Artful reality and the cutting of dull bits

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Silk’s Post #76 — I’ve been obsessing about storytelling since I had my epiphany on the immortality of stories in my post last week, “Survival Guide for Writers.” Why do stories move us, entertain us, excite us, give us insights, and make us see the world and humanity through a sharper lens? And how do stories artfully distill real life and dramatize it?

Alfred Hitchcock famously asked “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?”

As with all great and memorable quips, this has the ring of truth. Writers will smile and nod their heads in agreement. There’s a certain obviousness to it. Don’t bore your reader. Of course. This is common knowledge.

But here’s what isn’t common knowledge, the secret behind the ‘obvious’ truth in this simple quip: what Hitchcock knew that many writers do not is what the ‘dull bits’ actually are.

On my short trip this week, my time has been claimed by a whirlwind of overdue family visits, leaving little opportunity for writing. But that hasn’t stopped me from pursuing my self-assigned, on-the-road writer’s quest: learning to identify ‘dull bits’.

Much advice has been given on this topic, most of it in the form of ‘don’t do this’ lists. Don’t open your book with the weather. Don’t go on and on with endless descriptions that bog down the pace. Don’t include forgettable volleys of literal, uninteresting dialogue. Don’t go into pedestrian narrative detail about every action, like a ‘how-to’ manual. Don’t get trapped in a POV character’s head with long ruminations that put readers to sleep. These are simple prescriptions that promise boredom-free stories. Easy peasy.

But wait.

Every one of these rules has been broken by the best writers in certain circumstances, and the results can be sublime.

Opening with weather? Examples abound, some leading to immediate replacement of the book on the shelf, others inexorably drawing the reader into the story. Long descriptions? Some of the world’s best-loved books are littered with them. So are the rejected books in most slush piles. Literal dialogue? It has been used to engaging effect by the masters, and to the opposite effect by lesser writers. Narrative detail? We’ve all seen examples of the kind that creates tension, and the other kind that kills tension. Pages of interior thought? Captivating in some books, a literary sleeping pill in others.

So if such rules identifying ‘dull bits’ are not absolute, then what’s the difference between gripping writing and writing that we skim over in our quest for ‘the good part’ of a book?

I think the difference is whether the writer has a clear sense of story. Whether a particular chunk of content serves that story … or is extraneous to it. Whether the whole story is a continuous, dynamic thread that grabs readers and leads them through highs and lows and tension and emotional twists to a satisfying conclusion … or just a procession of scenarios (regardless of how well written, in terms of technique), which never really ‘gel’ into a strong, memorable story. In other words, I think ‘dull bits’ is a relative term, depending on story context.

Look at it this way: maybe ‘dull bits’ aren’t entirely defined by the nature of their content. Maybe they are simply the things that readers don’t care about or can’t fully connect with. If the writer can make the reader really care about a chunk of content, then, by definition, it is not dull.

So, now to my research. My week-long study of ‘dull bits’ has, perhaps irrationally, consisted of analyzing:

  • one day of air travel from Vancouver to Sacramento
  • screenings of 4 Academy Award-nominated movies

An Airport Scenario with ‘Dull Bits’ Removed (or Re-purposed)

Yes, there is great people-watching in airport, mainly because everyone is in transit. If one has a bent towards intrigue, romance or fantasy, then speculating on where people are going – and why – can lead to some tantalizing story ideas. One stimulating exercise is to mentally add a background sound track to the action you’re watching, like an imaginary movie. Does a tale start to spin itself?

The actual experience of being in an airport, however, is intrinsically boring. Everyone is waiting for something. In limbo. Filling the time eating overpriced snacks, zoning out on mobile devices, tossing back a quick drink among strangers in nobody’s neighbourhood bar, shuffling around last-minute souvenir and duty free shops, attempting an uncomfortable nap on furniture designed to keep people awake, making trips to echoing washrooms with sticky-faced children in tow, reading whatever’s at hand, or just fidgeting in the myriad ways people fidget. No one really wants to be there. It’s almost the dictionary definition of a ‘dull bit’.

So … delete delete delete? Or can this scenario be dramatized?

If, in this temporary, restless and unnatural society of strange bedfellows, a sudden disruption occurs – an explosion, a chase, the rantings of a deranged person, a staggering man with a knife in his back, a frantic lost child, a clown on a unicycle – we have elevated all these ‘dull bits’ into something much more interesting. Not only do we have the unexpected disruption, but we also have the different reactions of all the people who have now become witnesses, united in surprise. Haven’t the ‘dull bits’ now been sharpened into shards of drama?

