Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Inception: What I Thought. What I Learned.

I haven't been around much lately, which is entirely due to THE (sort of) FINAL ROUND, also known as line edits. My writing process is complete and utter lunacy, which is probably something that every writer could say, but it's a little like this:

Step One: Receive notes. Read them over. Let the brain gears churn.
Step Two: Get irrationally frustrated. Set edits aside. Watch television.
Step Three: Get over self. Formulate a plan of action. Set ridiculous due date for self.
Step Four: Relocate brain to Writing Zone. Lose self in edits. Alienate friends and family (hopefully that's a joke!). Churn through pages like a machine, like A MACHINE!
Step Five: Come out of writing trance. Send in completed edits.
Step Six: Recovery period. Stay in pajamas watching crappy television and taking too many naps.

I have realized that I'm either completely on, pedal to the metal, day and night...or completely off, listless, lazy. I hate when I'm completely off.

One thing that brings me out of stage six is seeing movies. Me and the FH (stands for "Future Husband") have been planning on seeing Inception since we first saw previews for it, so we went to see it on Friday.

First of all: this guy in front of us was chewing on popcorn so loudly I spent the first hour of the movie monitoring his popcorn consumption and hoping that he would run out soon. Seriously, this was some continuous popcorn chewing. It was like "HANDFUL *noshnoshnoshnoshnosh* HANDFUL *noshnoshnoshnoshnosh*" and it made me want to rip my own ears off. I am pretty sensitive to annoying noises (I have plugged my ears during exams before because people in the back of the room were coughing) in general, and I also REALLY WANTED TO PAY ATTENTION TO THE MOVIE, so, as you can imagine, I was not in a peaceful or calm movie-viewing state.

Therefore it really says something that despite The Mouth-Breathing Popcorn-Muncher Extraordinaire, I LOVED Inception. I thought it was well-acted, well-shot, and thought-provoking. Critics have said that it's confusing, but I really didn't find it all that confusing as long as you pay attention, and you have to pay attention. Some people won't like that, because they don't go to movies to think really hard, so if you're one of those people (and I definitely understand that), you might not like it.

My expertly written summary of Inception is: man goes into other people's dreams to steal their ideas. Man is offered safe return to his children in exchange for going into someone's dreams and planting an idea, which is really freaking difficult. Somewhat problematic is the fact that man is still obsessed with his dead wife. Action ensues.

It should surprise no one that I was thrilled about seeing it, because, let's look at the facts:

A. Sci fi. Win.
B. Simulated dream states. Double win.
C. Psychological elements. Triple win.

If there was an alley labeled "VERONICA ROTH," this movie would be right up it.

Aside from my glowing recommendation, though, I have a few writing-related things that I learned from the success of Inception.

Dream within a dream within a dream (within a dream) (within a dream?)

I don't want to spoil anything, but there is a point in this movie where there are four levels of reality. FOUR. And stuff is happening in all the levels. It would be like if you wrote a book in which your character was having a flashback within the flashback, which is itself a flashback. If you tried to write that, it would be pretty much insane. But it's not so far from what we try to do as writers anyway. We try time jumps, character jumps, setting jumps. And every time you do that, you run the risk of seriously confusing your reader. So there are a few ways in which Inception kept this from getting too confusing.

1. Colors/Setting. In Dream Level 1, it was pouring rain, and the filter was kind of blue and grim. In Dream Level 2, they were inside, and the filter was kind of orange and warm. In Dream Level 3, there was snow everywhere, and the filter was pale and washed out. It was pretty easy to tell which level you were in just by the way that it looked.

2. Characters. At each dream level, one character was "left behind," so to speak. So you could figure out which level you were on by which character you were following.

3. Ordering. Usually, the dream levels proceeded in a particular order. Something would happen in the first level, and it would affect how things happened in the second level, which affected how things happened in the third level. In that order. It's like alternating POVs. People come to expect that when a scene shifts, it will return to its usual order.

Basically, when you write, if you intend to jump in some way, you have to make the jump different enough. Alternating POVs (one chapter from MC1's perspective, next chapter from MC2's perspective, etc.), for example, can be tricky, especially if you can't or don't want to stick to the order you set forth in the beginning. I think that when alternating POVs are successful, it's because MC1 sounds different, looks different, and is often in a different place than MC2.

Alternating POVs also require two distinct but interrelated narrative arcs. In SHIVER, for example, Sam and Grace's stories are intertwined, but Sam has his own distinct story (going into the woods to find his "family") and Grace has her own distinct story (school; dealing with Isabel; etc). When those stories ultimately come together into the main narrative, it's satisfying because we've watched them develop. This is clearly the case with Inception, because you've got MC1 in Dream Level 1 trying to stay alive, and MC2 in Dream Level 2 trying to maneuver people into an elevator, and MC3 in Dream Level 3 trying to break into this building. And ultimately, all those storylines come together to form the whole storyline, and it's gratifying to see how that happens and what it looks like.

The main story. And the other story.

I'm trying very hard not to spoil anything, but essentially, in Inception, you have The Main Mission (surface level plot) and The Underlying Mission. The Main Mission is trying to break into this guy's mind, and The Underlying Mission is the MC trying to deal with his wife issues.

I think this is kind of key for commercial fiction. A lot of the time, what people criticize literary fiction for is having no plot, meaning that it lacks a really strong Main Mission and focuses entirely on The Underlying Mission (if that makes sense). And on the flip side, people criticize commercial fiction for having only plot, meaning that it has no deeper significance, no Underlying Mission. But what separates quality fiction from the kind of fiction I use as a coaster for my hot beverages is finding a way to incorporate both missions.

For example. Harry Potter. Book Seven. Main Mission: freaking defeat Voldemort already. Underlying Mission: harder to say, but basically, do I save myself, or sacrifice myself? (Self-sacrifice is, by the way, one of my favorite "issues" in fiction, period.)

Or. The Hunger Games. Main Mission: don't die in this televised death match. Underlying Mission: how much humanity am I willing to lose in order to save myself?

This is something I grapple with every time I start something new, so I'm not pretending I know the secret or anything. I write something because I have an interesting story in my head, and then I step back and ask myself, what am I really writing about? Sometimes I have an answer and sometimes I don't, but usually, when I don't, I know I should probably stop writing that particular project. This isn't like a "what lesson am I trying to teach?" question, because adolescent readers know when they're being talked down to, but more of a "am I trying to deal with anything deeper by writing this book?" question.

So: Inception. Awesome movie. With writing applications. And actually, a great soundtrack, in my opinion. Go see it.


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