Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Style Doesn't Mean Substance

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before that I'm a fan of The West Wing. Last night I sat down to catch up on the last two episodes I've had TiVoed and finally got tired of waiting for the hubby to watch with me. He's on his own.

Anyway, the most recent episode was really good story-wise. A major character who I really like has gotten himself into a heap of trouble, and although I don't blame the other characters for now treating him as a pariah, I feel so sorry for him. There's a new level of tension that the show had been missing, not to mention I'm happy to have the story set back in the West Wing instead of always on the campaign trail as it has been nearly all of this season.

But this episode annoyed me on an entirely different level. Almost every scene was shot in the most bizarre way. In nearly every instance, one character would be talking to another character who could not be seen either at all or only indirectly, as in reflected in a pane of window glass or obscured by an artfully placed lampshade. Often one character would occupy far screen left, the character he or she was talking to actually off-screen left, and 2/3 of the rest of the screen was full of room. Talk about feeling off balance.

The first time this occurred, I noticed it but didn't think twice about it. Then it happened again and again and again until I realized this was actually intentional. It was if the director was trying to be artistic or maybe was trying to imply some deep metatextual message about people hiding themselves from others or discovering hidden agendas or how we aren't always able to see the entire scene.

All I know is that it annoyed the heck out of me.

Plus, it completely distracted me from the story. In nearly every scene, this stylistic approach dominated my thoughts because it was so dang obvious. Instead of listening to the dialogue or watching the actors' facial expressions, I was focused on who was off-screen and if I could catch a glimpse of reflection or why in the heck the camera is doing that extreme close up of a lamp shade rather than the people.

Which goes to show that a little bit of style goes a long way, especially if that style is of an extreme nature. One or two of such scenes would have been more than plenty.

Same goes when writing a novel. All those gimmicks - stories told via e-mails or second-person POV or without using any paragraph breaks - can be either really unique and fun or really, really annoying and distracting.

I'm at the beginning of a YA story about three sisters. What I want to do is show the story from each sister's POV, taking turns between them. I also would love to find a way to keep this a first-person POV because nearly every single YA that I've loved is written in first-person POV. Except, how do you switch between three characters, all of them speaking in FP? Talk about mass confusion.

So I got the brilliant idea that maybe each sister could communicate in a different way. For example, one sister could write e-mails or use IMing, one sister could journal, and one sister could write long, eloquent letters. This style would tell the reader which character's brain they were currently sitting in. Also, the method of communicating would say something about the character.

This could work.

This could also get highly annoying very quickly. Maybe just a little too much style for a little too long. I have no idea. I suppose the only way to find out is to give it a try and call up some friends to read it with the explicit instructions to tell me if they find such a method cool or a pain in the ass.

Because last thing I need is for readers to be so cognizant of style that the story is secondary. Style should be entirely invisible. If you can see it, it means you aren't focusing on the right thing.

After all, e.e. cummings may have written amazing poems, but I can't ever get past all of those lower case letters to find out.

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