META: Bringing Things Into Focus

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Fri Sep 22 23:38:55 PDT 2006


   Most of you know that in addition to my work here
on RACC, I'm also a cottage-industry filmmaker. 
Between the two of us, my wife and I perform all the
technical duties: the lighting, the writing, the
casting, the directing, the shooting, and the editing.
 I enjoy filmmaking because it is, first and foremost,
a collaborative effort.  It's very hard, for example,
to sit down with someone and actually write a story
together, sentence-by-sentence; on a film set,
however, everyone is working together, coming up with
ideas, trying them out, refining them, bouncing them
off of each other, until something magical occurs: a
complete accident, a completely new meaning to a scene
or character, an improvised jostle of the camera or an
impulsive zoom, something you never thought of when
you started, something completely different than the
lines on the page or the little rectangular panels
filled with hastily-drawn storyboards: it's what
Kurosawa referred to as "kiln changes", and you become
conscious of the fact that you, your crew, and your
cast have together _created_ something-- it's a heady
feeling, and that's what filmmaking is all about.
   But if you were to ask me what the most important
part of filmmaking was (or, in fact, the most
important part of any art form), it would not be that
magical orgy of creative serendipity, but rather
something far more solitary and sensual: the editing. 
"But Tom," I've been asked, "isn't that just whittling
it down, shaving seconds and frames from the shots?"
   And while, yes, the final edit is usually much
shorter than the first-- and, yes, some things can
stand to be shortened (such as the sentence that
concluded that first paragraph!)-- good editing cannot
be equated with truncation.  Truncation is a method,
but not the _reason_.
   The difference between bad editing and good
editing, whether in film or prose or acting or
anything, is the difference between bad art and good
art.  And it all comes down to focus.
   Good art is focused art.  Whether you're making a
point or exploring a dilemma which has no answers,
good art shows tremendous and irresistible focus.
   A good comic book artist knows how to direct the
reader's eye across the page; we've all seen Neal
Adams or Klaus Janson explaining that Batman's fist
leads us into panel two, and his cape points
diagonally to the first panel of the next tier, and so
on.  It's elementary technique, and many a young
artist (and would-be artist) will roll their eyes at
it: it can't be that important, can it?
   Well, it is.  Let me illustrate with a fairly
recent example.  Now, I don't buy more than a handful
of comic books a month-- it's up to a grand total of
eight (four recent releases and four back issues). 
And for reasons that defy logic, I wasted one of these
slots on the first issue of the WONDER WOMAN relaunch.
 (For those of you who may be reading this years
later, this is the first issue following the INFINITE
   I was reading this comic, when all of the sudden,
one of the villainesses had grabbed ahold of Wonder
Woman's magic lasso.  "Wait a second!  How did that
get there?"
   Well, I flipped back a page and saw that, in a
cramped panel on the bottom of the page, said
villainess had grabbed the lasso.  It was a detail
that was completely loss, and that's because the
artist did not focus on it; the artist, who deals
mostly in splash pages and cleavage, did not direct my
eye properly around the page and did not know how to
tell a story in rectangles.
   A reader (or film viewer) should never be lost in a
story, unless the artist's intention is for them to be
lost.  But if you intend for them to understand
something, make sure they understand it.  This doesn't
mean that things necessarily need to be underlined or
telegraphed, but there needs to be a clear line from
point A to point B, and focus is how you achieve this.
   That's not to say that art cannot be experimental,
or that it has to tell a reader what to think.  Have
you seen the film FACES, directed by John Cassavetes? 
It's an incredible, heart-wrenching film, brutal and
painful and lovely in grainy black-and-white.  The
film is well over two hours and few scenes are less
than fifteen or twenty minutes long.  Characters
repeat themselves over and over again, and for many
viewers, "indulgent" is the word that comes to mind. 
It's very, very loose-- but that doesn't mean it
