Monday, June 04, 2007

Is There Such A Thing As Too Fast?

by Marcus Sakey

Recently, I dragged my wife g.g to see 28 Weeks Later. I'm not particularly a horror fan, but a well-told zombie tale is something different, and the reviews were startlingly positive, praising the political acumen and dark tone. As a general rule, g.g. doesn't like movies with explosions and blood sprays, but after reading the press, she was willing to give it a chance in the hope that the suspense and intellectual elements would overwhelm the gore.

Suffice it to say, I owe her the chick flick of her choice. That was settled the first time thumbs went through eyeballs. But besides being far bloodier than necessary, to me, the movie had a deeper flaw.

It went too fast.

I don't mean it started too fast. I'm all about jumping into the middle and trusting the intelligence of the audience. No, what this movie did was press down on the accelerator and then never let up. Ever.

On the surface, that sounds good. But there came a point between escaping fire bombing, stumbling through corpse-strewn tunnels, machine gunning civilians, and endlessly running from incredibly fit zombies (apparently being zombified is a great diet--not a beer belly in sight, and they sprint like entrail-spattered Olympians), when I realized I just didn't care. I didn't care if the protagonists made it out. I didn't care about the wise doctor or the stoic soldier. I didn't even care if the plucky little boy got his head gnawed. Actually, I was kind of hoping for it, because I figured that would signal the end of the movie.

My friend Joe Konrath and I have an ongoing discussion about this. He's of the belief that keeping the action unrelenting is a good thing. That you never want to give an audience, or a reader, a point to quit.

But for me, it has to come in waves. I want to care about the characters, to find something in them to relate to. Certain traits can be conveyed well in action scenes--resourcefulness, courage, even a sense of humor--but to my mind, you can't really get to know anyone if all you do is see them run and shoot and bleed. And if I don't know 'em, I don't much want to follow their story.

That very fact is what makes the technique work in a medium like video games. In a video game, I do want to run and shoot and bleed, and I want very little else. Long cutscenes or "get to know you" moments drive me up the wall. But the difference is that I'm controlling the character, so although I'm not moved emotionally, I am physically involved, and the balance is maintained.

My concern is that "pedal-down" style seems to be a trend. There are an increasing number of novels written this way, books that focus on never letting up. Some work better than others. But the trend is most common in TV and film.

Take 24; while never exactly Tolstoy, in the glory years it featured developed characters, and while there was always an overwhelming threat, much of the tension came from the smaller crises in each episode, often rooted around emotional and personal challenges. In the later years they lost that, and decided that what we wanted was all action, all the time. As a result, this season I gave up by the second episode, when I realized that I wouldn't save any of the characters if they were drowning in a bathtub.

So what do you think? Is it me? Do you like it when the accelerator never leaves the floor? Or is breathing room a good thing?

13 comments:

Claire said...

I think breathing room is necessary. It helps your brain rest a little. It's like negative space in a painting or photo. Your brain needs a little time to process what is happening.

Word Nerd said...

Breathing room is good. Without it, without having a chance to see how the characters react to the terrible circumstances, it's hard for me to care about what's happening (and often in movies to ever get that feeling that the good guys might not win.)
For some good use of downtime in an action sequence, the episode "Out of Gas" in Joss Whedon's Firefly is fantastic!

Steven said...

I'm of a divided mind on this. The non-stop action approach rarely works well, but I'm positive there have been movies that were like that and which I enjoyed. I just can't think of any. This is the downside. We tend to see those movies (or novels) as fluff. Great for killing a couple of hours, but not otherwise memorable.

Then, of course, there is a difference between non-stop action and "a lot of action and a lot of suspense in between". Those movies are better I think. Things happening with the threat of more things happening during the lulls.

Marcus Sakey said...

Claire: Love the negative space analogy. And to me, the negative space in an image, whether photography or design, is often the most important.

Word Nerd: I'm a Firefly addict. I love that episode, but then, I love 'em all. Seen them an embarrassing number of times.

Steven: I agree, it can be done well. Charlie Huston is one guy who I think pulls it off. CAUGHT STEALING is pretty much a headlong rush, but he still manages to make you care deeply about Hank.

Unfortunately, there aren't many Charlie Huston's out there. And in the hands of a lesser writer, it's easy to just end up worn out.

The Home Office said...

