Food for the imagination

How many movies make you think?

The movie viewer usually does not have to think as much as a person reading, with one notable exception—the occasion extraordinary science fiction film. These films were once an outlet to comment on society, often with a critical view, such as Silent Running  and Fahrenheit 451 (which made a few unfortunate detours from the book). As recently as ten years ago I was intrigued by a British film in this genre entitled Moon, which ending in a startling critique of the lack of ethics dealing with humans in a profit driven society. But, very few Americans even know about that film.

However, when I watch many of Hollywood’s current science fiction offerings, I feel I am viewing slick versions of the early, moody Hitchcock films shot on another planet. Watching actors dash through dark sets is like trying to find the bath room in the middle of the night in a strange house. Despite, listen intently in order to absorb what is happening, I still must depend on the obligatory explanation provided by dialog near the end of the film.

The invention of CG special effects has made creating the illusion of mystery easier. These scenes are jam-packed with mood, but the startling special effects make it difficult to attend to what is actually happening. Bird’s eye views of gleaming sky space ships and whirling galaxies are accompanied by the dance of flickering lights, and punctuated by the occasional flare of an engine.

As the camera zooms in and out, my attention wanders because frequently not a lot is happening beside special effects. When action finally occurs, the close-up view will slam it right into my face. So, I’ve also learned not to worry about missing any clues as to what is occurring. The dialog in the next scene will be an info dump that tells me everything I missed.

As I view these films, the question asked in an article by David Sterritt almost twenty years ago still echoes in my head, “Are we witnessing what some critics call the dumbing down of American cinema?[1] Actor Simon Pegg also notes the dumbing down of movies in the U.S. “Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste.”[2]

So, I continue to watch science fiction movies not caring if I miss anything important in them, because there often isn’t much important to miss. I bemoan that producers seem ignorant of what I really desire—movies that have characters with real moral struggles in which the ending isn’t obvious and dialog subtle enough that I actually have to pay attention.

[1] Are Hollywood movies being dumbed down? Christian Science Monitor, June 15, 2001

[2] Simon Pegg criticises ‘dumbing down’ of cinema, The Guardian, 19 May 2015

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The icebox dilemma

Grab a snack while reading.

The rapid pacing of movies allows script writers and directors a few freedoms that would be criticized in novels. They may stir in a scene that audience that reels in the audience in with mounting tension, but which ultimately does not make sense. Alfred Hitchcock is said to have referred to the incongruities in a scene in Vertigo as the kind that “hits you after you’ve gone home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox.” From that quote, we’ve gained the movie term “ice box scene.”

In Hitchcock’s Vertigo a woman named Madeleine is able to walk into a hotel, completely unobserved. She then enters the room of another woman that should be locked. There is no explanation of how Madeleine obtains the key without the desk clerk seeing her, or how she is gains access to the room. However, the audience is too terrified by watching the height fearing character played by James Steward on the roof of the hotel to question these plot wholes.

A novelist must fill in between the scenes or provide a short exposition to connect events. Otherwise many readers will become alienated by events that don’t make sense. The constant “showing” that occurs in films is not feasible. Sometime the author must take a break for the amount of words required to show all action and simply tell the reader what has occurred. The screen writer cuts out exposition for the sake of economy to keep the movie on its scheduled pace. The movie viewers take in exciting scenes at face value in a movie and don’t consider why they occurred.

The early action scene in Matewan (a film about a West Virginia coal miner’s strike) involves a train full of  replacement workers or “scabs” being brought to Matewan by the company. Unexplainably the train stops in the middle of the woods, not at the mining camp, to drop off these new workers. The strikers immediately appear to attack them. It seemed as if the whole point of the early drop off sight was to expose new workers to a danger that the mine workers would want to avoid. So, why did this happen? There is no explanation given. Movie viewers Have no time to question why this occurs. The “scabs” re-board the train as if begins to move and the viewers are watching to see how the last of them, one of the main characters, manages to be pulled into the rolling train by his friends. Then, the scene immediately switches to another setting in the remote mining town.

