During the past week I drifted a bit, but I also verged on productivity. Though I did not actually tackle any of the major enterprises I have in mind, I did grease the gears a bit by returning to some older projects with fresh eyes. I spent a little time revising two short stories, trying to trim them down about 10% in length apiece. I find that to be pleasurably challenging, since it encourages Bill of the Future to reconsider what Bill of Yore thought was indispensable for the telling of a given tale. This occasion led to a bite-sized epiphany: while I tend to be fairly efficient when it comes to dialogue and description, I think I’ve come to recognize a penchant for prolixity in narrative accounts of actions and motivation.
In some ways I think both are forgivable, albeit in their own problematic ways. In one story, for example, a character is surprised awake and, in her haste to leap from bed, tangles herself in her sheets and falls. It’s by no means an unprecedented act; I’ve done it myself. Detailing it, however, took me perhaps an eight-line paragraph–that’s more than murderous in the midst of an action-packed scene. At the time of the first draft I suspect I wanted to emphasize the positions of bodies in space, to account for the consequences of the spill, the injuries and the delays that attended it. Those cues (in one reckoning of the text, at least) seem fairly important for establishing a time frame in which the activities going on in another room might simultaneously unfold. Fresh reading, however, suggested to me that slowing momentum (and wasting words) at that juncture was the greater sin. I accordingly lopped off about four lines, making the action move more briskly.
Motivation is, I think, much harder to handle and manage. While I’m not one to discount perversity–our human readiness to do the unexpected and/or unnecessary in response to some inward, inexplicable prompt–narrative fiction doesn’t create much space for it. Few things are more maddening in films and books than folks acting on impulses that readers and viewers cannot fathom. While we might lend mystique to characters in that way, for the most part folks do things for human reasons we can grasp. Moreover, people tend to want things in very specific ways, for specific reasons, with specific intentions; a generic motive will seldom do. We despise motivational shorthand, the simplification of desire, but there’s also a point when motive can seem labored, when too many beans have been spilled. Discovering that balance is hard, at least for me, because it involves a delicate dance of sharing and withholding, of offering readers enough transparency to imagine why a character is doing what she’s doing without bogging the narrative down in a morass of motive forces that require paragraphs or pages to delineate.
With these themes in mind I watched the remake of Evil Dead, which I thought was rather well done from a motivational standpoint. It includes a few elements I abhor–these days when I see a hysterical driver hop behind the wheel I fast forward to the inevitable crash, for hysterical drivers do not brake, they accelerate and swerve–but the central arc is very well done. Evil Dead is in many ways enabled by the milieu, with the nearly-archetypal cabin in the woods serving as a staging ground for a gaggle of horrors. The catch then, from a motivational standpoint, is a simple one: what would possibly get five fetching folks to said cabin and persuade them to stay there when things get grim? In 1981, the cabin in question was a spring break retreat, and it was warm and inviting enough to get the visitors to overstay their welcome. In 2013, the cabin is of the sort that 92% of us would understandably abandon. Efficiently explaining why these five folks belong to the elect 8% is one of the movie’s chief virtues.
Imagine, if you will, an unbelievably isolated cabin. There will be no phone service, of course, and you will need a 4×4 with good ground clearance to traverse a waterway a few miles shy of the lot. I’d venture to guess about 50% of us have already ruled ourselves out of this scenario; outdoorsy seclusion may not be our thing.
Imagine your arrival and attempted entry. To your surprise, the lock has been forced–someone’s been inside. Moreover, the place is in awful shape. It’s not a tidy, rustic retreat by any means, but a filthy, weathered, neglected one. Since we’ve already established that the 50% we’ve got left are the kind who might be inclined to rough it, let’s estimate 10% attrition, given these revelations. I’d guess that a few folks who were on the fence at the prospect in the abstract, now faced with clear evidence that the place is neither inviting nor secure, might reasonably opt to bail.
Imagine making it through the first night. The interior cleaned up quickly, after all, and there’s running water, those interlopers are long gone, and all things seem serviceable. Except there’s a faint smell troubling one of your guests. And a visit into the basement reveals its source: a chamber adorned with hanged cats arrayed around a charred support beam. Oh, and there’s a huge bloodstain at the basement’s entrance covered by the carpet, by the way, and some evidence of occult activity down there, hanged cats notwithstanding. And on the table at the back there’s something heavy and square, wrapped in plastic bags, bound in barbed wire. Nothing major.
While the remaining 40% have already earned a lifetime supply of Scooby-Doo sleuthing points for opting to investigate the mysterious, foul stench in the poorly-lit basement with the half-rotten stairs, I think about 4 out of 5 humans would now agree it’s time to go. The 8% intent on staying would need to have pretty compelling reasons to stick around.
Evil Dead makes use of a clever pretext–a drug intervention–to align its five characters with that highly-motivated 8%. We have Mia, a heroin addict, her brother, his girlfriend, and two old friends. The brother, David, harbors a deep guilt for having abandoned Mia as she cared for their dying, deranged mother during her last days; the two friends, Eric and Olivia, have taken part in a prior intervention, which saw Mia relapse well before she was able to dry out. They take great pains to explain to David why they’ll need to stick it out: Mia has overdosed before, and they don’t think she’ll survive another. They are thus not only committed to the isolation of the cabin provides but also determined to remain there as long as it takes, no matter how much Mia protests, no matter how odd her withdrawal symptoms and hallucinations seem to be. That makes for a mighty fine motivational set.
As for Eric’s decision to open up the package bound in barbed wire, ignore all the clear warnings in plain English, and read The Forbidden Incantation that a prior reader has taken great pains to blot out? That’s not motivated or contextualized quite as well. Me, I blame the hippity-hop music and the video games.