Thursday, 12 May 2011

Description Described

Ah, description. I have quite a lot of thoughts on it,and generally I think I still struggle with it, but my insight was requested, so here it is.

I've always felt that I'm quite austere with description, and only occaisionally punctuate it with more poetic flourishes. Generally I don't go looking for an image if I don't have one, but if an image comes to mind as I'm writing I aim to incorporate it, and will sometimes reshape a scene with it in mind.

I try never to do a full paragraph of pure description, or if I must I try and add a bit of immaterial incidental activity or some thematic element to make it more dynamic; even something as simple as following a raindrop as it breaks over the stone parapet of a castle and trickles down the sandstone, is cast briefly back into freefall as it passes the window of the young lord's nursery, traces the contour of a gargoyle and finally joins the muddy slough of the courtyard, where it's abruptly spattered by the boot of the smith's apprentice, our POV character for the chapter. (And as an aside, I made that up on the spot as an example. I'm aware it's bollocks and contrived.)

I never ever give a full description of a character when he or she first appears in the narrative. This to me always recalls the days of primary school creative writing lessons, and a full biometric run down of leg measurements, bust size and eye colour according to the handy Dulux reference sheet bespeaks to me preteen dabbling in storytelling like nothing else. Instead, I go for just a couple of words to give the reader a sketch, then a few more hints and mentions throughout that scene when they fit to flesh things out. By the end of the first scene the reader should have a good portrait in their mind's eye of what the character looks like, but not enough to construct a Crimebusters photofit. Later, I'll generally only add further embellishment if it flows naturally, usually in the form of callouts to particular features where that feature is the focal point of a particular gesture or act.

Location setting is more needy, and usually I do open up with multiple lines of description, but I'll almost always try to go for incidental action or thematics to enliven it. For example in Red Flag, the opening description of Darken's fortress takes in its appearance, its local, and its atmosphere, but does so with a distinct emphasis on the imposing, impenetrable fortress-qualities of the place. Then the action kicks off with Hel immediately puncturing these defenses, making the description feel more like a set up for this pay off - which in turn describes to us some facet of Hel without saying anything - and less like a simple verbal painting in of the stage.

For me the hardest description is in pronouns and adverbs. The technical stuff. You know you don't want to keep doing 'He said, she said, he did, she did' but this stuff is very hard to give flow and character without being gruesomely overstated and flowery. In truth almost all dialogue does have to be a 'he said' job, but when things are clicking just right I'll spot without thinking the opportunities for a 'whispered' or a 'hissed' or maybe a 'said with a thin smile' or something. One of those will colour a lot of conversation; like a dye only a drop is needed.

Another skill I'm trying to grasp is the art of description, narrative digression and action amid dialogue. A lot of my stories are really minimal two-hander playscripts with the stage directions rewritten as narrative. I need to work better at realising the potential in prose.

Related to that is long-form sections of speechless action. I'm a speaky writer, no doubt about that, and I sometimes find myself grasping when I need to convey a couple of thousand words with negligible discussion (though I do find myself to have a knack for actual action scenes). I've had to actively study how this is done in 'real' books and again it's almost always about narrative digression. You segue into more conceptual or thematic or conversational prose for a bit as you coast along the action, drawing jumping off points from the events you detail whilst angling your theme to flow in the same direction as the story is heading. It's a good skill, the skill I'm most keen to hone. Narrative voice is where it's at. I generally pinpoint my main struggle with the actual words these days at not having a fully formed voice, and so having to actively work at each line. I can't simply start to 'talk' in narrative on the page. This is why I often favour first-person narration. I'm much better at naturalistic character dialogue and can rapidly assume an in-character narrator. I've also tried to muddy the water with characterful third person narration, but that's tricky and will often come out annoying. It's generally best suited to humour but doesn't have to be. Funnily enough when I was a writing machine back in my teens and stuff would just flow for me, I felt - and I still do feel - that my narrative voice was keenly honed. I had no plot in those days, so my writing was just meandering stylistics, and yet it flowed and had a certain attraction I still can't deny. Somehow over time I've completely lost that skill whilst picking up the (probably more needed) insight into plot mechanics. Characters I've always been good at, although I sometimes find it hard to kick the pebble down the mountain. My experiments in a shared universe have come so much more easily for me because AO'M had already set the shale scattering and all I had to do was jump on and surf down the quarry pit, pulling elaborate ollies and 360s of characterisation with my borrowed board.

...You see? That's what happens when an image hits me. Although it usually helps when it's less stupid.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

I Hope We'll Be Here When They're Through With Us

Realised finally why I am so resistant to getting an eye test. Have so little identity that I am clinging even to negative traits. ('That's Phil, his eyesight is shit.')

