The Under Ground Writing Project

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Demanding More From Your Reader

Posted by Jenny Maloney on April 22, 2013 at 8:40 AM

I like to assign myself projects. For example, this year I've assigned myself the task of reading 100 books. (I'm on #23, just so's ya know.) I often assign myself writing projects too -- a certain amount of words per day for a certain stretch of time. 

I've taken on the additional project this year: watch every single movie that has won an Academy Award for Best Picture. 

By a strange twist of fate, the first two movies I watched were both silent films. First I watched The Artist, one of the most recent winners. Next I watched the very first Oscar winner: Wings, starring America's original Sweetheart, Clara Bow.

These were not the first silent movies I'd seen. In a misplaced sense of gaining some historical-cultural clarity, I exposed myself to the hateful, racist, and anger-inducing Birth of a Nation. (For those of you who may not know, Nation is about how great the KKK is. Filled with white guys acting monkey-ish in blackface, and running around threatening to rape white women. It's really, really, really a despicable film. I didn't like white people for a while after that.)

Considering my inital exposure to the silent can imagine that I was a bit hesitant. My fears were assuaged.

The Artist is really artful and I appreciated the story, and with my current knowledge of silent films, felt like it should. Wings was a truly epic (read: long) foray into WWI dogfights. Both films were ambitious in their own ways -- The Artist for trying to recreate a style that hadn't been seen in almost a century and Wings for sheer scale in the 1920s. 

However, after every single silent film I've watched, I feel exhausted. My brain hurt. Initially I blamed this on the reading between scenes. 

Then I watched the special features section on The Artist. When asked "Why a silent film?" and I got my answer. The director, Michel Hazanvicius, replied that the genre demanded more from its viewer...something that didn't happen in contemporary films. Normally, we head out to the cinema, sit with our bag of popcorn and our overpriced sodas, and watch the big explosions. 

Silent films don't work that way. You have to watch. And not just to read the subtitles, that part is easy. You have to watch the faces, read the body language, and determine what the story is trying to say. That requires more focus from the person watching the action, and it's something we're not used to doing. At least, not in the movies. 

We're used to bringing a sense of attention to books.

But I would also argue that not all books require the same level of attention. There are authors like Mark Danielewski (House of Leaves) and Jonathon Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) who demand extraordinary levels of concentration in order to get the full story. Then there are books like the Oprah selects, which demand attention and a certain level of focus -- just not the graduate level of understanding that certain Cormac McCarthy titles command. Then there are bestsellers like Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich who you can read almost in one sitting while making dinner for your family of four. 

A lot of writing advice sites/books/blogs recommend knowing who your reader is. Normally, the brushstrokes used to define these nebulous readers involves stuff like education level, gender, age, etc. These are demographics that are quick to nail down and pretty useful in general. 

Here are a few other questions to consider in later drafts:

1. Does your novel demand the reader pay attention?

The answer is obviously "Of COURSE!" But we're going to allow that, yes, the reader will be paying attention to your story and your words if they bothered to pick the book up. 

I'm talking about how much effort they have to put in to understand your story. House of Leaves, for example, demands the reader sort through a hundred pages of endnotes in order to solve the mystery. Like tackling a crime scene. That's asking a lot of a mom who is hauling her kids to soccer practice.

2. How much time should the reader invest in your novel?

Time is one of the most precious things any of us has. When a reader picks up a book, they're making a decision to leave their kids, their spouses, their friends, and other possibly pressing obligations. If they pick up your story, does it require them to set aside a day or two? A few hours? A couple months?  What are you trying to give them in exchange for their time?

3. Is the payoff for their attention worthwhile?

Let's say that you've written your magnum opus. You are the next Marcel Proust. Will the payoff of your story -- the beauty of it, the fun of it, the artistic struggle of it -- make the reader go "Damn! That was good."?

This is a very subjective question, but it's an important to keep in mind (for later drafts...if you worry about this during your early efforts you'll give up before you even start). But think about it. After all, we've all picked up a book, read through it to the end, put it down, and gone "Well, that's a couple days I'll never get back." 

You don't want to be that storyteller. Ask yourself whether you, as a reader, would be satisfied with the payoff you're offering. Don't quit until it's as good as you can make it. You're already asking a lot from a stranger.  

As far as the silent films go for 'reader satisfaction' for me:

The Artist: I appreciate the reasons it was made. And I appreciate how well it was made. They filmmakers made a movie to be proud of. I'm not 100% sure that the effort of watching it was worth it to me. I could tell where it was going and it went right where I thought it would. 

Birth of a Nation: This one made me want to break my television. I'm not kidding. I wanted to throw things and kill hateful people. It definitely got an emotional rise out of me...just not the one it intended. 

Wings: This is tough because it's like comparing Charles Dickens to today's authors -- I know that what Dickens accomplished was genius...but I'm just too familiar with the storytelling style. As a kid who cut her teeth on dogfights like those seen in Top Gun, the WWI retelling was just loooooong. But if I were around in 1927, I would've been blown away. 

Categories: Movies

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