The writer that attempts to keep action moving at the pace of a film faces the icebox dilemma. How do you deal with making sense without pausing the action in between scenes to fill in the rationale for the string of exciting scenes? Remember, you are writing a book, and reader will expect to think more than which watching films. With their mind engage they are more likely to detect plots holes. So, the writer of a novel to take to time to fill in gaps in logic and avoid “ice box scenes.” When the reader gets hungry and visits the refrigerator for cold chicken, he should be questioning what will  happen next and not doubting the likeness of what just occurred.

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The writer’s secret sauce

What’s in his head?

Movies have an advantage over the written word when it comes to presenting the emotions of your characters. For example, you read that a man “had his lips raised in a half-smile on one side while he eyes narrowed.”  Did you realize that he was smirking? How about “the woman’s lips curled up, but corner of her eyes remained smooth and unwrinkled.” That is the evil smile, which flashes across the face of actors to show you how devious the person is. If we see these commons facial expressions, we recognize them. However, discerning them from words is more difficult. But, the novelist has a secret sauce that moviemakers can only employ with difficulty— presenting the internal thoughts of characters with clarity and intensity.

In my previous discussion or writing movies versus novels, I described the opening Matewan, a quasi-historical movie ending with a violent massacre during a minor’s strike. The audience is introduced to the internal thoughts of an adolescent coal mining boy at the opening scene. This internal view was so brief that I didn’t even catch it until the end when the denouement was told from his viewpoint as an adult. However, I realized this adolescent was the character with the greatest change arc. I imagine most audience members also failed to catch this subtlety. Despite doing well with critics, Matewan fared poorly with audiences.

The same difficulty detecting the character’s internal view occurred when I viewed Mad Max 2 (known in the US as Road Warrior). I puzzled who spoke the opening and closing sequences of this movie. I immediately questioned “Whose head are we in?” only to be told that it was the feral boy. (This knowledgeable viewer had seen the movie too many times. ) This feral boy only grunted and growled during the film, so his speaking voice was not obvious.

Viewers are used to movies shown from the omnipresent view. To accommodate the rapid pacing expected in a movie, the audience sees the actions of both hero and villains and any important characters. Internal thoughts are rarely voiced. If a movie protagonist is stranded alone, due a plague, a wreck on a tropical island, or an incident during the exploration of Mars, they will typically start talking to something with a face, such as a bust, a skull, or a blood painted volleyball as in Castaway. These conversations are essential for the audience to understand the plot.

However, the novels are not only allowed to move the plot forward via peeks of inside thoughts, they are expected to do this. (The only restriction is to avoid head hopping—moving from one person’s thoughts to another’s without a clear break.) Do not be afraid to use this one benefit to spice up the written word to your best advantage.

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Picking the wrong recipe

The view from Hollywood Boulevard.

How often have you seen movies used as examples on how to write a novel? It’s a shortcut authors employ because familiarity with movies tend to be greater than books.

Movies only consume an hour or two of our lives at a time, and do not require the continued concentration and effort of reading. The plot of a movie is typically the length a few connected short stories or a novella. But, the difference between the two type of media begin at the start. I’ve heard repeatedly that a book must grab the reader in the first few pages. Because a movie has a slimmer plot covered in a shorter time, a book will almost never be as tightly paced.  However, the early attention grabbing requirement that we assume readers are applying to books means that an author has to shove what occurs for the first 10% of the movie into less than the first 1% of the book. Ouch!

Novelist feel forced to introduce the major conflict on the first pages, ignoring the need for portrayal of the characters who play out this conflict. Therefore, the reader is forced to figure out the normal behavior of major characters while reading about an abnormal event. The author must find some unobtrusive way to provide backstory, without shoveling it into the work in chunks large enough to choke on. However, this rarely happens. So, the reader may have to tolerate the initial conflict being shelved until the introduction to the characters occurs.

