Oblivion (2013) is a science fiction film directed by Joseph Kosinski. The film exhibits impressive world building, stunning visuals, and action sequences. The problem with it though is that so many things don’t make sense.Why is this? The answer is simple. The story has prioritised plot twists over everything else.
As an action-thriller the issue is exacerbated because the plot twists don’t really have the impact that they are seeking. During the setup the audience gets to know Vika. By the time Julia Rusakova Harper, the main love interest, appears the film is already switching into action-thriller mode. Even though Julia is the more important character we never really get to know her in the same way. As a result, Julia feels like a less rounded, more one-dimensional, action-based character while Vika, who is a secondary character, has greater depth because we’ve spent more character-based screen time with her. The possibility of achieving a more satisfying story has been sacrificed to enable the plot twist. Balancing an action-thriller with impressive visuals is tricky enough without bringing in big, existential ideas that the film doesn’t have time to explore.
Klara and the Sun
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun is a literary science fiction and fantasy novel about an android, an ‘AF’ or ‘Artificial Friend’, assigned as a companion to a sick child. Klara is basically a sophisticated android Tamagotchi, dutifully serving a family much like the butler, Stevens, in The Remains of the Day. The sun is really important to her and she refers to it as ‘he’. She also has a limited ability to interpret social interactions.
The quality of the writing is remarkably consistent. There are no bad patches, self indulgent flourishes or purple prose moments. I can understand why people might see Ishiguro as a writer’s writer. His craft skills, subtlety, and richly worked themes would be appreciated in any creative writing class. Having said this, I didn’t feel emotionally involved with the story or with Klara until quite near the end. That late payoff might also be another brand Ishiguro formula.
Klara and the Sun is what one might call ‘serious fiction’. It has big themes and intricate character studies. It has all the hallmarks of award-winning literary fiction. Klara and the Sun is definitely brand Ishiguro, its refined simplicity and detached coldness belies a quirky oddness. Where else do you get characters having casual conversations about the philosophical implications of English hedges?
The opening paragraph
- From Russia with Love is famous for withholding the appearance of Bond until later in the novel. While we are waiting for Bond to turn up we are treated to some of Fleming’s best writing. We have a naked man sunning himself by a pool, like a crocodile. We soon learn that he’s a Soviet assassin tasked with killing James Bond. This is a slow, low key start. We’re meeting the antagonist. He’s a mirror of Bond, a ruthless, elite assassin. It takes time for the reader to know why he is important. We’re in the backstory, gradually being fed the bigger picture.
- Ian Fleming‘s opening of Diamonds are Forever is an example of holding back on introducing the protagonist to the reader. Instead we start with a close up of a scorpion. Ian Fleming is playing with the reader’s expectations, creating tension, it’s a cinematic opening, holding back on revealing where we are and why we are here. It’s a deliberate attempt to avoid the scene where Bond walks into an office and he is given a new mission:
With its two fighting claws held forward like a wrestler’s arms the big pandanus scorpion emerged with a dry rustle from the finger-sized hole under the rock.
- This is Ian Fleming’s opening for Dr No:
Punctually at six o’clock the sun set with a last yellow flash behind the Blue Mountains, a wave of violet shadow poured down Richmond Road, and the crickets and tree frogs in the fine gardens began to zing and tinkle.
It’s another slow opening, revealing a calm normality that will soon be overturned, foreshadowing something ominous. Something bad is going to happen and Bond will appear later to sort it out.
- This is Stephen King’s The Gunslinger opening:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
This almost biblically simple opening resonates with the Old American West, but it’s the start of a Fantasy novel. This feels like the opening of a chase sequence. There are no bullets being fired, just yet, but it promises that. It’s a great opening because it encapsulates the novel in a single line. Let the chase begin.
- Lee Child’s opening to One Shot:
Friday. Five o’clock in the afternoon. Maybe the hardest time to move unobserved through the city. Or, maybe the easiest. Because at five o’clock on a Friday nobody pays attention to anything. Except the road ahead.
It tells us that something is going down. There are a lot of questions being posed here. Who needs to move through the city unobserved, and why?
- Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead begins with:
Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.
‘Nobody could sleep’ is a brilliantly simple line. The whole paragraph provides a clear overview of what’s going to happen. It’s smart and not overly fancy. The last line is a real hook. This is a war story that has the authorial tone of literary fiction.
- Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire starts with:
Lisbeth Salander pulled her glasses down to the tip of her nose and squinted from beneath the brim of her sun hat. She saw the woman from room 32 come out of the hotel side entrance and walk to one of the green-and-white-striped chaises-tongues.
This is a classic crime genre opening. We’re hanging with the protagonist. She’s named in the first sentence. How much do you bet that something is going to happen to the women in room 32? The question is, what and when? The suspense has already been set.
- Blake Crouch’s ‘Pines’ starts with a mystery:
He came to lying on his back with sunlight pouring down into his face and the murmur of running water close by. There was a brilliant ache in his optic nerve, and a steady, painless throbbing at the base of his skull – the distant thunder of an approaching migraine. He rolled onto his side and pushed up into a sitting position, tucking his head between his knees. Sensed the instability of the world long before he opened his eyes, like its axis had been cut loose to teeter. His first deep breath felt like someone driving a steel wedge between his ribs on his high side, but he groaned through the pain and forced his eyes to open. His left eye must have been badly swollen, because it seemed like he was staring through a slit.
This character is having a really bad day, and it’s probably only going to get worse. Who is he? What’s just happened to him? The character is just ‘he’. Does he even know who he is?
- This is Harlan Ellison’s first paragraph for A Boy and His Dog:
I was out with Blood, my dog. It was his week for annoying me; he kept calling me Albert. He thought that was pretty damned funny. Payson Terhune: ha ha.
Right in the first paragraph, we’re introduced to a talking dog with a dry sense of humour. We don’t know where we are, or what’s going on. There’s a hint of Huckleberry Finn in the language.
- And here’s Alistair MacLean’s The Golden Rendezvous:
My shirt was no longer a shirt but just a limp and sticky rag soaked with sweat. My feet ached from the fierce heat of the steel deck plates. My forehead, under the peaked white hat, ached from the ever-increasing constriction of the leather band that made scalping only a matter of time. My eyes ached from the steely glitter of selected sunlight from the metal, water and white-washed harbour buildings. And my throat ached, from pure thirst. I was acutely unhappy.
Although dated now, Alistair MacLean was a school days go-to action adventure writer of choice. This is another bad day at work introduction. He’s doing some work on a ship, an officer judging by his ‘peaked white hat’. He’s not a shirker, that’s for sure. There are four sentences that begin with ‘my’, and ‘ached’ is used four times. Repetition is a kind of ‘poor man’s poetry’. The last line is interesting: ‘I was acutely unhappy’. Isn’t that obvious from the rest of the paragraph? One of the traits of genre fiction is that something hasn’t happened unless you say it’s happened.
- Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare opens:
The vibrating clangour from the four great piston engines set teeth on edge and made an intolerable assault on cringing ear-drums. The decibel-level, Smith calculated, must have been about that found in a boiler factory, and one, moreover, that was working on overtime rates, while the shaking cold in that cramped, instrument-crowded flight deck was positively Siberian. On balance, he reflected, he would have gone for the Siberian boiler factory any time because, whatever its drawbacks, it wasn’t liable to fall out of the sky or crash into the mountainside which, in his present circumstances, seemed a likely enough, if not imminent contingency for all that the pilot of their Lancaster bomber appeared to care to the contrary. Smith looked away from the darkly opaque world beyond the windscreen where the wipers fought a useless battle with the driving snow and looked again at the man in the left-hand captain’s seat.
There’s a kind of overblown Baroque meets Shakespearean, a bombast and monumentality to the language. ‘Clangour’? ‘Cringing ear-drums’? ‘Shaking cold’? Fighting window wipers? What? How many times did Alistair MacLean rewrite this maximalist opening paragraph? Quite a few, most likely. It’s a bit bonkers. Alistair MacLean’s clearly having fun here. We’re being introduced to the central character, Smith, and asked some basic questions. Why are they in the plane? Where are they going?
- Literary fiction uses language to create a distinct voice and tone. It is where character and story merge with the language to create a literary experience. In genre fiction the language stays in the background. It’s there to tell the story. Sometimes genre fiction uses a more exaggerated style or a conversational style, but it is secondary to delivering a coherent story.
