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Every [ART] A Painting

Do you guys follow Every Frame A Painting, on YouTube and Vimeo?

Film editor Tony Zhou makes short video essays examining individual directors and individual techniques, and for someone like me who loves movies (that most 20th Century of art forms), it's incredibly instructive to watch.

I'm going to embed his video about lateral tracking shots, mainly because he re-edits a certain scene to show the real power of this technique. It's only six and a half minutes: here you go:

If that iframe doesn't work, this is the direct link.

His other videos are amazing. The one about Edgar Wright made clear to me why I'm such a fan of his Wright's work, and why I've pretty much stopped watching Hollywood comedies. The "Bayhem" video--even if you don't like Michael Bay--shows what he's doing in a technical sense to achieve that Michael Bay look that audiences love. Recommended.

Watching them, I was struck by the need for something like this in prose, a way to closely examine word choice and sentence structure so that these creative choices can be better understood by readers and writers everywhere. There was some of that in one of the only helpful books about writing I've ever read--Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein--but there's always more to be done.

So I'm nominating myself to do it, and I'm going to make the attempt here at antipope, where it's likely to be seen by a lot of people. With luck, others with more expertise will try their hand at it and we'll see more nuanced examinations elsewhere.

A note about the medium: I can't think of a form that is more linear than prose. Not music, not movies, not theater.

And before you bring up Slaughterhouse Five, or MEMENTO, or BETRAYAL, let me point out that I'm not talking about the narrative. There are many non-linear narratives. But a film is a succession of images projected onto a screen with accompanying sound, and that's pretty damn linear. One picture, one sound after another.

But because you have two senses being fed at once, and there can be multiple things portrayed at once, film can never be as linear as abstract black squiggles that represent single words. That quality, which makes writing like stringing beads together, sometimes feels like the biggest challenge I face.

However, many readers don't experience the text that way. Some "hear" it. Some glance at a paragraph, absorb it almost immediately, then move on. Some. Pour. Slowly. Over. Each. Word. I'll return to the idea of linearity later.

And obviously, the text I'm going to use is one of Charlie's. It's the opening of The Atrocity Archives.

Atrocity Archives 1

(Ahem, while I do own this book, it's currently buried on a shelf behind my wife's easel. The canvas is wet, space cramped, and any attempt to dig it out risks toppling Things That Must Not Be Toppled. Since I couldn't find sample chapters on Charlie's site, I screencapped from Google books.)

The section header is a clear play on the old sailor's truism, updated for the modern age. We bought the book knowing it's an urban fantasy, which often uses old cultural material in modern ways, but it doesn't tell us much. Aside from establishing that this is a story about hackers, it intrigues more than it informs.

The first eleven words of the first sentence, ending at "armed with" suggest an action thriller. The POV character is not only lurking, which you can do in an alleyway or a bookshop, they're lurking in shrubbery like a sniper. That's immediately undercut by the items he's "armed" with, the clipboard (tool of a bureaucrat), pager (office worker gadget), and night-vision goggles (spy/military device).

Thinking about the rest of this book and the books to come, those three items really gives us most of what this particular urban fantasy will be like.

Oftentimes, a line like this will include an "only". He faced a horde of orcs armed only with a broken sword./She walked into that interview armed only with a threadbare suit and an unshakeable belief in herself. But adding that "only" emphasizes bravery and a lack of appropriate gear. Our protagonist here is carrying what he needs.

And if there was any doubt that the POV character is not a traditional action hero, there's the word "ghastly." Not what you'd call tough guy talk. The goggles also explain the green sky, but I've already forgotten that section header by now.

The next sentence immediately segues into complaint. First, the character compares himself to a low-status nerd, the train-spotter, then complains about a headache. That the character will have to deal with absurd, demeaning circumstances is established right here in the second sentence, as is his unsuitability for physical challenges. Here he is, quite well hidden, and he's concerned about how he looks. Also, I know not to expect him to say "Just a flesh wound" at any point in the story.

The next sentence about the humidity and dampness helps to establish the setting and gives us some of his sense impressions, which are always an important way to connect the reader to the character. In fact, any time a writer is describing how a character feels, from feeling damp to having a headache to being embarrassed at how they look in these ridiculous goggles, they're making a connection for the reader.