doesn't show tremendous focus.
   Every detail, and every shot, and every cut,
_counts_.  Every shot picks out some detail, and it's
really up to the viewer to sort them out, to notice
the ones they want to notice.  And yet these details
are arranged very carefully, very artfully, with one
leading into the next, building on what came before. 
They're not just lain at your feet like bodies or
notebooks: they're assembled into a finished product:
they're focused.
   Focus and clarity are very important to me.  I
don't want to tell my readers or viewers what to
think, but I want to give them something to think
about.  I don't want to tell them how to feel, but I
want to make them feel: I want to have an effect, and
I want it to come from something within themselves. 
My aims are probably the only way in which I am
comparable to Mr. Cassavetes.
   In every other way, we are different: he prefers
hand-held, I prefer steady control.  He prefers long,
long scenes, while most of the scenes in my film work
don't run more than a minute or two.  He eschews any
form of plot, while I'm perfectly happy and willing to
work in what could be termed, at best, melodrama.  And
I think, in general, I'm more "commercial" than he is,
whatever that means.
   My prose is vastly different than that of Martin
Phipps, a compatriot on RACC whom I hold in high
esteem.  But we both share the same aim: focus. 
Martin's work is extremely tight, told in bare-bones
dialogue with a minimum of description.  Each scene
has a point (or a gag), he presents it, and moves on.
   I am, admittedly, a bit more long in the tooth.  My
writing is more interior, and the scenes tend to last
longer.  Especially when I am following a hero along
on the process of solving a crime, I eschew very
little, preferring instead a more "robust" and "full"
approach.  It would be egotistical of me to pronounce
that my work shows tremendous focus, but I will state
that focus has always been my aim, and is at the heart
of any writing techniques that I may advocate.
   I often praise Dave Van Domelen for his structure,
and I decry Jesse Willey for his; Dave's work, on a
whole, shows a tremendous amount of focus.  Jesse's
work is deliberately obtuse, and he is completely
incapable of writing anything but the second act of a
story.  (I say this as a friend, and a collaborator.)
   It's not that Jesse's work is long and formless:
scenes are very, very short, typically shorter than
Martin's.  But the selection and arrangement of the
details are not the only storytelling tools that one
can use to focus the story.  In most art, it's not a
matter of what you say but how you choose to say it:
it's a matter of style, of emphasis, of weight and
   Let's say a director is doing a chick flick, and
there's a big scene in the middle where the doomed
lovers share a mad night of passion before he's
whisked away to die in some war while her mother dies
of cancer.  Now, let's pretend every scene in the film
is exactly a minute long.  And let's pretend that
every shot in the film is held for the same length of
time: let's be generous and say, ten seconds.  Would
that scene make much impact at all?  In fact, would
any big scene make any impact at all?  Or any cut, for
that matter?
   Changes in rhythm draw the eye's attention, both on
the screen and on the page: a long scene amongst
shorter ones helps us to pay special attention to that
scene, a quick little subliminal flurry of a cut is
disturbing to the eye and unexpected.
   If every scene and every sentence is the same in
length, style, and tone, then nothing stands out. 
Even if the details are there, even if the plot is
laid out clearly, the reader won't pick it up: it all
blurs flatly together, like mush.  And if the reader
does pick it up, they're not likely to remember it,
which can be fatal with a particularly Byzantine plot.
   It's important that the details you choose to focus
on are both telling and memorable, and the best way to
do this is with a little bit of style.
   Now, some writers have a very matter-of-fact
utilitarian style, with only a few flourishes here and
there to keep things lively.  Dvandom and Jamas
Enright are both great plotters with unobtrusive
styles.  Their story structure is unassailable. 
Details are arranged very artfully and properly
weighted both rhythmically and structurally.  They're
good at what they do; they don't really need to be
doing vocabulary hat tricks.
   Other writers are not so lucky, and I'm one of
them.  Sometimes I go too far:

