I wrote a post here, called X-Men: Days of Boresville.
This part of the sample critique I was writing was going to be all about how you don’t do it… how you say unkind things and mock the story. So! The snark demo seems to be covered in the pre-existing post.
Wow, I hated this film. It made me so angry. The central problem I had with the story, the part that offended all of my sensibilities, was that the past-tense storyline played out in 1973, during the U.S. military action in Vietnam. There were scenes set in a number of interesting Vietnam-related situations, including the Paris peace talks.
How cool, right? You could do a million things with that!
Part of the point was to show how the military industrial complex is always looking for their next big villain, the next reason why billions of dollars have to be spent on bigger and shinier weapons instead of, you know, food or bandaids. It’s Germans! No, it’s Communists! Brown Commies! Wait, it’s mutants! OMG!
So far, so good. The possibilities for exploiting this historical period, of creating a mutant-flavored alternate history of the Vietnam War are incredible. It wouldn’t have been off-topic, or separate from the point–we’re talking about a movie that already made the time and space to use this material. But instead, 1973 and its events were set dressing. Meaningful use of the historical subject matter verged on zero.
As a single example, let’s talk about the way Charles is taking drugs that mess with his telepathy so he can walk. The so-called serum is pitched as medication, but there’s also this ongoing cinematic dance, within the direction, that has Charles looking more than a little like an addict. They don’t have the guts to actually make him one, though.
Do I want junkie Charles? Not necessarily. Addicts and their stories are not my favorite thing. But if I’m going to have to watch him inject himself and act all withdrawaly anyway, why not take the opportunity to do some bravura characterization on this so-beloved character?
Consider: you have a teacher whose whole life is about saving mutants from their own powers and from societal discrimination. Now his school is in ruins because his students are being drafted and sent to Asia. But Charles is gleefully shooting chemicals into his arm not because he cannot bear that terrible reality. And not even because he’s a telepath, and if he keeps his powers he might feel those kids he’s linked to as they kill and die and experience unimaginable horrors. Good heavens, no!
He’s taking the serum because he doesn’t like being in a wheelchair.
Now being shot and paralyzed is a traumatic thing, I’ll grant you. And I understand that Charles isn’t meant to be all grown up and stable yet. But what’s stronger? Taking the opportunity to imagine how a compassionate and caring guy like Xavier would be affected by a war that would inevitably use his people more and harder than ordinary folks? Or being asked to care because he has to choose between superpowers and walking?
Moving on from my previous post about Die Hard, workshop etiquette and providing fictional/film examples, here’s what I’d say about The Imitation Game. This is the problematic stuff, and would come later in the critique than the section where I praised the characterization, the weighty and worthwhile subject matter, and the general structure of the story, which holds together in a decently coherent fashion.
Hi, Graham and Morten,
- Though the story moves from beat to beat in a logical manner, and is effective in achieving the desired emotional effect, it lacks subtlety. The story feels heavy-handed, on the nose, as if the characters are bellowing slogans like, “War is bad!” and “It takes more than guns to win these things!” and “Look at this amazing maladjusted smart guy and all the people he saved!” and “Wow, isn’t it horrific and amazing that every day he and his band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but it’s fundamentally clunky.
- The details of your chosen historical period and the military/intelligence community are for the most part accurately rendered, but you have chosen to simplify the chain of command by making Turing and his guys seem responsible for an enormous swath of military action, including calling or cancelling bombing raids. I understand why simplifying is often a good choice, but it’s less interesting, in this case, than if you tried to hint at the complexity.
- Turing’s male sidekicks are somewhat slenderly characterized. They blend together in my mind, forming something of a multi-headed bully when they’re not on his side and a multi-headed cheerleader when they are. The only one who stands out at all is the fellow with a brother in the Navy. That’s less about characterization and more about the story attached to him.
- I’m not sure what I think of you showing us apple and cyanide during the story, foreshadowing the manner of Turing’s death, without explicitly saying that he poisoned himself. Apples have both Biblical and fairy-tale freight, and I wonder if you couldn’t do something more with this.
All of the above is clear and yet it’s respectfully worded. It’s not so “nice” that the intent is lost, but it doesn’t try to snark, show off my huge brain, or score points.
