Driving At Night

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
–Anne Lamott

Dangers Worth Taking

I promise, I’m not addicted to Orson Scott Card. Well, maybe his writing advice, but that’s because he seems to understand that he can’t provide universal rules that apply to every single situation. Storytelling is an art, and as such can’t be broken down into a science. Adding X plot device together with Y characters and Z ending doesn’t automatically equal a good story.

So, if I mention him a good bit that’s why. I think he says things well, and in the right way, and so why not mention him?

Anyway, my review of Captain Phillips mentioned the way that the film seemed to develop its characters. That is, the film developed the characters not in the standard way, that way being develop them first, then put them in danger later. Instead, the film developed the characters in the danger. In other words, it is because of the extreme amount of peril the characters are in that we care about them. That’s an interesting approach to character development, and at least in Captain Phillips it worked. Orson Scott Card has something to say about that form of character development.

His primary claim, from the book Characters and Viewpoint, is that this type of character development is, well, tricky. Sometimes it works well, and if it does then you’ve saved yourself some time in the story and can jump right into the action. Other times it doesn’t work and then you, generally, get two results.

Card's Book on characters is fabulous

Captain Phillips is able to do what Card tells us is possible, but difficult–developing the characters through the danger.

The first possible result is that the audience just doesn’t care about the characters. They’re disengaged and removed from the story, allowing them to guess twists and turns and judge the story in a cold and disconnected manner. That’s probably not a good idea. When the audience is constantly running a story through a checklist to make sure it’s checking all the boxes, it usually means that they’re not immersed in it. Instead of a story grabbing their attention and refusing to let go, it’s just a thing that’s happening.

That result puts the storyteller in a bit of a tough place.

The other result that Card lists is also probably not desirable. That result is that, in the pursuit of making us sympathize with the characters because of the huge amount of peril they’re in, the storyteller places the characters in so much peril that the audience can’t stand it. It’s so intense, so visceral, the audience has to walk away.

Card cites the example of him having to walk out of the films Alien and Aliens. The amount of peril the characters were in was too much for him. He had to leave and disconnect. So he did. Eventually he was able to make it through them, but not in the theaters.

The key is the amount of danger. How dark, how intense, how visceral, how dire is the character’s circumstance? There’s not a magic amount, or a formula that tells the storyteller when they’ve put enough, too little, or too much peril into the story.

Personally, I don’t think I will, at least for a while, try this type of development. I’d be preoccupied with the reaction of the audience so much that I wouldn’t be able to focus on the story itself. Nevertheless, I appreciate Captain Phillips’ success in the area. It seems like a hard thing to pull off, and Card certainly seems to think it is. However, for me, it just isn’t a danger worth taking.

Freedom, Censorship, and One Good Book Part 2

In the last part of this discussion of the theme of Fahrenheit 451, I observed what appeared to me to be Ray Bradbury’s subtle critique of freedom. I proposed that his critique rested in the fact that the people in Fahrenheit 451 freely choose to, in essence, let the government take over. It’s a dark take on freedom. Here’s the final part in this examination.

On the flip side of that rather morbid approach to the concept of freedom, there was an examination of the good that freedom can do. Or at least, there seemed to be a hint of hope. If you think about it, the pursuit of freedom in the novel doesn’t actually bring about any changes that we see. At the end, the city has been destroyed, millions of people are dead, and the country, in essence, is in ruins. That’s not a terribly happy or optimistic ending.

So where does the novel leave the concept of freedom? It leaves us with a ruined country and a people who are free from their government. They are free from those who enslaved them, but there’s no answer given to the question of “what happens next?” Is a free society set up?

The main character, Montag, has pursued freedom for most of the book, and at the end he gets it. But given what the free choices of the people did in the past, is that really a good thing? The question at the end is not so much “is there freedom,” but rather “what do people do with the freedom they have?”

