The Importance of Location in Writing

March 24, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

Last night’s narrative writing class was about the use of location in writing.

To be honest, it wasn’t something that I had given much thought to before.  When I write a story, the location is not really something I consider.  I think about the plot, and I think about the characters, and what they want to do and where they want to go.  Those things usually dictate the location where the events take place.

But what if you take a scene from a story and change the location?  How would that change things?  If you take a murder and place it in the back of a hospital as opposed to a dark alley?  Or if you take a road trip and put it through the desert rather than the jungle?  How does that change the dynamics, the tone, and the imagery?

Do you ever wonder why a particular story or event takes place in a certain location?  For instance, why do some writers always write about the outback, where it is open and barren, while some others like to write stories about confined spaces?

And how a character perceives a location or setting is always telling of that person’s mood.  If you get a person who just found out about their impending death to describe a setting, it would no doubt be completely different to the description of a person who just fell madly in love.  The way a setting is described can give plenty of clues as to what the character is feeling.

I’m usually horrible at describing the setting and location.  I never know how much to put in and what to leave to the imagination of the audience.  I always end up going with the cliches and hoping that I’ll be able to fix things up in rewrites.  I envy those authors who are able to pinpoint a few features of a setting that stand out, and just focus on those things.  While it might not give you a full picture, it does give you enough to get a feel of what the place is like and what the character is seeing or feeling.

I found it all to be quite fascinating, and can’t wait to apply more thought to it in my own writings.

[PS: Unfortunately, we had the insufferable lethal duo in class last night.  Up to that point, the two dudes had, by some stroke of fortune, never been in the same class.  One guy was always away for whatever reason.  Last night, the two of them sat together for the first time, and the results were brutal.  One of them loved to comment on everything, and felt the urge to comment on everything we read or what anyone says.  The problem is, the comments are usually always negative, and as we found out last night, often wrong.  Various comments he made were shot down by other classmates as plainly incorrect (eg the meaning or use of a particular word or phrase), but he somehow managed to hold on to those erroneous views to the death.  The other guy spoke less, but he was a waffler that loved to talk about the past and his many old stories, even if they had nothing to do with the discussion.  Once he starts on something you might as well take a nap.  The two of them worked like a well-oiled machine, not jumping over each other, but like the perfect wrestling tag team.  It was one after the other, a negative comment followed by an old-time story, and vice versa.  A seamless performance.]

Writing Screenplays is Hard Stuff!

March 24, 2010 in Uncategorized by pacejmiller

We finally started learning how to write a script in our screenwriting class last night.  About time, considering we have to hand in a first draft of an original screenplay in a couple of weeks.

I have decided to go with a short film as opposed to a feature.  This is, after all, my first screenplay (the old crap I did with a friend doesn’t count — those were never finished anyway).  After last night’s class, I’m sure I made the right decision, because writing a screenplay is so much harder than I had envisioned.

You do learn a lot from reading screenplays, watching films and reading up on screenplay writing conventions and basic principles, but it’s not until you sit down to write one that you realise how difficult it is.  How do you structure it?  How do you describe the characters?  How do you transition from one scene to another, from one Act to another?  So many problems, and yet there’s so many ways to solve them!

I keep making the mistake of putting in too much aesthetic detail as opposed to capturing the essence of the tone and mood.  Who cares about what the characters are wearing or if they are shaven?  Wardrobe and make-up can take care of that.  It’s about making the script director and actor-friendly, so when they read it, it gives them an idea of what they have to do, while still allowing some level of creative freedom.

The short film I have in mind is a simple concept, but hard to pull off.  I’ve got the major plot points and the characters (I literally woke up in the middle of the night last week, had a sudden burst of inspiration and developed all the main characters before going back to bed), and last night I finally learned how to use a screenwriting program.  The one I’m using is Celtx, a free program (that can be downloaded here).  I can’t compare it to the many other free programs out there, but so far I have found it easy to use and navigate.

Whilst mucking around online, I also found this event called “Script Frenzy“.  It’s the screenwriter’s NaNoWriMo.  Write a 100-page screenplay in the month of April.  Sounds too challenging for me.  I’m going to stick to my 15-page first draft for now.

Lastly, we watched this Aussie short film last night by Nash Edgerton called “Spider”.  I’m not usually a fan of short films but this one was superb.  Check it out below.

Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

March 24, 2010 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

The latest crime fiction phenomenon to sweep the globe is the Millennium Trilogy (over 27 million copies sold) by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson.  The first novel of that series is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the award-winning book that’s just everywhere at the moment.

I see people reading it on the train.  I hear people chatting about it in class (about how lucrative crime fiction is!).  I even overheard someone raving about it in a lift.  “It’s good,” she said, nodding.  “It’s really good.”  So I decided to check it out.

The verdict?  Pretty good, but not worthy of the worldwide craze in my opinion.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an immensely complex crime novel.  There are two central characters — a disgraced journalist by the name of Mikael Blomkvist, and the wild and unpredictable titular character, Lisbeth Salander, a young security specialist with a difficult past — but there is a whole host of secondary and minor characters, and Larsson has a detailed biography for just about all of them.

The core of the story is actually quite simple.  A journalist is asked to research the mysterious disappearance of a young girl from a wealthy dynastic family, believed to be dead for forty years.  It is the ultimate cold case, made more intriguing by the fact that the island on which the supposed murder took place was sealed off from the rest of the world, limiting the suspects to a number of unique and eccentric characters.

However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is anything by straightforward.  There are subplots galore, and even the subplots have subplots.  In the way fantasy writers often do, Larsson has really created an entire new world, meticulously researched and thought through, from family trees to chronologies to even complicated corporate structures.

Some people love this type of comprehensiveness, but for me, it was overkill.  Yes, you do get to understand the history of all these characters extremely well, but at 554 pages (my paperback version) there is an awful amount of exposition.  In fact, probably close to an entire quarter of the novel comprises lengthy biographies and back stories of key characters.

To Larsson’s credit, he has created some very interesting characters.  There’s not a lot of black and white — everyone has skeletons in the closet and things they would like to hide, and that’s what makes the novel intriguing to read.  The unusual heroine Lisbeth Salander, in particular, is one of the most original and complex characters I’ve come across.

Another thing that struck me about the book was how dark it was.  It’s clearly not meant for those with an aversion to violence and taboo (but real) subjects.  And underlying all of this is a stern political and social message which Larsson punches into our subconscious.  I suppose the original translation of the book’s title, “Men Who Hate Women”, will give you a fair idea of what I’m talking about.

I’ve already touched upon Larsson’s style (ie lots of exposition), but there’s more to it.  Larsson is great storyteller that likes to feed you lots of information.  The way Larsson has written The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is almost like a detective’s journal at times.  He describes all the daily rituals and mundane activities with as much precision as the fun stuff, like he’s trying to give you a full and complete picture of the characters’ lives.  Again, I can understand why some people like it, but it didn’t get me going as much as I wanted it to.

Don’t get me wrong, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the more intelligent and sophisticated crime thrillers out there.  I read it a lot faster than I thought I would, which must mean it is pretty good.  It ticks the right boxes — a compelling premise, a complex plot and unique characters — but to be perfectly honest, I don’t quite understand the superlatives being heaped onto it.  Maybe I should read the two other novels in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

3.5 stars out of 5

[PS: poor Stieg Larsson died of a massive heart attack at age 50, and all his hugely successful novels were published posthumously.  He was a politically active journalist by day, amateur crime novelist by night.]