Archive for September, 2015
The post I put up last week—just below this one—had to do with not describing everything in a piece of writing. I generally write fiction (novels and short stories) but that admonition applies to non-fiction as well. Keep description short, I said, just enough to allow the story line to flow from the page into the reader’s mind. Let the reader imagine everything else in his/her mind’s eye. Let the reader fill in the details. Keep it simple, stupid. (That’s the KISS philosophy.) In short, never tell the reader what to think. Now I want to take that concept in a slightly different direction.
It’s that word “details” that’s important in writing. Details get filled in by the reader. This has the effect of allowing the reader to stay focused on the action. I know I like to follow the action of a novel I’m reading if the writer hasn’t peppered it with too many details. I like to visualize it on my own. The more details I fill in by myself, the more I enjoy the book I’m reading. I have a difficult time with manuscripts that try to cram in too much detail in the narrative. I can get confused, wondering if the details of the action are those of the author or my own. I don’t want to be told everything, I want to imagine it.
That’s where, as the title of this post demonstrates, movies come in. Movies are great at showing action, but they show everything. Car chases, airplane dogfights, love scenes, you name it and its all there, put on the screen for the audience to see. Movies are a descendent of the stage play, of course. Plays existed for thousands of years before Edison invented the motion picture camera. Playing things out on the screen in all their glory is a time-honored way to provide an exciting and entertaining time for all of us. And motion pictures can do things that would be impossible in a stage play. Can you imagine the chariot race in Ben-Hur on the stage?
But isn’t that the problem with transferring novels to the screen? The novel is, if done correctly, a medium of minimalism. Minimal description that allows the reader the chance of experiencing the action in his mind. Taking a novel to the screen removes that chance. The movie does it all for you. It shows you everything—what the characters look like, what they’re wearing, their mannerisms—in short, everything. These are two different ways of doing the same thing.
I like movies that didn’t come from a book. Star Wars and Star Trek, for example. (Books have been written using the Star Wars and Star Trek characters, but they came after the movie.) When you watch a movie, everything is done for you. The plot may have twists and turns you couldn’t see coming, but the details are spelled out. A novel gives you more chance to immerse yourself into the action. You have to do more. You don’t have the advantage of someone else showing you. And that is why I have decided, provisionally, at least, not to allow my books (if they ever get published) to be optioned or purchased for the screen. Either the big or small screen. I want the reader to imagine what is going on. Not see it as imagined by some movie company. Never tell the reader what to think. And that’s just what a movie does.
I’ve become a proponent over the past few years of taking a minimalistic approach to the description of characters in a story. Whether it be a novel or a short story, or anything in between, the less description an author can give to a character, the better. Within reason, of course. The reason has to do with my favorite admonition to the writer which is not “Show, don’t tell,” but rather, “Never tell the reader what to think.” Let the reader make up his own mind about a character. Allow the reader the opportunity and privilege of devising in his/her own mind’s eye the image of the character. That could extend to almost anything other than people—buildings, terrain and landscapes, interiors, plants, animals, anything that can be described. Minimal is the word. Let’s take the example of Captain Bill.
Captain Bill shows up in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, very early in the book. In the second paragraph of the first page, to be exact. He’s described minimally by Stevenson as “a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man” with a tarry pigtail, and a sabre-cut along one cheek. A few other adjectives complete the description, but that’s all. Captain Bill doesn’t last very long in the story; in my edition of the book, he’s dead by page 30 (and that’s in a book where the text doesn’t begin until page 11). Captain Bill is the figure who owns the map that leads the main character, young Jim Hawkins, and his companions on the trip to recover the treasure. We’re never privileged know Captain Bill’s last name. We’re never even sure if he was really a captain, though Hawkins says he “seemed like a mate or skipper accustomed to be obeyed or to strike.” When another character, Black Dog, appears, he calls him “my mate Bill” only. Thus we, as readers, are left with a short description and several limited scenes of Captain Bill interacting with Hawkins, his mother and father, and a few others on which to draw our mental image.
Yet Captain Bill looms large over the story. He introduces us to the general tone of character we see in others who stick around for the rest of the story, including during the voyage to recover the treasure. People like Long John Silver, (the man with one leg), and Israel Hands, the scheming first mate. Stevenson doesn’t bog us down in overbearing description and detail. Our image of the man is based more on what he does and how he acts than on simple description.
I took this concept to mind when composing the description of a character in one of my science-fiction novels. I originally had, in the first few paragraphs of the novel, a detailed description of the main character. I did it because I felt the reader needed to know what he looked like. I also did it because I had read the first couple of paragraphs of a novel by Tom Wolfe (of Right Stuff fame) where he indulged in a long description of his main character right at the front of the book. I figured that since Tom Wolfe is a well-known novelist, then if he can do it, I can too. Not necessarily.
I’ve come to the conclusion, however, that minimal is better. Let the reader supply the details in his mind. Never tell the reader what to think. Get in and get out. This is true even in science fiction. It’s less boring that way.
Bubonicon 47 is over. Now for the post-mortem.
Bubonicon 47, that is the 47th running of the Albuquerque Science Fiction Convention, was held August 28-30, 2015. This was my seventh con to attend, and as usual it was filled with the interesting and interested, the timely and the timeless, the bizarre and a bazaar (I’m thinking of the dealer’s room here). As usual, I spent all day every day at the Con, attending the panels, browsing the dealer’s area (I didn’t buy anything this year), and browsing the art show (I did buy a computer designed work by Lance Beaton entitled “Phantom Flight.”)
The theme of the Con this year was “Women of Wonder,” celebrating the role of women in science fiction and fantasy, especially women who take the leading role. Wonder Woman, Princess Leia, Ridley from the “Alien” movies, and so forth. Since my (as yet unpublished) science fiction novels have women in leading roles in most cases, I took a special interest in this con, especially to see if I could glean some good details about how to write strong women characters. There were discussion panels on women in combat, strong females needing strong males, the romance subplot, the curse (?) of the strong female, and a few others. The panels were populated mostly by women writers (as you’d expect) and I took home several important tidbits about female characters. One of the most important was in a session entitled “Warrior Women In Combat: Fighting Females.” One member of the panel, Jeffe Kennedy, a Santa Fe author and resident, made the comment that using rape and sexual abuse just to “incentivize” a woman to fight is probably not a good idea. Why not? Because it demeans and diminishes the warrior woman, as though she needs some sort of “extra” incentive to fight for what she believes in, an incentive a male warrior doesn’t have or need. I took that to heart because I’m in the process of writing the third novel in my sci-fi trilogy, and one of the leading characters is a woman raped and abused. That was supposed to give her a reason to fight back against the forces abusing her. But she doesn’t need any special reason to fight so I took that out. She fights for what she believes in, the same as any male would in the same situation.
The recent announcement that two female army officers just completed Army Ranger training under the same circumstances as the men who’ve been going through that course for years, made just before the Con opened, cast an exciting tone through the conference this year. It fit exactly with the theme, and was mentioned a couple of times that I heard. Women have tried Ranger training before, but none of them has finished the course. (I’m not sure I could finish it, even in my prime. It’s a tough course.) But the two women who did certainly didn’t need any extra incentive to get through. They did it on their own, and your characters in your books can too.
Enough said. Looking forward to 48.