Which is not the same as making the reader empathize with the character, although that's a very common technique. The late 80's were full of luridly described scenes of serial killers doing their thing, and the description of those characters' feelings were meant to horrify, titillate, and repel the reader. So, digging into feelings, whether the tactile kind in this sentence or the emotional kind of the previous one, doesn't have to endear the character to the reader, although that's definitely what's happening here.

The next sentence immediately connects with the previous one. How long has he been wet and cold outside this industrial unit? Three hours. Why? Because he's waiting for the last employees to go home so he can "climb in through a rear window."

Fiction has shown us many ways that characters can break into a building. They can disguise themselves as someone who works there and open doors with a stolen security cards. They can smash through the front doors with a truck and charge in guns blazing. They can pull on a black ski mask and hang glide onto the roof, cutting the lock with a little laser gadget.

There are many, many choices here, all of which hint at the tone and genre of the story to come. What our as-yet-unnamed POV character is planning to do is extraordinarily mundane. He's going to climb in through a window, which not only suggests a lack of strategic and technological finesse, it also heaps another indignity on the POV character. No one can climb through a window with style.

What immediately follows is a question: Why the hell did I ever say "yes" to Andy? Not only does this confirm that the POV character is not an experienced operative, it contains that jarring name at the end.

Andy. Not "Johnny 'Glock' Vitelli" or "Mr. Prime-Minister" or "Colonel Whittman" or "Control" or even "Mr. St. John-Smythe." Andy. The diminutive is so unimpressive it's startling.

But just when it seems that he's about to commit a crime for a one of his pals from the pub, the first three words in the next sentence connects to that name: "State-sanctioned burglary." Our POV character, who might be the protagonist or who might be killed off at the end of this first chapter to kick off the plot, is about to climb through a rear window in the service of his government, and not one of the military branches either. Not when "Andy" nicely brings in the casual informality of modern civilian office environment, especially once we get to "time-and-a-half pay."

Coming back to the idea of prose as a linear form: There's a lot happening in this scene simultaneously. There's drizzle, the googles that cast everything in green, the building with a few lingering workaholics, the headache, the waiting for the chance to move. In a film, you could establish that with a single shot, but in text it has to come out one at a time, and the order matters.

First and last are power positions.

If the author had begun with the weather (ugh, right? Although I've done it) then the drizzle and damp would have importance. The mood would have seemed paramount. If the embarrassment came first, we might have expected more comedy.

Instead, what we get is: first sentence about subverted action/spy thriller tropes, last sentence a complaint about office duties and pay. See also the order of the objects he's "armed" with in that first sentence, which inverts that order. I think that nicely sets up the rest of the book.

Hrm. I have two more screencaps on Flickr, but that's already a thousand words and I haven't even mentioned that this is in first person. Let me talk about first v third and wrap this up.

A lot of people talk about first person as though it has immediacy other narrative povs don't have. For me, the opposite is true; I find that third person limited is the most immediate and engaging narrative pov, while first person is distancing. Here's why.

In third person, the reader gets to be what Clive Barker once called the hero's invisible buddy. We're like the angels in WINGS OF DESIRE, extremely close to the protagonists but unable to affect them. Watching them without us knowing it. In third limited, information may be unavailable to the reader, but the POV character is unaware of the reader and won't deliberately mislead them.

In first person, the POV character is talking straight to the reader. If the text doesn't have a conceit to justify it, like letters or an after action report or whatever, the effect is as if the protagonist is sitting across from the reader, telling a story.

This is great if the protagonist is an expert on the subject of the story, because it allows them to share knowledge with the reader: detectives and spies do this all the time. It also allows the protagonist to hold things back or mislead the reader deliberately.

I'll stop there. Drop a comment if you think I've misread something.

So many of us read quickly, devouring pages without looking closely at the way the words on the page affect us. We enjoy it, without really looking closely at why. I was reminded of that when I played through the Every Frame A Painting channel (if you've seen SNOWPIERCER, check out that video) and thought that same sort of close examination might be worthwhile in fiction.

So if you think this is valuable or useful, you could maybe try it for yourself. Take apart a fight scene, or a sex scene, or a scene of a betrayal. Looking closely at a text might reveal some defects you didn't remember, or it might make you love it all over again.

And link to it in comments, so others can think about it, and agree or disagree.

PS: The third and final book in my epic fantasy trilogy was published today. Check it out and check out the entire series from the beginning.

27 Comments

1:

I' need to go through that/Your post One Step AT a Time...note the variations in The text and any -lies it as DeTail... first off. YouR Latest, "The Way Into Darkness " has been just arrived.The Post Person Dug me out of the Shower this time Zones Am.

