I’m an argumentative kind of guy. I also hold a lot of controversial opinions about movies. So I tend to get into arguments about movies a lot.

One thing I’ve learned from these arguments is that people seemingly can’t tell the difference between bad acting and bad screenwriting.  If people decide they don’t like a character, or they find them boring, they usually assume it was the actor’s fault.

Take my old favorite: the Star Wars prequels.  People complain the acting in those is bad, but it’s actually pretty good, aside from Hayden Christensen in Episode II.  The problem is that the writing is bad: the lines are awkward and sometimes nonsensical.  The amount of acting talent in those movies is incredible, and it got largely wasted by a script that was very bad.  No amount of good acting makes the line “what’s wrong, Ani?” work.

Here is an example of actual bad acting: in the “picnic” scene in Episode II, Anakin (Christensen) is teasing Padme (Natalie Portman) about a boy on whom she had a teenage crush.  He asks what happened to him, she says “I went into politics; he became an artist”,  and Anakin’s reply is “maybe he was the smart one”.  A good actor would play this flirtatiously, since the two characters are supposed to be falling in love. But Christensen for some reason delivers it in an angry, almost accusatory manner.  That is bad acting.

I’m probably sensitive to this because I am a writer, and so I tend to watch movies, plays, TV etc. with my focus on the decisions the writer(s) made.  I think most people don’t really think about the fact that people actually write these things–if something doesn’t work, they blame the actors. An actor is the face that the audience associates with the character, and so they tend to think of them as “being” that character, without remembering that in the majority of cases, somebody else wrote the character’s lines.

Once in a while, good acting can rise above a lousy script–Apocalypse Now is the best example I can think of–but generally, a bad script dooms you from the start.  It’s like sports: if you have superstar players running badly designed plays or formations, the results will be bad, no matter how flawlessly they perform them.

For example: there is a scene in the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin where Dr. Iannis (John Hurt) is arguing with his daughter Pelagia (Penelope Cruz) about plans for her impending wedding at the start of the scene and then–with no new characters or information being introduced–concludes the scene by telling her she can’t get married because the Axis forces are about to invade, and handing her a pistol to use on them or, he adds darkly, on herself, if necessary.

John Hurt is a great actor, and he delivers all of his lines in this scene very well.  But it does not work, because there is no way a person would start a conversation discussing wedding details and then seemingly suddenly remember “Oh, yeah and the Nazis are invading–you might have to kill them or yourself.” In journalism, they call that “burying the lead”. In script-writing, they call it “dreadful”.

This is one big reason why dramatic productions have directors: their job is to make the script and actors work together.

It reminds me of a quote from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame.  But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”

If lines don’t make sense, if character motivations are not clear, then the writer is to blame.  But if they do make sense and are clear, and the scene nevertheless does not work, then it is the fault of the actors and the director.


Thanks for reading this post. Hope you enjoyed it. If so, maybe you’d also like to check out my book, which contains no bad acting, and hopefully no bad writing either.

Via Paul Graham, a WSJ article on teaching kids to write by banning them from using certain “boring” words, such as “good” “bad”, “fun” and “said”.  To quote from the article:

“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009.

Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

This reminded me of novelist Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing, one of which was: “Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.”

And people wonder why kids have trouble learning to write.

So then, who is right: the teacher or the novelist? My answer: it depends.

There are times when using something other than “said” is appropriate.  This is especially true with humor–saying “burbled” is so much better than “said” if you want people to laugh.

That said, you can go too far with it.  And since Leonard’s goal was to make the writer “invisible”, I would say in that case sticking with “said” is usually a good idea.

My rule of thumb: if it sounds right, use it.  If “said” doesn’t sound right, but “called” does, use “called”.  But don’t spend your time trying to find some other bizarre word if “said” will do.

Take this exchange from my novella, The Start of the Majestic World:

Maynard and Brett sat outside on the steps that led into the headquarters.  Brett was studying schematics of a sniper rifle on his tablet.  Maynard stared straight ahead, deep in thought.

“I’ve received no communication of any kind from anybody at the Bureau,” muttered Brett. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah, it does;” said Maynard slowly. “This is a Dead Zone.  They are blocking any signal they don’t want getting in.”

Brett nodded.  “And most likely any they don’t want getting out, too.”

“Yes.”

