Sunday, 4 April 2010

Chop Chop

Lorena Bobbitt enjoys her community service.

What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out...

Editing is on my mind, partly because I have my ms to fashion, partly because I feel an immense responsibility to create maximum emotional impact from minimum, barest-bones dialogue for our game, and partly because of another superb discussion I recently had with young Esy.

When I decided to complete my ms last year, I remember sitting down with a coffee and reading through what I had, which was about one third of my proposed total.
I vividly remember the thrill of revisiting those emotionally-charged scenes! And I remember skimming through pages of words in order to get to that next magical moment.
As I lit a cigarette at the front door, a thought began to grow in my mind:
What if my ms were composed entirely and solely from those cool bits?

Sure enough, other bits of my mind threw up their hands in horror:
Well, that'll break the plot! And it'll leave me with a fraction of what I already have! And I'll lose all those interesting plot threads! And I'll not have the foreshadowing where it needs to be!
And so forth.

I'm very much enjoying Trauma on Virgin at the moment. (That's to say, the programme is called Trauma and it is shown on the Virgin channel: the programme is not called Trauma on Virgin.)
It's a wonderful experiment in extreme editing!

Can't remember her name, but she's my favourite!

A typical scene might look like this:


It is evening service and the restaurant is packed. HARRY, a handsome Harvard student, sits at a candlelit table opposite MARTA, a Swedish exchange student.

HARRY leaves his seat and kneels before MARTA.


Marta... Will you marry me?

MARTA'S eyes well with tears.
A light aircraft ploughs into the building.

As you can perhaps imagine, the show has been lambasted for its weak character development. However, the Halloween episode belly-flopped because the no-nonsense approach, which has become the very appeal of the show, was adjusted to allow for more insight into our MCs' inner selves. In principle, there's nothing wrong with this (although it was done very badly); however, it destroyed the precedent. I enjoy Trauma because it doesn't make me wait more than a couple of minutes before rolling a truck filled with acid down a busy high street. Trauma is Trauma; Hemingway is Hemingway; and no amount of 'go online to learn about and vote for your favourite characters' is gonna change that.

Take Roland Emmerich's 2012. Holy crap. What a dull movie - The Day After Tomorrow with the good bits cut out.
My son and I yawned our way through the first twenty minutes or so of set-up and exposition; then we whooped and cheered for a bit as the earthquakes and volcanoes did their apocalyptic shimmies; then we propped our eyelids with matchsticks to endure the remaining x hours.
And do you know what: if that opening wad of non-dynamic stuff had been removed and we had gone straight in with the first earthquake... well, I guarantee my son and I would have had more respect for the movie. Sure, we wouldn't have immediately known about those solar flares and mutated particles that were destabilising the earth's crust; and we wouldn't have known who these people were or how they were related to each other...

So back to Trauma. The paramedics arrive on scene to sort the pieces of bodies from the pieces of light aircraft; the new guy passes out; the old hand saves some lives; the wise woman says something poignant; and then we're off to the next tour bus-load of victims. Or, as I regularly testify, plot is concerned with the ordering of information. (And that hook is winking at you, nodding at that blank bit of page at the beginning of your scene!)

Having finished my cigarette at the front door, I sat with my ms, staring at it for a bit, as though it were a very naughty ms, but deep down it would take a bullet for me. First, the exposition and the repeated threads went. Then I determined that, actually, I did not need to begin with that set-up and characterisation. Moreover, when I sifted through the scenes looking for places to cleverly insert this stuff, it occurred to me that the requisite information was actually percolating through the scenes anyhoo - we were gleaning all the necessary stuff as a side-effect of the cool scenes; the narrative was showing and not telling; characters were being revealed through meaningful choices made under pressure, etc.

I've often advocated the 'write to the end' approach. (That is: plot, research, plot, write to the end, rewrite and edit.) Here's why:

Imagine you've opened a box of chocolates and there's a rather juicy peach surprise in there, and a couple of crappy toffees (there'll always be a box of cast-off toffees for every guest in our house!).
You eat the peach surprise.

But imagine that you open a mahoosive box of chocolates and there's a mega double-whipped triple-sodomised peach hurrah! hurrah! caramelised Messiah in there. That manky peach surprise doesn't really measure up any more.

For sure, editing is a skill I'm still learning, and, for sure, there are plenty of essential techniques at the writer's disposal. But how does one determine what is important and what isn't? How is it that a gloopy dollop of stream-of-consciousness works brilliantly in one novel and not in the next? How can Waugh write pages of breath-taking exposition, and Hemingway drench an entire scene in the complex notes of a sausage, and Kafka plump his dialogue tags with more parenthetical remarks than a bloated blue whale in a sea of krill-flavoured parenthetical remarks, and the Trauma writers ( lists ten of them!) cut to the bone?

By simultaneously editing a lit-fic ms and a puzzle-adventure script, I'm acutely aware that the needs of each prospective audience bears an important clue, and therein is a good place to start.

1 comment:

esruel said...

As the director might say: Lights, camera, action!
He doesn't say: Lights, camera, exposition!
The agent might say it, though, and so might the editor.
Therein lies the answer.
Except, no-one knows the answer - at least, not every time a new project is undertaken. So we make mistakes, putting in something here, nothing there, taking out in another place.
I think I spend most of the time hoping I've got it right!
Lights, camera, hypertension!