Of human bondage

W. Somerset Maugham

Yesterday we posed a question: Which is the best chosen word in this line?

Her voice was so weak that it seemed to come already from a great distance.

It’s not the verb, “was”, as it doesn’t express action but merely introduces the attribute. It might be “voice”, which is the noun that the sentence describes, or “weak”, which is its main feature. It might even be “distance”, a noun that evokes the weakness even better than the adjective can. All the words in the sentence are common, simple. Any reader will understand them.

But the best chosen word is “already”. The moment I read those seven letters, I knew that the kid’s mother was dying.

Imagine the line without that word. It becomes a correct description with no additional meaning. It is the “already” that places us in context by telling us so much with so little.

I noted the lesson and decided I had to share it with you.

The precise word

I’d like to present you today with a good example of the simple, precise prose to which we always aspire. And with the example, an exercise.

Last night I started reading “Of Human Bondage” by W. Somerset Maugham. On the first page, a maid takes a sleepy child in her arms to his mother’s bed. The mother greets him. Maugham writes:

Her voice was so weak that it seemed to come already from a great distance.

Exercise: Which is, in your opinion, the best chosen word in this line? My answer, tomorrow.

Great expectations

I’ve mentioned Scriptshadow in the past, so I won’t introduce Carson Reeves again. Last Monday he reviewed the script for Vanishing On 7th Street, a horror film whose trailer is already available:

As you can see, everybody disappears form the face of the earth, with the rare exception of our protagonists. There’s also something strange going on with darkness, as they can only trust the lights they carry themselves. Pure claustrophoby, and a powerful premise.

Carson starts off his review by wondering, too powerful?

The Vanishing on 7th Street is a script that starts off strong but, like a lot of these scripts, gets swallowed up in its own ambition. The ultra high-concept premise lures us in like fresh garbage to a family of raccoons. The question is, is the premise *too* high concept? Wha? Huh? Buh? ‘How can that even be possible’ you ask?? A premise is too high concept when no matter what you do with the story, it will never be as interesting as the concept itself. In other words, you bite off more than you can chew. And unfortunately, I think that’s the case with Vanishing.

The idea deserves some thought. Only last night was I talking precisely about this, as I’ve recently finished 1984 and my partner is reading Brave New World. Such classics both suffer from the same unarguable flaw: once the initial premise is exhausted, the plot grows thinner by the page.

We’ve seeen the same problem on TV, a few years ago on The 4400 (forty four hundred missing people reappear simultaneously together without aging a day or memories of the missing time) and more recently on the big flop of the season, Flashforward (every person on the planet faints simultaneously and dreams a scene of their own future exactly six months later).

Of course the concepts are powerful enough to engage the reader’s imagination (or the viewer’s, who’ll pay their cinema ticket or sit in front of the TV every week, willing to witness the grand show) – but is it not a pity that, by starting with the climax, we all end up disappointed?

If the concept that sends your story into motion is the best thing about your script, then you only have one-fourth of a script. What if aliens invaded our planet tomorrow? Okay, great concept. But then what? How do you keep that interesting for the 100 minutes after they invade? If you want to see how bad someone can screw this up, go rent Independence Day. Just make sure to also rent a gun, as you’ll want to shoot yourself by the midpoint. I think the key to these high concept ideas is making sure you have a story ready on the personal level after you hit your audience with the hook.

Indeed the big question is, how do I avoid that problem? With interesting characters? Through solid plotting? But of course! Shouldn’t those elements be present in every story? Yes, but we raised the bar too high for ourselves, how can I come up with an ending that’s worthy of my beginning? Well, you need to find elements that are just as powerful. Lost may have disappointed many of us towards the end, but during six seasons it managed to reinvent itself with complex characters, unexpected twists and narrative schemes of all colours and shapes. Blindness turned itself inside out by undoing a world tragedy and revealing a personal one. Masterful!

So here’s an exercise just as powerful: how would you save Vanishing on 7th Street from falling into this trap? How would you improve a book the size and importance of 1984? How would you get, out of these premises above, more than the authors who created them? Or, to present another forthcoming blockbuster, what would you do with the premise of Skyline?