 The author has an even greater handicap because visual images and sounds portray a setting more rapidly in film than in the written word. Recently, I watch a fictionalized historical film called Matewan (very loosely based on a massacre occurring between striking coal miners and Baldwin-Felts detectives). There was a minute or so panning the disgruntled coal miners climbing out of the mine into daylight, and an immediate switch to the new crew in a cramped box car. This jump from one setting to another would be disconcerting in a book. Scene changes require description of settings, which means more words. During the Matewan scene in the box car, the next set of miners listen to the reading of company rules, which are obviously unfair based on the expressions of the newcomers barreling down the tracks towards the mine.

A modern book would start in the middle of the action—after the train stops and disgruntled miners attack the new replacements. But, only those with a prior understanding of the situation would not be confused by a movie opening in the middle of this skirmish. Instead, movie makers offer a bit of local color by showing the setting and close-ups of important actors, especially their expressions. This lets the viewer into their minds at the beginning. The boring info dump about the company rules remained in the movie even though this would be truncated to a few words in a novel. The movie-going audience is tolerant of a slower start because they expect less requirement to use their own imagination than a book asks from readers.

This is only the start of my discussion. So, as readers please be patient in this exploration of why it is not the wisest tactic to create a book based on the same principles that drive a movie script. And, if you are discussing how to write books, please keep that in mind.

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Characters and cohorts

What training on team interactions tells us about writing characters.

Write about what?

group 2011 (1)In fiction most protagonists like most people are not complete loners. Interactions with their cohorts make up a good portion of novels, so creating these peers takes a bit of thought. What enables a real-life group to be innovative in business also makes for interesting interplay between the main character and their group.  A peek inside of what helps real work groups to collaborate and solve problems maybe the key to creating the cohort that complements the unforgettable protagonist.

With all the current emphasis on collaborative thinking and collective knowledge in the workplace, you might assume assembling a large group of properly motivated people could solve almost any problem. You don’t really believe this do you? The larger the group is, the less each person is inclined to contribute. According to Fortune Magazine 4 to 5 is the magic number. [1] Wharton School of Business  uses 5 to 6. Get beyond this and you will have social loafing, members who fail to contribute much or are kept from…

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How long before they move out?

During most of U.S. history if people wanted their own home, they had to build it  themselves. This is no longer true and neither do most of us grow our own food. But how have these changes in economy played out for those unfamiliar with this history?

Write about what?

800px-rcc_2008_day_cThe trend that many talk about is how millennials are remaining with their families longer. According to a recent Pew Report “In 2014, for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household.”[1] When will they grow up, settle down, buy a house, get married and raise a family? How long before they act like real adults?

Actually, the fact that so many people from the baby boomer generation moved out of their parent’s house in their early twenties is really the anomaly. When one looks at past generations, the number of couples between 18 and 34 that lived in their own home peaked in 1960 and then started to decline. You must remember it was only twenty years before…

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Educational play

What is the true nature of unstructured learning?

Write about what?

stephs (4)When I was growing up there were a few “structured” learning events outside of school. A week of nature day camp in the summer, horse riding instructions, followed by a pony we had to take care of, and piano lessons, which I got after I begged for them. My friends had been showing off playing “Heart and Soul” as a duet on the school piano and it looked like so much fun. Then, there was the sporadic trip to a museum or classical music concert. But most of our “free” time was really free time.

Those few children that were born in the generation between baby boomers and millennials often were often known as latch key children. They let themselves in after school, with an unsupervised hour or two before tired parents (or often a single parent) drug themselves in the door from work, followed by a fast food or…

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Musical Memory

What will your children remember about your generation?

Write about what?

The_Music_MachineThe cream of the crop students sat in an International Baccalaureate high school history class. They listened attentively to a teacher who had come back from retirement just to teach such a group. Strolling back and forth in front of a map bedecked white board he inquired loudly. “Does anyone know what happened in the United States between 1963 and ‘68? There were a number of good answers that they could have given for the turbulent times of the civil rights movement and Vietnam war that were so influential in the coming of age for many baby boomers. But in 2013, the students just sat there mute.

Finally, one child took a stab at describing that time, “Simon and Garfunkel wrote a lot of good music?” she responded questioning.