“But D.C. would know it was being blocked.  Any decent Intel machine would—”

“They want it blocked,” she said. “They don’t want to know, and he doesn’t want to tell them.  It’s better for everyone that way.  I’ve seen it a million times—I’ve just never been on the wrong end of plausible deniability before.”

The two agents sat in silence for a minute.

“They have to be listening to us,” said Brett.

“Probably,” said Maynard. “But they don’t give a damn what we say.  They figure there’s nothing we can do.”

The first time Brett speaks, I used “muttered” to indicate he was still looking at the rifle schematic, and not thinking fully about talking.  When Maynard responds, it becomes “said” because now they are just having a conversation.  And I dropped “said” or any variants after that, and left it to the reader to follow.

Leonard had some other interesting rules.  I took particular note of these two:

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

As I wrote recently, I used to believe this too.  Then I wrote a collection of short stories that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

I thought there must be some other problem.  So I wrote a novella that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

Was Leonard just wrong? Seems unlikely–he was an award-winning novelist. I am guessing it’s more that once you are a really good writer, it doesn’t take much effort to describe someone or something.  It barely feels like you are doing anything when you know exactly what words to use.  There have been great authors (John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald) who could take things that were not very interesting in themselves, and write gorgeous descriptive passages about them.

One of the most common criticisms of my fiction has been that there is not enough description. I’ve heard this from both P.M. Prescott and Jonnah Z Kennedy, as well as other readers who don’t have websites I can link to.  It was not an accident that there is so little description.  I had a hypothesis that most fiction contains too much description, and that this was particularly a problem in horror fiction, when describing things detracts from the horror.

I think my aversion to description goes back to when I read the following in Paul Graham’s essay “Taste for Makers”:

Good design is suggestive. Jane Austen’s novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.

That sounded good to me.  And hell, I thought,  it’s even more important to avoid description when you’re writing psychological horror than when you’re writing a comedy of manners.  Horror, I’ve always said, is all about the unknown, and nothing screws up the unknown like describing it.  So I made a conscious effort to not describe stuff; the idea being that people would fill in the details for themselves.

Based on the feedback I’ve received, this was a mistake.  Keeping description to a minimum was not a formula for success, at least not in my stories. Now, maybe there are other issues as well–maybe I didn’t tell the story well enough that readers could fill in the blanks.  But all  I know for sure is people specifically complained about the lack of description.

Fair enough.  So, how is it best to describe stuff?  Should I say:

The pale blue Autumn moon shone its faint light on the cemetery.  A passing cloud would now and again cast the ancient graveyard into darkness.  A howling of some distant animal echoed through the surrounding wood, and the bewitching southern wind wafted the leaves over the long-forgotten tombstones.

Or:

It was a dark cemetery.  The moon was occasionally obscured by clouds. It was windy, and a dog was howling far away.

The former is poetic, but it takes forever to convey a fairly simple scene.  The latter communicates the same information more quickly, but it seems boring and dry.

“Well, it depends what you’re writing!”, you say.  Ok, but in the above example, it’s the same basic point both times: to show the reader that we are in a graveyard at night.  And it’s creepy.  But what’s the best way of doing that?  Normally, one would think conveying that in as few words as possible is best.  And yet, writing: “They were in a graveyard at night” seems a little bare, doesn’t it?

As promised, I’ve been working on my next book.  I hit a bit of a rough patch where I wasn’t sure how much exposition to give.  It’s a new thing for me because previously I’ve only known two different scenarios in my writing:

  1. Writing a section that is just really fun to write.
  2. Writing a section that I need to have, but am not enjoying and am just slogging through.

Needless to say, the things in category 1 are much better done than those in category 2.  The latter inevitably end up needing to be revised.

But I reached a point in my new book that was really neither.  I felt like I could go either way on this section; I could linger a bit and give some more atmospheric exposition, or I could just say what I needed to say and move along to the next part.  I’m torn about how to go–part of me wants to move on, and I have read advice for writers that says not to put in unnecessary stuff.

On the other hand, I think (and have been told by multiple readers) that my earlier stories fell into the trap of moving too quickly and not lingering enough on certain things to set the scene.  So I am inclined to spend more time on stage-setting than I ordinarily would, to try to correct for this tendency.