Your Latest BOOK... that is the Technical term for these things isn't it ?... awaits its turn in the pile which is made up of REAL paper...but it is ahead of " Karen Memory " by Elizabeth Bear in Hardback that should be turning up any time soon and I'm still in the pursuit of Light Silly Fun - given the Horrors of the past year - and thus I’m part way through .." The Invisible Library " by Genevieve Cogman which is almost as daft as Gail Carrigers " Parasol Protectorate " books.

So, Pre- Study ..Surely it does depend on readers Mood and the Form that the “Book” takes... is an audio Book really a 'Book' and how is that 'book ' changed by the Voice of its reader as delivered to the listener ..Who may well be, say, partially deaf...and the reader of TEXT may well have absorbed an entire bottle of White Wine...or Herbal Substances of Choice and so ? Just as a possibility ? ... a “BOOK “that demands that the ' Reader ' DRINK ME from a small 'vhile ' that is packaged with the ‘Book@’ may Await YOUR Future as a Creative ARTIST .. Who might be in Collaboration with a Research Pharmacologist?

Questions, Questions!

2:

Stephen King's "On Writing" goes quite nicely in detail about how a "good" book "should" be written, but rather lacks the detailing or the analytical approach looking at the texture of existing works and classifying bits and pieces of that. I fear this might be an entire academic discipline in itself.

3:

Stein on Writing did this a bit--very helpful--but I wish there had been more.

In fact, it's my hope that other people will start to do this on their own sites. I think it would be interesting.

4:

Arnold, I hope you enjoy the book.

As for the state of the reader, that's really outside the scope of what I'm talking about. I'm really just looking at the text and what it's trying to do. Whether the reader is capable of understanding it is a separate issue, because all readers, sober or not, bring their own filters.

5:

Its interesting seeing a reading from a non civil service employee and a non Uk national. Bob certainly has the principal civil service techie type down to a T.

Btw the use of First names is common in the uk for professional jobs and in the civil service by this point in time.

It struck me that the first book doesn’t do that much explaining it I think assumes that the reader gets most if not all of Bobs in jokes – to a non computer literate reader the description of bob trashing the poor guys disk would seem as exotic as the Latin based spells in harry potter.

I do wonder that Bob being stuck under a bush was a hazing joke by Andy on the new guy Andy would have probably experted him to find a nearby pub and stay in the warm and turn up ½ an hour before go time.

6:

I'm a big anime fan (I saw Wolf Children in its British premiere cinema release, subtitled of course) and anime lends itself to some exotic "camera" effects in part because it's animation and not limited to what can be done with a real camera and real-world optics.

The pull shot, for example -- take a close-up situation and pull back to reveal more of what's going on. Anime can take that to extremes...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZPmsiL00Y0

The BIG pull shot is from 7:40 onwards.

KamiChu! was the series that made me fall in love with a small town in Japan called Onomichi and that pull shot was how I found out where it was.

7:

Thanks for the dissection, Harry!

I don't normally examine my own work in such detail, so it's kind of educational to see it from an external perspective. Hmm. I ought to do this more myself, except I think it'd slow me up ...

8:

OK, I'm going to step up to the plate. Today's subject matter is the opening of Aristoi, by Walter Jon Williams.

I'll comment interlinearly and in italics. This will be long.

---

At Graduation, every five or seven or ten years, the Aristoi celebrated in Persepolis. For the most part they celebrated themselves.

---

We're starting with time and place: this is a ceremonial occasion. We find out who and where and what, but all the capitalizations indicate that these concepts have special significance. And the second sentence is snarky, disrespectful. There's no guarantee that the titular Aristoi are the heroes -- and indeed, some of them are not. Aristoi sounds Greek, and Persepolis is the name of an ancient Persian city -- heck, it means "Persian City". Expect classic Greek references.

---

Persepolis, in the Realized World, was an interesting artifact. It shaded by degrees into “Persepolis,” the real place becoming, through its illusory/electronic deeps and towers, an ever-flexible, ever-unfolding megadimensional dream.

---
More Significant Capitals, explaining the multiple natures of the place. We are looking at The Matrix, cyberspace, integrated in some way with physical reality. If we see something fantastic, we don't need to treat it as magic -- this is Sufficiently Advanced Technology.
---


Persepolis, the place, had been reconstructed on its original Persian floor plan, and sat on its reconstructed plain at the meeting of the reconstructed Pulvar and Kor, where it took its place as the (largely symbolic) capital of a reconstructed Earth2.

