Nonverbal Communication In Writing…?

Note — this was supposed to go up yesterday, but…err…well…I screwed up.  I load and schedule these posts in advance (usually).  When I loaded this one I…ahem…selected the wrong date.  D’oh.

I’m a music guy.  I love music, and I don’t mean just one or two styles — I love, and can appreciate, the talent and appeal of all kinds of music.  I don’t think there is a style I won’t listen to, if the artist has talent and commitment.

Music, in fact, plays a huge role in my writing.  I’ve mentioned before that I have to have the right “soundtrack” playing in order to really get the most out of a scene.  Not just the message of the music, but also the beat, the tone, the character…they all help create the environment I need to write effectively.

Well, when it comes to the actual stories we write, those things matter, too.  We don’t talk about them enough, in fact.  Oh, folks love to talk about the tone and “color” of a scene.  “Pacing” generally gets in there, too.  But we talk about those things like they are discreet and separate.

They aren’t.

I mentioned music to open this because the rhythm and beat of a song underlies everything, is the structure on which the whole song is built.  Think back to some of your favorite music.  Better yet, think back to those songs that moved you emotionally, either to joy or to tears.  Think about the rhythms and beats they used, as much as the notes and words, and how those changed and adjusted to shape the message.

That applies to writing, as well.  The beat and rhythm of a story is important, as important as the words themselves.  Unfortunately, we far too often mistake “pacing” for that necessary rhythm.  Now, don’t get me wrong: all stories need the right pacing for their contents.  But that pacing is a “big picture” concept, is the flow of the story as a whole.

The rhythm of the story?  That’s different.  That’s granular, and intimate, and needs to change and adjust to reflect what is happening at any particular point.  It is needed, also, to build and reinforce the emotions and feelings you want your reader to feel.

Scenes long and languid, full of description and character development…

Scenes short and staccato, with just a few words to paint each picture and action…

Scenes with the slow, smoldering intensity of emotion (whether love or hate)…

I could go on, but I think the point is made.  A good story needs all of these…all of these, and more.  If you want to be more visual, you can come it from the perspective of movies (another passion of mine):

The slow panning of an establishing shot: peasants in the fields.  Verdant green against the deep blue sky.  A gentle breeze bending the young grain.  Slow and stately…a mood is created.

Then erratic, staccato jump-cuts as black-clad raiders thunder through on horseback.  The flash of a sword.  A bit of red to mar the green.  Fire.  Screams.  Hints of faces, of horror and savagery.  But never does the camera linger long enough to truly focus on any one thing.  The horror, and the emotion, comes from those flickering flashes of disturbing images.

The raiders leave, sated…and the rhythm changes again, communicates something different: a long, lingering shot that lets you see the bodies.  Men who died badly.  Women sobbing.  A young boy, the sword in his hand nearly as big as he, lying in his own blood.  A slow, painful zoom onto another child, clutching in horrified, wide-eyed silence at one of those bodies…

The scene is easy enough to imagine, and to write…but it is the changes in rhythm of the movie’s editing — and the changes in the soundtrack from slow and pastoral to brassy and loud, and finally to the minor key of mourning and death — that creates the emotion of the whole thing.

Short, choppy sentences.  Dynamic, strong words.  One detail on which to focus…one detail to carry the message of the whole scene.

Or sentences of depth and complexity.  Sentences that tell the reader he or she is safe, can linger a bit over the words and concepts.  Words that carry emotion and description.  Words and sentences that are gentle, even, and convey all the detail of your characters and your world.

Too many stories use one structure, and one rhythm, throughout.  Too many stories worry about the pacing of the plot, without thinking a bit about the rhythm and pacing of the scenes, or the actual words.  I well-and-truly love me my Tolkien and my Asimov (to provide just two examples), but have you gone back and really read them recently?

They are, to put it gently, dry and monotone.  Tolkien’s battle scenes read like the narration of a history professor centuries removed from the conflict…and Asimov?  His (small) handful of battles read like they are in the stories because they are required, not because they actually belong.

And both use one rhythm, and one limited emotional range.