It would be easy to push that line, especially with the first item. I could simply add a touch of sarcasm to the sentences I use to illustrate the story’s various points. (Even if I tool the last one up slightly “Gee willikers, do you all get that every day Turing and his plucky band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” the tone changes.)
The exercise here, if you missed the previous post, is to critique a movie that many people will have seen, as if it were actually a novel or short story submitted to one of my classes. It’s a chance to practice critique. And to get to say, “Dear Francis Ford Coppola, about this thingie you’ve written…” Which is just, I hope, fun.
Next in this series, we will discuss my deep and abiding hatred of the most recent X-Men movie.
Storytelling is an act of communication–as writers, we are driven to create narratives because we have something to say.
That doesn’t mean every story has to come out swinging, like the fables you may have studied in grade school. Most good works of fiction don’t beat their readers over the head with some heavy-handed moral, or a preachy political message.
The theme of a story can be a subtle observation about human nature, a ‘here’s what it feels like to discover your own mortality,’ or ‘here’s something I’ve noticed about losing a loved one, falling in or out of love’, etc. It can be romantic or deadly serious, a low-key observation or a big insight into life’s greater mysteries. It can address a specific historical event, as does Richard Bowes’s 9/11 ghost story, “There’s a Hole in the City,” or a more generalized experience: war, car accidents, divorce.
Often when we are writing draft, we don’t know what our themes are. It’s entirely common for a writers to not necessarily know what they’re saying within a given story until that draft is written. . . and that’s absolutely fine. Our initial spark for a given book is quite often something very concrete: a character, a setting, or a situation. While that initial inspiration may be tied to whatever deeper things a writer wishes to say, it is normal to find those ideas don’t really surface until the text is actually on the page.
Why worry about theme at all if your subconscious mind is on the job? Because after you’ve got that draft in your hands, it’s worthwhile to figure out what you’re saying, how you’ve said it and whether you’ve made your argument successfully. The reason is this: fiction can be more sophisticated and pleasing when it has a unity that comes from the author’s having paid attention to all of its elements.
When I ask students to identify the theme of a given piece, I like to see a simple sentence. Rather than “Justice” for example, I like to at least see “This story is about Justice” or, preferably, “At times, our justice system is unjust.”
With this in mind, take a moment to see if you can express the themes of a few of your favorite motion pictures, television shows, and books. Don’t be concerned if they seem simple. It is entirely possible to do a complex and nuanced exploration of what seems like a simple proposition, even a cliche. Readers have their own experiences to bring to bear on universal propositions, such as: “Having a sick parent is hard;” “Raising a child is rewarding;” or “Cheaters sometimes do prosper.”
Making the reader ‘get it’
When writing students are asked to consider theme, a risk arises that they will become focused on this element to the exclusion of all else, overcomplicating their ‘message’ and then feeling frustration if their instructor and classmates don’t understand or agree with what they are saying. At times like this, writers may ask: how can I make readers get my theme?
The answer, frustratingly enough, is that they don’t have to. However, your peers, instructors and workshop partners should be at least able to see what you are saying, though–if they can’t, it probably means this element of your story is murky.
Other questions to ask when considering your story’s thematic content:
Do you know what your story is about?
How important is that theme to you?
Does it address that topic?
Are you satisfied with what the story says?
Imagery as it relates to theme:
Moving on, what is imagery and how does it relate to this idea of theme?
You probably remember the basics from English classes you have taken throughout your educational career. Imagery, in literary terms, is language which evokes sensory experience. It includes similes, metaphors, and allusions.
Imagery is what makes your prose poetic; it is what elevates your novel from being a transcript of plot and character action and into another realm of artistic achievement. But to what end? Perhaps, you think, it’s hard enough to tell an interesting story clearly without gumming up the works with a lot of arty language. And it may be that you are a spare prose stylist, with a light hand with such flourishes. Everyone approaches imagery differently: some of us flavor sparse powerful images and plainer prose; other writers layer on the metaphors heavily, even to excess (see purple prose).
All that said, the power of your fiction can increase exponentially if the images you choose resonate somehow with your theme.
Think of your novel as a musical instrument, specifically a piano. Imagine that each of its 88 strings is an element of your novel; a character, a plot development, a pivotal revelation, a theme. As you strike the various notes, music plays–a concert unfolds, carrying the reader along with it.
