Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Something missing -- a warning for all writers

Saw "Awake" and really liked it. But I think it missed the mark a bit. At first I thought it was Hayden Christopher's acting. Now, don't get me wrong: he is really a phenomenal actor at showing woundedness and human frailty (Shattered Glass, for instance, was a film that made me cringe...he was that good!) But he can also be not so good at times. Which makes me wonder if he might be one of those actors whose greatness depends on the directors he works with. But I also got to thinking about the screenplay.

The screenplay was lacking. Not that it wasn't okay the way it was.  Trouble was it was lacking and missing certain scenes that should have been in the entire story. Yeah, I'm remaking yet another movie.

I just think the writer made two errors
Error A): The character is depicted as too strong
Error B): The character's heart problem seemed to have come upon him when he was older.

Sure, he showed the character as struggling to free himself from his mother and his mother as overprotective...but it didn't really send home WHY Mom was like that. It seems to me that we needed to see Clay's heart problems as a child. We needed to see why he didn't have a best friend before the doctor arrived, and why he didn't have a girlfriend when the love of his life arrived.

The character needed our pity and neither the screenplay nor the actor gave us such a character. So the sense of his being "unawake" emotionally wasn't really there. And his "waking" to the realities of life isn't poignant at all and doesn't touch us. It's one of the few movies I've wanted to see again, so I might try seeing it again before it disappears from my DVR. I might have missed the clues the screenwriter put in about the nature of the Character's problem. But, really, is it my fault if I missed them? The emotional issue should have been mined and we should have seen more of the desperation and pain and wound and frailty of the character.

This happens a lot with writers: the "missing scene" or the "missing chapter."

One of the worst things that can happen to any creative person is the strange scary feeling that “something is missing” in one’s art. I’m not a musician but I suspect many a musician has leaped for joy when she realized she needed to add this little bit of harmony or a clarinet or a djembe. For writers it’s much the same thing.

Finding the article or non-fiction writer, it’s probably easier to find the “missing” factor than it is for novelists. After all, the article writer is aware of trying to write a balanced article. IF he is aware of something being unbalanced he can look through the article-in-progress and search for areas where he’s generalized, or not given an opposing opinion. Of course IF he is not aware, then he’ll have written an article that will be challenged by someone down the line – an editor, a close reader, a reviewer, someone with an axe to grind.

But for the novelist, the search is much harder. We have to really wrack our brains to see what the missing something is, and where does it belong. And if one doesn’t find the Missing, the story often stands as it is unless one has an editor who is totally on one’s wavelength. If she is, then all will be well. She’ll return the manuscript to you with a helpful comment about you needing a scene that accomplishes thus and so. If she isn’t, then the book goes out into the world less beautiful, less true, less effective than the writer had wished. 

So what could this “missing” thing be?

It could be a missing character. This is a particularly tough one. Imagine having written a novel and being pretty sure you’ve peopled it with everyone you need only to realize during the editing process that your villain needs a wife or your main character needed to have a sister who was murdered back in the day. But, of course, that’s when you realize what the missing character is supposed to add to your story. 

Your problem could be a missing scene. After my speculative fiction novel Wind Follower was published, I realized I should have written some small scenes where my main character found the corpses of children who were victims of infanticide. That was the reason I had given for the destruction of the land of the three tribes, after all. Yet, in all the book, one doesn’t see anyone killing a baby. Let’s just say I was a bit annoyed with myself and am awaiting the publication of the second edition so I can include tiny little scenelets littered with baby skeletons. The book didn’t suffer because of the missing scene and no one seemed to notice this error on my part. But I noticed it, and for me it’s a major error.

The novel could also be missing plot thread. This could be some tiny little sub-plot that should have been utterly apparent to the writer but somehow the writer totally missed picking up on it. I’m not talking about letting a plot thread drop. I’m talking about totally, totally not realizing that character A would DEFINITELY have wanted to murder character B, or would have fallen in love with him. Or that something would’ve happened when character A brought some apple pie over for dinner to character B’s house.

The missing sentence. This is the easiest type of missing thing to fix and the hardest to find. It’s as simple as it sounds: the novelist simply forgot to mention something. Or she thought she had mentioned it. All the same the thing is missing and she may not be aware of it. As I said, this is the easiest thing to fix. The trouble is being aware of it. Annoyingly, this kind of stuff-gone-missing happens a lot because, what with all the cutting, pasting, and revising—stuff sometimes get dropped out of the novel even if the writer had already put them in.

Well, here I sit in the middle of revising and feeling something is missing. But what? I wish I could tell you how to discover what it is. One answer (I was about to write “only” answer but remembered my rule about generalizations) seems to be to have my first reader read the entire thing and give me their opinion. I have a perfect reader who is a blessing to me. Our minds are on the same wavelength and she’s a real lover of books. Unfortunately, she’s in grad school – law school of all things. So sending her the entire 540 pages to read is out of the question. I suspect I shall have to trust myself. That’s what we writers have to work with – our minds, educated guesses, creative intuition. So that’s what I’ll do. Trust myself. But, of course, not too much.

Ah well. A good film that might have been more touching if it had enabled the actor to delve into the character's weakness or if the writer had been aware of the "missing" scenes he should have written.

Happy Creativity, All

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