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This is not meant to be a review of the movie “Dunkirk.” I just want to use it to make a few observations about stories and writing.
I saw “Dunkirk” last Thursday, and it deserves all the good things that are being said about it. (It was loud, though. For some reason either the theater turned up the volume on the sound, or maybe the sound was recorded that way, perhaps, as my companion said, to emphasize the nature of the warfare the movie displayed.) The movie is about the evacuation of British, French, Dutch and Belgian troops from the French port of Dunkirk in 1940 as they were surrounded by German troops. For some unknown reason, the Germans halted their advance on the Allied troops, encircling them on the beach, giving them a couple of days to evacuate. But the British navy didn’t have enough ships to do the job, so hundreds, if not thousands of smaller civilian craft, from small sail boats to pleasure craft, came from England to help. They eventually evacuated over 330,000 men, allowing the British to continue to fight later. (Keep in mind England and France declared war on Germany in September, 1939, after the Nazis invaded Poland.)
Dunkirk was a disaster of, if I may use a well-worn cliché*, epic proportions, and would have been much worse if the Nazis hadn’t stopped their advance and destroyed or captured them. The consequences could have been tragic. England would have had difficulty raising another army over the next several years, and the eventual invasion of France in 1944 probably would have been much different. Field Marshall Montgomery’s forces in Egypt in 1942 might have been much smaller, and his victory against Rommel could have turned out much differently. They have some unknown order to German forces to stop their advance to thank.
But most of this was never presented in the movie. Not even hinted at, except for the eventual count of troops evacuated. The movie took a far different route to tell the story. The story was told from the point of view of individuals, not armies or even divisions or regiments or battalions. Individuals just doing their job to either make the evacuation happen, or try their best to get off the beach. No large-scale events were described, or even hinted at. Just individuals. The story made personal. This was the story brought down to its basest level: the soldier or sailor himself, one at a time, running, swimming, dodging bullets, finding safety, or not. Nazi troops were not shown at all. Only their bullets. (Except for one brief shot where a Spitfire pilot who landed his plane on the beach when he ran out of fuel (“petrol”) was captured by German soldiers, and then shown only out of focus so their faces were not visible.)
I liked the way the story was told. I did have a little difficulty with the fact that the entire movie was told this way, because it didn’t put the affair in perspective. All events and all people have a greater impact on life than just their individual lives. Every human has two parents and four grandparents, and so forth. Every human exists in a larger situation. Even a man who retreats to a cave on a mountain top as a hermit has a larger life than that. Where did he come from? What drove him to that cave? How did he grow up? Did he go to school? And so forth. Other than the fact that the final total of troops rescued was given, little was said of the broader picture. That certainly wasn’t necessary to enjoy the movie, but it would have been nice to know. To complete the picture, so to speak.
I look for a broader picture when reading novels and non-fiction. Put things in context. But tell the story from the individual point of view. It’s far more satisfactory.
(*Of course, “well-worn cliché” is itself a well-worn cliché.)
Have you ever read a book you liked so much you said to yourself (or to someone else), “I just couldn’t put it down”? You meant, of course, that you liked the book so much you kept reading even though you had other things to do, but couldn’t tear yourself away. I’ve read a few books like that, though most books I’ve read were of the “I can put this book down and get on with my life any time” type. Right now I’m reading a book that, at the very least, approaches that “couldn’t put it down” status, if it doesn’t stand squarely within it. The book is Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It was first published in 1986, but has gained some attention in the past few months because the repressive ultra-conservative society it portrays has struck some people as similar to the path our conservative government has begun to take us down. Whether that’s true or not, I leave to history to decide.
This blog post is not intended to be a review of the book, but rather a brief examination of the factors that contribute to the “couldn’t put it down” concept. What makes a book so good you enjoy reading it so much you’d rather read it than do something else? Many books I’ve read—in fact most—I could put down at almost any time, but “The Handmaid’s Tale” is too exciting to do that. The last book(s) that took my attention into the story to that degree were Connie Willis’s dual set about the Battle of Britain, “Blackout” and “All Clear,” even though I’ve read a number of other books in the meantime. Why should this be?
I think several things have to come together to contribute to a book to that extent. First, the writing. The writing has to be above reproach; smooth and free of points that take you away from the story. As you read, you’re immersed in the story, and nothing comes along that is unclear, unreadable, or varies from the author’s style. The English grammar is fundamentally impeccable. Actually, Ms. Atwood uses an inordinate number of commas, many in positions I wouldn’t, but that hasn’t seemed to bother me. Very early on I began to overlook them and haven’t looked back. The writing still flows in spite of them.
Second, the subject matter has to interest the reader, and more than to just a small degree. As I mentioned, our political climate today has induced some people to make comparisons between the book and the present government. I’m not sure I agree with them to the extreme extent they’re willing to go, but I can see their point. As a result, the book has aroused my attention and I want to see what all the fuss is about. I’m interested and want to know more. That’s the same reason I liked Connie Willis’s books; I have a great interest in World War II, and I enjoyed reading her take on it.
Third, I believe there is the undefinable. Everything “comes together” in these books. The writing, the subject, the author’s style—they all meld together to produce a book that for a few people becomes fascinating to the point of delight or enchantment. That’s good, but that’s not something that can be quantified or dissected. That situation is precisely what a writer wants to achieve. Really. I just hope my books reach that point for a few people.
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.