---

The physical parts here are not the historical city. Physical engineering here extends not just to building a city, but to massive geoworking of rivers and the plain. And then we start to suspect that something happened to Earth; we'll hear the full tale later. In fact, the destruction of Earth serves as the Original Sin for this civilization.
---

The city was inhabited only a few days a year, when Pan Wengong, the most senior of the Aristoi, convened the Terran Sessions.

---
And they are so rich that they can build all this to serve not just as a capital, but mostly not use it. This culture -- or at least its governance -- is seriously wealthy and physically powerful. Also, Pan Wengong sounds Chinese. Expect multicultural contributions.

---

Behind the City of a Hundred Columns loomed Kuh-e-Rahmat, the Mount of Mercy, its grey flanks a contrast to the bright gold, vermilion, ivory, and turquoise that accentuated the city. To the hewn tombs of Achaemenid kings carved into the side of the mountain were added those of many Aristoi, laid to rest in their capital beside the descendants of Kurush the Great, whose tenuous spirits were presumed to be flattered by the comparison. Atop the mountain itself, surrounded by a grove of cypress, was the gold monument to the lost Captain Yuan, a place of homage and worship.

---

And here is WJW attempting to overwhelm us: this civilization is seriously into worship of the past. Usually cultures like that are conservative and slow-moving; perhaps all the technologies have been discovered already? That's going to be part of the story, too. And finally, another Chinese reference, which around 2/3 of the book in will become extremely relevant. We don't know who Captain Yuan was, but the positioning says that this is the greatest of their heroes. We get to hear a lot of his story later. Oh, and cypress are associated with longevity.

---

“Persepolis,” the dream, was a far more interesting place. Most of the people who came here did not do so in the flesh but through the oneirochronon, and the two palaces superimposed on one another in ways both intricate and obscure. Earth’s archons and senators strolled along the corridors, holding conversations with people others could not see. Corridors that dead-ended in reality possessed doors and branches in the oneirochronic world. Some led to palaces, dominions, grottos, and fantasies that did not exist on Earth2, or indeed anywhere, but were instead the special habitats of oneirochronic Aristoi, some of whose bodies were long in the grave. In these palaces the inhabitants danced and discussed and feasted and loved—there had long been competition among them to design the most dazzling sensual experiences for one another, delightful unrealities more striking, more “real,” than anything experienced in the flesh.

---
Oneirochronon means dream-time. Is it cyberspace? Yes, but a very well developed one. We're not going to see an endless blue grid on a black background. Again, we're being told about the extreme wealth of these people, and that they are hedonists. Banks' Culture could do this, but generally chooses not to -- are we seeing just the idle rich?

---

To Persepolis, the dream, came Gabriel. Demons buzzed insistently in his head, but he kept them on a tight rein.

For Persepolis was a place where demons, as well as dreams, were shared.

I'll finish up with this: we are finally introduced to the main character. We learn basically nothing about him except his name (Hebrew-classical, meaning "God's strong one" and that he is visiting via cyberspace, not physical presence, and, finally, that there are demons in his head. Demons, or daimones, or even, UNIXly, daemons, will turn out to be an important feature of this world.

9:

Nojay, that particular pull-shot (and the equivalent-and-opposite crash-zoom) has been used repeatedly in live-action TV for at least a decade now. CGI is a powerful thing, especially the last few years - the orbit-to-ground zoom is used several times in the new version of Dr Who, which is only high-budget by BBC drama standards.

To come vaguely back to subject, though, I can't think of a way to replicate that effect in writing - you can switch scales in a sentence, but that's not quite the same as the sudden rapid shift through multiple scales.

10:

dsrtao, that's excellent.

One thing that struck me that you didn't mention was that Graduation happened in indeterminate years, as though it was a whimsical thing, and not structured or authoritative at all.

Very interesting. :)

11:

he orbit-to-ground zoom is used several times in the new version of Dr Who, which is only high-budget by BBC drama standards.

Interesting comment. A friend once described the appeal of the early years of the Dr. Who TV show as:
"Come up with a science fiction TV show. Here's $25/week for special effects. There will be a bonus for you if you don't spend all of it."

12:

Pull-to-orbit can be and is done in CGI but I've never seen an in-camera shot with real optics that achieved the same effect.