Now, imagine that the piano is out of tune.
A well-tuned work of fiction is merely one whose elements are in harmony with each other. If your story is about greed, which image is more appropriate to it: apple blossoms floating on a river, or crows fighting over scraps of garbage? If it about reawakening to joy after a long period of sadness, is it better to conclude it with a sunrise or a sunset?
With that in mind, look at the following lists. One is a series of themes, and the second is a random list of images.
First, see which list items feel like they might match.
Next, think about what kinds of stories you expect to see paired with the images, and what kind of images you expect to see in stories with the stated themes.
Finally, consider whether there are images not on the list that you prefer as possible partners for a given theme, or whether there are themes outside this very small roster that might go nicely with the images below.
Make a few notes, do a little thinking… and then have a look at this week’s novel submissions, and see if it sparks any insights.
List one – Themes… a few things a novel might be about
The cost of war
The extent of human obsession
Learning to forgive
The difference between right and fair
The cruelty of kids to one another
Faithfulness in marriage
The difficulty in being in competition with friends.
What is the nature of heroism?
Death of dreams
Failure versus the price of success
Learning to face tragedy
Miracle of new life
The joys of parenthood
List Two – Randomly Chosen Images
Fields of anonymous dead soldiers
Brown leaves and patches of snow
Breaking new eggs
Blowing dirt and tumbleweeds
Indecisive unhappy-looking shoppers
Empty swimming pools
Houses with broken windows
Well-oiled guns in a pristine cabinet.
My UCLA Extension Writers’ Program course, Novel Writing II, is in full swing and I haven’t yet found a book that goes well with fourteen student novels-in-progress.
I am continuing to write about 1200-1500 words a day on my current novel, as part of my Clarion West Write-A-Thon commitment. The naming contest is still on the go for sponsors. Right now, a donation of any size will get you into the draw for a chance to name a landmark, person or animal species. It’ll take at least $35 to be the biggest donor and thereby get the right to name an island nation. Here’s a snippet about another island, Tiladene:
“Perhaps, too, since you’re an outlander . . . ”
What else had she done? “Yes?”
“Lais Dariach . . . he’s from Tiladene.”
Tiladene. That word was on one of Gale’s coins. “You said that. So?”
“They’re somewhat . . . promiscuous.”
The significant look on Dracy’s face made her want to giggle. “You mean sexually promiscuous?”
“They don’t believe in marriage–in faithfulness.”
“Okay, got it. Your other passenger–”
Lais is from Friends with Benefits Island.”
Planet of the Polyamorous Sluts, she thought, lightheaded. Didn’t the Star Trek guys used to go somewhere like that for shore leave?
And then: A little shore leave wouldn’t be the worst idea I ever had. And he is cute.
This week’s writing essay is just a “What is,” and a “How to” on an important technical aspect of story structure–the workings of a thing we call Point of View.
Understanding point of view–POV, as we usually say–is as necessary to the process of writing as knowing the rules of the road is basic to learning to drive. If you don’t know which side of the road your car belongs on, or that you’re required to signal before turning, you are doomed to have a short career as a driver. (Or to use a medical analogy–if you can’t tell a human from a horse, your chances of becoming a doctor may be rather slim.)
Does that mean POV is dull? A dry and necessary fundamental, something to be gotten out of the way before moving on to fun and cool topics like voice and scenebuilding? Definitely not. The beauty and power of this element of writing is subtle, though, and once you have a good grip on it, it tends to work invisibly, behind the scenes. When you get into your car every morning, you don’t have to remind yourself to stop at traffic lights; it becomes so basic–so completely obvious–that the sight of an orange light will trigger the proper reaction in a driver without conscious thought.
An experienced driver rarely considers the intricacies of basic traffic law, but focus your attention on a few key details of this apparently dull phenomenon for a second:
1) Millions of people understand and agree on the basic rules and follow them.
2) Those “basics” allow these same people and their passengers to hurtle through space at hundreds of kilometers per hour and to travel significant vast distances in minutes.
3) Visualize the complex simplicity of a highway system, with its multi-lane traffic and the system of entrances and exits which allows travellers to move together and then separate as needed.
4) Last, consider the tragic crashes that sometimes result when people flout these agreed-upon rules.
Point of view is crucial in just the same way, and often just as invisible.