This is a longer post, but bear with me — there’s real advice here as well as the obligatory pop culture references. Seriously, what lessons can’t I teach with Star Wars? Here we go:
Have you ever seen that exercise they do at leadership seminars and the like where participants have to “teach” the instructor to tie his or her shoes? And then the instructor does everything with Amelia Bedelia-like literalism until hilarious frustration ensues?
If you have (or if you just read Amelia Bedelia when you were a kid), you already know the challenge technical writers face: how to express basic physical concepts in words that readers can understand and translate into actions. I’m always reminded of this around the middle of the year because my page-a-day desk calendar is one of those that you flip around in July, and I’ve always goofed the stacking up so that (in today’s case) January 3rd follows July 14th (and the back side of the Jan. 13 page isn’t July 15 either). “Just turn your calendar around and start from the top,” my ass.
If you’re not a technical writer or desktop calendar manufacturer, you might be struggling to see the relevance of this. Bear with me. It’s because this is awesome:
While this is not:
The erratic course the galactic cruiser was traveling was intentional, not the product of injury but of a desperate desire to avoid it. Long streaks of intense energy slid close past its hull, a multihued storm of destruction like a school of rainbow remoras fighting to attach themselves to a larger, unwilling host.
One of those probing, questing beams succeeded in touching the fleeing ship, striking its principal solar fin. Gemlike fragments of metal and plastic erupted into space as the end of the fin disintegrated. The vessel seemed to shudder.
The source of those multiple energy beams suddenly hove into view — a lumbering Imperial cruiser, its massive outline bristling cactuslike with dozens of heavy weapon emplacements. Light ceased arching from those spines now as the cruiser moved in close. Intermittent explosions and flashes of light could be seen in those portions of the smaller ship which had taken hits. In the absolute cold of space, the cruiser snuggled up alongside its wounded prey.
Those are all George Lucas’s* own words (yes, even “snuggled”), from the novelization released shortly before Star Wars hit theaters for the first time. You may have noticed that it’s kind of awful.
Setting aside the odd vocabulary choices, the excerpt’s problems can mostly be traced back to one obvious issue: it was written from a screenplay, and it still reads like one. Three paragraphs in we’re still hearing a laundry list of sequential actions. Every sentence has included some new action that happens: in the first, a cruiser travels an erratic course. In the second energy beams shoot past it. In the third a beam hits it. In the fourth bits fly off into space. In the fifth the vessel shudders (or at least seems to — one wonders who it’s seeming to). And so on.
The problem here is one of pacing. When you describe actions there’s a tendency to want to use the simple, one-thing-then-the-next approach that we use when teaching an overly-literal leadership coach how to tie his/her shoes. It is, after all, how we learn most things. Why not use it for teaching people “what happens in my book” as well? (The answer, hopefully made obvious by the excerpt above, is that it sucks.)
So what’s the alternative? Well, people have been struggling with that for a long time. Some have succeeded; others are Stieg Larsson. But in general there are a few broad options to choose from:
- The Big Gloss. Here you cram a lot of action, several minutes of “screen time” or more, into a description of the end result: “After a flurry of blows and a short you-push-I-pull dance along the flagstones, Captain Rake’s blade slid beneath El Dastardo’s elegant basket hilt and tore the sword from his grasp.” This is particularly merciful when used to describe naval (or space) battles or massive movements of armies.
- The Justified Confusion. Similarly efficient, this plays up the realistic confusion of most intense actions to skip to the point: “From that moment everything was a blur of fists and hastily-improvised weapons, and the bar was still roiling when she finally tumbled out the door and into the street, away from the beer-scented madness.” It has the added advantage of seeming to throw a little “gritty realism” into a story whether it actually possesses said quality or not.
- The Interspersed Non-Sequiter. If the individual steps of an action are really too important to gloss over you can at least break up the laundry list of “this happened, then that happened” statements (see the Lucas excerpt above) by shoving in some non-action non sequiters: “She laid the candle in the bowl and sprinkled the herbs carefully around it. Her knife lay close to hand. Was this really the right thing to do? They’d find out soon enough. A dip of her fingertips in water was all it took — the spell was prepared.” This keeps the rhythm more varied and avoids the plodding feel of one action described after another.
- The Slide Show: It’s possible to skip through a long period of time by simply watching the big points in rapid succession through one charater’s eyes: “She could already see the outcome. The cruiser would bend to the starboard, following the gravity well, and they would have to tilt their bow downward to compensate. From then on it was a matter of physics: the ponderous range-finding blasts “walking” slowly down the planetary curve, the nauseating yaw, and, finally, the inevitable drop below the horizon. Assuming the shields would hold…” This at least puts the reader in the more interactive role of an eavesdropper on a character’s thoughts, rather than a movie-chair-seated passive observer of bland description.
I won’t swear by any one of these, or that they’re a particularly comprehensive list, but they’re at least a start on some alternatives. Feel free to share your own in the comments section (or to tell me my examples suck — my feelings won’t be hurt). And while we’re at it, does anyone want to know a really cool way to tie their shoes?
*In fairness, they are Alan Dean Foster’s words, ghostwritten for and approved by George Lucas. But he did publish the novelization under his own name.