I used to joke that if they made an olympic sport of sleeping I’d be a contestant. Regular nights of 9, 10, … 12 hrs are common. And then the dreams! I’d recount some now except I’d be divulging my deepest secrets and sellable plots (maybe not quite the deepest or the most sellable although I did dream the plot of “Nausicaa and the valley of the wind” before I ever saw it). Trust me that they’re entertaining and bizarre.
Lately, however, with various sicknesses passing the two family households in St Louis, sleep has been hard won. Last week at the library, I found the non-fiction book “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep“. Less interested in how to sleep better and more just curious about sleep, this book suited me by delivering just that.
Before opening this book all I knew about sleep was a random amalgam of REM, Freud and Jung, naps of specific lengths, “sleep cycles”, a vague sense that invoking sleep in the learning process helped (in school I must have tested this, but didn’t counter-test by trying to learn without sleep except that one time with too much orange juice…), and a wariness of the grumpy sleep-deprived Lara.
This book begins with ancient ideas of Plato, a drastic change of dream interpretation introduced by Freud (that is, he began to interpret) then others. The first sleep lab opened in the 1950s, but not all the breakthroughs came from a lab. Before lightbulbs made artificial light safe and prevalent, sleep was split into first and second sleep with a couple of apparently extra awesome hours in the middle of the night (and the best to conceive in). That was discovered in retrospect by a historian of colonial and revolutionary America in completely unrelated research (he loved sleep — who doesn’t?).
The book goes through scientific studies on the detriments of a lack of “good” sleep including (among many others) hallucinations and paranoia after a couple of days and a higher incidence of cancer in overly lit areas. The book gives a scary survey of war accidents whose root cause is given as sleep deprivation. Luckily (?), the armies are learning to enforce sleeping minimums much like what is done for truckers on the highways (I hear).
I was most intrigued by details of studies on learning: after first exposure to the new subject/exercise/game, sleep on it, then try again and the learning will be far better than without the sleep (tired or not!).
These were just my favourites, but the book is full of other stories, science and speculation — a whole book worth in fact — all while being wonderful readable. On the cover comes a warning from Randi Hutter Epstein:
If you start at night, you’ll be up a long time, but at least you’ll know precisely how your sleeplessness altered your brain, body, and athletic prowess.
Multiple writing blogs have recently offered a take on harnessing cinematic technique in writing1. More often as not, the cart is put ahead of the horse and they fail to mention that, vice versa, cinema first adapted these famous techniques from writing! Even before writing, stories were shared round the fire and recorded later in pictures, so that, indeed, maybe the comic strip frame by frame is closest to the earliest recorded story medium and with as much to offer.
Narration transcends the medium2 and many of the techniques of film and writing have been passed back and forth with the refinements suggestive of each. Each have their own unique techniques unavailable to in the other.
D. W. Griffith may be the grandaddy of modern film but he credits it all to Dickens:
When Mr. Griffith suggested a scene showing Annie Lee waiting for her husband’s return to be followed by a scene of Enoch cast away on a desert island, it was altogether too distracting.
“How can you tell a story jumping about like that? The people won’t know what it’s about.”
“Well,” said Mr. Griffith, “doesn’t Dickens write that way?”
“Yes, but that’s Dickens; that’s novel writing; that’s different.”
“Oh, not so much, these are picture stories; not so different.”
reminiscences of Linda Griffiths, his wife
Surely we understand that the wife will be waiting a long time for her stranded husband, that she doesn’t know he’s stranded: the juxtaposition provided by the cut makes the situation all the more touching.
Angle, close-ups and wide panning shots offers us and our director friends a wealth of variety to control the pace, tone, and underlying meaning of a scene — the subtext3 — and entrance our ‘reader’. In both, perhaps the single greatest power of narration is the retelling in narrative-time the real-time unfolding of the story. We can jump back and forth in time, speed up and skip sections altogether, summarize others, then slow down for minute inspection of the juicy bits. Story by picture (or any other single frame medium) loses that dimension of narrative order but, where it has lost, the viewer has gained a freedom in how they choose to view the whole4.
Written description is not just visual, but uses all five senses: sound goes beyond ‘he said, she said’; smell and taste, intricately linked, are most evocative of memories and otherwise inexplicably recalled ideas; and touch makes the story tangible.
