Writing, Reading, Watching

I stumbled into this idea by accident, but nonetheless I think it’s been helpful to me as a writer.

For most Americans, the primary way we access and process stories is through movies and TV shows. I know that’s stating the obvious, but walk with me for a moment.

For most writers, the thing we’re writing is a novel. Again, I’m stating the obvious, but novels are very different than screenplays, scripts, or (especially), finished tv shows.

We’ll start with the most obvious difference: length. Even a relatively short novel is usually twice the length of a movie’s screenplay (110-120 pages, according to the “Save the Cat Beat Sheet), and four times as long as a one-hour drama’s script (50-60 pages, according to MovieOutline.com). Now, granted, prose often takes more space to get the same amount of action in than a script does, but the actual amount of story is radically different.

But let’s look at some more subtle differences. First, for a TV show, you have an episodic structure, with short individual stories, one long story broken up into one-hour blocks (a long story that would itself be MUCH longer than a novel, even for a 12-episode short series), or a Burn Notice-style combination of the two, wherein a few major episodes form a major arc, and are referenced or mentioned within the bulk of the (otherwise self-contained) episode in the season. This is obviously a very different story structure than even a series of novels.

Secondly, the nature of the presentation is different. TV and movies are very visual media, and visual things are very impressive in that media (stunts, sets, etc.). However, prose descriptions of impressive visual things usually aren’t that impressive. They’re out of sync with the nature of prose, which engages less forcefully, but can pull the reader deeply in through engaging all five senses as well as through the prose style itself.

I’ve had to stop watching much TV in order to make time to write. It wasn’t a choice I made to improve my writing style, but a choice I made to allow myself the time I needed to write consistently. I still shoehorn in some documentaries and YouTube videos (more of the latter than I should), but watching actual TV shows has pretty much fallen by the wayside.

And I’ve become a better writer for it. I was too distracted by the neat things I’d seen in visual media to think about how they don’t apply to writing novels. And, this has shifted the balance of how I mostly get my stories. Now, I mostly get my stories through reading novels, and so my brain thinks more in prose. It’s been a real improvement.

I think the key isn’t so much that watching TV and movies inherently distracts from writing prose, but rather, that having my primary method of absorbing story be audiovisual distracted from writing prose. I still watch movies, and I still watch TV with my daughter (I’m particularly fond of Sarah and Duck, My Little Pony, and The Deep), but the proportions have shifted, and that’s made a real difference.

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Habits, Plans, and Wasting Time

Distracted Bunny

Drawing by Nuraska, Creative Commons

I’ve cursed the day we got a DVR. I’ve cursed my own short attention span, my ability to be drawn into the limitless flood of information on the Internet, pulled by one current and then another, until my mind is as muddled as a dry-season creek bed.

But I haven’t really stepped up and made those changes. You could switch that paragraph with one about serious regular exercise or half a dozen other things, and it would be the same lame story.

Today I’m going to try.

I’ve been reading about habits, and how out ingrained subroutines shape our behavior far more than our intentions do. Though I’m not finished with it, Jeremy Dean’s Making Habits, Breaking Habits has so far proven to be well-written, accessible, and research-based.

It’s been eye-opening, reading the results of study after study that says we don’t even really know what we’re doing when we act according to our habitualized patterns. And actually studying what we do, disrupting our habits by recording and understanding, is an important first step to breaking them.

So, I’m going to attack my wasting time habit first.

My plans are

Write down all the TV I watch for a week or three. Hopefully just seeing what I watch will help me stop watching stuff I don’t really care about just because I’m tired or bored or want a distraction.

Use Randall Munroe (writer of xkcd)’s trick to break the web-distraction habit. He explains it here in some detail. To make a long story short, he breaks the “novelty” feedback loop by powering down his computer after each task. If he checks the news on CNN, he powers his computer down.

He can turn in back on immediately, and go on to whatever else he wants, but the delay breaks the little addictive kick you get from moving on to the next link, the next story. He said it worked better than all the “focus” programs he tried.

I’m going to try the same thing, and see how it works. I like to read, but honestly, I get a lot more good out of reading a book than reading ten times as much material on the web.

Time is about to become far tighter with the addition of a daughter, and I already feel stretched thin. I’m going to have to become better at managing my life. And I think this will be a good first step.

Wish me luck!

 

The Broken Masses

Flinch not from the pain

Let your heart be wounded

Join the broken mass

 

Drink not the numb wines:

Despair, Internet, TV,

Distraction, Blame, Rage

 

Tear your finest robes

Wrap your flesh in sackcloth and

Your soul in ashes

 

Lift your voice and let

Your songs, your screams, your curses

Join the broken mass

Cultural Analysis: Horror as Ethical Violence

Dragon and Woman, painted by William Blake, circa 1805

Dragon and Woman by William Blake, circa 1805

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the violent imagination and ethical ways to approach violence in fiction.  Too much of American culture glorifies violence.  The way that good overcomes evil in TV, movies, many books, and even toy lines, is by kicking its butt.  Good beats evil because good shoots straighter, hits harder, has better toys, and keeps on fighting.  And in small doses, violence can teach the virtue of courage.  But we don’t get small doses.  We are, to quote the Palmolive commercial, “soaking in it.”

So that leads me to wonder, is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  I’ll look at some other possibilities later, but here I’ll consider horror.  On the one hand, horror seems ethical because it explicitly presents the violence as horrific.  We are supposed to be repulsed by the violence we see.  There is no celebration of violence as glorious or righteous.  And even though much of the time the survivors use violence to overcome the killer or monster that is stalking them, they always pay a great cost.

This cost comes both in blood (horror stories typically have a high body count) and in the characters’ peace of mind. They will never again be as innocent, as naive, as carefree as they were.  They have met a great evil, passed through the darkness, and are no longer the same.  Often, they have killed for the first time, and it does not leave them untouched.

At its best, horror echoes the ancient legends: Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife; a red-cloaked girl facing a great wolf who’d devoured her grandmother; Dante’s passage through inferno, purgatory, and paradise.  Horror, at its best, is the primal fairy tale: the innocent encountering the unnatural, and emerging changed.  Hidden amidst its armies and castles, The Lord of the Rings includes a fairy tale (or perhaps a horror novel), the story of four young friends who brave the lair of hell itself to destroy a profound and threatening evil.

But at its worst, horror mutilates young, usually sexually attractive, bodies for our thrills and titillation.  At its worst, slasher horror slut-shames women quite literally to death.  First, the young woman has sex (showing the gratuitous T&A shot), and then, she is slaughtered in gory Technicolor.  Meanwhile, the virgin survives to the end, to escape or kill the slasher.

When I speak of horror’s ethical approach to violence, I speak of Stephen King’s Desperation, not Friday the Thirteenth Part 27.   I speak of normal people caught up in a desperate situation, one that involves a terrible encounter with evil, one that tests their wills, their faith, their wits, their endurance.  The evil is overcome, often at great sacrifice, in a cathartic climax.  The universal story of good overcoming evil is retold, with the important reminder that such victories are never won without cost.  Without blood, there is no remission of sins.

So what do you think?  Is there an ethical way to portray violence in fiction?  If so, is horror one of those ways?