Tuesday, August 25, 2009


There are those who say studying screenwriting is a complete waste of time, leaves you with no marketable skills, and in a future era would do nothing more for you than to earn you a berth on Douglas Adams' space ark of middlemen. Note that said ark was carrying an under-appreciated population of telephone sanitizers. Nobody missed the screenwriters. I assume they were aboard.

While I won't argue that the merits of a screenwriting education are few, I can speak for one. It leaves you with a bulletproof sense of structure. It can be a bit eerie to be listening to a long, long audiobook and know the moment you've arrived at the end of act one, or the midpoint, etc. But it works. No matter the book, the genre, or the pace of the story, a screenwriter will never miss a landmark.

Once in a while, this gets weird. It did recently for me, and I was right in the middle of a big strange book. The landmark I had heard go by wasn't the midpoint-- it was the top of the third act. Yep, I was twelve hours into a twenty-four-hour-long audiobook, and the final battle was starting.

Where was I? I was halfway through China MiƩville's Perdido Street Station. This book is an imagination explosion. It's a sequel, so even if I wanted to explain the world in which it takes place I couldn't-- I haven't read book number one. I have read his novel The City and the City, which is a stunner. Want to read a mystery with an outstanding and unique premise? Go get it.

Back to Perdido Street and the structural problem. Because it started ending too early. As the final battle began, I thought it had to be a ruse-- a cover story that would end, and then the real conflict would emerge. You'll see that in erotic thrillers. The poor schlub main character thinks the plot is about killing the femme fatale's evil husband. Once that is accomplished he discovers it is about something very different.

But here the battle kept going. And I came to realize that it would last for twelve hours. Not by being complex, but by slowing... down....

This is a problem. The final battle was a complex action sequence. But the pace was so slow, the writing so fine-grained, that it barely seemed to move. What killed the pace most were description and point of view. Description because absolutely everything was described. I mean everything. If there were two or three descriptions for one object or event, they all made the cut. Point of view because everyone got one. Not a problem usually; I do the same. Different scene, different POV. But here we got multiple points of view in most scenes. We even got the point of view of some giant slavering insects. Head hopping everywhere.

All this drags the pace down. Even the internal sense of urgency seemed to vanish. At one point the main character stumbles and lands with his injured palms on a sheet of metal. It is described as being as hot as a kettle on a stove. Does he scramble away? Well, not right off. He hesitates. Then he moves. Gaaah!

There are a few other curiosities here, like a kidnapped girlfriend who isn't thought about for a hundred pages or so. And a main character who seems oddly passive at the worst times. A secondary character who acquires a first-person point of view. Verbs that arrive replete with "began to"s far too often.

I'll be back for the next if this becomes a trilogy, and I'll get the first book. MiƩville has an imagination that could power Western Europe. I'm just going to hope that, in the next book, act three begins 75% of the way through the book.

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