One thing this forces me to do is really picture the scene in my mind.  This is harder than you would think.  In the past when I have written stuff, I have had a general sketch in mind, but nothing too detailed.  This caused me to try and get away with saying some pretty vague stuff.  This way, I’ll now have a more firm idea in mind, and can communicate it better to the readers.

The scene I’m currently writing is also important because (not to give too much away) it is setting up a location that the protagonist will return to later, where the majority of the action in the story will take place.  So it’s a good opportunity for some foreshadowing, and I don’t want to miss out on that.

I think there are a lot of people who don’t really listen to song lyrics.  This occurred to me the other day as I was listening to the song “Waltzing Matilda”–the unofficial Australian national anthem, by Banjo Paterson.  It’s a catchy tune, but it makes no sense.  And no, I don’t mean because of the Australian lingo.  Here are the lyrics, via Wikipedia:

Once a jolly swagman [vagrant] camped by a billabong [a pool of water]
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy [tea] boiled:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?” [“Waltzing Matilda” means wandering carrying your belongings in a bag.]

Down came a jumbuck [sheep] to drink at that billabong.
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag:
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

Ok, so what kind of sheep is this that you can fit inside a bag? Or did he slaughter the sheep before he did that?

Up rode the squatter, mounted on his thoroughbred.
Down came the troopers, one, two, and three.
“Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in your tucker bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”

This is a remarkably efficient police force–homicide investigations are not treated with the same rigor as this sheep theft. Also, why do the policemen use the same expression?  Are they planning to carry the guy off in a bag?

Up jumped the swagman and sprang into the billabong.
“You’ll never take me alive!” said he
And his ghost may be heard as you pass by that billabong:
“Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me?”

So… this guy committed suicide rather than give back the sheep he had stolen? Was the punishment for sheep theft worse than death?

Now there are indications that the song is based on a true story, and is in fact related to an incident in the 1891 Shearers’ Strike. That means it has some political subtext.  If that’s the case, it might have been better to mention it was a striking worker, as opposed to a passing tramp.

Anyway, that’s my opinion.  Don’t let it stop you from enjoying the song; it’s a nice little tune.  Maybe some other time I’ll post about why the confusing syntax in the official United States National Anthem is so annoying, and why we should replace the “Star-Spangled Banner” with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

So, I am currently in the early stages of writing a new book.  It’s going to be much longer than the last one–probably will end up being a novella, but maybe a novel if I’m lucky.  It’s already about as long as the longest story in my first book, and I’m still introducing the main characters and conflicts.

I’ve tried to incorporate the helpful suggestions and critiques I’ve received from my first attempt–many of which came from Blogger friend P.M. Prescott, to whom I’m very grateful. The book so far is much more like the last story in the collection,  ‘The Quarry”, in that there is more dialogue, and the dialogue is used to convey information about the characters and setting, rather than just using the description.

One of the hardest things about writing fiction is that I’ll get stuck with a certain”voice” in my head, and it gets translated to the page it permeates the whole story.  In the last collection, the “voice” was very much like H.P. Lovecraft’s, and Lovecraft rarely did dialogue.  And regardless, when you have a single authorial voice, it can make it hard to write dialogue that seems like it’s really multiple people–you have to be careful to differentiate how they speak, so it’s clear who’s who.

That is not to say there is not any description.  The other thing that I’m working on is putting a little more thought into the descriptions, to try to do a better job of painting a picture for the reader.  In previous work, I’ve consciously shied away from doing too much in the way of description, because I think that too much can bog the story down, and that sometimes the most effective way of scaring somebody is to leave some things unsaid or just hinted, so their mind fills in the blanks with the scariest things they can imagine.  But it’s a delicate balance, and I may have gone too far in the direction of vagueness before; making the scenes seem too clinical and detached.

The other thing I’m doing differently this time is what I’m doing right now: occasional blog updates on my progress.  I’ll maybe even post an excerpt or two, depending how it goes.

P.M. Prescott’s comment on this post reminded me about the concept of “fractal” structure for a piece of literature.  I was about to write a post about it, but then I remembered–as with the vampires a few weeks ago–that I’d already done so, two years ago, almost to the day.

