Monday, 20 May 2013

Liking books, TV shows and movies: Craft

This is the fourth part of a series in which I examine elements of the appeal of a book, movie, or TV show. I disclose and discuss my own personal preferences here, but I believe that the approach is more generally applicable: just substitute your own preferences for mine.

In his short story, ‘Low Men in Yellow Coats’, Stephen King has one of his characters comment on a book that a boy is reading. He tells the boy that the book (a Clifford D. Simak novel) has a ‘great story’ but ‘not such great writing’. He continues:

‘There are also books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story, Bobby. Don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words—the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers that won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.’[1]

In previous installments, I covered character, setting, and plot. I based these three elements on Nancy Pearl’s description of appeal characteristics.[2] This week, my schema and hers start to diverge. Also, the three elements I’ve discussed so far are characteristics of the world depicted in the story itself: the people, places, and events. This week’s installment deals with the first of three external characteristics of the story that I want to discuss.

Pearl formulated her characteristics with mainstream literary fiction in mind. After character, setting, and plot, she considered language as her fourth and final characteristic:

‘...the quality of the writing is what makes [this] novel stand out. The author’s use of language is evocative, unusual, thought-provoking, or poetic... [It] is impossible to talk about [these books] without commenting on the way each of their authors makes use of language.’

To me, she’s describing the writer’s craft, which in a novel is entirely expressed in the words used to tell the story. However, on film or TV, the words of the screenplay or script are only one tool out of a wide range with which storytellers work. For example, I would say that 2001: A Space Odyssey is an ‘evocative, unusual, thought-provoking, [and] poetic’ film, but almost none of this has to do with the text of its screenplay. Rather, the cinematography, visual design, and music do most of the work here.

Therefore, I take Pearl’s notion of language as an appeal characteristic of novels, and broaden it to craft as an appeal characteristic of stories told in other media too.

It’s pretty rare for the craft to be the only thing—or even the main thing—that I like about a book, movie, or TV show, but it can occasionally happen. And if I like the way that a writer uses their words (or a film-maker uses their other tools) I might find myself interested in stories about people, places, and events that might otherwise hold no appeal for me. More often, though, the craft adds appeal to something that I find appealing for other reasons, like the example of 2001 I mentioned earlier, or much European and Asian cinema.


Wells Tower’s short-story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is a recent example of of a book where the primary appeal for me was in the craft. Nothing about this book appealed to me other than Tower’s writing: the stories are about ordinary, shabby people leading lives full of failure mostly in awful places in contemporary rural America—quite the antithesis of the kinds of people, places, and events about which I prefer to read. Yet I enjoyed this book more than most other books I’ve ever read. Kate Grenville’s novel of convict-era Sydney The Secret River is another example. These two books typify two very different styles of prose that I enjoy, one sparse and economical, the other expansive and lyrical. Compare:

‘But it was not a pleasant surprise when I came home one afternoon, and there, in the sunlight on our living room floor, was Jane sitting in her brassiere, Barry’s hands on her bare shoulders. When I walked in with our daughter, Marie, they both jumped up and started laying on about how Barry was just showing off some new shiatsu moves. I then lashed out at Barry with a piece of hose I’d brought home to stick on the bath spigot. I shouted and made my daughter cry. I broke some things. I made promises of more and worse violence, and Jane left with Barry and Marie. I remember her standing in the doorway with an armful of clothes, her jaw muscles standing out and her telling me how I’d rue what I had done.
And she was right: I did wind up ruing it, but after a while, neither often nor deeply. Jane bought out my share of our house at a fair price. I took a place outside of town, a redone shotgun cottage on six acres with a creek running through the yard. The house suited me well, except for a million black wasps chewing holes in the clapboards. The little fellows made an awful grinding racket, and on weekend afternoons when feelings of failure and regret could not be kept at bay, I found pleasant distraction in squirting poison up those holes.’
—‘Down Through the Valley’ in
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
, pp.91–92

‘Thornhill’s wife was sleeping sweet and peaceful against him, her hand still entwined in his. The child and the baby were asleep too, curled up together. Only Thornhill could not bring himself to close his eyes on this foreign darkness. Through the doorway of the hut he could feel the night, huge and damp, flowing in and bringing with it the sounds of its own life: tickings and creakings, small private rustlings, and beyond that the soughing of the forest, mile after mile.

When he got up and stepped out through the doorway there was no cry, no guard: only the living night. The air moved around him, full of rich dank smells. Trees stood tall over him. A breeze shivered through the leaves, then died, and left only the vast fact of the forest.

He was nothing more than a flea on the side of some enormous quiet creature.
Down the hill the settlement was hidden by the darkness. A dog barked in a tired way and stopped. From the bay where the Alexander was anchored there was a sense of restless water shifting in its bed of land and swelling up against the shore.

