Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock's Bomb: Suspense, Surprise, and Emotion in Narrative

Although I am a nonfiction publisher at the moment, I still love to read fiction in a variety of genres, from literary novels to thrillers. And I think for most editors it’s impossible to read a book without your editorial reflex twitching from time to time, especially when you see the author make a misstep. This week I have been reading an adventure novel that made me think yet again about the distinction between surprise and suspense--and in a broader way, what draws readers into a narrative. 

Something I frequently say to nonfiction narrative authors is, “Imagine how they’re going to do this when they make your book into a movie.” 

Filmmakers learn to boil a story down to its essence, and to find the most dramatic way to organize the elements of a narrative. They think about this stuff all the time. And it was Alfred Hitchcock who gave one of the most famous explanations of how suspense and surprise differ

There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean. 

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!" 

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

The “bomb under the table” example has been quoted almost ad nauseam by now. In fact, when I looked up Hitchcock’s quote online I found various writers complaining what a cliché it had become. However, when I first heard this principle cited, by my former boss Tom McCormack, he added one valuable further distinction, which I have not found widely discussed.*  

Once again, imagine a restaurant where there’s is a ticking bomb under the table, and we in the audience know it’s going to go off in fifteen minutes.  Now imagine one of the characters knows it as well, but can’t reveal it.  With this, the suspense ratchets to another level. Not only are we aware of the impending explosion, we share in the character’s anxiety to get away and the excruciating effort of acting totally unconcerned even as the bomb ticks down.  The emotional connection we have to a character for whom this situation is a matter of life or death makes the suspense we feel that much greater.  

Hitchcock’s bomb is simply an extreme way of focusing attention on the most essential question the author of any narrative, fiction or nonfiction, needs to ask—and answer—about a given storyline: Why should we care? The more emotionally invested readers are in what happens to those in the story, the more compelling it will be. And our emotional investment comes from understanding what the stakes are for those characters. 

*I am sure Tom credited Hitchcock for the insight, but I have not been able to find an original Hitchcock reference. Sources welcomed

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Wikipedia and "Open-Source History"

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez's Tumblr tipped me off to a neat post by James Bridle at BookTwo.org. More accurately, to a post about a neat project that Bridle has undertaken: he has created a multivolume printed set that records the editing history, from 2004 to 2009, of the Wikipedia entry for the Iraq War.

We all know that what makes Wikipedia valuable, and also problematic, is that its entries can be edited at any time by any user. This makes it, on the whole, remarkably accurate--anyone who scorns Wikipedia as a mishmash of rumor and random errors should read about the study that found it stacked up pretty well against the Encyclopedia Britannica. But if it's terrific in the aggregate, for any given topic, at any given moment, Wikipedia is capable of delivering information that is factually wrong, politically skewed, or simply incoherent, depending on who was last on the "edit" page. Bridle's compilation of the Iraq War edits, I'm sure, will demonstrate this clearly.  As he observes,
It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes “Saddam Hussein was a dickhead.”
If you land on this Wikipedia page at the wrong time, you might find unhelpful "information" like that. But most of the time you'd get a lot of useful facts, 95 percent of them or better probably accurate. And as James Bridle points out regarding the Iraq War, the constant changing of the article is itself a valuable fact--a record of our historical knowledge as it lurches forward--or sometimes back.
This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.
For anyone pondering the value of Wikipedia compared to "traditional" reference sources, an absolute must-read is an essay, now several years old, by the late Roy Rosenzweig, one of the pioneers of digital history, titled "Can History Be Open Source?" It's quite long and addressed principally to his fellow historians, but deeply thoughtful and open-minded. His overall assessment of Wikipedia is quite positive. He too compared Wikipedia to more established sources (Microsoft's Encarta and the American National Biography), using biographies as his sample, and concluded, 'Wikipedia is surprisingly accurate in reporting names, dates, and events in U.S. history."

Rosenzweig found that where the ANB was superior to Wikipedia was not so much in factual accuracy, but in the overall quality and richness of articles that draw on, instead of the wisdom of crowds, "the skill and confident judgment of a seasoned historian." Reading the Wikipedia entry on Abraham Lincoln next to the ANB article by James M. McPherson, he says
the difference lies in McPherson's richer contextualization [and] even more by his artful use of quotations to capture Lincoln's voice, by his evocative word portraits....and by his ability to convey a profound message in a handful of words. 
Admittedly, putting Wikipedians up against James McPherson on Lincoln is sort of like sending the people sitting in the bleachers up to bat against C.C. Sabathia. This is only to say that encyclopedia entries, like any other kind of writing, are better done by a single talented person than by a committee, but it doesn't mean the committee version doesn't have value. 

