they’re just that good

Last week, I rented one of my favorite movies, “V For Vendetta”, as my boyfriend had not seen it and was sure to like the intellectual anarchy. Well, it’s two days late now, and I’ve found myself rewatching it a few times as I work on my book. It’s a good strategy– watch part of a movie, go back to the story, flip again. Especially an intelligent film that keeps your mind working.

I’ve noticed something that the movie does, though, that never occurred to me before I started watching it back to back.

The writing almost never includes setup, or how anything was accomplished.

For instance, in the very beginning of the story, V is introduced as a hero, madman, and genius. And strangely, this is all done in stylized dialog.

“Voilà! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin van-guarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition.

“The only verdict is vengeance; a vendetta, held as a votive, not in vain, for the value and veracity of such shall one day vindicate the vigilant and the virtuous.

“Verily, this vichyssoise of verbiage veers most verbose, so let me simply add that it’s my very good honor to meet you and you may call me V.”

I could probably spend a good couple of posts going over the stylization, alliteration, and concept of strong, over pronounced dialog as a form of characterization. Let’s skip all that for now, and move on now that anyone who hasn’t seen the movie has an idea of V.

V proceeds from there to lead Evie to a rooftop, where he speaks with her for a moment before Big Ben chimes midnight, then pretends to conduct an orchestra. The police-state broadcast system starts playing classical music, the building beside where V stands is destroyed with explosives, and fireworks are set off, the biggest and last being red ones that form a ‘V’ with a circle about it at the end of the show.

So… to do this, this character is assumed to have hacked into a high-security government system, sneaked into a building, rigged the entire thing with explosives that would destroy that structure and only that structure, added a fireworks show, and set everything to go off in sync to a timer set just after midnight. Later, we find out that V is badly burned, and the mask isn’t just for decoration.

And the audience just accepts that he can do this. V is brilliant. We’re convinced. He’s just that good. Excellent characterization and genius in details and small things can override logistics and improbability. When weighed against other factors, it turns out that the logistics just aren’t important.

Inversely if V were written by anyone else…? I doubt it would have worked at all.

In fact, imagine that we had a weak character and a full description of exactly how said person managed to do A, B, and C. I think it would fall flat, even as a perfectly plausible chain of events. Mystery versus description, the mystery has a much stronger case than one would think.

trudge trudge (logistics and fantasy)

When asked to describe ‘Lord of the Rings’, my mother replies with a series of sound effects: cling clang!, trudge tromp trudge, clang! cling, cling!. As she is a landscape and still life painter and not enamored of fiction (much less fantasy– she prefers very historical fiction, biographies, theology), I will forgive her for that.

One thing I remember from reading the Hobbit is that the trial through Murkwood forest took absolutely forever. For Bilbo, for the dwarves, especially the poor saps that had to carry Bombur, and for me. The chapter and descriptions were so long that one really did start to despair and get hungry before they finally are attacked by spiders. Like the company’s view, no end seemed to be in sight.

My real dad (biological father, lives across the state) once commented that Tolkien could take three pages just to describe the wind. When mentioned to a Tolkien fan, she immediately shot back ‘Yes, but he does a damned good job of it.’ Which makes me wonder. How does Tolkien do that?

Logistics and travel has always been a weakness in my work. I can’t stand traveling. My philosophy tends to be ‘If nothing is going to happen, then fast forward and get to the interesting bits,’. This can be good and can be bad, depending on how it’s used. I know that in my 0-draft for NaNoWriMo I skimped on descriptions and most of the scenery. It bored me, and I knew what things looked like, so like exposition, I’d write it when it was needed. This was something that my test reader commented on, along with, ‘it feels like it should be twice as long’ and ‘some parts are awesome, some parts need work’.

The reason my meter’s slowed down is because I’m working on a Wyrren chapter. The end is particularly climactic, but to get there… well, there are logistics. I have a character walking around in a series of dark tunnels with a company, and since she has a speech disability she’s not inclined to conversation. It’s gotten me thinking about how to detail this without just going to a summery or an internal dialog. So far I’ve mostly struggled through, sentence by agonizing sentence, partly with what descriptions available– the way an armed company makes people scatter like frightened birds, the sound of a waterfall in the distance, and the request to change paths so that she can see the water.

Are there any tricks to this? Does the richness of the prose make travel interesting? The characteristics of the places passed by? The thoughts and emotions these details evoke? What would Tolkien do? Is anyone any good at making these transitions interesting?

by implication (the use of subtlety in prose)

The first post of a series, studying the writing techniques that I’m lacking.

Someday I’ll write about the similarities between the different forms of art. This is not that day, but I’d like to point out something. The premise of animation is that when a person is shown similar drawings quickly in sequence, their mind will connect the events and perceive movement. One could write a trip in the car from one place to another, and follow it by having the character get out of their vehicle, go to the door, let him/herself in, have a snack, watch the tv. Or you could cut from the car to the tv, and discover that by implication nothing is lost.

Possibly the best writer I know of to use subtlety is Patrick O’Brian, author of ‘Master and Commander’ and its sequels (also known as the Aubrey-Maturin novels). This is also one of the reasons I highly encourage people to read other genres– O’Brian wrote in historical fiction, and is one of the masters I greatly admire. His books are written in a very old-fashioned style that makes for heavy reading, but they’re rich in description, believability, characterization, world-building, and subtlety.

I first noticed this subtlety on entering and exiting doors. A character within a room will be speaking. Instead of narrating that they were interrupted by a knock on the door, the character will give permission to enter mid-paragraph, and finish his thought. By the end of the (almost poetic) speech, someone new will be in the room, ready to change the subject or inform the POV characters of something. In the same vein, the characters once were having a discussion while preparing to practice (one plays a violin, the other a cello), and in the middle of the cello player’s speech he says something along the lines of, ‘when you have finished with my rosin- my rosin, I say-‘ and I can just picture the other holding the rosin between his thick, square fingers, running it along his tightened bow and nodding to his prickly friend. Or there’s a dinner where a character will announce, ‘the wine stands before you’ to a dining companion, and the next thing you know, he’s refilling his own glass.

Of course, O’Brian has his own drawbacks. Sometimes it’s daunting to start his books, because in order to fully enjoy them, one needs a dictionary on one side and an atlas on the other. Some things he explains about the ships by informing the doctor, who can’t retain anything about sailing, and some things just aren’t mentioned. ‘Firing grape’, for instance, by which it is assumed that the reader knows about grape shot, or they are intellectual enough to go look it up. The target audience consists of educated, bright people, and he doesn’t lower standards.

This is coupled with a strong recommendation. Go read the Aubrey-Maturin series.

If O’Brian is the master of subtlety in logistics and world-building, I think that my next favorite is the infamous George R. R. Martin, not in setting or action, but in his characterization. Martin’s characters are incredible in their diversity and their depth, and I think that his secret is the depth in which he develops them, then proceeds to reveal only pieces relevant to the story at the time. We can see that there’s more that he’s not telling us, we can tell through the multiple narratives that things don’t quite line up with what we know, and the difference is intriguing.

Any other tricks that I’ve missed? Authors strong in this trait that I should read?