Above him in the sky was a thin moon and a scatter of stars as meaningless as spilt rice. There was no Pole Star, a friend to guide him on the Thames, no Bear that he had known all his life: only this blaze, unreadable, indifferent.’
The Secret River, pp.3–4

Writing is also a major factor in the kind of comedy I enjoy. I’ll discuss comedy in more detail in a later installment (on affect) but I note here that most of the comedy that I value most highly relies on clever, subversive, or eccentric use of language, or just plain wordplay. This is true whether in a book (Lewis Carroll, Douglas Adams, Jasper Fforde) or as a script (much of the Monty Python and Muppet oeuvres, my favourite parts of Yes, Minister). For example:

Wensleydale: Good morning, sir.
Mousebender: Good Morning. I was sitting in the public library on Thurmon Street just now, skimming through ‘Rogue Herries’ by Horace Walpole, when suddenly I came over all peckish.
Wensleydale: Peckish, sir?
Mousebender: Esurient.
Wensleydale: Eh?
Mousebender: (broad Yorkshire) Eee I were all hungry, like!
Wensleydale: Oh, hungry.
Mousebender: (normal accent) In a nutshell. So I thought to myself, a little fermented curd will do the trick. So I curtailed my Walpolling activites, sallied forth and infiltrated your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some cheesy comestibles. (smacks his lips)
Wensleydale: Come again.
Mousebender: (broad northern accent) I want to buy some cheese.
Wensleydale: Oh, I thought you were complaining about the music!
Mousebender: (normal voice) Heaven forbid. I am one who delights in all manifestations of the terpsichorean muse.
Wensleydale: Sorry?
Mousebender: I like a nice dance—youre forced to.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, episode 33, ‘Salad Days’
written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, 
Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, 
and Terry Gilliam

Finally, I very much enjoy writing that uses language in unusual ways or which deliberately pushes language to its limits. Examples include: 1984, A Clockwork Orange, Riddley Walker, the Twilight Zone episode ‘Wordplay’, the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Darmok’.
Goodparley said, ‘I can as plain the mos of it to you. Some parts is easyer workit out nor others theres bits of it wewl never know for cern jus what they mean. What this writing is its about some kynd of picter or dyergam which we dont have that picter all we have is the writing. Parbly that picter ben some kynd of a seakert thing becaws this here writing (I dont mean the writing youre holding in your han I mean the writing time back way back what this is wrote the same as) its cernly seakert. Its blipful it aint jus only what it seams to be its the syn and foller of some thing else. A Legend thats a picter whats depicted which is to say pictert on a wall its done with some kynd of paint callit fidelity. St is short for sent. Meaning this bloak Eustace he dint jus tern up he wer sent. A.D. 120 thats the year count they use to have it gone from Year 1 right the way to Bad Time. A.D. means All Done. 120 years all done theyre saying thats thats when they begun this picter in 120 nor they never got it finisht til 1480 is what it says here wel you know there aint no picter cud take 1360 years to do these here year numbers is about some thing else may be wewl never know what.’
Riddley Walker, pp.124–125

Film and TV production

The craft of a film or TV show encompasses more than the words of its script. Some of the most obvious avenues of appeal on the basis of craft would include aspects such as the acting and direction; the visual design including sets, costumes, and special effects; and cinematography. There are plenty of other aspects to film production too, but I think these are probably the ones most likely to provide significant appeal. That is, I’ve never heard anyone tell me: ‘you’ve just got to see this film! The sound effects are incredible!’ However, if you know that really good foley is one of the things that you admire in a film, you should certainly consider that aspect when assessing why you liked or did not like a particular movie.

Acting and direction

I don’t follow many actors or directors; it’s quite common for me not to even know the names of stars who appeared in a movie I’ve just seen. It’s just not something to which I’ve ever paid much attention. I actually believe that most acting and direction in most professional productions is really rather good. If you don’t believe me, I suggest a trip to the local amateur theatre or watching some fan films on YouTube. There’s sometimes gold there, true, but I usually find that it recalibrates my expectations of even the most modest professional performances. If I had to define litmus tests for the kinds of performances I like, the most important one would be the degree to which I’m conned into thinking that the person on the screen is who they say they are and that I forget I’m watching a performance. Really compelling performances like this can certainly make me interested in characters and situations about which I might not otherwise care. Two films that I liked a lot more than I expected to were Taxi Driver and American Beauty, both because of performances that I really enjoyed watching.

Visual design

I honestly can’t think of a film or TV show where the visual design (including special effects) has led me to like something that I otherwise wouldn’t have liked anyway. The closest I can come is the couple of episodes I watched of Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire were so beautiful that they almost lured me in, but in neither case was it quite enough to make me want to follow either series. I know I’m drawn to sumptuous period pieces like Cyrano de Bergerac, La Reine Margot, The Duchess, or Master and Commander, but these are films with high appeal due to their settings anyway.

I’m interested in the technology of special effects, but they are not a strong source of appeal for me. I can take them or leave them, and at most, they add appeal to films that would have appealed to me anyway.


It’s not an original observation, but I find some films are so beautiful to look at that I’d blow up just about any frame and hang it on the wall. 2001: A Space Odyssey is like that for me, but that’s a film with very strong appeal for me from other directions. I’ve also enjoyed wild landscapes like Atanarjuat and... a Japanese film whose name I can’t remember right now (one word, starts with ‘S’) [edit—I have since recalled it was Naomi Kawase’s Suzaku] but whose bamboo forests are as vivid in my mind’s eye as when I saw the film over ten years ago.

Lack of craft

Craft is not a strong source of appeal for me, and poor craft will rarely be an obstacle to my liking something that appeals to me for other reasons. And complete incompetence is likely to provide its own perverse appeal to me as well.

Next time, Idea.

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