I pretty much agree with Steven's fluff comment. Action is fun, but even the Terminator flicks has moments of respite. Two hours is a long time to be on the edge of your seat; you eventually overload and just want the damn thing to end. (As you did, Marcus.)

Trying it in a book is worse. Books take longer to read than movies do to watch, and must involve at least some mental interaction with the reader, if only to picture the non-stop action.

The current "all action, all the time" trend seems intended to remove all conscious thought from the viewing/reading process. Maybe this is what marketing people are pushing; maybe it's just easier to ceate, since the audience is less like to see the plot holes the writer was too lazy to fix is he hasn't time to think about them. Either way, I think a backlash is about due, toward a little more traditionally-paced movies and books.

At least I hope so.

Steve Malley said...

Every good torturer knows that you get your best results when you take the tension off the rack for a moment before you ratchet it down harder.

An exciting story is a delicious torture, and we hope the creator knows when to ease back just that little bit...

Jude Hardin said...

We could all take a lesson from roller coaster architects. The breathtaking plummet is always preceded by a slow, anticipatory ascension to the precipice.

I'm in your camp on this one, Marcus.

Marcus Sakey said...

Roller coasters and torturers--spot on. That's exactly the way I feel about it. I'm not suggesting letting the tension lag. That should never be allowed to happen in a thriller.

Word Nerd said...

It's so nice to find other Firefly addicts. Do we need to start a support group? "Hi, my name's Bethany and my favorite episode is... well, all of them."

Maryann Mercer said...

No argument from me on the breathing room; too much too fast usually means some aspect gets lost along the way. Or, if you put the book down, backtracking can be necessary to find out just where you are in the chaos.And,I like to get to know just a bit about the characters. Keeps me involved.

The nice thing about Firefly (and the movie Serenity) is that every minute of down time has jewels embedded in it that flash later on to make the story-telling that much more compelling. I'm on my umpteenth viewing of that little series myself...and I usually find new things each time.
By the way, I love Joe Konrath's books, but even he has just a smidgen of down time...remember that cat!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

I've started calling them "Push-Me writers" and "Pull-You writers." When you read a book by a Push Me writer you can feel his hand on your back compelling you to turn the pages. You don't have much time to think about what's going on or to anticipate what's coming next. You could never really "figure out" a twist in a Push Me book before the writer reveals it. Dan Brown is probably the most famous one. It can be done very well, though. I think James Rollins's books are great fun and he rarely gives you a breath.

Pull You writers compel you to turn the pages because you're anticipating the next move and you're engaged in the characters. They pull you toward the end instead of pushing you from the beginning. Maybe you won't put all the pieces together but a Pull You writer generally gives you a fighting chance. In general those are the books I like, too. The Blade Itself is certainly a great one.

Mark me down as a huge Firefly fan, as well. But it is relevant to this conversation that Firefly (Pull You) was cancelled before one whole season. Twenty-Four (Push Me) is going on, what, season seven?

Marcus Sakey said...

Kevin, I love your Push Me/Pull Me classification. And I agree, both methods are valid--it's mostly a matter of avoiding the extremes, especially in popular fiction. Too much reliance on love for the characters to pull you through, and you end up with the dullest kind of personal sketch. Too many occasions of a man walking in with a gun, and you just wear your audience out.

As for your point about Firefly, I think actually it's a closer parallel to occasions when a publisher just doesn't get a book. Firefly was mis-marketed, played out of order, the pilot airing last, with a long break in the middle, and the worst scheduling slot on network TV. For some reason, someone at Fox wanted that sucker canceled. What's interesting is that the fans were rabid even then, to the level of paying to take out an ad in Variety proclaiming their love for the show and begging Fox to keep it going. But someone there didn't get it, and it died.

Maryann, I agree with you about Joe's writing--he does take breaks, and his characters are fully realized for the world they live in. The discussion he and I have is really more about what we admire, and how to approach it. He's expressed the opinion that he'd really like to write a book without any breaks at all, and in fact, he has written one, a novel called AFRAID that's on submission now. I've read it, and it's great. But personally, it's not a technique I would want to see every time.

Maryann Mercer said...

Marcus, you said just what I was thinking about Firefly. The network didn't get it. At all. I think they were expecting sci-fi vampires and got a "western" instead. It happens, although the "Lost" supporters sent something like 50,000 peanuts to NBC and might get their show resurrected.
Glad to hear about Joe's newest submission. Just the title gives me a chill. Thanks for sharing the info.