Or what if one person in the ordinary airport scene is behaving differently from all the others. He stands rigid, focusing intensely on an exit door. His eyes dart to a pair of security cops walking briskly through the airport, heads swivelling and radios in hand. He turns his back to them and saunters to a news stand, picks up a magazine as they pass, watching the exit door from a new position. He’s clearly waiting too, but not for a plane. A child slips his mother’s protective grip and runs, squealing with laughter, towards the news stand, nearly running into him, Mom in pursuit. The man ignores it, takes a sideways step, turns his face away. Can’t you hear the tense, ominous sound track? Don’t you want to know what happens next?

There’s a story in each of these scenarios, and the ‘dull bits’ have been recruited in the service of these stories. You could envision a dozen other stories that could play out in this  circumstance, where the contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary amplifies the disruption about to happen.

But what if nothing happens? Maybe the story is about a mother and child who are travelling to a new home far away. Maybe not by choice. Or maybe after a death in the family. The trip might change the child’s life forever. But the same rules about ‘dull bits’ apply. If the airport scenario is a transformative experience for the child – a portal to the future – and this can be dramatized through an incident, or even through the child’s perceptions, excitement, fears, hopes, then the ‘dull bits’ serve the story’s dramatic intent. Otherwise, the scene is an expendable – or it would be if Hitchcock were producing it.

Critically-Acclaimed Dramas: Three Hits and a Miss

This was, by any measure, an extraordinary year for cinematic dramas. One of the most remarkable things about the field of Oscar nominated films is how many of them were based on true stories, among them American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips, all movies I saw in the past couple of weeks.

Could there be a juicier opportunity to study how great storytellers can artfully create superb drama from real life – by cutting out the ‘dull bits’? If you ever wanted to develop a course to teach writers that great, authentic ‘real life’ dramas are intensely concentrated – and artfully manipulated – versions of true stories, these movies could form the whole curriculum.

Even the most gripping true story in real life has dull bits. What a great storyteller does is create an artful reality, not a faithful report of everything that happened. At least, this is my theory.

I’m no film critic, and my focus here is limited to this one criterion: how these cinematic storytellers eliminated the ‘dull bits’, while retaining the authenticity of ordinary life. How they re-purposed the ordinary – the ‘dull bits’ – to amplify the extraordinary drama of the stories.

I couldn’t find a single useless ‘dull bit’ in either American Hustle or Dallas Buyers Club. Not one.

Christian Bale arranging his absurd comb-over in American Hustle – as an opening scene, no less! – was captivating. Seriously. A man combing his hair. I watched it with dropped jaw. It made dramatic and bold use of an excruciatingly dull detail to deliver vivid and intimate insight into the character of the protagonist. All that came after followed suit – a rich, colourful, improbable circus of characters lurching through a real-life inspired story (the Abscam scandal of the 1980s) that spun out like a collision of the mundane, the corrupt and the grandiose. It left me breathless.

An emaciated Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Clubcareening down the hardscrabble Texas highway towards the salvation of bootleg AIDS drugs in Mexico, stopping to weep, flooring the gas pedal, possessed with life, refusing to give it up. This was just one of more memorable moments than I can count, shown through extraordinary use of the most ordinary details. Brilliant scene after brilliant scene, with raw and powerful performances that didn’t seem like acting at all. In this film the writers disappeared. The director disappeared. The actors disappeared. It was just the audience immersed in the story of real people, experiencing it directly in the gut. This was a movie that you felt with all your five senses, and maybe with your sixth sense too. No ‘dull bits’. None.

Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips, facing off with a skeletal Somali pirate who informs him “I’m the Captain now” after a daring takeover of his cargo ship off the Horn of Africa. The haves meet the have-nots. Civilization and privilege meet anarchy and desperation. This is a big theme played out in the drifting confines of the isolated ‘island’ of a vessel. The life-or-death story has inherent drama, and perhaps leaving out the ‘dull bits’ was relatively easy. The circumstances didn’t allow for boredom. Yet, I would not give this movie top rating for elimination of ‘dull bits’, mainly because of the short, but boring, opening scenes when Hanks packs his bags in home state Vermont, drives to the airport, says goodbye to his nice wife, and boards a plane for Djibouti to assume command of the ship. Establishing scene of normalcy. Introduction of nice-guy protagonist. Ho hum. A scene built on ‘dull bits’ that could be used to demonstrate what not to do. But the movie got better, much better, especially when the pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) shows up and owns every scene he appears in.

