Thursday, June 30, 2011

One Time Only

If at first you don’t succeed... destroy all evidence you ever made the attempt.

No, no, don’t do that...

A few years back I was working on a film set where we were staging a bank robbery. The director... well, let’s be polite and say he wasn’t quite as knowledgeable as he thought he was.

We ended up doing a big dolly track move that encompassed the whole scene. Then we did a series of tighter moves. Then we did a wide master of the scene and got all the coverage. Then we did a reverse master of the scene and started doing coverage on that. Then came all the reaction shots for everyone in the bank. And by this time, the crew was starting to grumble, because every one of us knew what was going wrong.

As it turned out, my department had an intern, and he was still watching all this with complete newbie glee. As the day (and the bank robbery) wore on and on, he asked me what everyone was getting so grumpy about. After all, weren’t these all cool shots? I agreed they were, but pointed out that at least half of them were a waste of time. When he asked why, I came up with this way to explain it.

“When all this gets cut together,” I told him, pointing at one of our extras “you can only use one shot of them robbing that bank teller. You can break it up a bit, but not much because it’s happening so fast. At the end of the day, you can only rob teller number five once, so filming nine different versions of her getting robbed is a waste of time. If this guy knew what he was doing, he’d just get the shots he was going to use and that’d be it.”

The intern took those words to heart, and two or three more times during that project he’d give me a nod on days when scenes were just dragging and say “You can only rob teller number five once.”

The point of the story being, I know at least one person has gotten something useful out of my rambling.

No, wait, sorry, the point is that when you’re telling a story you can’t do the same thing again and again and expect it to have the same weight.

There’s an idea in literary theory (sorry, I do have to go there now and then) which says you can only experience a story for the first time once. After that first time, your brain can’t help but restructure your view of the story to see it with more experienced eyes. If you’ve ever read a mystery novel for a second time, or maybe rewatched films like The Sixth Sense, Dead Again, or The Prestige, you know it’s a very different experience when you go through these stories a second time. Or a third time. But you can never, ever get that first time again. Even something like The Empire Strikes Back changes between the first and second exposure to the material.

This is why we all hate spoilers, because the innocence, so to speak, of that first experience is being taken away from us and we can never get it back. To be honest, this is also one of the problems I have with the “film school” approach to movies. A lot of these folks get taught to study and dissect films rather than to watch them, so the first time with the story is lost on these people. They never see the movie the way it was intended to be seen—they just jump straight to the second viewing. Which seems counterproductive when you want to learn how to do something. It’s like going to cooking school and never bothering to taste anything.

Anyway... I digress. But not by much.

There’s another aspect to doing the same thing more than once, and this is the idea of noise. A few times before I’ve brought up Damon Knight and his wonderful observation about facts. A fact we don’t know is information, but a fact we already know is noise. This is true even if we just learned the fact ten or fifteen pages earlier.

An example...

I read a book a while back where one piece of information was “revealed” four times. Essentially, character A discovered a mysterious South American temple that shouldn’t exist. Then A was killed and B found his notes, so B discovered the temple. B quickly related the story to C and then C explained the whole thing to D, so now D learned about the temple. And D... well D was pretty high-ranking, so he went to the President and told the whole Cabinet about the temple. And every single time people would have incredulous reactions and then the reader got the explanation of what the temple represented and who built and how we know it’s ten thousand years old and what we think it is.

Every. Single. Time.

Y’see, Timmy, that information is powerful the first time we hear it. Like so many things that get repeated, though, it loses power every time. In this case, it’s not just losing power, it’s taking a rapid plunge from information to noise.

Plus, it’s taken a huge emotional hit. Finding out that the pyramid strongly implied, if not proved, a pre-human civilization was amazing... the first time. The second time it was something we already knew, even if it was new to this particular character. The third time it was annoying. By the fourth time, personally, I was skimming.

Here’s an easier example, and one we’ve all probably dealt with at some point or another. Have you ever had someone tell a joke (or what they thought was a joke) and then they repeated the punchline when no one laughed? Maybe they repeated it two or three times. Perhaps they went after people one on one (“Hey, Timmy, did you hear when Mike said he wasn’t putting in enough hours and I said ‘That’s what she said’..”). In these situations, as the joke was repeated again and again, we all just got more and more annoyed, didn’t we?

Now, anytime a writer has a fair-sized cast of characters and an even slightly challenging plot, they’re going to have to deal with this issue. You can’t have everybody walking around together experiencing every single thing at the same time. Which means there are going to be points when A and B know something C and D don’t. The trick is coming up with ways to share that information without having the story come to a grinding halt while characters discuss things the reader already knows.

I bring this up not just because of the head-banging nature of that book I referenced above, or because of scarring memories of the bank robbery. Y’see, this is something I’m dealing with right now. In my current project I’m juggling a large cast who are investigating a mystery separately, but keep coming together to compare notes. I know my mystery, but the roadblock is getting past awkward infodump scenes without neglecting this character or that one. I mean, Debbie’s reaction to what they found in the sub-basement is just as valid as Pash’s, isn’t it? She just had the bad luck of having to work that day so she couldn’t go exploring and had to get that information second hand.

You get one chance for your big reveal and that’s it. One. You can’t keep revealing it again and again and expect that reveal to have the same emotional weight. It’s also not going to draw the audience in, because it’s gone from being a surprise to being... well, just another fact.

And if you’re not careful, repetitive facts can get dry and boring really quick.

Next week, I’d like to tell you about the time I sat around for hours watching the most inefficient bank robbery ever.

No, actually, next time I’d like to describe something you’ve probably never seen before.

Until then, go write.

3 comments:

  1. David Eddings used a neat trick in his books (which invariably featured lots of characters), where the person with the info would say, "I've got this really important exciting thing to tell you, but let's wait till we've got everyone together because i don't feel like repeating myself" (unfortunately Mr Eddings started using this trick far too often, which kinda defeats the object somewhat).

    Out of interest, how are you dealing with the problem? (I'm busy info-dumping in my current project too) Are we allowed to use the trick of starting the next chapter with the second person's reaction of "You did WHAT?? And that explains EVERYTHING??".

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  2. I've actually tried that one, too. :)

    I think it's a valid trick, as long as (like you said) you don't overuse it. I've also fallen back on simple things like...

    ---------
    Wakko spent the next hour getting everyone caught up. He answered a few questions, but for the most part they let him talk and they all soaked up the information.
    -------------

    I think the problem with any of these approaches, like I mentioned, is some characters end up getting short-changed by it. I don't see Yakko or Dot's reactions to this cool info, even though I showed Wakko's. So when you do any of them a half-dozen times or so, it becomes painfully obvious how many potential character moments are being skipped.

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  3. Rakie..peaking of Fantasy authors…

    Peter…speaking of overusing a surprise…

    R.A. Salvatore and Terry Goodkind are incredibly guilty of such crimes. Salvatore has a character die only to have actually lived later on in the same book or series that I was never moved when one of my favorite characters died. Goodkind had too many main characters captured which of course preceded the eventual hunt that always lead to them getting back to the story. Predictable…predictable….pre….

    Authors shouldn’t be guilty of spoiling their own books.

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