The start of the first episode of KamiChu! is quite a good example of an interesting beginning to a story. It starts with a small rather shy girl in middle school eating lunch with her friend and then telling her in an offhand sort of a way that she became a Goddess but she doesn't know what kind. That sets the storyline for the entire series as Yurie learns to be the Goddess of Middle School, Kami Chuugakusei or KamiChu for short.

There's a lot going on even in the first thirty seconds of the Big Reveal -- the view out the window makes it clear this story is set in a rural town not a big city. Yurie is smaller than all her compatriots in her class, her voice is high-pitched and hesitant indicating she's somewhat immature and her friend Mitsue is accepting of her rather off-the-wall announcement in a way that indicates she's the reliable supportive type. Yurie's lunchbox made by her mother shows her home life is a happy one.

That intro hooked me on this series and it's still one of my favourite animes.

13:

It depends just when you wrote that scene, and how much of the novel you had at the time, but I think its place in the final book would make that analysis worth it. Late-written, does it fit well with the story? Early-written, what does it suggest about where I am going?

Not every scene is worth the effort, and some authors will get more out of analysing the key scenes than others. The first time I tried NaNoWriMo I just charged at it, and it is more a sequence of shorter fiction, almost a fix-up, in how it came out. But I can see how having some sort of planned outline can be better and the key-points in that would matter.

Some big-name "literary" writers seem to write slowly and get huge advances in competitive auctions. I am not sure their work is worth the money, it's their name the publisher buys, but I suppose they have time to do such analysis.

Charlie, I'd rather trust your subconscious to deliver than wait for a couple of years of analysis to be done by you.

14:

I see your point, but that scene just spoke to me (and to several other poeple I know who've been in or know UK civil servants, particularly at the sort of technical levels that Bob starts at).

15:

Harry, I think there could be an interesting discussion about POV--when first is intimate and third is distant and vice versa--but I'm afraid of getting too prolix here, so I'm going to jumble something together and stick it on my blog.

16:

Now if someone could just figure out how to do a story entirely in second person plural...

17:

s/he/y'all/g;

(And yes I know I've not used word boundary anchors. Just buttume I'm going for the comedic value.)

18:

Terrance Dicks once wrote words to the effect of "With Doctor Who, we did not intend to make high-quality science fiction, we did not intend to make classic television, we wanted to make sure the test card did not go out for twenty-five minutes between the football scores and the news"

19:

Maybe not to orbit, but pull-out-to-aerial shots are a lot cheaper these days, thanks to drones - see this video (the shot in question is from 3:30 onwards, but the whole video is an interesting demonstration of the possibilities of dronecams for films).

20:

Sherwood, I look forward to reading that!

21:

to a non computer literate reader the description of bob trashing the poor guys disk would seem as exotic as the Latin based spells in harry potter.

I think that's at least part of the point: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" and all that. And then you find out that yes, you can actually use computer programming arcana to cast spells,..

22:

BTW Harry, thanks for the insightful analysis.

I find this sort of thing fascinating especially with writers whose works I enjoy. Read enough of someone and signature prose elements become apparent.

23:

you find out that yes, you can actually use computer programming arcana to cast spells
Haven't you just re-invented the Laundry Files?

24:

Well, the comment is about Bob Howard.

25:

An even better example is this video. I don't particularly care for the song, but the pull-out-to-aerial shots are amazing. You may say "oh, that's nice" around 1:10 and then again at 1:36, but you ain't seen nothing yet. It also beautifully showcases the versatility of a state-of-the-art camera drone. When they start inside at the beginning, you wouldn't even notice that a drone is filming. Also later, when the drone gets very low and close again from 1:50 and after the second aerial at 3:05.

26:

Yes. Just so. :)

(BTW, I having issues signing in with Typepad: identities only work some of the time (randomly with G+, Twitter or LJ), otherwise errors occur. And attempts to register a Movable Type account get me into an inescapable error loop at the confirm email by clicking on link stage.)

27:

Thank you! Doing this sort of analysis makes me a better reader and writer. I just wish it made me a faster one, too.

FOR EVERYONE interested in a brilliant discussion/discourse on POV and closeness, check out Sherwood Smith's take on it. Be sure to read the article she links to, which is long (so long it's taken me until today to finish it) but so very worth it.

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This page contains a single entry by Harry Connolly published on February 3, 2015 7:07 AM.

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