Oddly enough, I’m almost tempted to take the novel as having a pessimistic view on freedom. When I think about it, characters in the book praise the value of freedom, but we don’t actually see it giving anyone anything.

But perhaps that gives us the theme of the novel. We don’t see people doing good things with their freedom. We do see them doing plenty of bad. At the same time, however, there’s hopes and dreams that characters have of a free society in which people use their freedom properly.

So perhaps the theme of the novel isn’t censorship, or even freedom as a concept. Perhaps the theme of the novel is simply that freedom isn’t perfect. Freedom can lead to a dangerous totalitarian system, but also a safe, tranquil world. People aren’t perfect, and so they misuse and abuse their freedom. They can make bad choices and good choices; both freely.

I’ll have to think about it some more, but it seems like that could very well be the theme of this novel.

As to what I think of that theme, and whether I agree with that message or not, I won’t say. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed Fahrenheit 451, and am eager to discuss the book and the theme with others.

Freedom, Censorship, and One Good Book Part 1

One of the downsides of reading well-known books is that you come into it with more preconceived notions then necessary. You already assume that the book is about one thing or another, without letting it speak for itself. Sometimes books can’t break through this, but other times, as in my recent first reading of Fahrenheit 451, they can.

Fahrenheit 451 isn't about censorship.

Fahrenheit 451 isn’t about censorship.

I came into Fahrenheit 451 expecting to read a book about the dangers of censorship. I expected to hear the values of free speech and a free press extolled, sometimes to the point of the story being drowned out by the preaching of the theme. What I got was very, very different.

Fahrenheit 451 is, in my opinion, not about censorship. It’s not about free speech or a free press. At least, I don’t think its about those things alone. I think that looking at it that way undermines the depth and quality of the thematic material within the book.

So, if 451 isn’t about censorship or free speech, or a free press, then what is it about? First and foremost, I think Fahrenheit 451 is a story. A story that’s actually quite good. To my surprise, there wasn’t much preaching, and there were legitimate characters who were well-developed. The world was real, at least for the time I was in it. Granted, the book could have had some of its metaphors cut (see this blog post), but all in all, it was a very well-told and enjoyable story.

Yes, yes, it’s a classic. You didn’t come here, and I didn’t intend, to give you a review of the book. I want to talk about the theme of this book. What is it about? Thematically, that is.

From my reading, I got the sense that Fahrenheit 451 is about freedom in general–and not just freedom from the government, but simply freedom as a concept. It examined the dangers and the traps that freedom brings with it. It examined the helpful, good qualities of freedom as well. It gave a nuanced–and sometimes frightening–picture of freedom. How so?

First, I was fascinated by what appeared to be a critique, of sorts, of freedom. In the world, how is the government able to keep control on the people? How were they able to get the books banned? How were they able keep the people dumb, and keep them in a state where they could control all the information they received?

They were able to do it because the people consented. In essence, the people stood by and watched it happen. They watched their culture slowly deteriorate, and chose–used their free choice–to stop reading. They freely chose to fear books. They freely chose to let history be altered. They freely chose to become enslaved to the media, believing all the government told them. All the government did was take advantage of the free choices the people made.

Ray Bradbury, the author, didn’t show freedom to be angelic. He didn’t show people using their freedom to do only good. He showed freedom opening the way to enslavement.

I’ll continue this discussion of the theme on Friday, with Part 2. Be sure to check back then for an investigation of the (less depressing) side of the theme of freedom.

Developing Through Danger: A Review of Captain Phillips

I once read, in a book on writing, that one of the best ways to create emotional investment in a character was to put them in a serious situation. Make them undergo serious physical or mental duress, and the audience will likely sympathize with them. I don’t know if this always works, but it certainly did in Captain Phillips, the Oscar-nominated film starring Tom Hanks.

Captain Phillips kept the tension high throughout.The film follows its title character, Captain Phillips, the captain of a transport vessel traveling through waters off the coast of Somalia. The ship is taken by pirates, who hold the ship, and its captain, for ransom. Eventually, the crew is able to get the pirates off the ship, but they take Phillips with them. As the US Navy tries to buy time in order to get Phillips back, tensions aboard the small pirate vessel rise.