Words are not merely factual. Specific word choice reflects subtext framed within the perspective of the narrator whatever the POV taken, reliable or not, because even the so-called ‘objective’ narrator will be opinionated. To trust these opinions, whether the reader agrees or not, the narrator must always take a firm stance (no wishy washy maybe could be’s!). Specific words/images evoke a meaning in the reader that, strictly speaking, you can’t control but you can direct nonetheless if you reflect on the beyond-the-dictionary/google response you have with them.
Description is powerful in the particular choice of what to describe and what to leave out: apply the most salient strokes to paint a scene and carry on with the story. In film, the analogous close-up of particular details gives them too much weight; we can’t single out the most important points; the entire scene must be laboriously constructed, robbing the ‘reader’ of their creative input, indeed, distancing them from participation in the ‘reading’. That’s why watching a movie feels more passive than reading a book.
As a writer, be proud to work in a medium that’s so powerful and with such a long and rich history. Sure, our tastes are converging toward movie-like presentation — they’re evolving with the times — but it’s belittling to say that it’s the movies alone that have influenced us. Surely our distaste of verbose passages and purple prose are as much a statement of today’s culture and we can attribute these tastes to fast-paced living and our shortened attention spans, or, conversely, our demands to counter those all-too-real stresses and regain an active evocation in our reading. Taking the next step: how should our writing evolve to reflect our ever-changing culture?
Notes and further reading:
A variety of essays in the readings of a course on Film Adaptation are wonderful: I recommend the Eisenstein essay, “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” and I borrowed ideas unabashedly from Chatman’s “What Novels Can Do That Films Can’t (and Vice Versa).” There are a few others I plan on reading, but do comment if you beat me to them and would like to recommend.
2. The medium of narration can be film or novel, but think of the many others: spoken word, graphic novel, interpretive dance, etc.
3. Beyond pacing, tone, mood and ‘atmosphere’, subtext gives the underlying meaning, the themes and resonances connecting the scene within the whole, the background motivations of character and action, all the way to the commentary of the world, real and story, our story makes. I’m sorry this is vague — it’s still vague to me! I should probably reread Baxter’s book.
4. Imagine a painting in which the elements of the whole present two stories depending on the order of viewing them: in one viewing, say clockwise, maybe the blood is the consequence, but in the other, counterclockwise, viewing, the blood is the cause.
I’m not particularly faithful to any genre, be it fantasy, comedy, or sci-fi, although I do have a penchant for young adult and dystopic futures. After a short series of books that demanded that I read them1, I asked myself what they had in common… really. Although all four were young adult, one was a dystopic future, another a fantasy, another a sci-fi and, finally, a present day romantic/comedy/thriller. In common however, all four featured a surprising MC2: a philosophic zombie, a crazy descendent of Alice in Wonderland, a cyborg Cinderella, and a part-Asian, ass-kicking, funny/quirky teenage girl. Coincidentally, YA and dystopic futures nearly always feature a quirky/strong MC.
In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that these ‘surprising’ characters are such a draw. What makes compelling fiction after all? Surprising details, surprising plot developments (not, jerky, what the … developments, but insightful, oh, right/wow! ones), surprising stories that reveal something, well, surprising.
For such an obvious insight, it has considerably helped my story planning and, indeed, has incited a merger of two MC’s (rather, one was dropped and the other took up the extra action!) — no longer will they be splitting the glory of the storyline.
This may just be a passing phase for my browsing tastes, but I’d wager not.
Please share what moves you to pick a book from the many, many others.
1. Recent finds: Warm Bodies, Splintered, Cinder and Maid for Me. Of those I’ve finished so far, Cinder was the only one to sustain that initial hook to the finish (I can’t wait for the sequel!). Warm Bodies was superbly written and the zombie narrator was philosophically hilarious, but the ending didn’t deliver. Maid for Me was super fun but not so well written in my opinion. Look for a more thorough review of Splintered after I finish reading it. 2. Main character
This year I’ve formalized my reading addiction1 of young adult fiction and signed up for the 2013 Debut Author Challenge hosted at hobbitsies. The goal is to read and review a newly released book by a first time young adult author per month (potentially not an altogether new author, but new to young adult books at least). I’m beginning with the eerie looking retelling of Alice in Wonderland by A. G. Howard, Splintered. Check back for my review soon!
1. Already this year I’ve consumed Cinder [brilliant! I want the sequel NOW], Warm Bodies [great but, what happened to the climax? Seems it was just summarized?? I want to see the movie] and Maid for Me [fun, cute, great character and plot but just not so well written].