As an actor those are words you never want to hear because it means you’re not doing your job, you’re not performing the scene with enough emotion to make it feel real to the audience. As a writer we’re susceptible to the same mistake. Except it’s not necessarily our characters that might not feel real. It can just as easily be the conflict itself.
I realize that it may sound strange for a story’s conflict to be the thing that makes it real and interesting. It’s the reason we turn the page. We have to know if Harry Potter defeats the villain of the month! But if the conflict itself is only half of the equation. The other half — the half that makes it feel real and creates the tension — is how the conflict affects the characters internally.
Every action has an opposite and equal reaction is just as true in physics as it is in fiction. In a fight scene, when the villain throws a punch at the hero, if the hero doesn’t react, either by dodging or being knocked back by the blow when it connects, it’s not believable. Likewise if the young heartthrob dumps the heroine for no good reason. If the heroine doesn’t run away crying or punches them in the face (my personal favorite) then the whole scene falls flat. Without the reaction it’s like it didn’t happen at all. And the reaction doesn’t have to be physical. I’ll use the same examples again to illustrate what I mean. When the not-so-happy couple breaks up, their emotional reaction is just as important as the physical one that follows. Is the heroine angry? Is she in disbelief? Is her heart broken? Is the heartthrob sad? Are they defensive? Impatient? In shock that they’re about to get punched? It’s the same thing in the fight scene. Is combatant A frightened of their opponent or are they confident that they’ll win?
All of this detail isn’t just to fill out the scene and make it breathe. It also increases the tension in your story. All of that description and reaction takes time and that’s time in a critical moment of the story where your readers are waiting for big punch. All the while you’re bringing them deeper into the character’s mind. That punch isn’t being thrown at a stranger, it’s being thrown at them.
It continually amazes me how adding depth can solve so many problems at once. I almost want to call it the Swiss Army knife of writing. Granted, like any tool it helps having some experience using it. I mean you can’t cut cheese with a corkscrew…though it would be fun to watch someone try. Adding the wrong emotion or reaction will do more damage then good. But avoiding that pitfall is a subject for another day.
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When I first started writing it was back in the “good old days”. By that I mean it was about twenty years ago when the only paths to publishing was 1) to get an agent that could get you a good contract with one of the big boys in New York or 2) self-publish through a vanity press (at exorbitant prices) and accept all the shame that went with it.
(Seriously, it was just like this. Except without the nudity…and the rotten fruit.)
Thanks to the indie publishing pioneers that hasn’t been the case for some time but it was hard for me to rid the stigma from my mind. I know. You’d think that the second word of an easier and more profitable path came my way I’d be all over it. Not so. Working at a bookstore for so long pretty much…I hate to use the word indoctrinated but that’s pretty much what it was. When I first started working there I was told by multiple people that self-published books were poorly written books; no self respecting author would ever go that route…etc. Hearing that for a decade, including the first years of the indie-publishing movement, made it impossible for me to see it any other way. It wasn’t until I met and befriended some indie authors, and heard them talk about their successes and struggles that I finally saw how the industry had changed.
Those of you who paid attention to the title have probably figured out that this was my change of perspective. So what was my change of course? Four years ago I was still dead set on getting an agent. Now? I have no intention of querying a single one. Why? Because I’m self-publishing my first novel through the company that I will found. Yeah, that’s quite the 180 but I feel good about it. I feel that this is the right path; and thanks to my indie friends, I have a really good idea of what I need to do. Despite the stress I’m as calm and composed as Cersei before she dropped the smock and walked the walk. Granted that means that at some point I’ll be cold and shaking, wondering “why did I ever think this was a good idea” and that’s okay. It’s all going to be great!
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There’s proverb in the May household:
Don’t worry about monkeys throwing wrenches into your plans. Worry about the wrenches throwing monkeys into your plans.
There is logic behind this. You see, any monkey can throw a wrench and since a wrench is normally an inanimate object there’s only so much damage it’s capable of doing after its been hurled. However, if particularly talented and determined wrench were to throw a monkey…well there’s no limit to the damage a distressed airborne monkey can do.
This year there have been many wrenches, some old and some new, and one surprisingly troublesome monkey. At the start of the year my sole goal was to start dictating. I had set aside the summer to train the software and my brain. The rest of the year I planned on spending cleaning up both novel manuscripts and editing any stories I happened to sell. The latter happened easily enough (yay sales!) but because of the fatigue and pain from my quickly escalating osteoarthritis I didn’t get much done on the former until recently (yay acupuncture!).
My biggest revelation this year is that I can’t expect my body to cooperate 100% of the time. I can still set big goals but I have to give myself more leniency. If the airborne monkey of osteoarthritis causes more pain and fatigue than I’m prepared for, then I need to give myself permission to postpone the deadlines I set for myself so I can take the time I need to recuperate. There’s definitely a big learning curve with arthritis. That’s for sure.
I look forward to taking this new knowledge with me into next year. Only time will tell how much trouble the wrenches and monkeys cause and how much they’ll let me accomplish.
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As far as film adaptations go, Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t the best. It hardly resembles the book at all…and you know what? I don’t mind. I love them equally.
Diane Wynne Jones’ book is delightful. Even though it was written for kids it has some unexpected clever twists and a delightful subtext. As the title suggests the central figures are Howl and his moving castle, but oddly it’s not told from Howl’s point of view. It’s told from Sophie Hatter’s point of view. In the books, Sophie (the eldest of three sisters) is a pessimist who thinks she’s doomed to live a boring, monotonous life — so of course she’s my favorite character. She has the ability to bring objects to life by simply talking to them — an ability that she’s completely unaware of for most of the book — and an incredible inner strength. Sophie gets cursed by a witch that confuses her for one of her sisters. The curse turns Sophie into an old woman. Rather then explain it to her family she runs off, gets a job as Howl’s cleaning lady, and makes a deal with Howl’s fire demon in order to break her curse. By the end of the book Sophie’s curse, and a few others besides, have been broken, the villain is defeated, Howl and Sophie are madly in love, and they live mostly happily ever after.
The film version eliminates one of Sophie’s sisters, Sophie herself has no magical abilities, Howl’s backstory is completely different, and it turned one of her sisters’ suitors into a Marty Stu. There are other changes and omissions but those are the most glaring differences. That aside, it makes up for it with one of the most compelling love stories in anime, the increased strength and resourcefulness of Sophie’s character, and Howl’s abilities as a wizard are much greater. How much greater? Lets say that in the book Howl is Gandalf the lazy grey and in the film he’s sexy Gandalf the White. The English dubbed version also has Christian Bale’s yummy voice as Howl. Seriously yummy! It’s chocolate fudge lava cake with black cherry compote yummy!
Another boon for the film is the GORGEOUS score composed by Joe Hisaishi. (I’m a big fan of Hisaishi’s work. The scores for Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, and Robot Carnival are his best!) I know a voice talent and music might seem like cheating since a print book can’t employ those. But it’s one of the advantages that film has.
Any novel adaptation is going to have scenes that either don’t work on film or don’t fit in a script that’s a third of the size of the original work. Sometimes the percentage is much less than that. In my opinion it’s impossible for a film to be scene-by-scene faithful to the original work. The best a screenwriter and director can do is be faithful to the overall message of the story. That above all is why I love this film adaptation. Even though the route it takes to the happy ending is different, the core message — that if you’re strong you can endure any hardship, and love conquers all — is still as strong as ever.
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