Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Everything in moderation

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.


  1. I *loved* MY BOY JACK. Though I didn't analyze the way the story was told until you laid it out, I can see it now. I haven't read the Larson books. They're really not my genre. Good post, Claire.

  2. You got further than I did in the Dragon Tattoo. I got half way through, put it down and didn't pick it back up. In some ways I feel guilty because I hate leaving things unfinished but there is too much to do and not enough time and it just didn't appeal to me. You make me think there's a lot to learn from it, whether I like it or not. Maybe I'll go back and finish it sometime. Or not.


  3. GWDT didn't do much for me. And I agree about the industrialist storyline. I haven't seen JACK, though it sounds good.

    I dunno... I'm beginning to think good books simply are. That there is some strange alchemy that makes them so. Because so many factors can make a book work for me, and the only common factor I can pin down IS that elusive quality that makes me say "yes!"

    Thought provoking post, Claire. :)

  4. Excellent post, Claire. I'll have to make sure I see MY BOY JACK ... and you may even have persuaded me to pick up my copy of GWTDT again, which I discarded somewhere around page 100. :-P

    In re restraint and mystery know, I've been pondering this, and I reckon every writer could benefit from a little study of the nuances of mystery and suspense writing, even if they're writing in completely different genres; because no matter whether we're writing sci-fi or romance or historicals or YA or contemporaries or fantasy, we all want our readers to be in a state where they're dying to find out, "what happens next?"
    Hmm ... I think I feel a mystery reading- binge coming on ... (g)

  5. Hi all!

    I should probably have qualified my comments on TGWTDT to say that it's by no stretch of the imagination a *technically* good book. At many more than one point I wanted to poke my own eye out at the awful, awful writing and technique, and yet I still finished it enthusiastic about reading the next book.

    Which I've just finished, and it was EXACTLY the same, style wise (no surprise there). I'm now halfway through the third, and I've come to the firm conclusion that the major thing keeping me reading is this: Lisbeth Salander. She's an interesting, unusual, and extremely unpredictable character. I don't know what she's going to do next, and I want to find out. And I've somehow come to care about her quite a lot. All the head-hopping, the dreadfully overdone backstory and detail- somehow I'm still wading through it.

    Which needs another acknowledgement- it's most certainly not everyone's cup of tea (g). In fact, I know far more people who've hated it than I do people who've liked it.

    Nonetheless, you can't dispute the success- something worked, and more than ever I think it's that odd lightning strike of an unputdownable character.

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  7. Rach, re restraint and mystery- yes, I think you're exactly right. I read something yesterday on this exact topic- an interview with author Pamela Callow at Novel Journey- who mentioned something she learned from Elizabeth George's writing book:

    >>Suspense is created when the reader cares about the character, not the plot. That is something I think about while I am writing. I try to create plots with twists and turns, and create suspense about how my characters will navigate them.<<

    I thought that was pretty spot on, and very much along the lines of what I think happens in Larsson's books.

  8. Hey Claire - I ended up skimming the rest of your message as I've successfully avoided spoilers for Larsson's books (despite the fact that everyone I know has read 'em and keeps trying to get me to read them) and I've borrowed them from my parents and will try to read them soon.
    Just got over skimming two Julie Garwood romances and I'm rather soured on bad writing at the moment. I feel like gagging afterward at the wasted time.

  9. It's pretty spoiler-free stuff, but still sensible to avoid if you want to go into the books totally fresh.

    Just finished the third one (you can skip the rest of what I'm gonna say (g)).

    And wow.

    The plots became... preposterous in places. The characters reacted in unbelievable ways. The whole thing was just a fraction nutty, and I finished it shaking my head, wondering if the man had an editor at all, and not feeling overly favourable about the series in total.

    And yet I couldn't put it down while I was reading. I just read 1300 pages in two days. So, like Dan Brown, he was definitely doing something right here, and I stick by my last conclusion- that was Lisbeth Salander. I think anyone who's read all the books would have to agree she's a memorable and totally unique character.