.
If you have a minute in between typing madly and procrastinating just as madly, give Sleepless a try. It's science fiction without the spaceships and it's a brilliant apocalypse that will make you wonder about the tiny things in life. And if near future science fiction can't make you doubt every minuscule interaction in your life with a tiny shake of fear, it's obviously not trying hard enough.
Another detailed series I've always enjoyed are the Company novels by Kage Baker. She takes history and future with the same finesse, and while she shines with historical detail I'll admit my favorite of the series is Graveyard Games where she really starts telling us about her world's terrifying future.
Thursday, 3 November 2011
Anyway, this is one of those books (and series) I return to when I want some handwavium. My transitions usually suffer from real-worldism, where we actually have to walk out to the car, and open the door, and fiddle with our keys. In book world, we are simply driving. Last page we were in San Francisco, and now we are in Las Vegas! Did we mean to be in Las Vegas? Who knows? Who cares! Look at the pretty lights!
Writing 50,000 words in 30 days means taking some big leaps of faith in terms of travel, changing groups of people, and on occasion, surprise action scenes. Writing at any point can use a little handwavium, so long as your reader can handle a little handwavium. Remember suspension of disbelief, and the value of your reader coming back for the sequel.
Something I find helps is sitting for a few minutes and asking myself what is absolutely necessary to get this message across? Do I need to show us on the road? Do I need to explain the ninja? Can we just have the evil guy over here, suddenly? Would that be really cool? When I strip the scenes down to the absolutes, it makes the writing go faster, the reading, and at times, the head scratching. Anyway, if "The Most Terrifying Thriller Since Silence Of The Lambs" (see cover above) is not your slice of pie, try Jim Butcher's Dresdenfiles. For some reason, I have Small Favor listed on my outline for this post, so I suppose it must be an example of handwavium. I recommend the whole series, just so you too can spend all of White Knight with a big fan-service grin on your face.