This is, by the way, why I listen to music of such variety…and why I watch — and try to learn from — so many movies: to find other rhythms, to find other ways to communicate emotion and meaning.  The ultimate writing challenge, for me, is to study and learn, and to find ways to communicate in words the nonverbal emotions that have so much meaning in those two far-different mediums.*

*One of the coolest lessons from my linguistics days involved nonverbal communication: we watched a horror movie with the soundtrack and effects removed.  There was just dialogue to carry and convey all of the information and emotion. It didn’t work…at all.  That lesson stuck with me…

Back To Our Regular Programming: Characters Matter

Okay, so instead of writing, I’m busy writing a blog about, err, writing.

I think I need to switch to decaf.

Lately I’ve let myself “go political” for a few posts. That was something I swore I would never do when I started this blog. Just like I swore I would cut back on coffee in 2017.

Yeah, both of those resolutions had about the same chance of success.

At any rate, no more politics. Not today…and hopefully not for a while.

Nope, today is all about taking the title of Saturday’s “bonus post” and putting it back into writing terms: character matters. On two levels that works…and you can figure them out just as easily as can I*.

most-interesting-squirrel*Squirrel Moment of the Day: one of the hardest things to learn in writing? DON’T OVER-EXPLAIN! Trust your readers and, most of all, respect them. As readers, we all (well, I think all) hate it when writers talk down to us, when they assume we can’t connect dots on our own. So, why then, is the urge to do the same thing so strong when we write? Words are precious things — no, really, trust me on this, your word count is a precious resource: don’t waste it on unimportant details and pointless background. Give hints, sketch a few lines, then let the reader fill in the details with their own mind. Trust them, in other words, and treat them like they have brains of their own.

I know I’ve talked about that problem with wordiness and over-explaining before, but crap…that’s worth a post in and of itself.

But not today.

Not today because that topic deserves some thought and planning…neither of which I have ready at the moment.

Nope, today I’m thinking about characters. About when characters speak for themselves, and about when they help dictate the story.

I need to rephrase that title I’m re-using from Saturday: Characters Matter.

Don’t use them lightly…don’t sell them short…and, for God’s sake, don’t railroad them! If a character does, or says, something totally outside of their make-up, you’ve failed them. I don’t care if it’s necessary to advance the plot…I don’t care if it’s something that has to happen…I don’t care if the devil makes them do it*, your character has to do what’s right for them.

*Although that, arguably, could be a fun little device to play with…in the right circumstances.

Want to know why I never got into GRRM’s Fire & Ice series? Because, too often, his characters do things that are alien to who they are. He has done a masterful job of creating deep, rich and engaging characters…then betrayed them by forcing them to do things simply because the plot calls for it.

That is, I should add, one area where the TV series has, for the most part, done a great job of “cleaning up” — HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation is, I believe, only the second* instance where I’ve found the movie/show better than the original book(s).

*Jaws is the other one.

And, yes, Tyrion is still the best and most interesting character in either version…although Jaime has his worth, too. Remember my fixation with the broken and the flawed? Yep, it all goes back to the best chapter title ever: Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things. I will always love GRRM for that one…both for the title, and for that first glimpse of Tyrion as a hell of a lot more complicated and interesting than the reader’s initial impressions.

In the end, if you have to force your character to do something outside of themselves — something alien to who they are — you need to go back and either rework that character, or rework your story/plot.

By now, you probably know just where I come down on that particular decision…

Being A Kid Again

I was not happy with The Force Awakens.  You have no idea how hard it is to write that…let alone how hard to think it.  Star Wars is my childhood.  My current fascination with photography was born from that movie, the first film I really remember in detail.  And don’t even get me started on my love of sci-fi and fantasy…

As bad as were the three prequels, the three “originals” are the apex for me in oh so many ways.

That is why, honestly, it was so hard to be disappointed with The Force Awakens.  I wanted very much to fall in love with that movie, but it failed on just way too many levels.

But Star Wars is Star Wars, and I could only hold out for so long: I finally sat down to watch Rogue One.