“Yes, that’s true.” The teacher could not help but smile. “Though not exactly what I was looking for.”

But it didn’t…

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The recipe for a boring book

Recently I read a description of a street scene which included the cry of a woman as she hawked hot banh minh. The very use of the word “hawked” which denotes selling goods on the street and banh minh, which is a hybrid sandwich (French bread stuffed with Vietnamese cuisine) would frighten readers who had no connections with that culture. For me, however it was a quick way of expressing the sounds, smells and sights of the street vendor in Saigon. I could even hear the particular shrill intonation of the Vietnamese woman which is not the same as American female yelling.

Whether a reader perceives writing as rich and interesting is based on the reader’s comprehension and experience. When the setting is not a familiar one, it requires ability to deal with new words and culture to avoid pulling out of the story from fear of the unknown. A higher level of reading comprehension provides the ability to deal with the greater mass of information that goes into a more complex work. Also, if the reader has a larger vocabulary “poetic” writing is not only easier to comprehend, it appeals more because of the verbal uniqueness.

An interesting book for a portion of the population can be boring if it is too simple or too complex for you. What make a piece of writing boring depends on the readers as well as the writer. So, this is my criteria for a boring book:

Flat characters—the reader is aware of their physical appearance but little is revealed about interior quirks, frustrations or struggles. They may have only a few traits described, and these are static, so the person never grows or changes.

Irrational characters—these is a temptation for antagonists to do things simply because they are evil or crazy. Insane people may indulge in magical thinking, but they still have reasons for what they do. Characters don’t take actions simply to beef up the plot. Characters should propel the plot rather than the other way around.

Improbable plots— too many conflicts are solved quickly, and multiple coincidences are required for the resolution of the problem. A poorly developed or simplistic plot is usually indicated by one of the following:

  • I can figure out pretty much what is going to happen early in the book.
  • The solution to any mystery is all jammed into one chapter at the end.
  • The various characters, who should not know as much as the reader seem privy to the reader’s knowledge,
  • The author uses a lot of sex and/or violence to keeps the reader’s attention.

Impoverished descriptions—overused phrases, or the reverse, ornate writing in which the author spends too much effort on the word choice rather than developing an intriguing flow of language. I want to visualize the scenes and prefer poetic writing as long as it doesn’t disintegrate into purple prose.

Just having an thrill-paced first chapter will not keep my attention. In fact, I don’t even require any excitement in first chapter. The second or third one is more important as long as the tension in the story is building. I have put down a lot of books that started out in an interesting manner only to devolve into one of the problems described above.

My friend, who is intelligent when it comes to math, computers and logic, simply could not get into The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I found it exciting early in the first book. My daughter thoroughly enjoyed Cry the Beloved Country, a book which she admitted held surprises for her until the very end. Many of her classmates were bored by the poetic language describing the racial struggle. So, I pay little attention to how many stars a book has on Amazon or Goodreads. If it has a average of five stars, it will probably be too simplistic and too packed with unrealistic plot twists or lurid details for me to enjoy. I find books hovering below the “perfect” review range are typically much better.

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Why leaders aren’t more self-aware

Do we favor leaders that are not self-aware?

Write about what?

Kaiser Wilhelm II statue in Koln, Germany Kaiser Wilhelm II An example of a leader low in self awareness.

Perhaps the last century’s swing towards the outgoing, outspoken, in charge leader, who always exuded confidence has created the increasing need for cultivating self-aware leaders.[1]  Before the twentieth century it was often considered egotistical for leaders to promote themselves. When the newly formed Continental Congress nominated George Washington to be commander-in-chief, he was not one of the most experienced candidates. He did not campaign to become the head general of the new, inexperienced and poorly equipped army, but he relied on others to recognize his potential in this position. For many leaders in today’s world, depending on the judgment of  peers has become a thing of the past.

This tendency for leaders to not regard others opinions of them shows up prominently in Research by the Hay Group. Their study compared individuals’ concept of themselves against…

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