I did say three hits and a miss. I was actually shocked when I watched the Best Picture of the year, 12 Years a Slaveand found myself struggling through it. I had high expectations. Could there be a more dramatic story, a story less likely to have ‘dull bits’ than this now-famous tale of betrayal, cruelty, suffering, injustice and finally rescue? Yet, even though virtually every scene was a portrait of high drama, the movie itself played out like a series of still pictures in a gallery, which, ironically, felt unconnected by a real sense of story. Like still pictures, the pace of scene after scene was glacially slow, as though to force the audience to stop and examine the reality before their eyes thoroughly, in solemn contemplation. One shot of the protagonist’s nearly expressionless face, camera locked, lasted half a minute at least. What was he looking at? We don’t know. What was he thinking? We don’t know. What was he feeling? We don’t know. I’m sorry, this was one of many ‘dull bits’.

One spectacular exception was the electric scene where Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o, defies her master after being caught with a precious bar of soap, which crackled with animation. This was, for me, the most powerfully emotional moment in a story that featured a litany of unspeakable cruelties shown in clinical detail.

Is this a great film? I can say it is an important one, perhaps a historic one, certainly a brave one. And it will stay with me. Yes, it worked for me as a history lesson. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me as a drama. Inarguably, it was real life. But in the storytellers’ mission to not turn away – to not cut out the difficult bits – I think they also failed to cut out the ‘dull bits’. My takeaway: despite its undeniable impact, it did not achieve the ‘artful reality’ that could have brought this story fully to life in all its dimension.

Chekov’s Gun, MacGuffins and other Traps

The ill-fated Vasa, Stockholm

The ill-fated Vasa, Stockholm

Helga’s Post #48 — On our recent trip to Northern Europe and Russia, we visited the beautiful maritime Vasa Museum in Stockholm. It displays the only almost fully intact 17th century ship that has ever been salvaged, the 64-gun warship Vasa that sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. The Vasa Museum opened in 1990 and is the most visited museum in Scandinavia.

The Vasa was built top-heavy and had insufficient ballast. Despite an obvious lack of stability in port, she was allowed to set sail and foundered only a few minutes after she first encountered a wind stronger than a breeze. The impulsive move to set sail was the result of a combination of factors: Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, who was leading the army on the continent on the date of her maiden voyage, was impatient to see her join the Baltic fleet in the Thirty Years’ War; at the same time, the king’s subordinates lacked the political courage to discuss the ship’s structural problems frankly or to have the maiden voyage postponed. An inquiry was organized by the Swedish privy council to find personal responsibility for the disaster, but in the end no one was punished for the fiasco.

Always on the lookout for connections, I couldn’t help but make the mental leap between the ill-fated Vasa and things that can sink a literary ship, i.e. what aspects will bring disaster to a manuscript in progress. Just as the ship’s design was top-heavy, with insufficient ballast to keep it afloat during the Baltic storms, so too will a manuscript falter if the author is unaware or ignores the story’s structural flaws.

So how does one avoid literary shipwrecks and design a story that is not only weather-proof but is heading for the bestseller list? We’ve all come across these in our writing, even if we didn’t know it consciously. Each serves an important purpose. In the hands of a skilled writer, each has the ability to enhance our stories.

Or not, if we don’t know how to use them correctly. Ignore at your peril.

Let’s start with ‘Motif’: Dictionaries define it as ‘a recurring subject, theme, idea, etc., esp. in a literary, artistic, or musical work.’

It’s something symbolic that keeps turning up in order to reinforce the main theme of the work. Usually, this is a physical item, although a motif may show itself in other ways — such as through dialogue.

Sometimes it can be difficult to establish what is a motif, and what isn’t. Their defining characteristics are that they appear more than once and they must be significant in some way. A rose on its own is not a motif. However, if a faded or slashed painting of roses turns up ten minutes later, followed by a wilted rose on a graveside, then that rose probably is a motif – the objects that show up afterwards reinforce the theme of ‘the end of love,’ or ‘Love Betrayed’. So, an object can become a powerful tool in weaving a story, if used properly.

Chekov’s Gun:

That’s a dandy. A great tool if the writer understands it. But it’s easy to ignore, or forget about it. If so, the manuscript will likely head for the garbage bin of eagle-eyed literary agents.  Make sure your Beta readers or critique group are on the lookout. So what is it, then?