He’s right that there’s a limit to how much complexity you can give a character before people will get bored of hearing about it.  That’s why the best character development is done through “showing, not telling”, as the old adage says, and having their complexity displayed through the plot-driving actions they take. And maybe best of all is having characters who are ambiguous–that way, the audience will start to make up their own explanations for their motivations–provided you give them enough material to work with.

It’s also true that you don’t need complex characters to have a good story.  The characters in Animal Farm, for example, are largely just allegorical caricatures of political figures and parties from the first half of the 20th century.  But it’s still a great book.

I guess the real key, whether your characters are nuanced and complex, or simply cut-outs who represent something else, is to make sure it all works together as part of the story you are telling. The characters and incidents need to somehow reflect or represent the larger story.

For example, one of the major of themes of the book Of Mice and Men is loneliness.  To quote the Wikipedia article:

Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley’s wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for —- she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch…  The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”

Each of the characters and their major issues are somehow related to that theme. That’s what makes it a theme.

Another example of what I’m talking about–not so much with characters, but rather concerning the idea that the individual pieces reflect the whole, is in the Sherlock Holmes stories.  Many of them start out with Holmes and Watson talking about some minor curiosity.  Holmes then explains it to Watson by using his deductive powers, and shows how he was able to figure out what Watson (and everyone else) would miss.

Then the actual plot of the story, the central mystery, is introduced. It will be resolved in exactly the same way; with Holmes making deductions to solve the case.  This is called “foreshadowing”, but it’s just a matter of the micro-elements of the story resembling the macro-elements.

Needless to say, as P.M. noted, this is all really, really hard to write.

Weird article in The Daily Beast by a writer called Frank Bill.  Idea is that men are not manly enough these days, so there are fewer manly novels about manly things.

What I don’t know is what he means by “masculine writing”.  Does he mean subject matter–wars and hunting? There are books about those things. Or choice of words–short, blunt sentences?  Like Hemingway, who did both.

Tough to gut it out through lots of words.  Have to fight your way through dense jungles of adjectives and adverbs, hunt down the meaning.  Cut out useless bits.  More manly to use short sentences, or fragments.  But that has drawbacks, too. Can be hard to follow the logic.

Probably, fewer men read than women. So topics are chosen accordingly.  It’s tough, but you have to man up, grit your teeth, and realize that probably, they’ve already won the war for dominance of the bookshelves.

Famous scene from the 1922 film “Nosferatu”. The shadow is scarier than the actual monster (see below) because your imagination fills in the details.

Saw the movie House of Dracula on TV the other night.  It’s a 1945 Universal Monsters flick that contains three of their most popular monsters: Dracula (duh) the Wolf-Man, and Frankenstein’s monster.  It was fairly well-done for what it was.  John Carradine is great as Dracula.  Also, the film features the stereotypical hunch-backed assistant to the mad scientist, but for a change the character is female, and fairly attractive apart from the hunch-back. It’s an unusual role, and the actress, Jane Adams, does a pretty good job.

But what was especially notable about the movie was that it falls into the awful horror movie pitfall of trying to explain the source of the horror scientifically.  So, it turns out that Dracula has a blood disease, and that the Wolf-Man can be cured by brain surgery and some kind of weird fungus that the aforementioned scientist grows in his castle.

Folly!  I’ve blogged about this before: horror movies should not rationalize or explain the horror in any way.  When they do, it becomes less frightening.  They make this mistake all the time in horror movies.  It’s much better when the scientifically-inclined are skeptics and shown to be wrong, and the monster is an inexplicable violation of the laws of nature.   The intelligent, scientific  types being wrong is how you know you’re in trouble.

If you try to explain everything, it is less scary.  This applies not only to trying to give explanations for the monster’s origin or condition or whatever, but to every element in any scary story.  Just give people a few hints of the monster, and  let them piece together the rest, that’s what I say.

See what I mean?

“The Fallen Tree” by Albert Bierstadt, via Wikimedia Commons

Eurobrat has a good post about blogging.  Read it, and be sure to read the comments as well. (Although I take issue with her computer game comments. (J/K))

Ultimately, she comes to the same conclusion I have, which is that blogging is worth doing even if no one reads it.  I read a good article about this long ago, back when almost nobody read my blog.  The advice the author gives is spot-on from my experience–writing this blog has helped me think better and more clearly about all kinds of issues.  (And I have acquired a few more readers since since I read that article!)

There really is nothing like blogging for helping you think.