There is much more to Rosenzweig's article than this, and for anyone who's thinking about plunging into the nine volumes of The Iraq War, it would be a good place to start. 

(Photo from James Bridle's Flickr set, reproduced under Creative Commons license)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

You Thought Getting Used to the Kindle Was Hard? Try the Codex

I have posted a link to this clip elsewhere but it's so funny (and relevant) I had to do it again here. Yes, it's awful when you have to get used to some newfangled technology for reading. Imagine what it was like when you grew up with scrolls.

(The YouTube post of this clip doesn't cite the original source but I'm told it is the Norwegian TV show Ã˜ystein og jeg.)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Self-Publishing Is the Route to ( ) Success ( ) Failure [Check One]

The literary agent Nathan Bransford, who writes one of the shrewdest and most entertaining blogs about publishing, recently had an excellent post on a much misunderstood topic: just what publishers actually do for authors. (In brief: a lot.)  With the increasing ease of self-publishing in an e-book marketplace; prominent authors dropping their publishers to sell their work themselves, the question of whether and how publishers "add value" to an author's work certainly calls for discussion.

It's a big subject and I'll attempt to tackle it in future posts. But I encourage anyone interested in it to read Nathan's article, and also the comments thread. What particularly struck me there was reports from two different commenters about their diametrically opposed experiences of self-publishing. Author A writes:
Self-publishing is a difficult road to take. As an experiment, I uploaded two short works to Amazon and made them available in the Kindle store. I designed the covers, did the editing, and the layout design and html code juggling that needed to be done in order to get them looking right. And let me tell you, after all of that, the time you have to put in to promote your work is exhausting. And there aren't many ways to do it successfully. The grand total of copies sold thus far (after several months)? Somewhere around 14. Four of which were to relatives. 
A sobering tale. But scroll down a bit further and read this from Author B:
I was very fortunate. After being rejected (but almost making it!) by traditional publishing I let my book set on the hard drive a couple years. Then Kindle store came along and Bezos offered to e-publish my book for free. With nothing to lose I used the digital text platform interface (very easy) to upload my book. I created a cover from a beautiful photo taken by a friend. My book has sold over 5,000 copies, and continues to sell at a brisk pace. I've added more books, and I have a nice monthly income.

What this author said that really surprised me was this:

I don't have a blog, don't use Facebook, have never twittered. I don't even use my name on blogs (like this one). My books sell very well and I'm making more money than I ever imagined, thanks to 70% royalty on Amazon. Marketing is not necessary. 
Even though they report completely opposite results, both of these stories illustrate the same fact about self-publishing: as I have said elsewhere, the skills involved in writing a book are utterly different from the ones necessary to flog it to the buying public. A writer capable of creating a wonderful book may have no aptitude--or as author B's comment suggests, no interest--in networking with readers, flacking her product, etc. That's where publishers come in.

True, Author B is doing just fine without publishers, thank you very much. I take my hat off this to this person who has figured out how to write books that sell without marketing. I'm not sure what big conclusions you can draw from these starkly different stories, although I believe that the experiences of author A are probably more typical of self-publishing. But as I know all too well, many authors have had almost equally frustrating experiences with major publishing houses. And some books truly will sell without marketing, sometimes on the title or even a jacket image alone. Of course, I can't help wondering, if author B's book had come out from an established publisher, and had a creative, energetic marketing push behind it, might it have sold 50,000 copies, or 500,000 instead of 5000? Several titles come to mind that were successfully self-published, then were picked up by major houses and transformed into blockbusters. (For instance, the authors of The One Minute Manager sold 20,000 copies of their book themselves--pretty impressive. But after William Morrow took it over, it went on to sell 20 million.)

None of this is to say that self-publishing may not be viable and even preferable, for some authors, to the old-school method. But when it comes to reaching the largest possible audience, a HarperCollins or Random House, with its marketing expertise and massive distribution apparatus, still offers something pretty powerful.