Sunday, 22 May 2011

'Elber Get The Terrors'

When J and me were conducting our long-distance relationship, we used to read to each other over the phone. That summer, everyone was reading 'The Da Vinci Code' so I bought it and over a period of three or four nights we slogged through the opening 100 pages or so – those endless descriptions of the Louvre’s parquet flooring and such.
We never got beyond that point; reading a badly-written book aloud can be a pretty punishing experience. But I still remember the exact point at which we stopped – and why.
A character called Sauniere, dying in great pain, writes a message on the floor in his own blood. It’s this. 13-3-3-21-1-1-8-5
O, Draconian Devil! Oh, Lame Saint!”
Now; there’s a long and rich tradition of the cryptic message in literature – from Jane Eyre hearing Rochester’s spirit-voice onwards. We could generate a pretty good list together here now; let me pitch in with Conan Doyle’s 'The Sign of Four' in which a woman receives a mysterious package containing a large and lustrous pearl on the same day every year, or Robert Goddard’s 'Closed Circle', in which a character is terrorised by a drawing of two concentric circles that arrives in the post. Stevenson’s ‘black spot' in 'Treasure Island' is worth a mention – as is Pullman’s 'The Ruby in the Smoke', in which a character has a heart attack at the opaque mention of something called the ‘seven blessings’.
These cryptic messages are often closely followed by the death or disappearance of the messenger, so as to leave the protagonist unable to enquire any further. Colin Bateman’s thriller 'Divorcing Jack' springs to mind here, since the title of the novel is a reference to the misheard whisper of a dying character; “Divorce Jack” is in fact an attempt to speak the name of a Czech composer.
But there’s a problem with the use of cryptic messages that as writers we need to pay heed to; a balance that needs to be struck between the need we have as writers to introduce a plot device via a message, and the manner in which the characters are made to do it.
And that’s why I put down 'The Da Vinci Code' at that point, never to pick it up again. Dan Brown’s need for a cryptic message to drive his plot forward grossly outweighs his character’s motivations and actions. Let’s face it - no dying man would spend any amount of time carefully constructing a cryptic message of such obscure length and enigmatic detail particularly when writing in their own blood. The author’s guiding hand is so obvious here that any tenuous suspension of disbelief is shattered.
And so I find myself in a difficult position, having just written a cryptic threat into the opening chapter of my WIP which reads “Elber get the terrors.” It makes little sense to the protagonist – or for that matter, to the reader at that point. My job, I reckon, is to make sure it makes perfect and simple sense from the sender’s point of view.
Otherwise, my inexpert guiding hand will be as visible as Dan Brown’s when he reveals, as his chapter-end cliffhanger, that Sauniere’s message is in fact even longer, and concludes with the hitherto concealed words “p.s. Find Robert Langdon.”
No kidding.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Repeat Readings

I’ve got a friend who knows pretty much all there is to know about cinema. For the purposes of this post, we’ll call him Argyle. He’s not the same Argyle that features in the post 'How to Spot a Really Bad Idea' though; he’s a different Argyle. (The two Argyles, by the way, have never met each other. Always keep your Argyles apart is my motto.)
This Argyle was telling me about the distribution deals struck between major studios and exhibitors when a movie is released.
Now; pay attention everybody. Typically, Argyle said, in the first week of release, the takings are split 90/10 in favour of the studios. The exhibitors get next to nothing, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why pick and mix sweets cost, ounce-for-ounce, about the same as gold bullion whenever you go to the flicks.
After the opening week, the proportions adjust speedily in favour of the exhibitors. So there are two opposing imperatives here. The exhibitors want movie-goers to be just too damn busy to catch a film in its opening few weeks, and instead see it three or four weeks into its run. Perhaps go back and watch it a second time. The studios on the other hand, want people to flock to the cinema in week one, never return, and then buy the DVD at some later date.
Thus, Argyle argued, the preponderance of vacuous and repetitive tat aimed at the teenage market. We’re on to 'Saw 6' or 7 or 8 or whatever the hell it is now, because those movies hit number one for one week, then drop like a stone. The last thing the studios want is a slow-burning word-of-mouth success that hits its peak five weeks through its run.
After Argyle had gone, leaving nothing but a faint scent of gardenia and regret in the air, I pondered his polemic.
And there’s an argument I think, that says the changing taste for certain narrative structures might be the direct result of distribution deals such as this one. That audiences are becoming attuned to explosive, vapid, action-driven narratives that satisfy only as long as they are being experienced. Narratives with a deliberate in-built obsolescence that positively discourage a second viewing.
No wonder, therefore, that some young readers find it tough to battle through a 60,000 word YA novel, or that many swap reading for more immediate and visual media when they get to high school.
Check out any writers’ guides – the kind of books I regularly read and refer to here; the ones that advise would-be novelists on how to get published – and you’ll see them preach the crucial importance of beginning your story in media res. As if, nowadays, there really is no other choice. And perhaps there isn’t. If there’s an i-pad, a TV and a Playstation in the same room as the book, then the book’s going to have to be bloody good from word one of line one of page one.
But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t satisfy on a much richer and deeper level than 'Saw 10'. YA writers will need to compete by offering something different rather than imitating the tired structures and cliches of cinema narrative – by crafting a tale which rewards repeat readings, rather than punishing them.