~Soon you'll be in another town, another state, and
another homely-hammy actor-king will claim ninety-six
point three for his own and this FM messiah will damn
you to hell with his American idols (golden calves
emerging with plastic breasts from the Wall of Sound)
until another jockey claims ninety-six point three,
and another, and another, and that's America, Greg,
that's America: that's freedom, so much sadder and
truer than wind-in-hair or travels-with-Charlie will
ever be.~ (SPEAK # 2)

I'm much prouder of a lighter touch, and I'd rather
advocate something like this:

~"Your blows only make me stronger!" says the Crooked
Man.  He grabs Martin in his JAGGED RIBBON arms,
tossing him over his head and out of the locker room. 
Martin sails like a missile, crashing into the boxing
ring's four-foot BEACHHEAD FIRST.~ (JOLT CITY # 2,
emphasis not in original)

Beachhead (head) first.  It's subtle and a little
jarring, but it calls your attention to it, it should
reiterate the point that Martin has been injured.  I
think in a fight scene, which is especially hard to
keep track of in prose, these kind of details are
incredibly important.
   I don't think the example from SPEAK! works nearly
as well as the one from JOLT CITY: it shows off too
much, and SPEAK! is admittedly and fundamentally a
show-off piece.  It doesn't really show much focus at
all, and so I don't think it's as purposefully
memorable.  Sure, it's a pretty turn-of-phrase, and
you might remember it, and, hell, you might remember
that it was from my story.  But it's memorable without
serving any real purpose.  It's word-candy.
   I guess the big point here is, write with a
purpose.  Don't include a scene just to include a
scene; ditto on characters and details.  A machine has
no unnecessary parts, as Strunk would say.
   For example, several days ago I met a particularly
busty woman whom was using her cleavage as a pen
holder: dozens of pens, markers, and I think a couple
of nubby erasers shoved between her massive tits. 
It's a great detail, very memorable, and one that I'd
love to cannibalize into part of a story.
   But which story?  What would be the point of that
episode, that detail, that character?
   Another example: I'm a big fan of jokes and
stories, and I like to include them in my work.  In
the original fifth issue of the GREEN KNIGHT, I had
Martin Rock tell a joke to Anders Cradle about a
mathematician and his son.  You know why I included
it?  Because I had just made up the joke a week
before.  When it came time to do the collected edition
(BREAD AND LENTILS), that was one of the first things
to go.
   There are a lot of writers who make this mistake:
they hear about something or a song's on a radio, and,
blam!, instant metaphor.  Look at Mick Foley's novel
TIETAM BROWN.  When the narrator mentions a song by
Bruce Springsteen, it's there for no other reason than
the fact that it was on the radio when Mick Foley was
writing that scene.  (His novel is full of seemingly
random references to pop culture, often hijacked into
a clumsy metaphor.  It's still a decent book, though.)
 Finding the right details is as important as
arranging them properly.
   Now, the question of arrangement is a tricky one,
and largely reliant on structure.  I prefer a
simplistic and straightforward structure, primarily
because it is the easiest to follow but also because
I'm not a particularly good plotter.  I think it's
best to start at the beginning and proceed, step by
step, to the end.  I know that sounds a bit trite and
is largely unhelpful: sure, you know where the story
starts and you know where it ends, but you don't know
what happens in between.
   In that case, the first rule of thumb I'd suggest
is to milk it.  Elide nothing.  If you think you've
reached the end of your first scene but still have no
idea what happens in the second, keep writing more of
the first.  If it's crap, you can always delete it
afterwards.  But nine times out of ten, you've reached
the first twist in your plot, or found an interesting
moment for the characters.
   And, by milking it-- taking it one step at a time--
you give yourself more room for character interaction,
for memorable details, for thematic development.  Your
final product should be tight-- every scene should
have some kind of point and lead into the next scene--
but an abundance of scenes means an abundance of
details, and that means you have an abundance to
choose from.
   Once you reach the end, maybe you'll cut half of
the scenes anyway: now that you know what scene two
should be, you don't need one point five to bridge the
gap.  Or maybe you'll find that every scene does
count, and keep it that way.
   Milking it also allows us bad plotters to improvise
a bit more, giving the story an amiable and realistic
"shaggy" quality without becoming, y'know, ULYSSES. 
Characters are more endearing when they're given room
to breathe; they feel more alive than plot-puppets.
   Let's say your two main characters have two
separate points they have to discuss, say, a murder
case and their secret love affair.  In the interest of
"tightness", some would advocate addressing each point
in a separate snippet of dialogue, a separate scene:
they discuss the murder case at the crime scene, and
then we cut to a diner, where they discuss their
