Archive for the Notes from the Coalface Category

The Rules of Art

Recently I came across a style guide for aspiring novelists. ‘Avoid adverbs’, it thundered authoritatively.  ‘Use no more than two every three hundred words,’ it continued dogmatically.

I wince when anyone tries to lay down the law about what makes good and bad art.  I mean, yes, there is good and bad art, but good art is not created simply by adhering to accepted laws or following approved formulas.  Adverbs (you know, the words ending in -ly) can be lame and redundant, but rationing lame redundancies to 0.66% of the text isn’t going to fix the problem.  Better to understand what adverbs do so you can decide when you should use them and the benefits of doing without them.

In all forms of art there are rules.  Once you know what the rules are, you can choose to bend them or break them to achieve a certain effect.  When I wrote the script Synchronicity for the cop show Wire In The Blood I deliberately broke a cardinal rule of narrative, and resolved the story with a coincidence.

Now this in most cases is a mortal sin, for which the original Greek term is Deus Ex Machina.   The lazy or inept playwright, having placed his characters a dramatic dilemma, would resolve it by having a God lowered into the action on a wire (ie by a mechanism, geddit?)  This God would decree an arbitrary ending for the characters.  “Audiences hated that shit two thousand years ago,” screenwriting guru Robert McKee likes to declare*, “and they hate it now!”

I used a coincidence to resolve the story because the theme of Synchronicity was accident and chance.  In a normal episode of Wire In The Blood, a series of murders would occur that appeared random at first, until Tony Hill, our eccentric psychologist hero, would put the clues together, identify a pattern and profile the killer for the detective.  In this episode, encouraged by script editor Claire Hirsch, I tried to tell the story the other way round: the murders appear at first to have a pattern, but in time our hero realises the pattern is an illusion, and the killer is truly operating at random.  Hill comes close to despair until, in a pivotal scene, he sees that there is no such thing as a truly random act, and that no-one has an infinite number of choices.   He identifies six paths the killer might take, and invites the detective to cast a die…

I thought it was clever, myself.  Everyone who read the script seemed to agree it was frightfully clever.  The one person who didn’t, unfortunately, was the director.  He cut that pivotal scene and substituted some garbled, voiced-over moment that made no sense whatsoever in any terms.  He’s not on my Christmas Card list, I’ll tell you that for nowt.

I still believe it was a valid artistic choice, even though it broke the rules of conventional narrative.  I knew what I was doing.  I just failed, I suppose, to convince the director.  I forget what his name was now, and I can’t be arsed to look it up.

As for adverbs… yes, they can often be lame and redundant.

”’Welcome to Buckingham Palace!” the Prince smiled, politely.’

What’s the word ‘politely’ adding there?  If the Prince says “Welcome” and smiles, we can see he’s being polite – we don’t have to be told.

”’Welcome to Buckingham Palace!” the Prince smiled, coldly.’

Now that’s more interesting.  The adverb offers information that wasn’t obvious, and very economically, which is always good.  But this device is like a certain sort of joke – even if you change the punchline it’s still the same joke, and with repetition the humour can soon wear thin.

I suppose that’s why it’s a good idea to ration adverbs: they’re usually telling the reader something he or she can infer from the context – the author is rubbing the reader’s nose in it.  Used ironically the adverb can be effective, but that effect will wear off from overuse.  Best to keep adverbs to a minimum… say, two every three hundred words.

*The Curse Of Robert McKee is worth a blog all to itself.  “Where’s your Act Three Climax?”

Where do you get your ideas from?

I love it when writers and artists get asked this question, and I’m always slightly disappointed when they don’t react by taking the interviewer’s microphone and threading it through their nose and out their anus.  It’s the most idiotic question anyone can ask, because writers get ideas the same way everyone else does – they just bubble up while you’re driving or walking the dog or weeding the flowerbeds.  The trick is, I suppose, to know which of those ideas are derivative and shallow and don’t lead anywhere interesting and which of them… well, aren’t any of the things I just mentioned.

The difficult part is capturing these good ideas and sitting down at a desk and developing them.  The immediate problem is of course that any writer’s greatest enemy is him or herself.  We all have, to some extent, an inner voice telling us that whatever we are writing at the moment is shit.  And to an extent that’s healthy – it keeps you on your toes, keeps you striving to ensure your writing is not shit. But sometimes that voice gets so loud it can put you right off.  This is the fourth time I have started this article, because I decided every previous draft was shit for some reason.

OK, you can say it: how bad must they have been?

That’s the first obstacle any writer must overcome:  the fear of failure and the fear of looking ridiculous.  It takes a certain amount of arrogance, a certain amount of chutzpah, to start telling a story and keep going to the end, to believe in your own powers of storytelling.   But the amazing thing is how willing the audience is to help you.  People want to be entertained, they want to believe, they want to be transported.  It’s incredibly easy to underestimate the power of narrative to engage viewers or readers – it’s as if you enable the audience to hypnotise itself.

Back in Film School I was editing my graduation movie, King of the Wild Frontier*, and got stuck on the first scene.  I kept editing it and re-editing it and I couldn’t get it right.  I showed it to a fellow student, the wonderful Sally Anderson, who said, ‘Just stop editing that scene and move on to the next one.’  And I did.  I stopped going back and continually revising the scene, and got to the end of the movie.  When I watched it all in its entirety I had a much better idea of how the first scene was supposed to work (and I ended up cutting the bejaysus out of it, but that’s neither here nor there.)

It was a perfect example of timidity manifesting itself as perfectionism.  I wasn’t trying to get the first scene right, though it may have looked like that – I was putting off finishing the rest of the film.  Exactly the same thing happens to many writers when writing their own projects: they write one chapter and spend ages revising it, or worse still, read it back once and decide it’s shit and no-one will ever want to read it.  And as a result no-one ever does, which is a shame.  The one thing all published and produced writers have in common is that they managed somehow to overcome that inner carping voice by hard work, perseverance, and/or sheer bloodyminded arrogance.

So if you have a good idea for a story, don’t let it wither and fade, and don’t spend forever writing the first chapter.  Start writing it and keep going until you get to the end.  What you do when you get there… is another blog entry entirely.

*It was actually called No Man’s Land. It should have been called King Of The Wild Frontier, but I didn’t think of that title till much later.  However, since the film only exists now on an obsolete tape format, I can call it anything I like.