Apr. 23rd, 2012

caper_est: Sharpening the quill (writing)

Inspired by this thought-provoking conversation about the tension between story-telling and word-craft, but at a somewhat different angle and not directly responsive to it.  The same events are covered in each of the following... yarns. 

First up, we have this exciting fight scene from super action thriller The Flowerpot Conspiracy!

Bill hit Ben. “You rat!” snarled Ben. Ben hit Bill and knocked him down. 

“Weed!” cried Weed.

I might call The Flowerpot Conspiracy many things, but the salient one here is under-written.  Even Dan Brown's prose needs to do more than this, to engage the reader with the tale.

Next, we turn to Death and the Daisy, a hard-hitting pulp-style adventure:

Ben stepped in front of Weed. “Back off, Bill!” he warned.

Bill came in swinging. Ben’s block was a hairsplit late, and his brother’s fist smashed into his nose, staggering him backwards in a sputter of pain and blood. “You rat!” snarled Ben, over a rising vegetable keening from Weed.   He surged up under Bill’s careless guard, and slugged him a good one to the solar plexus. Bill whuffed, choked, and folded. Ben cast a cold eye down on him, and finished the job with a hammer-blow to his occiput. Bill went right down and stayed there. Ben wiped his eyes on the back of his hand, then withdrew his long unsavoury handkerchief from his pocket, and clapped it to his gouting nose. It hurt like the devil, but at least it didn’t feel broken.

“Weeeeeed!” cried Weed.

Death and the Daisy is not, perhaps, very good.  For one thing, I write punch-ups not much better than I practice them.  However, in terms of matching style and matter, I think it's about on the right level.  This is deliberately about the most basic level of story for which it's worth finding a properly-matching prose style: Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men fall out over Weed; Bill goes to the bad and does foo-bar; Ben and Weed emerge triumphant.

Now we can turn the prose dial right to the other extreme.  Here's the excerpt from a treatment I consider overwritten - that ambitious romantic mediaeval fantasy, The Weed at the World's End:

Bill’s eyes, cold and unwholesome as the stagnant waters of some peat-hag or mire in the kindless days of February, glinted evilly. As a man wisp-tempted Ben’s brother now seemed to him; as in a manner led by some vague unhallowed light through obscure marsh-tracks and by-ways in which all goals go awry, united only in their despair of any good ending.

Yet it was the Damsel Weed who must now be his only care – whether by duty, as his oath and his chivalry charged him alike; or for the right of the matter, seeing how Weed had set aside all thought of comfort or safety in her care for the many-coloured world, whereas Bill ever slighted all causes save his own liking and pleasure; or yet only for Ben’s very love and delight in that dear flower-nymph’s fellowship, who had become to him through many trials indeed his Day’s-Eye.

Bare is back without brother behind it, thought Ben in great anguish of mind; yet say again this, that love exceeds blood as blood surpasses water; and my soul’s choice is made! “Back off, Bill!” he warned.

His words fell as a doom: the author could no more be arsed: the reader slumped gratefully into the all-solacing arms of Morpheus.

If one wishes to write something this weird and ornate, the deed can be done, and done well.  The result may even aspire to greatness - though less likely to great sales.  William Morris inspired Tolkien, among others, with works in a very similar register.  But Bill and Ben and Weed, with all respect to them, are not the characters to do such, and they're not in the tale to do it.  Or even the kind of tale.  They are not the kind of people who can be.

So where underwriting simply lacks what the story demands, overwriting just as simply ladles whatever the author likes best onto the story, whether it demands gravy or not.  And whilst the list of common lacks is generally a short and too-familiar one, the list of personal gravies is effectively infinite.  Worse, underwriting and overwriting aren't  mutually exclusive.

More thoughts on this as and when they're thunk.

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