- In Made in Italy (2020), a father and his estranged son return to Italy to fix up their old family home. Can they come to terms with the past and restart their troubled relationship? Liam Neeson stars with his son Micheál Richardson. This is a by-the-numbers family melodrama, nonetheless it’s a timely, feel-good movie. It’s taken some prickly reviews for being overly sentimental, but I thought that it was entertaining. It’s not a film you should take too seriously, but we all need some schmaltz now and again.
- The Rise of Skywalker (2019) is the final J J Abrams Star Wars film and the final film in the Star Wars series. The first half of the film seems unnecessarily complicated. It chops and changes from one scene to another (although this is arguably a Star Wars trait – parallel storylines and the wipe cut from one part of the story to another). The first half of the movie feels like a tease, making the audience wait for the real story to begin. This Star Wars film has a touch of the superhero genre about it, Lord of the Rings, and even Frankenstein.
- Rams (2018) is a documentary directed by Gary Hustwit. It explores the work of designer Dieter Rams, who is famous for his work at Braun from the 1950s to 1995. After the Second World War, the Braun brothers believed in using modern design to build a better world. There’s a strong Bauhaus and Ulm Design school influence in the early electronics products they produced. He believes that products should be built to last, and that gimmicky and faddish design tends to make products look outdated faster. A design shouldn’t take over and dominate the space. The people within it should dominate the space. For this reason his colours were often muted, white, black, grey, and beige. Our relationship with technology is one where people come first and design remains in the background.
- Serenity (2005) is a lowish budget space western. It occupies that challenging place between low budget and big budget. The script really demands better special effects, but the budget didn’t cover it. (Apparently, the special effects budget was lower than the TV series Firefly, which Serenity was based on.)
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens is set thirty years after Return of the Jedi. The Galactic Empire has collapsed and been replaced by the First Order. It many ways the film is a retelling of Star Wars (1977). The CGI has improved, especially the 3D physicality (unlike the CGI in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones). in Star Wars: The Force Awakens everything works, the acting, the story, and the world building. And it links nicely back to the original 1977 film.
- 61 Hours is number 14 in the Jack Reacher series. It’s not considered one of Lee Child’s finest novels. Part of this comes down to the fact that Lee Child mixed things up a little, which strikes me as a useful way of keeping the series fresh. Some good people die in the story and there’s no romantic sub-plot. It says something about Lee Child that he can pull off an incredibly readable and satisfying story in one of his less positively received novels. I certainly enjoyed reading it. The novel is interesting because it shows Reacher in a slightly different light. He’s more of a loner in this story and the tone is one of loss tinged with melancholy. Like Lee Child’s other small town stories, this is more of a slow buildup. It takes its time and while it attempts to make up for the slow pace at the end it doesn’t quite pull it off. This one is more mystery than action, which is arguably the key quality of all the Reacher novels, a good old fashioned mystery yarn. There’s a feeling that a romance might have happened, but it never takes place. The ending is abrupt, provoking unresolved questions about what might have happened to Jack Reacher.
- The thinking and planning is exactly what it implies. It’s working out how the story works, the plot structure, the characters, world building, and the research. The tangible outcome for me is a numbered list that explains in a few words what happens in each chapter. Every writer has their own way of doing the pre-writing phase from not writing anything down and being completely spontaneous, to writing an elaborate outline, which is basically a summarised version of the novel.
- Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) looks good for a film released in 1982. It’s constructed from new footage edited in with old film noir clips. The producers hired technicians who’d worked on the original movies to get the right match for the black and white film, the lighting, and the costumes. The result is a pastiche and a homage that works well. It’s a funny film although some of the sexual gags don’t translate as well. The film plays on the clichés of film noir, the silly handwritten clues on torn pieces of paper, the flirtatious small talk, stereotypical killers, and Nazi henchmen. The continual switching back and forth between vintage clips and Steve Martin’s send-ups does come at a price. It stops the film from changing pace or going beyond that one gag.
- The protagonist in Chronical: 2067 (2020) is weak and naive. He is passive without possessing a counterbalancing trait. Having an ineffective over-emotional hero is a problem. It’s annoying. Obviously the idea is that the audience is supposed to empathise with his sensitivity and humanity, but it has the opposite effect. With a limited number of central characters who have to do double duty and perform different roles within the story, and the heavy handed foreshadowing, you can see the surprises coming. There’s very little chemistry between the characters and the dialogue is clunky. This feels like it could have been a better movie if it has been a lot less ambitious, taking an approach more like Prospect.
- Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) is the director’s cut of Justice League (2017). This film is indicative of where the film industry is right now. Theatrical releases have to be bigger, and bigger. They’re dominated by superhero films. The bigger and bigger phenomenon is strikingly apparent, even in so-called ‘intelligent blockbusters’ like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Not only are films getting bigger, the budgets are getting bigger, and the pressure to perform at the box office is bigger. Almost everything else has been pushed to the side, onto the streaming platforms. This, combined with Coronavirus, feels like an extraordinary situation for the film industry. Is it a temporary glitch? Or have we hit a crisis point in American storytelling?
- Prospect (2018) is a low budget science-fiction film about a father and daughter team who take a shuttle down to a planet’s surface in the search of valuable gem-like orbs. To further complicate matters the planet’s surface is covered by a toxic forest, and no one can be trusted in this brutal environment. This is a 1970s aesthetic, retro-styled science fiction story. Everything from the spacecraft’s interior, to the biohazard suits look 1970s. The visual treatment of the film is muted and pastel, reminding me of 1970s film stock. Prospect has a science fiction Western feel about it. One of the characters even uses 19th Century-ish language. This is a slow, but watchable film, with some decent visuals and bursts of action.
- Future World is the kind of film that gives the post-apocalyptic story a bad name. It makes Waterworld look like fine art. The cinematography and acting talent has been squandered by a substandard script, gratuitous violence, and a nonsense plot lacking a satisfying story. It’s as if a series of action scenes have been thrown together in a random sequence. The effect resembles that of a visual collage, an elongated music video whose target audience is comprised of thirteen-year-old boys. Future World (2018) is set in a sub-Mad Max: Fury Road type of world with zero effort to do anything new, or to have fun parodying it like Turbo Kid. The result is a film that takes itself far too seriously and could do with a sense of humour.
- I enjoy reading about the writers I’m interested in, piecing together the life-jigsaw-puzzle that might have informed their work, learning about their writing experience and process – and their writing setup. I wrote a post about old editions of The Paris Review (from the mid-1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s), which included interviews with writers. During that time writers enjoyed a much higher profile than they have nowadays. They were invited onto popular talk shows and they were profiled in mainstream magazines. Today’s late night chat shows almost exclusively feature celebrity actors and, to a lesser extent, popular musicians. It’s a palpable indication of how the role of the writer in society, writing, and publishing has changed. The Paris Review interviews began with an introductory description of the writer within his or her environment. These descriptions were often based on the interviewer’s first impression when they met the author for the interview: the writer’s appearance, his or her demeanour, their home, the room they write in, their writing desk, and if they write by hand or use a typewriter. I found it interesting that Raymond Carver was driving a new Mercedes. He’d gone from ‘working class hero’ to middle-class success story. I was intrigued by J G Ballard’s discipline and his warning to anyone who was seriously thinking about writing. It’s reassuring to know that someone like Jack Kerouac (even after his success) struggled to fit his writing into a daily routine, having to creep around the house in the middle of the night. These details can be telling or they can be banal. They’re often both. Whether its fandom, technical curiosity, or the allure of literary stardom, writing setups and behind-the-scenes insights are banal records, and yet they present us with highly satisfying, tangible, historical ephemera and artefacts that infer an authentic connection, however tantalising but ultimately elusive those may turn out to be.
- The truth is that very few people tell you how hard the editing process is. It’s hard work. It’s not just a tweak here and there, and a sprinkling of pixie dust. It’s not just about removing repeated words and correcting typos. It’s a total quality control overhaul – replacing crappy first ideas with shiny second, third and fourth ones. Go into the editing process with a plan. How many words will I be editing per session or day? According to this schedule, when will the editing process be completed? Don’t beat myself up if I skip an editing session. That’s okay every so often. Have a clear sense of where I am in the chapter I’m editing. I set my writing app to show numbered paragraphs. In an editing session I know how many paragraphs I’ve edited. How many are remaining. It’s important to feel in control of the process. I drink a lot of coffee. I reward myself when I’ve attained my goal (beer, junk food, relaxing, watching a film, going for a walk, etc).
