tom thinks

date 2000-12-27:18:09
Movies The difference between kids movies and adult movies is that kids movies have to make sense. This is true of literature and other narrative arts as well.

The kids and I watched Lost in Space a few days ago, and unless I missed something, the film made absolutely no sense. There was no difference in the hyperdrive between the opening and closing of the film, no way to navigate with it, yet for some reason they felt capable of doing so by the end. There were other inconsistencies as well, and the kids spent a good deal of the film asking, "Why is he doing that?"

I was often unable to answer in a way that didn't amount to, "Narrative causality", which is Terry Pratchett's idea that stories have causal power of their own, so for instance when you think the bad guy is dead, no matter how certain you are that he is really, totally, completely obliterated, dead, smashed, killed... he still leaps up and attacks people three scenes later. The needs of the story become a force of causal necessity.

Kids stories, by contrast, require things to make sense, people to have motives, events to have causes beyond the needs of the narrative. This has both strengths and weeknesses. It means that amibiguity, which is massively and tritely overused in stories for adults, is a crutch that children's story-tellers can't lean on. The flip side is that ambiguity, in those very, very rare cases where it's used well, is one of the most powerful weapons in the bardic arsenal.

Having been immersed in children's stories for the past seven years, and having been called upon to tell a short but original story at least once and often twice for the past four or five years, I'm keenly aware of the difficulty faced in telling stories without ambiguity that are still interesting and engaging. As well as limiting ambiguity, children's stories need to limit implication--most stuff needs to be spelled out explicitly, as well as being spelled out clearly. The two are quite different--kids are fairly quick to pick up on implied things, but don't get ambiguity at all. They want the story to have an identity as a story, and this is not unreasonable most of the time.
Play I consider baking play, as I don't bake anything that couldn't be replaced (very imperfectly) with stuff bought from a store. Jan gave me a bread-maker for Christmas, and my first attempt to use it was successful, and even as I write this there's a loaf of Caro's special recipe baking, which will no-doubt be entirely awesome.

The kids like baking too--the person who minds them on summer mornings baked with them at least once a week this year, and they made some pretty good stuff. So when I bake they like to help me measure and of course to sample the results, which is good for them as mostly I bake stuff that is intended to support the Zone diet, although this time of year we sometimes do cookies as well.

I've only taken to baking recently--Caro convinced me to do so, as with so many good things. She doesn't take illogical excuses for an answer, so when she asks questions like, "Why don't you bake?" I suddenly find myself asking myself, "Why don't I bake?" rather than saying, "'Cause I never have." Where I grew up, baking was a girl thing. Boys didn't bake, unless it was over a camp-fire. This is such an unbelievably stupid aspect of sexual discrimination that it will be one of those things that I hope my children will never be able to comprehend in the slightest.

There's a better world in the building, and one measure of its goodness is that men and women are both getting to play as they choose, not as some arbitrary set of mindless social conventions are telling them too.
Reading For reasons to do with what I'm writing myself, I'm rereading Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. It's a remarkably good book, although I think the way the action compresses toward the end is not so good, particularly given the leisurely pace of the first half. Once I'm done with it I'm going to spend a few days finishing off the Iliad, at long last. I have a goal to get it done before the end of the year. Then back to Tom Jone for a while.

I'm reading Zelazny's book because of the role that names play in it. Who is Sam? By the end of the book we have a pretty clear idea, although given the time it was written (the mid-60's) the book doesn't paint a very consistent picture of him. He is good and evil, careful and foolish, clever and stupid. His revolt against the gods is stunningly unsuccessful and quite badly planned. He's a deeply impulsive Buddha, a war-leader fighting in the name of a pacific philosophy.

It's the way Zelazny tells the tale that intrigues me. He writes in his own voice (or at least, the authorial voice, the character of the imputed author, is very clear) and he tells us strictly what the characters do. He never tells us what they think, unless they speak about it. He tells us sometimes what different people say about why people did things. But he never allows himself inside his character's heads, at least not in public.

I like this form of story-telling a lot, although it's a lot more demanding for both author and reader than a style that simply tells us what the characters are thinking and feeling and is done with it. I've tried to develop this style in my own work, and haven't had much success. The quasi-mythic voice that Zelazny uses is very effective in this mode, however. I think it is necessary to step away from all the conventions of the modern novel to use this effect well.

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