I've stepped back from my revisions to let the story rest a little while in the hope of gaining some much needed bigger picture perspective.
In the meantime, I saw a great movie this week and finished a great book, and something different struck me with each of them.
The movie was My Boy Jack, made for TV in 2007 and starring Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe as the son of the great poet Rudyard Kipling. Based on a true story, as the First World War got underway, Jack Kipling wanted to enlist and fight, and his father was all for it. But Jack had terrible eyesight and could barely see without glasses, and this should have ruled him out of the fighting. Instead, Rudyard Kipling pulled strings with friends in high places, and his son was allowed to enlist regardless. Rain, mud, accident or injury, anything that compromised Jack's precious glasses could spell the end for not only him, but for other members of the platoon he was commanding.
What impressed me so much about this film, besides Daniel Radcliffe's acting (man, he is *really* taking off) was that it showed fantastic restraint, which allowed the emotional impact to build and build instead of dumping the tragedy on the reader all at once.
This is a difficult thing to manage sometimes. Knowing how much to show or say, holding back a little detail for greater impact later in the story- this takes a very strong fiction instinct, and a lot of practice. I'll happily admit I'm not there yet myself- I want to give the reader everything I know as soon as possible, but the mystery is, after that, gone- and there's not as much to hang on for.
In My Boy Jack, the story followed Jack and his father through the beginning of war, the signing up process, and followed Jack all the way to the trenches of France. It went along at a nice, steady pace, and about halfway through the film, it was time for Jack's platoon to go over the top at the Battle of Loos, the day after his 18th birthday.
Well, because it had all been so nicely paced and set up, I was feeling pretty nervous for poor Jack. We all knew how important those glasses were. Second-guessing the plot, I thought I knew what was about to happen, and when all the soldiers began to climb the wall, I held my breath...
And then instead of following them over, we were back in England with Rudyard Kipling and family, and there we stayed until close to the end. I don't want to go into too much detail, but the film-makers could have stayed with Jack. They could have shown the destruction and devastation that the platoon encountered in their charge. They could have followed Jack minute by minute, and only later cut back to his family to show the eventual ripples reaching them.
Instead, they cut away from him at the point of highest tension, and from there built it back up beautifully to the end, except with added layers on layers of emotion. It was truly excellent, and it reminded me that sometimes, especially when you're writing about war (and oddly enough sex, too), it's all too easy to want to show the most dramatic moments in as much detail as you possibly can, laying it all out for maximum impact.
But sometimes, the strongest impact comes from what you don't show. It's quite the juggle knowing when to do what.
The book I finished reading was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larsson (I may be the last person on earth who hadn't already finished it). I spent the whole first half of the book grinding my teeth, putting it down, picking it back up again, and moaning to my husband about how awful, awful some of the writing was. And for God's sakes, don't anyone ever ask anyone else a question if you rock up in Hedeby, Sweden, because even the simplest bloody ask generates twenty more pages of backstory. Gah!
But I must concede that the backstory and the exposition and the excessive detail and the awful dialogue still held my attention, and the characters were always compelling. And by the second half, my patience was rewarded as all the little details began to coalesce into a bigger picture, and by that point I really couldn't put it down, and stayed up til 2am on two consecutive nights reading.
My observation about this book actually comes back to parts of it I didn't like- in particular, bits of the ending. There was a double storyline running through it- on the one hand, journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker Lisbeth Salander are tracking down details of a cold case murder; on the other, they're trying to unravel the truth behind a crooked industrialist who has all but sunk Blomkvist's career. I was pretty satisfied with the way the murder plotline wrapped up, though I saw it coming from the first page.
But the industrialist storyline- well, I was satisfied with how it concluded, but in the end it got pretty contrived and excessive, just IMO. Went on a little bit long, was overly complicated, and the actions and behaviour of several people were barely realistic.
Except that none of this affected how much I enjoyed the book in the end- I came away from it feeling completely satisfied. And in an odd way, I think the reason was this: Larsson had his characters act with complete conviction for what they were doing. If they rushed off on an implausible overseas trip one minute, you knew the trip was implausible, but you didn't care, because the characters were completely convinced of the need to be doing what they were doing.
I guess what I'm saying is, in this case, it hardly mattered what happened in the plot, because the characters were so fully realised that if they were doing something, the reader just had to accept that it was what it was. So part of my brain squeaked, "Yeah, right!" but it was never the part that was concentrating on the overall book.
The lesson: Vivid characters with absolute conviction (and behind them, authors with the same) can keep a story from sinking regardless of very rough seas. Not something you want to try out for the heck of it, but I think it's a valuable point to remember.
In any story, characters with conviction, with intent and desire and need, will pull the reader onward.