Friday, March 4, 2022

Pace, Voice, and other Mysteries, by Josh Stallings

 Q: Craft: Apart from studying books/courses about how to write, many writers hone their craft by reading the work of others. Can you share any insights you’ve gleaned this way? What about tricks or tips you’ve picked up from other forms of storytelling, like TV or movies? Any examples of how such insights have influenced your work?

A: I don’t analyze while reading fiction. After I’m done I may look back and think about things the writer did that impressed me. But I need to turn off the inner critic while reading or I’ll miss the emotional content. Earlier in my career I read Ken Bruen and tried to write with a poet’s brevity. I tried to find James Crumley’s bleak hard boiled flow. But once my voice established itself in my head I stopped looking for style pointers and started looking for broad structural approaches I wanted to steal, um, learn from.

The Cartel floored me. Don Winslow’s ability to tell this huge multi-character story, jumping from person to person and yet always landing back on a character just when I was thinking what’s happening with Mr. X? Winslow’s Power of the Dog trilogy led me on a journey to try and discover how sweeping sagas work. 

I frequently read outside of crime novels when I’m hunting a writing technique. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell tracks four members of a band in the 1960’s London music scene. Mitchell drops the reader down into the middle of a scene —“With John gone we were left to…” Wait John’s gone? — leaving you to play catch up, then he cuts away before it’s fully resolved. It doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger gimmick, but it works like one. (Note to self “a gimmick is just a poorly executed technique.”) Utopia Avenue isn’t a thriller but in trying to figure out who did what it creates suspense like one.

With Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel handles multiple characters over a 20 plus year span with wild almost illogical non-linear time leaps, very like Writer/Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s early work Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babble. He shattered the timeline and I found after watching it I would put it back together in linear order in my head. I worked as a trailer editor on 21 Grams and Babble. I was able to study his work, the links between scenes are emotionally correct, that is, “they feel right,” but logically they are higgledy piggledy. I can understand what he’s done but haven’t yet been able to replicate it in words. 

Through out my creative career I have worked as an intuit. As a trailer editor I never could explain what I was going to do. I’d just tell my bosses, producers, studio marketing executives to leave me alone over night and I’d show them what I was thinking. My best work came together quickly by trusting my instincts and working my way from idea to idea. I write the same way. I read the same way. My analytical brain is taking notes, while my creative brain is just digging the story and taking a ride. 

Many of my favorite writers I love because they do things entirely different from me. I spend enough time in my head with my books, I need to vacation in other writer’s worlds. Catriona McPherson is a master at setting, if she builds a village book store, you can smell the pages. She also delivers rich characters subtly. Her A Gingerbread House is darkly creepy. I read it back to back with Stuart Neville’s The House of Ashes. Two completely different writers tackling similar subjects. Each brilliant in their own way. Both masters of setting, and dialogue and character. However, if I randomly grabbed a page from either book I’d know if it was written by McPherson or Neville. They have distinctly unique voices. And that’s the part you can’t steal, so I just enjoy them.

If you don’t believe me about the voice thing, read anyone who has ever tried to knock off Chandler, or try it yourself. It’s not wrong to mimic or pay homage to your favorite writers, it’s how many of us started. Like painters copying masters to figure out how they did it. But it’s when you hear the sound of your own voice that writing gets really fun.

Ok Josh, stop rambling about voice and bring this home. 

What I know about brevity and pacing I learned from years of condensing films from two hours down to a two minute trailer and then condensing that into a thirty second tv spot. And all the time delivering the essential feeling of the film. Doing this I learned a lot about pace and how it functions. Pace is built by either speed of information flow or complexity of information being delivered. In film terms a wide shot classically composed can stay up longer without slowing the pace. Cut away too fast and it confuses viewers and that makes it feel slower. Confusion slows pace. In mystery/crime books there are two things going on at once, the reader is tracking the story being told, while they are also looking for puzzle pieces to solve the mystery. Too much backstory will slow down the pace, too little will also slow down the pace. Understanding neurodiversity has made it clear that pace is personal. I can only generalize about pace.

Another thing film taught me; the human brain is a connection seeking machine. It is built to find sense and order. The Kuleshov effect, in the early 1900s Kuleshov cut together a shot of an expressionless actor with a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan… Audience members thought the actor was brilliant, he showed hunger, grief and lust. This told me how hard our brains work to find order and connections. 

In the RoboCop trailer we couldn’t show any direct violence (the trailer had to be G-Rated). I discovered if Robo’s fist was about hit a mans face and I cut to fist coming through a wall, or Robo fired his gun, and a building blew up, logically it made no sense but the brain didn’t care, it made a connection. In a book a character needs to speak to a suspect. Next chapter they are in conversation. The brain never wonders “how did they get there? Did they knock on the door?” It makes the connection. The reader’s brain allows us to remove all the boring stuff. 

Biggest lesson learned from reading books and editing trailers? Don’t lead or hand hold readers, they’re smart, they see nuance and make connections.



Catriona McPherson said...

Now I need to read HOUSE OF ASHES! And I've manged to miss UTOPIA AVENUE too although I've devoured many of David Mitchell's others. Thanks, Josh!

Josh Stallings said...

Catriona, just doing my part to be sure you never run out of books in you TBR pile.