Armchair Editing: The Curse of the Amateur

There’s an old saying about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing and another one about ignorance being bliss.  In the case of storytelling that can lead to a weird limbo of discrimination and discernment.  As your own skill of the craft grows you undoubtedly find yourself appreciating good storytelling more and you’ll have a growing vocabulary to express that appreciation.  You’ll likely also have less and less patience for bad writing or, even worse, lazy writing.  These are probably good things.  The limbo part comes when something isn’t necessarily bad…it’s just not good.  Then your new skills and vocabulary may move you to pretentiously play editor-after-the-fact.  Of course just because your opinion is amateur doesn’t mean it’s invalid.  Opinions on, say…

Stephen King’s Cell was a great short story.  Or it would have been if it wasn’t a few hundred pages long.  It was a good story idea–every single cell phone sends a signal (which comes to be known as the Pulse) at the same time.  That signal turns people into murder machines.  Everybody loves a good technophobic horror story and this made for King’s entry in the Zombie genre (spoiler: they’re fast zombies).  The signal happens in the first few pages and the rest is our hero trying to make it home to Maine from Boston to see what’s become of his young son.  There are eventually explanations floated about what the Pulse really is and where it came from but they struck me as sort of weak.  Clay, the hero finds his son after some close calls and heroics.  The boy is infected but there’s a chance he can be ‘cured’ by reexposure to the now ‘mutated’ Pulse.  Again, not bad, but…unsatisfying.  

At novel length not enough of the causes of the apocolypse were developed (like in The Stand) and the fact that he was trying to get home to his son got a little lost in the adventures of humanity against phone-freak.  Alternatively the whole thing could have been trimmed radically to a shorter work.  Maybe not a true short story but perhaps novella length like The Mist.  It would have meant big cuts but the narrative would have been a lot tighter (‘tight’ will be a common word in your new writer’s vocabulary).

This will tend to be more noticeable in movies with their more rigid screenplay structure.  If a filmmaker is gonna go long on a first act he better be giving us something worth watching.  You will also find yourself less willing to cut a guy slack for leaving in scenes that don’t need to be there.  Boondock Saints was a new take on the vigilante story with engaging dialog, interesting characters, and a tight (there’s that tight again) narrative pace depsite the audience experiencing much of the movie after it’s happened (if you haven’t seen it just trust me, it’s a sort of flashback structure).  Of course with a first time filmmaker and limited distribution it took DVD to make it a hit and a cult film. 

Boondock Saints 2:  All Saint’s Day was…less successful.  I knew it wouldn’t have quite the same punch as the first one, you can’t write a cult classic on purpose after all; but in this one I never really bought the brothers’ motives.  It was supposed to be revenge/justice and clearing their names but after a few menacing glares their steely resolve gets lost in the comic stylings of the new Mexican Saint, Romeo.  It reappears jarringly when they threaten to give a wiseguy 9mm stigmata.  Then redisappears just as quickly.  Then their father, Il Duce shows up and has a showdown because the whole thing was really about him. 

If it sounds muddled, it was.  But even before the movie was over I knew it didn’t have to be muddled.  It just needed editing and some of that would have been the classic darling murders.  There’s a dream scene where Rocco (who died in the first movie) comes back and has a shot with the boys.  He says he was proud to stand with them and then they go on a long rant about what makes a man.  What men do and what they don’t do.  It moves over the whole city from high rise rooftop to artfully lit warehouse.  It doesn’t belong there and a good editor would have cut the scene right after they drink their whiskey.  Four minutes saved and much more dramatic punch. 

Oh, well.  It’s unavoidable so you might as well learn from it.  These points make for good discussions with other writer’s and ‘what if’ sessions.  How would you do it differently,  what would you keep, etc.  You might want to keep it between writer’s though.  Normal people will tend to think you’re a pretentious prick and may even resent you pointing out holes in stuff they used to enjoy.  They might even be right.    

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
About Eric Bahle

Eric Bahle stopped going to his real job so he could be a full time digital author and storyteller. He loves being in the woods with his bow or on the water in his kayak. He lives in Pennsylvania with his lovely wife and a mongrel dog. He is working on his next bestselling story.

Comments

  1. Rose713 says:

    There’s common thread to both your examples: success. King’s publisher wants longer material since books sell, but short stories don’t. And, after a first time hit, there’s the trap of the follow-up being longer but not better.