Sunday, 23 January 2011

This Is Not The Cinema

I was reading Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark’s great book 'How Not To Write A Novel' . And how I laughed at the foolish, rejected authors whose work was so cruelly parodied by Newman and Mittlemark – themselves editors. One in particular struck a chord. You can’t, they say, have slapstick comedy in a novel. It’s for visual media only. The proof is in this excerpt:
“”Hey, Mimi, can I see the boss?” Jimmy asked. But before the receptionist could answer, he’d stepped on the end of his untied shoelace and tripped with a wild flailing of his arms. First he kicked over an umbrella stand, causing the umbrella to fly out. A few opened in mid air. Batting the umbrellas away from his face, he fell on his butt...”
They’re right, right? A good point, very well made. This week, editing the WIP, I made a similar discovery – a disheartening one. The same rule applies to action sequences as applies to slapstick comedy.
I’d begun to suspect this, truth be told, some weeks ago having read Kenneth Oppel’s excellent YA adventure 'Skybreaker' . I’ll show you what I mean. It’s chapter 3, and the protagonist is being chased across the roofs of Parisian apartments by a bunch of bad guys in an airship – a prospect which would have Speilberg licking his lips.
But Oppel deals with it very quickly and economically in a series of clipped, precise sentences. Like this:
“Cloaked in shadow, we ran across the long stretch of rooftops, leaping alleys when needed. The airship hounded us, its spotlight fixing us time and time again.”
And this:
“Before us, the roof angled down sharply, a slate toboggan ride, ridged with garret windows... Down I went, surfing on slate, and hoping I would not overshoot the weather vane. I clutched at it and felt it bend far out, nearly spilling me off the roof altogether.”
In a few hundred words, the chase is over, the protagonist having swung through a window into a stranger’s boudoir and down on to the street.
If there was a movie version of the book, this action-sequence would no doubt take centre stage, a series of choppy, dramatic shots extending it across four or five minutes. Slo-mo, music, the stretching of time – all would have worked to lengthen the scene.
So when I looked at a chase sequence early in ‘Sleepwell and Fly’, I wondered dolefully how I’d managed to spend nearly 1500 words on it. What chance has pace got if your chase goes on for two thirds of a chapter? Particularly if there’s a seemingly endless sprint through a huge labyrinthine mansion:

He shouldered his way through another door, sprinted through a library, small and deserted, and into another corridor. Clattering footfalls followed. Shouts multiplied. He kept running, babbling fearfully under his breath, terror consuming him. Through another door and into a large, open hall with a marble floor. From his left, a heavy door burst open and a second group of men ran towards him, a broad black figure in silhouette leading them, a wing of dark riding cape rolling around his shoulders....”

It’s binned now, following some pretty direct feedback. I showed it to a colleague of mine – acclaimed sci-fi novelist that he is – and he immediately told me it was way too long. His advice was interesting. “Action sequences” he said, acknowledging the irony of his words, “are actually quite boring to read. Get them over with – get back to talking as quickly as you can.”

It’s worth remembering, huh? We may be a culture immersed in the visual, but this.... well; this is not the cinema.

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