It got its name from Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, a Russian writer, playwright and physician (1860-1904). He is considered to be among the greatest writers of short stories in history. “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress,” he was quoted. His originality consists in an early use of the stream-of-consciousness technique, later adopted by James Joyce and other modernists, combined with a disavowal of the moral finality of traditional story structure. He made no apologies for the difficulties this posed to readers, insisting that the role of an artist was to ask questions, not to answer them.  He left writers with a great tool:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” 

Chekhov’s Gun is a literary technique whereby an unimportant element introduced early in the story becomes significant later on. For example, a character may find a mysterious necklace that turns out to be the power source to the Doomsday Device, but at the time of finding the object it does not seem important. Many people consider the phrase “Chekhov’s Gun” synonymous with Foreshadowing (and they are related), but statements the author made about the gun can be more properly interpreted as “do not include any unnecessary elements in a story.”

Like Foreshadowing, the object’s importance often goes unnoticed by the reader, and becomes clear only in retrospect, or during a second viewing. Used properly, this rule gives the item in question some degree of presence before being used, enough to prevent a potential Ass Pull (more of that later), that might jar and grate on the viewer’s ‘Willing Suspension of Disbelief’. It can, however, turn out to be a Red Herring later on.

So easy, isn’t it? Yet I can think of more examples than I care to remember, where I had that gun on the wall, or that vial of pills, never to be mentioned again in subsequent chapters. Bad, bad!

Now we come to one of the darlings at writing workshops and conferences. It’s also a favorite topic in how-to books:

The enigmatic MacGuffin:

“In crook stories it is almost always the necklace,
and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”  — Alfred Hitchcock  alfred_hitchcock

According to TVtropes.org (from which I have borrowed much for this post), MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It actually serves no further purpose. It won’t pop up again later, it won’t explain the ending, it won’t actually do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. In some cases, it won’t even be shown. It is usually a mysterious package/artifact/superweapon that everyone in the story is chasing.

To determine if a thing is a MacGuffin, check to see if it is interchangeable. For example, in a caper story the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope Diamond. It makes no difference which. The rest of the story (i.e. it being stolen) would be exactly the same. It doesn’t matter which it is, it is only necessary for the characters to want it. A common MacGuffin story setup can be summarized as “Quickly! We must find X before they do!”

The term was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, who actually credited one of his screenwriters, Angus McPhail, with the creation of this concept and the name for it, citing a particular school-boy joke:

A man is riding on a train when a second gentleman gets on and sits down across from him. The first man notices the second is holding an oddly shaped package.

“What is that?” the first man asks.

“A MacGuffin, a tool used to hunt lions in the Scottish highlands.”

“But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands,” says the first man.

“Well then,” says the other, “That’s no MacGuffin”.

Having a MacGuffin is not necessarily bad writing, depending on how it’s handled — concretely defining or giving a central role to the object of a chase can actually detract from a work, if the point is to focus on the characters.

There is one more ‘trope’, courtesy of TVtropes.org again. They call it ‘Ass Pull’:

‘That’s the way we do things lad, we’re making shit up as we wish’   – Voltaire

An Ass Pull is a moment when the writers pull something out of thin air in a less-than-graceful narrative development, violating the Law of Conservation of Detail by dropping a  plot-critical detail in the middle, or near the end of their narrative without Foreshadowing or dropping a Chekhov’s Gun earlier on.

In cases where a character suddenly gets a new skill without explanation, it’s usually explained away as a Chekhov’s Classroom or Chekhov’s Skill, except the audience never saw the character attending the lecture in question, or any prior examples of him or her using, or even training that skill.

An Ass Pull used to resolve an unwinnable situation for the protagonists is a Deus ex Machina. (“Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” – Emma Coats)

An Ass Pull used in the same way for the villains is a Diabolus ex Machina, the  evil counterpart of Deux ex Machina: the introduction of an unexpected new event, character, ability or object designed to ensure that things suddenly get much worse for the protagonists, much better for the villains, or both. An Ass Pull doesn’t necessarily have to resolve or derail a situation, though; many times, an Ass Pull is just used without any greater plot implication. The term is also used to describe something that the characters make up on the spot. AKA: Writing by the Seat of Your Pants.

These are just a few of the hurdles that writers must overcome. I suppose that writers who outline (as opposed to pantsing) are less likely to fall prey to these hazards. But for those who don’t outline, just keeping them on the sidelines in your brain while you’re writing might help to avoid some pitfalls and rejection letters from agents later on.

A final quote on ‘Willing Suspension of Disbelief’ to demonstrate that readers are not all bad people. Readers do give authors some slack, some of the time. So not all is lost.

“An eagle-eyed viewer might be able to see the wires. A pedant might be able to see the wires. But I think if you’re looking at the wires you’re ignoring the story. If you go to a puppet show you can see the wires. But it’s about the puppets, it’s not about the string. If you go to a Punch and Judy show and you’re only watching the wires, you’re a freak.” —Dean Learner

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Photo credit: Christopher Jones / Rex Features