The Hobbit movie

I went to the Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies with my family today. In spite of all of the bad things I heard about it, the largest complaint being the 40+ minute battle of 5 armies, I enjoyed it. In fact, I think that the battle was done really pretty well, considering more than half the movie was centered around that one event. The question, I suppose, is what did I like about it? First off, I’m looking at the movie as a story in the same way I think about a novel. What I liked was that the action was broken up by other less intense events, yes some of that was contrived and thoroughly unnecessary from the standpoint of plot (Every scene containing Alfred the assistant to the master of Lake Town could have been removed with no impact to the story), however those breaks in the action were essential for the story-telling part. They kept the intensity in check to prevent the viewer from getting burned out on all the action. (This seems to have been Alfred’s sole purpose in the movie)

I am a firm believer that if you’ve got a long action sequence in any story there needs to be a break from whatever that action was – really this applies to any sort of intense situation in a story. Your characters, and reader,, need a bit of a breather. A moment where things aren’t really okay, but everyone can stop and take a breath before the action/intensity begins to rise again. I’ve read some books where this is not done well (in my opinion) and I found them difficult to enjoy. It seems to me that some critics might bang-on about those breaks in the action as unnecessary diversions, however you’ve got to keep the audience from becoming burned out. The audience is, after all, a huge part of the story-telling experience. The barrel escape scene from the last hobbit movie is a great example of action that hasn’t been broken well enough. I think it really mucked-up the story-telling. It was long, and didn’t contain any breaks from the action. The director’s attempt to do this was though humor, and that can work, but it felt out of place in the context. By the end of that barrel scene, I had become soured story overall because the scene had just seemed to become absurd after a while. If it had been shorter, or at least broken up better, I likely wouldn’t have had formed that opinion.

I feel like the book that sticks out in my mind as having tackled this nearly perfectly was Jurassic Park. There were parts so intense that I had to put the book down for a few minutes, but the next chapter almost always started with a minute to catch your breath before the action began intensifying again. It made the book gripping to the end without burning me out, as so often happens for me when the characters can’t stop long enough to take a breath.

I think my point here is that if you break up your intense action properly, you really can get away with a lot, and I think make your action much more intense, without experiencing audience burnout. Anyhow, this is how I prefer to read, and that’s my two cents.

It’s too easy

I don’t mean writing is too easy, because it most certainly isn’t. Perhaps for others it is, though I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered a serious writer who has claimed it was. No, what’s too easy is the challenge facing my main character. Not in the overall quest, that’ll be hard enough, and long. It will take him to the very corners of the world. That conflict drives the story as a whole. What I’m referring to is the challenge facing the principle characters who must go from one place to another inside of a chapter.

The setting: A haunted road, seldom travelled in hundreds of years, over-grown and dangerous. This place should be filled with all manner of evil things. When I’d first written it, my characters simply left point A and made it, with little difficulty, to point B along this road. Only once they reach their destination do they encounter any sort of trouble, and it has nothing whatever to do with the haunted road. I didn’t start by thinking it was too easy. In fact, I started by thinking: ‘What purpose does any sort of encounter along this road serve? After all, one of these characters nearly died on the same road not three chapters back.

If it hadn’t been for such a big deal being made of the dangers along the road earlier in the book (there’s that word again – still feels like this story doesn’t deserve that label just yet), it might be that a brief account of getting from A to B might be adequate. However, that’s not the case, and even if I didn’t have this haunted road, I’d still have the threat of being caught by the ‘bad guy’. So, I really don’t have a choice but to add some sort of difficult situation along the road before they get to point B. It doesn’t matter that a major problem awaits the characters there. Having come to the conclusion I’ve got to add this bit anyhow, whatever I have these characters face needs to push the story forward in some way. I don’t think it should just be an interesting side-show (Although this can totally be done, and work well).

My approach, in this case, will aim to accomplish a few things. First off, the reader will be expecting the road to be bad, and when something horrible pops out of the woods, it’ll meet expectations. I will also be able to describe some seriously evil creatures, in action, which are referred to later. Meaning I don’t have to describe it in dialogue when I get to later, plus it will help with explanation of the difficulty the other character had, with less effort. The altercation should provide a platform for some explanation of history, though I’m going to limit this to prevent an information dump situation. Finally, I want it to help paint a picture for future events along the same road, especially if I’m in a position of describing any of those second hand.

Perhaps the main take-away for me in thinking about my current issue, and this rubber-ducking session to work it out, is every story has at least a few things along the path from A to B which weren’t essential to the telling. Those events exist because they happened along the way, and they’re interesting. After all, it’s a story good enough for the retelling because of the all of the crazy things that happened. Thinking about it from a purely story-teller perspective, the best stories you tell your friends always have something like: ‘And then J.D. got punched in the **** by a 10-year old right there in front of everyone.‘ Which may, or may not, be relevant to the key events of the story, but are present in the retelling just to illustrate the epic-ness of that story.

Are my characters digging latrines?

Once I was reading a book where, after a chapter or two, the characters were forced to go on the run from some evil thing. The intensity of the chase was high, they were constantly on the move, separated from their defenders without a friendly soul to ask for help. However, during this bit of story, the writer went into what I considered a lot of unnecessary detail about what they were up to during this chase. I can’t remember exactly what the scene was, but it put me in mind of reading, in some detail, about how the characters were digging latrines along the way. It was as if the author had to account for all of their various actions and bodily functions. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t really how it went, but it felt that way. The small section of the book covered by this turned me off of the whole story. Loads of people loved this story, so maybe it’s just me, but I’ve read other stories with seemingly similar chase situations and liked them just fine. Either way, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what it was that I didn’t like, you know to avoid it for myself. In the end I came to the conclusion what I really didn’t like was the pacing. The intensity of the action seemed completely at odds with the pace of the writing. Perhaps the author achieved what he set out to do, but I didn’t like it.

Back to my project: I’ve buttoned up a section of sub-plot, at least for the moment, and I’m back to the main character again. Before launching into that sub-plot, with a secondary character, I left the main character sitting in the middle of the woods. Now, I’m asking myself about pacing and action. I’m well over half-way into the book, and the main character is still lolly-gagging in the forest. I feel like at this point there should be some rising action or pressing problem bearing down on the him, and I even worked an additional, short chapter in to try and get there, yet it still feels flat. Things will pick back up as the chapter progresses, but I don’t want the beginning of it to seem boring or pointless. I guess the rubber-duck question of the day is: At what point does detail become latrine digging? The rubber duck’s answer for now: The main plot isn’t going to change for the details I’m working on and I’m already going to have to revise it to suck less later anyhow, so keep going and don’t get hung up on this.