Archive for July, 2017
A few days ago I watched the second half of a movie from 1974, called “The White Dawn,” about three whalers, two Caucasian and one African American (played by Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, and Louis Gossett, Jr.) who get trapped in the Arctic, and have to rely on the local Eskimos to survive. The movie takes place in the late 19th century, and the natives rescue them from a hunk of ice in the Arctic Ocean. They take them into their extended family and feed them, and generally keep them alive until, ostensibly, they can get back to the civilization they are more familiar with. I found it interesting to watch the use of Eskimo culture in the movie: life, fishing, killing seals, building igloos, etc. The terrain was fascinating too, especially the way the ice, snow, rock, and water came together to produce a real otherworldly—and in a color movie an almost black-and-white—landscape. From the list of names that scrolled across the screen at the end of the movie, it appears that real Eskimo people were used as actors in the movie, not Caucasians made up to look like them (as so often happens in American western and Indian movies). The outsiders bring to the Eskimo culture some of their own culture such as booze, sex, and a sort of “me-first” attitude that the Eskimos don’t have. Eskimos live in a severe environment and depend on one another for survival. A “lone wolf” or “loose cannon” type of person could jeopardize the entire extended family. Eventually the outsiders make some home brew and get some of the Eskimos inebriated. One young woman gets so warm from drinking the concoction that she strips to the waist and goes outside the igloo, but collapses in the snow and eventually freezes to death. The outsiders are subsequently either run off or killed, and the movie ends.
But as I watched the movie, I began to take it in as a writer would, and I realized there are things in this movie I can use in my next novel. I have in the back of my mind an idea for a science-fiction novel, and I’ve begun to make notes about plot, characters, terrain on a far distant planet, the natives, and so on. But within that movie, details of Eskimo culture could be adapted to my fictional characters. I would never transfer Eskimo culture directly to a made-up culture, of course, but broad concepts such as dance, sex, life in general, hunting, terrain, housing, and so forth, could form the basis for the fictional culture’s life. And I certainly don’t mean to pick on Eskimo culture alone here either; far from it. There are many different cultures around this blue and brown and green and white globe we live on that ideas about culture can be gleaned from many, many different areas. It’s just that I happened to be watching an Eskimo movie at the time.
Some non-writers ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s especially true of sci-fi writers. Well, here’s one answer: the movies. (I’ve heard that some people get their ideas at Sears, but I never have.) Ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re all around us. Some good ideas come from the movies, some appear in the newspaper, some from politics or science, or whatever—you name it. This one movie I watched just goes to show you (pun intended) that ideas can come anytime, anywhere. Just keep your mind open.
A couple of months ago (on May 7, 2017, to be exact) I posted a blog entry about what I called “The High Tension Of Life.” In this post I suggested that an author should write his/her fictitious stories so that the protagonist isn’t subjected to a high level of tension or conflict entirely through the story. A story like that is difficult to read, and it’s grossly unrealistic as well. I gave an example of a book (which I deliberately kept unnamed) in which the author did just that, and I hated it. I strongly suggest it not be done. Keep the tension or conflict rising and falling, like the waves on the ocean, so that the reader as well as the character won’t be exposed to tremendous emotional stress for the entire book.
But in order to do that, a writer has to know the difference between tension and conflict in the first place. They’re both similar and I’m sure most people understand that. But what, then, is the difference? As a start, I looked them up in a dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition. (I used a couple of other dictionaries too, but they weren’t as helpful.) In their simplified form, and most significant for a writer, both have to do with opposition, and the hostility or antagonism that can arise between two people, or between a person and some other external force. Tension most frequently is thought of as being internal, and not always obvious to others, as for example, a person who works two jobs and worries about feeding his/her family, but that’s not always the case. Conflict is so often external, like between two people. Or, for example, as in Andy Weir’s The Martian, between a person and his/her environment. Webster’s even acknowledges the use of the term in writing, defining conflict in part as “opposition of forces that gives rise to the dramatic action in a drama or fiction.”
But those are oversimplifications of the definition of the two words. Tension can be outward, conflict can be internal. Tension is a force that puts a person or a fictional character in stress; conflict is the opposition between two characters or forces. Tension is a descriptive word alluding to the stress that a person feels in a difficult situation; conflict comes from opposition—just plain, unadulterated hostility. Opposition can produce tension, too. A fight between a married couple is conflict, but it can induce tension in both, and even within the children who overhear.
As Webster’s noted, conflict is essential to dramatic action—it’s what keeps the story moving. The usual literary dogma is “you must have conflict on every page,” although that sounds like one of those “unalterable” rules of writing that gets passed around to every new writer, and which the passer and the “passee” take for granted without stopping to examine in any real detail. I’m not sure you have to have conflict on every page, though you’re going to need it on most (>90%) pages. What may be more important, though, is the underlying tension that pervades a story. Tension—low, slow and in some case almost undetectable—will have to come from the situation your characters find themselves in. One of my favorite books in recent years is Connie Willis’s two volume set, Blackout and All Clear. (She originally wrote them as a single volume, but it was so big her publisher made her split it into two.) The story is set in London during the Battle of Britain, specifically during the “Blitz,” when Germany bombed the city almost every night. The major conflict is between England and Germany, of course, though there’s conflict between most of the characters too. But every evening, the city evacuates into the subway tunnels to ride out the bombing, and this underlying tension affects everyone. There may not be any actual conflict between those present in any given subway station, but the tension of the situation is present all the time. It pervades the story constantly, and from the tension conflict arises. Even during the day, as the residents of London go about their daily lives, they know that they will have to find a safe spot on a subway platform near sundown. How would you like to live under those conditions?
Tension can be thought of as a “low level of conflict,” and to a great extent that’s true. But there’s a difference, and a writer needs to understand that difference in order to produce an excitingly readable work. Raymond Chandler is reported to have said, “When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” That would certainly raise the tension.
I’ve written occasionally on this blog about facts and figures I find it hard to conceive of, to imagine, or in today’s vernacular, to wrap my mind around. Some things are just so immense or so tiny or so hot that I can’t see them in my mind’s eye without some sort of cognitive dissonance that makes it impossible to imagine. Like fingernails on a blackboard during a performance of Debussy’s “La Mer.” Here’s another: I’ve heard there are five million cubic miles of ice on the Earth, mostly in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. It of course varies from season to season, swelling in the winter and melting in the summer, though the Antarctic ice doesn’t change as much as Arctic. Yet I find that hard to imagine on any reasonable scale.
What makes that number so important nowadays is, as most are now aware, that ice is melting, and each year the Arctic ice in the summer retreats farther and farther away from land, and that just adds to the water in the ocean. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have to reach approximately 500 to 800 parts per million (ppm) before all that ice will be melted, and that probably won’t happen for several hundred, or even a thousand years. And all that melting will cause a sea level rise of 216 feet overall. That’s not a huge number—it’s about the height of a 22-story building—but the effects over the face of the Earth will be so big that it has become another immense thing I have trouble conceiving. (I hope by the time that happens the US will have converted to the metric system completely; 216 feet is 65.8 meters.) New York City will be almost completely inundated; the Mississippi river will be flooded well inland; Florida and New Orleans will all but disappear—I’m sure you can visualize for yourself the idea. I live in Albuquerque. At five thousand feet above mean sea level, this city will be relative immune to the sea level rise. However, we won’t be immune to the effects in other ways: population migration, loss of habitat, loss of shipping ports, loss of arable land, and so on. I’m not the one to try to estimate the overall effects, that’s for the experts who have access to all the data and computers which can crunch all the data, but I’m sure those effects will be devastating. A lot worse than no more Walt Disney World.