undying love.  And this is a perfectly valid approach,
and one that shows a tremendous amount of focus on the
elements of the plot.
   But: what if you combined it into one scene?  What
conversation would bridge the gap between murder and
love?  What location would they discuss is at, the
crime scene or the diner?  Or maybe, they start at the
crime scene, walk to the car, and drive to the diner:
all the while, the audience is listening in.
   As long as a writer doesn't get too Bendisian, the
natural rhythms of speech can be interesting, and that
dialogue can be very revealing of character.  This
would show a tremendous amount of focus on character
development, and, perhaps, thematically as well.
   Whenever possible, I'd advocate "staying in the
room": why make it three short scenes when it could be
one of medium length?  In suspense stories, it's much
more nail-biting to stay in the house with the
cornered babysitter rather than cutting away to the
desperate police roaming the streets looking for the
killer.  Cutting away relieves the tension, it
destroys the suspense: and the temptation is too great
to skip the crucial moment all-together.  Rather than
showing the babysitter escaping, when we cut back to
her, she's already escaped.
   Maybe we find out how she's done it later, but
isn't it more interesting and suspenseful to see her
do it?  Wouldn't you like to see how she thinks of it?
 Wouldn't that tell us more about her?  Isn't that not
only more focused, but also more satisfying?
   Another cheat would be, at this point, cutting to
the point of view of the killer.  Usually at this
point, the girl will no longer be referred to as Suzie
but as, the girl, or the meat-sack, or whatever the
killer thinks of her as.  And, personally, I think
that's talking down to the reader: the reader already
knows her name is Suzie.  It's a stylistic touch that
I've always found unconvincing and easy.
   In fact, I think shifting POV in a suspense or
action story is a really bad idea.  I think the whole
"Rashomon" effect is overrated, and a facile approach
to storytelling.
   If we've been following Suzie around since her
rat-fink boyfriend conned her into a blow-job, than I
want to stick with Suzie until she's safe.  I don't
want to cut to the killer, or to other events she'd
have no knowledge of.  Now, this is in prose.  A film
is different.
   Film is generally less interior than prose; the
point-of-view is not Suzie's or the killer's, but
actually a neutral and omniscient one.  And with a
film, we can cross-cut as we wait for the other shoe
to drop: Suzie doesn't know all her friends have been
murdered and lost their virginity, though not
necessarily in that order.  And now the killer's
coming for her: Ahhh!
   It's possible to pull of this kind of shift in
prose, but generally you're going to be doing it with
an ensemble cast.  If you've pretty much established
at the beginning that the focus is going to shift from
Suzie to the killer to the dope dealer to the
boyfriend to that slutty girl with the nice knockers,
than it's not jarring when you switch scenes.
   In scenes of suspense, however, I would still
advocate "staying in the room"; this not only milks
it, but also gives that scene more weight, thus
increasing tension.  In films, you can cross-cut to
increase suspense or draw conclusions about a
character, but in prose, this seldom works well: check
out BRAVE NEW WORLD if you don't believe me.
   (And no, not that new DC 80-page special.  Huxley,
for chrissakes.)
   And most (good) ensemble pieces do have a
structural line on which to keep things focused: only
an idiot slaps a bunch of different plot threads
together and calls it a story.  This is why subplots
are dangerous.
   Serial literature is a little trickier than films
or stand-alone stories, and subplots are a given in
this style of writing.  However, some writers use this
as an accuse to just write a certain number of pages
and call it an issue, something that's known in the
comic book world as "writing for the trade".
   And while the big story can be satisfying, it's
almost certain that the stand-alone issue won't be. 
And if I'm trying a new comic and the first issue is
unsatisfying, I'm not going to be picking up the
second.  And if I pick up issue forty and I have no
idea what's going on, I'm not going to buy up one
through thirty-nine to bridge the gaps.  I probably
won't buy forty-one, either.
   It's so important to realize with serial literature
that every issue (or post, or episode) is somebody's
first.  I'm not saying that you need a detailed "last
issue box", but you do need to give the reader enough
information to understand this particular issue.  And,
I think, this particular issue should be satisfying in
and of itself.
   Even if it's the middle of a three-part arc, it
should still have a beginning, middle, and an end. 
Subplots should always support the main story, and the
scene's placement should be logical, an extension of
its predecessor that paves the way for its descendent.
   In short, each and every issue should be a work of
clarity and focus.

         /          \
        |    TOM     |
         \ RUSSELL  /
          \___   __/
              | /
         /  ..\    *
         \____/  * | *
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