Monday, January 05, 2009

How watching DVDs is writing by another, really!

Christmas is a time of goodwill to all men, a time to take stock of our lives and reflect on how we can be better people next year. No, scrub that: it's a time of almost total indolence and self-indulgence, which is why we like it. Who'd come back for all that self-abnegation stuff year after year...?

Which is one way of saying I didn't get too much done on the book over the holidays (although what I did get done was very useful and takes me a long way forward on the second draft). What I did instead was a lot of DVD-watching. We picked up two great series, Bones Season 1, and Rome, the HBO mini-series.

One of the curses of the writer's life (and there aren't many) is that you can never just read a book or watch a TV show: instead, you're always filtering it through some kind of critical process, noting the tricks the creator has used, and filing things away for future use. It doesn't mean you don't enjoy the experience, but it's a different kind of enjoyment. What do I do that they're doing? What don't I do?

I've blogged about Bones before so I won't say too much about it again. Perversely, one of the things I most admire about it is that it's formulaic: part-CSI, part X-Files, structurally it does nothing you won't find elsewhere. It has twin protagonists, male and female, oozing unresolved sexual tension; a nicely differentiated supporting ensemble; wisecracks; slick plotting on both an episode and a series level. But it's not really about plot: Bones stands or falls on the quality of the character and relationships. The success of the show is, I suspect, at least about the actors as the writers: the stars, David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel, have "chemistry" (whatever that is...) and conceal the fact that the plot is largely the same every week. In every story I've ever written I've tried to put in a relationship like that (strangely, it was my first attempt, The Zael Inheritance, which was the most successful), and I also respond to the way the show mixes the comic and tragic. That's a very difficult trick to pull off, and completely fatal if misses even by a hair's breadth.

Rome has few similarities with Bones, but one common feature is that it's not really about the plot. If you have even a basic working knowledge of the Roman Republic, you know from the start what's going to happen to the main characters (particularly since the show doesn't take too many liberties with history). Again, the characterisation is fully-textured: there are few stereotypes, and no stock villains (although there are plenty of subtly-nuanced ones). Rome is structured as an ensemble piece: the two nominal protagonists, the odd-couple legionaries Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pollo, have to compete with the historical giants of the time, Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony et al. That's one of things I like best about it--the way it merges the individual stories of the obscure figures, just trying to live their lives against a background of civil war--with the grand drama unfolding around them. I'm trying something similar in The Last Free City so it's interesting to see the way it's handled here.

If there is an underlying similarity between Bones and Rome it is this emphasis on character over plot. That's odd, given how tightly both are plotted (Rome in particular marshals its huge cast with an excellence all the more commendable for being invisible). But the plot is the backdrop against which the characters shine. The lesson, if there is some general point we can extract, is this: the more competent the plot, the less you notice it (at least in the kind of fiction I enjoy).

There: having spent some time in documented reflection on how I've lazed the Christmas holidays away on the sofa, I can return tonight with a clear conscience to find out what happens when Caesar pursues Pompey all the way to Alexandria--where a queen-in-waiting named Cleopatra is lurking...


David Isaak said...

Nice post, and the mention of "Rome" brings up something I've often thought about--the kinds of things you can do when the general outlines of a story are already known by most viewers or readers. In such a case the big plot points are already givens (and in the case of history, need not even be plausible). This gives the writer room to concentrate on other matters, and elminates huge amounts of exposition and plot development.

This is especially noticeable in revisionist games such as "Shakespeare in Love" or "Wicked," neither of which really hang together without the backstory knowledge we already possess. The pre-existing beats allow the writer to insert their own story as a kind of counterpoint, and also give the occasional nudge and wink to the reader or viewer--who feels like an insider.

Caesar's murder now seems inevitable to all of us, but I suspect it would be a real shock if you didn't know it was coming...

Today's verification code: seringly.

I wish they wouldn't use so many adverbs.

Swainson said...

Happy new year.

What makes you think that it is only authors who think about how people construct a story.

One of the things I love about reading, as oppose to watching, is the nuance in books is so much finer.

I'm just getting into "The Dog"
Very Vancian type of style.

Tim Stretton said...


Hey, Caesar gets murdered? Thanks for telling me...

I like the way "Rome" includes not only the "big" story but also the more obscure characters like Vorenus and Pollo so that even while you know what's going to happen to some of the characters, there's still the narrative hook around the small guys.

There's an added complication, of course, in that not everyone knows the historical story - so my partner was shocked and horrified when Pompey's haven in Egypt proved to be anything but...

A well-constructed story of this type has to work for those who know history and those who don't.

Swainson, I think writers are almost forced to look at things in this technical way - others have the choice. Sometimes I wish I could just go with the flow!

And as a regular visitor to the blog, you'll know that "Vancian" is the biggest compliment you can pay me. Thanks!

I entirely agree with you about the greater nuances in written fiction: there are some things you can do on the page that just can't be replicated on screen. And arguably the reader dictates the pace of what they read, whereas on film it's the director who determines the pace - quite a major disctinction.

David Isaak said...

The issue of side characters (who might be factual or fictional) in historical narratives is an interesting issue. As you point out, they're an opportunity to introduce some stakes where the outcome isn't already known. They are also a good way to humananize those who are larger than life (the role of the Persian Boy in Mary Renault's novel).

All in all, I'm glad I'm not trying to write historicals. It looks like a huge amount of trouble.

Tim Stretton said...

David, the Persian Boy is my favourite Mary Renault novel, partly for the reasons you outline. Indeed it's only awaiting a re-reading to feature on "Why Should I Read...?"