What is it we are actually doing by being creative? That is, by making up a story such as a novel or a short story, or by producing a scientific paper that adds to the sum of human knowledge about some aspect of humanity, what is it that lies below the surface of this creativity? As a scientist trained to work with viruses, and later as an aspiring novelist, I’ve taken on and conquered (hopefully) two aspects of creativity: fiction and science. Both utilize the power of the human brain to come up with new ideas on a regular basis and do something with them. The question I’m trying to answer here is simply, what is the end result of that creativity? Where does all that thinking up experiments with viruses and writing fiction go? What do we get out of it? (I certainly don’t mean to imply these are the only ways to be creative; they just happen to be the two I’m most familiar with. You can probably think of others. But my comments here will apply to all.)
My first answer is two-fold. First, scientific experiments are done to gather information. Information that, somewhere down the line, can be used to improve the health of people, animals, the planet, or whatever. Some scientific papers are so esoteric that their ultimate usefulness to society may be hard to grasp in the immediate aftermath of their publication, but somewhere, sometime, they should be important. Creative writing, on the other hand, has as its most immediate goal that of entertainment. A good story is worth a thousand words. A story or a movie seeks to take us away from the cares and woes of everyday life and let us lead a different life vicariously in the guise of a fictitious character. Always fun.
But I maintain there is a higher purpose to creativity, and that is to teach. Scientific experiments produce good information about a subject, but they are also used to teach students how the scientific process works, and students learn more than what is written in the paper. They may learn a new technique from a paper, they may learn how a technique is applied to study a given subject, but most importantly, they take that information and merge it with all they’ve learned previously and begin to understand how the scientific process works in the broadest of terms. Each paper is a brick, and brick by brick, a wall can be built, and eventually an edifice can be constructed in the mind of a student that tells him/her how to proceed with the smallest of experiments he/she may be currently working on. They learn something, specific and general, at the same time.
Likewise with a novel or a short story. A reader gains access to the details of the story, the plot, the hero, the villain, the setting, and so forth. But a student of literature will also read to learn how a story is put together—point of view, description vs. dialogue, telling vs. showing, etc. Reading is the best way to learn, and ultimately, by reading many stories the student learns how to put his/her own story together. Creativity, therefore, is ultimately a teaching tool, not merely a device to convey information. Creativity is death to indifference and boredom, and we need as much of it as we can get.
Back in February, 2017, an interesting article appeared in that month’s issue of Scientific American. Written by Anna Ijjas, Paul J. Steinhardt, and Abraham Loeb, the authors presented some evidence for a “big bounce” in the life of our universe, rather than the much better known “big bang.” The universe as we know it is thought to have started by a rapid inflation of all matter and energy from a point so small it would fit inside an electron with room to spare. Thus the idea of the “big bang” was born, though it was probably a quiet “bang” since there wouldn’t have been any air around to transmit a sound. The authors of the article give some evidence (not overwhelming by any stretch of imagination) that the universe has been alternately expanding from a point, then contracting to another point and expanding again. Ad infinitum.
Well, later several other physicists, thirty-three to be exact, including Stephen Hawking and Alan Guth (who, by the way is the pioneer of the inflation theory) wrote a letter stating their opposition to the evidence in the article, and reaffirming their belief that the universe started with one and only one big bang. Their evidence is that the universe is not only expanding, but is expanding at an ever increasing rate, and either already has or soon will reach a “point of no return” where it can only continue to expand, and never will contract. Too much dark energy pushing the matter in the universe apart. It’ll go on forever.
Two competing theories. I emphasize that the Scientific American article did not state that the authors thought the Big Bang theory was wrong, just that they thought it did not explain everything, and a rebounding universe was a possibility. Okay, so much for that.
My interest in this discussion between the “Uni”-verse theory and the “Multi”-verse theory isn’t to try and distinguish between them, or even try to add my name to one or the other. I’m not a physicist and haven’t got the faintest idea which is correct. I’ll let those more competent than I figure that out. But as I began to think about the concept of a rebounding universe, my thoughts took a philosophical turn, and I began to wonder where we all fit in such a scenario. The universe expands from a point source and grows larger and larger, to eventually result in our galaxy, our solar system, our planet, our cities and towns, and us. It goes on for billions of more years, and reaches a tipping point. It begins to contract and drops back to a point, and the cycle starts all over again. All of that is conceivable by the human mind. But what isn’t conceivable is the idea that this has been going on forever, and will go on into infinity. Back in 2010, I wrote a blog called “Wrap Your Mind Around This…” in which I pointed out a few examples of things that are so out of the ordinary in today’s world that they were impossible for the human mind to comprehend. This rebounding universe is another. (See the earlier blog at https://rogerfloyd.wordpress.com/2010/08/08/wrap-your-mind-around-this/) Although I can see a universe that starts with an inflation and continues on only to dissipate into infinity, I can’t begin to envision a universe that bounds and rebounds, like a tennis ball that will not stop bouncing. Such a universe violates the laws of physics. The most difficult part to envision is that there has never been a beginning, and there will never be an end. How does something never have a beginning?
I wonder, does the universe play the same thing over and over with each rebound? Did we exist in all those past universes? Or, is each universe different?
The universe in which we currently exist is so large, we are almost infinitely tiny in comparison. Our galaxy, which is so much larger than us, is itself only one of billions, even, perhaps, trillions. But to put all that in the context of a universe that rises and falls like a bouncing ball, and has been going on forever—no beginning, no end—just makes the comparison even more difficult to understand.