Saturday, May 02, 2015

Gather around kids ...(for a note on storytelling)

Words used in the right context make all the difference between good writing and great writing. All those Wodehousian summers have made me particularly sensitive to clever turns of phrases in good writing. I grew up reading about Lord Emsworth pottering around the Blandings Castle while the hedonistic pig, Empress of Blandings, chomped on her potatoes. Wodehouse could have used "ate" her potatoes but somehow the rather onomatopoeic chomp makes you understand the vigor with which the Empress of Blandings tackled tubers.

A thwack from a cat's tail, the trill notes of a girl's voice, clomping down a passage with uncomfortable heels -really helps you feel what the faceless characters do, with a distinctive sound. Most of the writers I enjoyed reading were the ones who paid attention to describing things really well. For example, Enid Blyton’s scones were not just scones, they were hot, buttery and smelled heavenly of all good unknown things from an English pantry and of a potential adventure that was just around the corner.

The challenge I see in good writing is the imagery. I have always wondered how people see what they read inside their head. In mine, the characters are always charcoal silhouettes with mild, very blurry faces that alter depending on circumstances. For example, I would feel how Dumbledore would look like and not exactly see his face. It is a mixture of certain defining features that you associate with the character - a long flowing white beard, a robe and let us say, a certain ebullience that Dumbledore brings to the table. Is my Harry same as yours?  How can I approximate even a silhouette version of a Geisha in Japan while reading the Memoirs of Geisha when I have no idea how the Geishas look like? Heidi from the Swiss Alps looked nothing like the cartoon that later came on TV. Particularly difficult ones were the fairy tales from the kindergarten - how did Cinderella look like? I did not have a Disney Princess to compare it with and in my head Cinderella was like the doll I had, blonde and blue-eyed. All the princesses looked the same way. Now they are replaced by the “Frozen” version and that makes me sad.

Cars, to me, are particularly disturbing. I am seeing all those cars I knew as a child being so different to how they appeared in my head. Nancy Drew had a Mustang. Particularly fishy guys would lurk in a Toyota Camry to stalk an innocent victim before proceeding to do something that involved grisly details. Chet Morton in Hardy Boys had a “jalopy”. Some cars were convertibles while other were coupes. In my head, everything was one single car. When a character went into a car, it took the shape of an Indian car I was used to, which at that point was an ambassador. And if it was a fancy car, it was a nameless sedan, and beyond that the cars took a cartoonish block car style. Remember this was an age before Internet, before you had the luxury to “Ok Google, what is a jalopy?”.

This is probably why you should "Never judge a book by its movie". Movies almost always disappoint fans because of "my Hermoine is not yours" problem. Imagine a million fans and a million different versions of Harry Potter and then you get a movie that defines the vague silhouettes with real flesh and blood, which is perhaps an average of all these versions. JK Rowling might have chosen Daniel Radcliffe, but that is how her version of Harry looked like. Dumbledore looked more intimidating and showy in the movie. In the books, when I read about Dumbledore being angry, he goes away from my baseline of a happy bumble bee, the blur becomes more pronounced and all I can feel is that Dumbledore is angry with no figure to support it. In the movies, Hermoine was way too pretty from my baseline and her hair never grew “more and more bushier as she bent over a cauldron in the potions class” like it did in the books. The movies miss the tiny details - "they heard a noise like a plunger being withdrawn from a blocked sink" which refers to how Ron stopped kissing Lavender. You can show the kiss on screen, but cannot reproduce the plunger analogy. Nor can you take away anything that Wodehouse says, not because it is funny, but because it paints a much elaborate picture of what is happening and gives the blurs just enough focus, if you pay attention -"She fitted into my biggest armchair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season", "He walked as if on air, and the whole soul had obviously expanded, like a bath sponge placed in water"

That is the beauty of writing fiction. I found the distinct difference after letting a year pass without reading a single book and then one day, I sat at a cafe and started reading Bill Bryson. Out of nowhere the grey blurs start forming. I am inside the frame, feeling the protagonists walking through forests and I get sucked into this timeless void of storytelling. That is good storytelling because you don't get tired. That's when I realize how much I missed this experience and how I have been let Netflix easily define my picture of a womanizing Madison Street executive instead of working my way through an introduction to get a picture in my head.

There is some research to back up how important the story and the imagery is. This was a work done at Carnegie Mellon in the Machine Learning department. Based on the regions of the brain that lighted up, they could identify with 74% accuracy the paragraph that the subjects were reading in Harry Potter. "The test subjects read Chapter 9 of Sorcerer's Stone, which is about Harry's first flying lesson. It turns out that movement of the characters — such as when they are flying their brooms — is associated with activation in the same brain region that we use to perceive other people's motion. Similarly, the characters in the story are associated with activation in the same brain region we use to process other people's intentions."

If you can make someone feel the rather unnatural act of flying on a broom, it is a job really well done. So well done, that you can force Amazon to sell your books only through Pottermore on Amazon. Take this from Gabriel García Márquez

"A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta's chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread."

No wonder it is called magical realism.

What makes me sad is what passes for best sellers these days. It is not that I am put off by the vampires or women waiting to be swept by Mr. Grey. I was pretty okay with the whole Mr. Darcy’s "In vain have I struggled. It will not do". What puts me off is not even making an attempt to use the right words because sexy, dominating male persona and vapid women are enough.

English is a beautiful language. You have words that swirl in your mouth waiting for the right context and there is nothing like a word well placed that makes you smile fondly. You can even reflect on inane things like Ice-Breaking like Ogden Nash did and come up with clever, clever one-liners like 'Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker'. I think the trick is to disassociate GRE flashcards and pretentiousness from words and look at them on how they well they let you express what you want to say.

[I started writing this, because I thought it was particularly clever of an author to note how in books "girls giggle", but "boys always chuckle" and how a character laughed was closest to what can be described as a “guffaw”. Oh, what good times.]