My most distant friends are the closest to me.

Recurring dreams are very rare, and occur only when I am truly obsessing over something.

Fantasy scenario is theoretically a possibility, but practical costs and likely ruinous. I keep circling it.

Have discovered a new identification figure.

I have incredible ideas every day. I am convinced of their brilliance. I can't execute on any of them.

Recently I've been reminded of all the things I wanted to pursue that were cut short. I had mostly forgotten about them until now.

I don't write about myself very often. Afraid of spiralling. Will probably stop now?

Why all of this? Because I wanted to write and was struggling.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Tell the People: Vince Cable Advocates Direct Action

"No government - coalition, Labour or other - would change its fundamental economic policy simply in response to a demonstration of that kind."1
So sayeth Vince Cable yesterday, with regards to the March for the Alternative that took place on Friday. I cannot imagine a greater vindication of direct action and civil disobedience than that. In a single sentence Cable has affirmed the facticity of a truth understood by all who believed in the rightfulness of direct action.

Let's be clear. Direct action is not an intensifier in the dialogue of protest. It does not exist to punctuate our statement by saying, 'Yes, we are this angry.' Just and neccesary direct action must be both of those things. They are mutually inclusive. Neccesary action is always just, and just action must always be neccesary. When the state condoned form of protest discourse has been sublimated by the system such that its power is negated (as it is in our current system, where it is diffused along socially prefigured lines of characterisation and storytelling, repackaged as an old, powerless narrative), then direct action becomes neccesary. This should not be hard to accept: When there is no power in civil obedience, we must turn to civil disobedience to become empowered. (And the rider to that, which is that we must not accept disempowerment.) All of those who have been acting upon the rightfulness of direct action (and here I most definitely include UK Uncut, and exclude the stupidity of the Black Bloc) have held at heart the knowledge that civil obedient protest - marching and rallying - has been disempowered. Until now that view has had opposition from ineffectual neoliberals insisting that endless marching within state constraints is the only rightful form of protest.

As of yesterday, that argument has been exploded. No longer is this argument contested. Now we have a statement, a declaration from one of the central figures in the ConDem cabal, that the civil obedient form of protest will not be recognised by the state in any effectual way. It almost beggars belief that Cable would misstep so badly as to make a statement so blunt, but so he did, and the ConDem mask has slipped. The government will not listen to its people. We must disobey to maintain common power, and we must not surrender common power. There's only one course of action.

Now we need to get that message out there. It saddens me that so few people will even see Cable's message, and fewer still will grasp what it means. We need to push it out, educate people. If people truly understood what was happening in this country's political sphere (and beyond it, of course) they would be frightened for the future. Anyone who is not concerned about the path we are taking, nor angry at the exercises of power by these falsely elected ideologues, does not understand what is happening. Or, of course, they're one of those who stand to profit. We need to make sure people do understand, so actions like this do not slip past barely noticed nor challenged:

'Academic fury over order to study the big society'

One line in particular stands out:
The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will spend a "significant" amount of its funding on the prime minister's vision for the country, after a government "clarification" of the Haldane principle – a convention that for 90 years has protected the right of academics to decide where research funds should be spent.
This use of the word 'clarification' is deeply, deeply sinister. It's an omen of things to come. What other policies and principles might the coalition see fit to 'clarify'? In the face of such things, when fully comprehended, who would not be up in arms? So it's vital we make sure these actions, this information, is diseminated and understood. Cable has given us a perfect rallying point, a statement simultaneously sweeping in its impact yet uncommonly clear in its meaning. Now we need to let people know.


Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Prime Cut

I have a proper update to post at some point. For now, though, my friends have started randomly getting thrilled over Halo, so it's time to redress the balance.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Tiers Two: Judgment Day

A couple of top tier quickies - films whose inclusion are hardly groundbreaking.

Withnail and I

This isn't even a remotely unusual choice, and so there is little I can say that isn't already known. In short, a story deeply tragic, yet uproarously hilarious, which maintains a constant texture to its dialogue, with not a line off target. Its true strength, though, is in the depth of its observation and reflection, which taps a much deeper vein of pathos than is usual of farce.

Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark

Another craftsman's film, like Chinatown, and like others I've yet to list; films in which every aspect has been neatly crafted to mesh as an elegant, solidly constructed whole. In this case Lucas and Spielberg had their eye on cinema as a medium of entertainment, and they produce a piece with fun pouring from its truly cinematic workings. A beautiful score, superb setpieces (that have become film history), humour and adventure that rose straight out of a nostalgic awareness of the producers' own childhood joys.
Harrison Ford - almost skipped over - is a gift to the film, making Jones definitively his own. Much of the series' charm comes from its eponymous hero, because he's a hero for the underdog. Succesful and smooth at the right times, he's also at times acutely fallible, clumsy and oblivious in a sympathetic way unique among action heroes. In addition, that he is in his day job a professor and lecturer, who relies on knowledge and intelligence as much as he does his fists (nearly), he is far more a hero for the nerd generation that relishes in the films than the likes of Bruce Willis.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Tiers of a Clown

So, in one of the many houses of reputable conversion I frequent, there came the discussion of films, and our personal 'best' canon. This led to me telling an interested participant that I would blog about my 'Top Ten' movies. But I don't have ten, so let's call it my 'Top Tier' movies instead. One thing that became apparent as I was running through titles in my mind is that there are a whole swathe of fantastic movies that sit JUST outside the boundary. I may only have 8 or so classics, but there's probably about 25 near-classics. On with the list!


This is a movie that will make you think. Like a cleverly structured puzzle box, it has many interlocking pieces that need turning over in your mind, sliding aside to free others. Shane Carruth pretty much came out of nowhere with his idea for a story about discovery and invention, and the people unprepared for it. He takes no prisoners, with extremely colloquial, naturalistic, elliptical dialogue, even when key plot information is disclosed. Nobody here is talking for the audience's benefit. And when combined with phenomenally natural performances - from guys who have never acted before - the effect is incredible. It is real in a way no other film captures. But it's challenging to keep up.

Add to that a plot where great swathes of cause and effect have ceased to exist, are never shown on screen, and have to be grasped through extrapolation, and you have a challenge. You cannot relax with Primer. You could not watch films of this kind all the time, without being a savant. But when you want something that will occupy every strand of your mind for hours longer than its running time, Primer is the film. As my brother said, it's a 4 hour film in 70 minutes.

It's not a cold, cerebral affair, though. Carruth came into the project to make a film about two guys, and their relationship. Their trust and friendship, and how it is affected by a paradigm shift in their reality. Again, no concessions are made to the audience. There's no soliloquys, no impassioned speeches writ large, no swelling orchestral score. But for all that, the subtle, understated emotion is truer, and more affecting.

It's also beautifully shot and produced, all by Carruth, who is apparently Leonardo Da Vinci reincarnate. I give it the highest recommendation, but only if you want a film you have to put effort into to get enjoyment back. And don't seek out plot information before you watch - It's not a twist ending film or anything of that kind, but it's about growing discovery and dawning realisation, and this atmosphere is perhaps hurt even more by spoilers than any shock twist would be.


Chinatown is pretty much a perfectly constructed movie. It's a plot movie, all about the story, but it perfectly crafts every aspect - visuals, sound, pace, performance - to tell that story in the most compelling way possible.

That story is a great one. A truly cinematic story, that gives itself over to powerhouse performances of its characters and striking visualisations of its bleak landscapes. It's a story about the brutality of those with power to those they hold power over - brutality more subtle and more destructive than physical violence - and an unanswered question about those who turn a blind eye, all symbolised by Gittes' old Chinatown beat that gives the film its name.

It is not, however, a relentless film. It's a film that finds warmth where it can in a cold and cruel world, and seizes it - and the warmth between Gittes and Mulwray triumphs over its context in a truly, ah, warming way. It has humour too, particularly in the wry observations and actions of Gittes himself.

Nicholson lives up to his reputation in the role of the PI who knows he should look the other way for his own sake, but can't beat his own good nature. I have seen neither the Shining or Cuckoo's Nest, but this, at least is a performance worthy of remembrance.

Faye Dunaway gives as good as she gets as Mulwray, and there is genuine energy in the scenes between her and Gittes. Their relationship goes through a vast sequence of twists and turns, and at every point the progression feels true and the place they are at resonates.

John Huston appears fleetingly, like Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, and also like that performance, he is vividly memorable and a dominant performance in just brief appearances. A compelling moral study, he is abhorrent, perhaps a monster, but one understands that he simply does not see the world the same way as we do. He is no monster in his own eyes. Huston provides a window onto understanding of that morality, and is intriguing for it.

I won't enumerate more cast members. There really is no dropped ball. The cast is as universally strong as the production. It's all about the story, and the story is superb, but the immense strength of every element behind it is what gives it such impact.

I have more movies to discuss, but I realised how long this was getting, so I'll do it in several installments. Be on the lookout for the next thrilling edition!