- Crash (1996) is one of those notorious films, along with A Clockwork Orange (1971), which are controversial in nature and have probably gained over-inflated reputations based on their notoriety. The reputation of David Cronenberg’s Crash was cemented early on when Francis Ford Coppola refused to present him with the Special Jury Prize for Crash at the Cannes Film Festival. Crash is one of a string of offbeat 80s and 90s independent-type films, like Fight Club, that present an alternative, non-mainstream view of the world. These films are designed to challenge socially conservative values. Crash is part bad 90s erotic thriller, part horror, and part over-intellectualised Indie movie. It hasn’t aged too well. If it was shocking in 1996, I think a lot of people watching it today might find it vaguely ridiculous. It’s satirical, but I’m not sure what the target is. Western consumer society? Human nature? The largely middle-class audience watching the film? J G Ballard spoke positively about the film, stating that it had exceeded the vision of his novel. That’s high praise. I haven’t read J G Ballard’s novel, but my guess is that (like High Rise, another of his novels) it’s aged far better than the film.
- Due to the subject matter, To Olivia (2021) is a difficult film to watch. It’s handled really well, but it’s still depressing. This isn’t a film to watch at the tail end of a global pandemic if you want cheering up. The story is about Roald Dahl’s marriage to the Hollywood actress, Patricia Neal, and his relationship with his daughter, Olivia. It’s a difficult story that’s handled with sensitivity.
- ‘The Maze Runner’ trilogy books and films are aimed at the young adult market. The books are an easy and fun read and they contain loads of interesting ideas. They’re tightly plotted with plenty of action. The first three books tell the story of Thomas, who finds himself without any memories, in the middle of terrifying and mysterious maze. He’s there with a group of boys. It’s Lord of the Flies in a maze. I don’t want to give too much of the story away but his journey is a bit like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, not literally obviously, but it goes from one strange mystery to another. The three books boast bio-mechanical monsters, mutant zombies, a boy meets girl story, parental-like baddies who know better than the kids, and post-apocalyptic landscapes. These multi-part YA stories, often trilogies, have a three act plot structure that’s basically stretched out over the course of three novels. Once you’re hooked on the first novel it’s easy to buy the second and third just to find out what happens to the characters. The second novel tends to take a dip in quality and acts as a bridge to the third. I think The Hunger Games is slightly better written. It’s written in the first person, present tense. It’s one of the better examples of what can be done with this combination. Like The Maze Runner it’s an addictive read an excellent example of creating tension by constantly putting the protagonist in peril. ‘The Maze Runner’ books are slightly different in tone to the films. The Thomas in the novels feels a little less certain of himself.
- Relic (2020) is an horror Indie movie about entropy. It’s about family bonds, growing old with dementia, all wrapped up in a psychological horror story. It’s not your typical horror story or your typical Indie movie, is a weird crossover between the two, part Kafkaesque literary metaphor in the vein of Enemy (2013), part family study, and part creepy atmospheric horror. It’s a slickly produced low-budget film with appealing cinematography. The colour science is especially well done, mimicking old family snapshot prints produced by film cameras in days gone by. It has an earthy, muted and muddy colour palette. While interesting, its leisurely pace and slightly incongruous thematic cocktail didn’t quite work for me.
- Disappointing stories are miscommunications. Satisfying stories are the result of a carefully balanced process that harmonises the story elements. The reader needs to care about something in the story to give them a reason to keep reading. This usually means having a protagonist the reader can empathise with. It can also mean: the quality of the prose, the dramatic dynamic between the characters, the use of intriguing ideas, incorporating an unanswered question or puzzle that needs solving, including plenty of action sequences, or taking place in a fascinating world. It’s satisfying when the protagonist solves the problem that’s been presented by the story. Finding out how the protagonist solves the problem is part of the reason for completing the story. It’s disappointing when someone else comes in and solves the problem for the protagonist, when the problem isn’t really a problem, or when the problem goes away on it’s own accord. It’s especially satisfying when the protagonist solves the story problem in an inventive and audacious way. The protagonist should learn something new and important. Through the protagonist, the reader also learns something. The protagonist discovers something new about their world or themself. If the protagonist doesn’t learn something new, the reader should learn something important about the protagonist’s inability to learn. A story that fails to provide a learning experience (either lofty or banal) for the protagonist or reader, feels pointless.