I was, sadly, prepared to be disappointed.

Oh boy, was I not.

This is the Star Wars movie we’ve been waiting for since Return of the Jedithis is what Force Awakens should have been.  I rediscovered the magic of being that young kid sitting again in the theater and losing myself in a movie.

It sounds inadequate, but I can think of no higher praise to offer the writers and director and cast than to say, “You gave me back the magic.”

Well done, folks.  Well done.

It’s Not Binge-Watching, It’s Research!

I’ve mentioned before I don’t do cable, I stream.  The problem with streaming is that you can just head off on random tangents.  Oh, I don’t mean stuff like binge-watching every single episode of Game of Thrones in a single weekend.  No, I would never do something like that.  Not me!  Nothing to see here, just move along…

No, lately I’ve been going, err…”research”.  Doing the old “compare and contrast” shtick from my school essay days.  Things like comparing both versions of Battlestar Galactica, or the old campy 60s Batman* versus the more current movie iterations, that kind of thing…

*How the hell did Bruce Wayne escape a life sentence, anyway?  He kept a young boy in a cave!

Anyway, part of my little experiment has been rewatching the various Star Trek series.  Now, I need to set the stage by admitting my complete addiction to the original series.  An addiction, I should add, that dates back to when I was like five years old.

The original series will always, always, always have a special place in my heart.  Kirk – and Jack Aubrey, for fellow historical fiction fans – is still the ultimate prototype for what a sci-fi/adventure captain should be.  Shit, I still want to grow up to be Kirk…

But the best of the lot?  Deep Space 9.  Odd, I know.  That one is pretty much the red-headed stepchild of the Star Trek world.  It’s the part of the universe that’s not really part of the universe.  That’s one reason why I like it so much.

Leaving the different captains and characters aside, each of the series had its own personality and focus.  And those differences are why I prefer DS9 above even the original:

The original Star Trek series was a commentary on the politics, culture and social problems of its day.  While that is what sci-fi can do very, very well (hey, I chose it as a genre for a reason!), it made that series more about plot than anything else.  The situations into which Kirk and the others were placed were in total control.  Everything else (characters, tech, etc…) was there to serve that plot.

Next Generation, on the other hand, was really all about the tech.  Oh, there was still some commentary, but it was less important than the gee-whiz tech (and the consequent special effects).  This was also the most…unrealistic of all five series.  Jesus, this thing drove me nuts with its saccharine cheerfulness.  To me, it’s still the worst of the lot.

VoyagerVoyager followed closely in TNG’s footsteps.  In spite of some good performances – and some real improvement in writing and directing in the later years – it’s still a show about a ship.  With some people on it.  And aliens.  And reversing the polarity of something…on every single goddamned episode.  Find a new throwaway line, for fuck’s sake!

Enterprise tried to get into characters, but it took until like season three for you to give two shits about any of them.  Two-thirds of the characters on that show needed to be punched.  Repeatedly.  It tried to escape the mold of the other series (being the last one made), but never lived up to its premise, nor escaped the shadows.

And then there’s DS9.  In spite of the criticisms above, I actually liked all the shows, but DS9 is my favorite for one simple reason: it’s a show about the characters.  The station is just a backdrop, it means nothing.  The setting and tech are there just to support the damned characters.  That’s the way it should be.  Oh, and I suppose I should mention that it’s also the darkest of all five.  It succeeds with themes and problems the others could not do well.  It also brings a certain bit of jaded cynicism the other shows, far more optimistic and happy, could never even consider.

Dammit…my little 400-word post (wishful thinking, I know) has blown up on me, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  Shit, I could do a twenty-thousand word paper on this and still leave crap out.

I think I’ll just cut my losses and go nerd out on some anime now…The Eccentric Family at the moment, if you’re wondering.  Absolutely gorgeous animation that is also pretty unique in terms of style, and a story that is simultaneously funny and dark as hell.

P.S.

There is a (kinda old) joke that the two best Star Trek movies ever made are “Galaxy Quest” and “Master & Commander”.  It’s funny because it’s pretty much true…