Sunday, November 7, 2010

Avoiding the Pitfalls: Using The Two Towers as a Warning for Writers

After watching the second Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers for the upteenth time, I was driven to distraction once again by a number of moments that just take me out of the film. Each of these, with a little more time (and, in this case, fidelity to the source-material, but we're going to ignore that aspect), could've been avoided. I think they bear noting, not because I feel like trashing the adaptation of The Two Towers, but because they're mistakes that a writer can easily make. These all fall into the category of underestimating your audience. While a case can be made for those who overestimate their audiences, the former appears to be the more common misjudgment.

1. Treating your readers like they're not very smart: Because it's so imperative that your audience follow what you're saying and where you're going, many writers make the mistake of overcompensation by spelling everything out for their readers. That, however, can serve to irritate them and take them out of the story. In The Two Towers, this happens throughout a large portion of the film, most notably in the first third. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas approach a forest. Aragorn notes that the Hobbits they're looking for went into Fangorn Forest. That's just the right amount of information an audience needs. But the writers take it a step further, feeling the need to broadcast that this is going to be a weird and scary place. So Gimli says, "Fangorn! What madness drove them in there!" Now, John Rhys Davies pulls the line off because he's a good actor, but the rule of "show, don't tell" is breached here. We're about to be shown it's strange place; there's no need to telegraph the point. But it happens several times throughout the film, notably every time the characters go to a new location, or meet a new character, someone stands there--as if in a play--and, in a declamatory fashion, announces expository dialogue. The audience, for the most part, get it: Rohan is home of the horse-lords. Mordor is the one place no one wants to go to, but the one place Sam and Frodo have to go. Theoden's mind is taken over by Saruman. Saruman is a wizard. Wizards are people who have magic powers. Ok, I'm exaggerating, but you get the point. With so much great dialogue in Tolkien's original text, to exchange it for pointless exposition that people are going to see and figure out is wasteful. Now, if they wanted to tell the audience who the Numeroreans are, or how the Easterlings and Southrons came under thrall to Sauron, that would be fine (perhaps not needed, but at least more interesting). Compare it to how masterfully exposition was handled in Fellowship of the Ring, and you'll see the contrast. E.g., Aragorn approaches Weathertop and says, "This was the great Watchtower of Amon-Sul." That's it. No need for Pippin or Merry to add, "It looks creepy." That's Scooby-Doo style writing.

2. Overstating your case: This is similar to the first, and one area I know I've been guilty of. I think any passionate writer, at one time or another, has done this. The rule of thumb here is if you can get your point across with a gentle touch, don't do it with a fist! The audience doesn't need to have everything driven home to them with the intensity of a jackhammer. And it's particularly ugly if the point you're making is clumsily done. In fact, it can achieve the very opposite of what you were intending. The Two Towers and Return of the King do this in several scenes; one that sticks out from the former film is Saruman's speech about his need to cut down the trees of Fangorn Forest, which stands right at his doorstep, to get fuel for his factories. We see his cold, calculating mind, and get the references to industrialization that are being spoken of here. But then, apparently to illustrate just how onboard his followers are, one of his orc-henchlings goes "Yeeaahh!!" with a dopey, "evil" grin! That just turned a somber point about the incalcuable cost of progress in the hands of the power-hungry into a cartoon. Yeeaahh!

3. Assuming your audience has memory loss: This is another tricky one. Most of us don't have steel-trap minds or photographic memories. So, it's not inappropriate to give little reminders here and there, especially if the book we're writing is on the longer side. But when overdone, it's yet another source of irritation for the reader who feels he's being talked down to. In The Two Towers, reminders are given constantly of events from Fellowship of the Ring. This is done musically, expositionally, and with flashbacks. Some scenes are direct lifts from the first film (Isildur cutting off Sauron's finger; Saruman inspecting his factory; Elrond walking around with a grave look). At one point, Cate Blanchett's character Galadriel interrupts the film midway through to give exposition about what's going on, information that's already been given, and is about to be discussed by Faramir. It's Cate Blanchette, so it's not unwelcome. But it's also a waste a valuable time that could've been used to end the film where the book ended. Flashing back to Gandalf confronting the Balrog so that we can see the aftermath of the encounter is not only cool, but is important. Flashing back to Boromir to show him getting shot by orcs is little more than a clunky way to remind even the most braindead of viewers who the character is. Could not the film have better been served than rehashing and reshowing things most of us already know?

I say these things not to be cruel--because I know the filmmakers put a lot of work and care into their film--but to demonstrate how a potentially great work can be reduced to a mere pretty-good one as a result of rushed writing. (And it is a pretty good film. Despite its flaws, there's some great things on display here.) I feel I can make this criticim because I'm guilty of many of the same things in my 600 page tome, and I'm working on improving it before it gets into the hands of readers. The point for anyone reading this is to take the time we need to do rewrites, listen to the advice of our proofreaders, and keep in mind that our readers probably don't need as much help as we're inclined to give them.

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