I’ll just say this before going any further: this movie is great. The actors do a fabulous job developing the characters in a script that doesn’t give much time to it. The vulnerability and fear that the crew feels is displayed perfectly. Even the pirates, and their slow recognition that they weren’t going to get their ransom was believable and worked. Tom Hanks gives a good arc to the captain, showing his desperation kick in and his hope for survival fading away.

The way the film does character development isn’t traditional, but it works. Instead of developing the characters primarily prior to them being put in danger, it is the danger that develops them. It’s an interesting approach that I’ve seen utilized before, but, to my remembrance, never better. It works, and it works well. The danger and peril are high, which is why I think it was effective.

If the Captain hadn’t been in quite so much danger, I doubt the development would have been as rounded. As a result, there is quite a bit of peril in this film, which contributes to the overall intensity and “dark” feel. Thankfully, however, the film doesn’t spend all its time emphasizing the darkness, and moves along quite well.

Another thing that struck me as a wise move was the decision to limit the action. By that, I mean that there was quite a bit of news coverage, etc. going on while Phillips was being held hostage. The film could have easily cut away to show some of the reactions of the outside world, but it didn’t. It kept the action, the emotion, and the audience focused on the specific events taking place aboard the pirate ship.

I will say that the shaky camera oftentimes frustrated me. While it worked in some scenes, I found it simply distracting in others. Given that the film was directed by the same person who directed the final Bourne movie (which was also quite liberal with its shaky camera), I wasn’t surprised. Nevertheless, it did frustrate me.

Even with that, though, the film was great. The pacing was good, the acting lent great believability to the entire film, and the script kept the plot focused. I highly recommend you see this film.

Note: This film is quite tense, and on occasion somewhat graphic. Take great care before allowing young children to see this film.

Books Like Perfume

This quote says far better than I can say, what I’ve been writing about lately. The concept of stealing from the masters, in a sense, and learning from their successes.

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
–Ray Bradbury

Going Fishing

Orson Scott Card likens writers to fishermen. He claims that they are constantly walking through life, or sailing to be consistent with the analogy. And, he says, writers should always keep their nets ready to catch ideas.

The world seems to be full of ideas. The oddest things will start my brain going, working out a new story idea. Oftentimes these don’t end up being new stories entirely, but rather new parts to already existing ones. Keeping my net down helps me flesh out my world.

Why is this, though? Perhaps it’s because experiencing a fully fleshed out world (the real one) helps in my quest to expand and explain my own fictional world. Obviously, I can’t create a complete world. Even Tolkien, with all his world building, left questions unanswered. Middle-earth may be realistic, but it isn’t real, and one of the greatest signs of this is that there are gaps in the world.

Granted, those gaps don’t hurt the world–rather, somehow they actually help the world. But that’s another post for another time.

The point is that experiencing a full world gives me something to strive for, and ideas as to how to get there. The sea of ideas that is reality has spawned many story concepts. I find that when I’m looking for those moments of inspiration that crop up in everyday life, writing and brainstorming becomes, in general, easier.

This also goes back to the idea of the quote I posted a few days ago on reading. While the point of the quote is that reading good and bad books helps us identify whether our own writing is good or bad, doing that same thing has also helped me find the gaps that need to be filled in my own world. And, in a non-plagiaristic way, of course, it helps me fill those gaps.

How? Ursula Leguin said “There is a limited number of plots. There is no limit to the number of stories.” By watching what master writers have done we can find ways to fix and improve our own writing. Not by stealing, but by learning and observing.

If Card is right that the whole world is a sea of ideas, then why wouldn’t we let down our nets as often as possible? Why wouldn’t we try to learn from other’s writing?

If the world is a sea, and the sea is of ideas, then I know that I at least need to go fishing in it more often.