“For in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man’s rules that ever lived.” The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
The novelist and screenwriter Steven Pressfield has a wonderfully useful blog for writers and creative types of all sorts. In a recent post titled “What To Cut and What To Keep,” Pressfield made a point that seems obvious in retrospect, but that I’d never thought of in this way.
There’s a difference, Pressfield argues, between movies and novels in the amount of digression that the form can bear. As Pressfield puts it:
William Goldman famously said, “Screenplays are structure.” What he meant was that, since a movie is experienced in one start-to-finish sweep over a period of ninety minutes to two or three hours, it has to have a drive and a momentum that carries the audience and holds their interest all the way. A movie is like sex. It has to build to a climax and that climax has to justify all the acrobatics that went before it. Hence structure. Hence unity of theme. Hence no time for detours, no matter how enchanting or diverting.
But for novels:
…. the game is different. A novel (or any long-form work) is not inhaled by the reader in one non-stop glump. He may read a novel for weeks. If he loves it, he doesn’t want it to end. A novel can bear digressions (see the trout-fishing sequence in The Sun Also Rises). The reader will be patient.
|Great digressions: a trout stream in the mountains|
Yes, so true. Thinking about some of the greatest novels, I realize they revel in digression. There’s Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a parody of 18th-century biographical novels in which it takes many pages for the hero to be born, though the process begins with his conception on the first page. (His mom-to-be happens to interrupt his pop at a crucial moment.)
In the 20th century we have Proust’s a la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time, depending on which translation you prefer). In Proust the memories and reveries of our protagonist Marcel spiral around themselves, one thought leading to another in a seemingly endless chain that makes usual considerations of plot irrelevant. You don’t read Proust for what will happen next.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is another case, a picaresque novel in which a big bending river replaces the usual open road. One episodic adventure of Huck and Jim follows another, but each is a story in itself and the bits do not build to a climax. (Aside: maybe that’s one reason why no one has ever made a good movie of this great book.)
But what about other forms – essays, for example? Here again, I’d argue that the essence of the essay is what some would call digression.
Consider the early master Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals,” which deals nominally with Indian tribes recently discovered along the coast of Brazil. Montaigne begins with the Greek King Pyrrhus (the man who gave his name to Pyrrhic victories) commenting on the military formations of Roman “barbarians” – which they were from the Greek point of view – as he leads an army against them; then jumps to Plato’s commentary on a historian named Solon about a possible place out there somewhere called Atlantis, which may have suffered a big earthquake and flood; then gets interested in massive floods generally and the flooding of his local river, the Dordogne, in particular, before he takes up Aristotle’s account of the Carthaginian voyagers sailing beyond Gibraltar.
We are perhaps 700 words into the essay when Montaigne thinks to write, “Now to get back to the subject….”’ The glory of Montaigne lies in these diverting digressions. Similarly, Pressfield cites the historian Herodotus, whose digressions were so entertaining they made his accounts of the ancient world enduringly popular.
So what about blogging? The dominant theory holds that nobody really reads anything online and that Web grazers are impatient to say the least. They want their useful information fast. Consequently, the Seven Tips School of Blogging is ascendant.
7 Tips for Raising Venture Capital, 7 Tips for Masterful Negotiating, 7 Tips for Working Securely from Wireless Hot Spots, Seven Writing Tips from Stephen King, 7 Tips for Preventing Holiday Weight Gain, 7 Ways to Make Your Puppy Love You More, and 7 Tips on How to Cross the Road.
OK, those last two are fakes, but anything can be poured into the Seven Tips template. And there is much evidence that people online are more likely to scan an item with an alluring number in the title and the how-to approach. Studies by new media researcher Dan Zarrella show there are three things you can do get your Facebook friends to click on your messages:
• Put numbers in the lead-in;
• Use simple language (fifth- and ninth-grade reading levels are best);
• Update on Saturdays and Sundays.
On occasion, I’ve been known to make use of the Seven Tips principle because it works in attracting eyeballs in cyber-space. But faithful readers of 317am know by now that Kaze and I are not really Seven Tips guys. In fact, the bloggers I like the best, the ones I’ll come back to, are those with an individual voice and a wandering mind that could never be contained by a Seven Tips frame.
I like the advice the impresario Diaghilev once gave his meal ticket Nijinsky about choreographing a new dance: “Astonish me.” Give me an unexpected twist, a meander that intrigues, and I’ll follow you anywhe
|The gift to astonish – Nijinsky’s tomb|