I am not on the side of the author, nor on the side of the reader. I believe that the author has to fight his own corner, and in the brave new world of electronic publishing where noone needs to listen to professional critics any more (whose side were they on, anyway?), the reader has at last acquired a voice, with the result that some independent authors rewrite and republish—even entirely retelling a story—after listening to reader reaction.
I am on the side of the story.
Stories can take many forms, so knowing what a story ought to be is not a straightforward matter of applying a few patterns. My authors will know that I'm as likely to cite examples from Buffy and Xena as I am to cite Kipling or du Maurier, Homer or Chaucer, Shakespeare or Wertenbaker.
From time to time this editor comes across shining examples of what not to do when telling a story, and this post is about one of them.
Last night I stayed up a little later than I should have, watching a movie that in some ways I'm glad I watched. Which is to say that if I weren't a story editor, I probably would have said the n hours of my life I won't get back thing. (I'd never say that in a review, but informally or for comic effect I might say it.)
The movie was Babylon A.D. , a Franco-American Sci-Fi actioner from 2008. Cutting straight to the chase, the film got a metacritic score of 26% and rotten tomatoes gave it 7%. Those are not good scores. And well justified.
Some critics complained about shabby action sequences, and from the point of view of American audiences who are used to brassfests* like Heat or Total Recall, I can understand this; the two running battles are shot through crowds, scaffolding and parked cars, and choppy cutting means that the viewer sees very little detail of these scenes. This is typical of French action films, where (apart from car chases, that the French are if anything even more fetishistic about than Americans) big, complex or lengthy scenes of violence are often distanced from view by this sort of technique, in order to give more punch to key moments like the hero getting shot, which tend to be extremely graphic.
But that is cinematography, not storytelling. You could do that stuff differently and it wouldn't help or hinder the story.
The acting (as an aside) is mentionable at best. Michelle Yeoh acts her little cotton socks off, as always, and comes across as if about 80% of all her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Mélanie Thierry (the one whose eyes are on different continents) does a passable imitation of Elijah Wood, and Vin Diesel is indescribable. He has a quality in almost all his movies of "surely this guy is too smart to be playing that part?".
Actually what does for this movie is its treatment of its story, which suffers in equal measure from Xeno's Dichotomy Paradox and its usual corollary, back-cutting.
The dichotomy paradox maintains that before you can get somewhere, you must first get halfway there, and once halfway, you must then cover half the remaining distance before you can cover all of it, and once there (three quarters of the original journey), you must cover half the remaining distance again, and so on ad infinitum, HENCE you can't ever get there. Wikipedia probably explains it better than I do.
The manifestation of this effect in a story is (sort of) inverted. Sometimes it is caused by the writer realizing he has reached the halfway point and therefore seeing the end in sight. Sometimes it is caused by the writer realizing that the book is getting overlong. Whatever the reasons might be, in the third quarter of the book the writer takes half as long to narrate the same amount of action as in the first half, and then in the seventh eighth half as much again, and then in the fifteenth sixteenth half as much again, and so on. The pace of action accelerates exponentially as you approach the end, and as the pace of action accelerates, so the detail starts to go amiss.
There are big jumps in distance and time (which in the movies are glossed-over usually by giving the main characters a makeover and a change of costume). Plot details that would have made sense of the story are delivered with every increasing economy until they're no longer sufficiently detailed to be understood or recognized. Character development is inverted, as there is more an more action and less and less interaction, characters are gradually reduced to mere cyphers.
When the author realizes just how differently the first and second halves of the book come across, he goes back and begins thinning the plot and characterization in the first half in order to better match the second, and in order to avoid leaving Chekhov's guns and other dangling plot opportunities, until, like in this movie, there isn't enough detail in the first half for you to understand why anyone is doing anything, and it becomes a loosely strung together collection of rule-of-cool badassery punctuated by token tragedy, onto whose tail end Hollywood tacked an incomprehensible Shawshank ending**.
In the movies it is very very common to cut the details that make sense of the story, because producers are loath to cut scenes that cost a lot of money to shoot. Even if the actors take a week to shoot five minutes of dialog, those five minutes cost less than shooting 5 seconds of car chase.
In a book, you don't have the financial issue. Indeed if your writing is good and the story is strong, the longer it is the more value for money the reader will get. In theory. I believe that length is a much less critical issue than completeness. You can write a complete, strong, story in ten, twenty, forty thousand words. But if the story demands two hundred, then that is what it should get.
It can take a lot of discipline to keep yourself from rushing the second half, but the more books you write, the more you will realize that it is worth it. That the second half should take at least twice as long to write as the first half, because it needs to be twice as good. The Marriage at Cana (John 2: 1-11) has an important message for the writer: at the feast, you must serve the best wine last, because the most articulate critics are generally the ones that drink least.
* oh all right: a 'brassfest' is a film where everyone is armed with fully automatic weapons and there are lengthy action sequences that involve epic quantities of rounds being fired, scattering ejected empty bullet casings (brass) in all directions. Hot Shots Part Deux (a surprisingly enjoyable and gloriously silly sequel) has a scene where Topper fires his M60E3 for so long that he is buried under a pile of 7.62 casings.
** named after what is for me the worst final scene of any film, ever, a Shawshank ending is when there is a final optimistic or feelgood scene that bears little or no relation to the themes, atmosphere or general message of the rest of the film.
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