Tuesday, July 17, 2012

{TS/DR}: Why not use ALL the words? (The Best LONG Stories)

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Not long ago, on Michael Offutt's blog, I mentioned that while I am generally opposed to George R. R. Martin's Game of Lord Of The Rings Reboots, because I am generally opposed to anything that lots of people like, I am generally in favor of George R. R. Martin's Game Of Live Action D&D because it is long.

According to legend (okay, Wikipedia) Martin began writing A Game Of Thrones because he was a television writer and didn't like the limitations of television production.  So he wrote a book, and planned on writing a trilogy.

21 years after he set out to write that first book of a trilogy, Martin's five books and 4,213 pages into it.  That's an average of 842.6 pages per book (and an average of 1.66 books per book, given that this was supposed to be a trilogy, remember.)

Martin's not the first writer to expand his horizons by expanding his word count.  Tolkien, Martin's predecessor in all things fantasy, wrote Lord of the Rings as a sequel to The Hobbit, intending that it be one book (part of a two-book series with that one that nobody ever reads, The Silmarillion)(for all I know, Game of Thrones is simply The Silmarillion with Dutch names substituted, kind of like how Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is just a Mickey Spillane mystery with all the action and good writing taken out.)  But Lord of the Rings clocked in actually at six books -- each book in the trilogy has two books within it.

If you're into numbers, as I increasingly am for some reason, Tolkien clocks in at 1,036 pages for Lord Of The Rings alone (Kindle version), and with his other two books he totals 1,718.  That's only 372 pages per book.  George R. R. Martin would eat him for breakfast.

I got to thinking about this because a frequent comment, when anyone comments, on my posts, is that they're too long.  I've got no way to find out how long the average post is on any of my blogs, but I know they're long: I've had posts that ran over the course of several days, breaking them down into sections, like my groundbreaking research into The Best Worst Villain

That frequent comment -- this is too long! I don't have time to read things that are long! Even if I might find them interesting, the sheer fact that it will take me a longer-than-average time to absorb it all is daunting-- made me wonder:  what else would people say is too long?

And, correspondingly, can things be too short?

(SPOILER ALERT:  I say yes to the latter.)

Length, after all, is relative.  A 1000-word post on a blog is a four-page short essay in a magazine.  I'm not sure anyone is writing to The New Yorker and saying "I'd really love to read your magazine but MY GOD that Calvin Trillin went on for 5 pages and what am I, made of time?"

(I'm equally sure that most people felt that sentence went on too long when I could have used the TL/DR code, instead, an indication that the commenter had so little time they could not waste it typing an entire word into the box and clicking; they had to hit that sweet spot between "I don't have time to read this or even tell you in whole words why I didn't read it" and "I do, though, have the time it takes to indicate to you that if something cannot be compressed into 14 words and perhaps a funny picture of a cat, I'm not going to bother with it.")

If George R. R. Martin had labored for 16 years or however long it took him to come up with A Song Of Fire & Ice And Likely Every Other Element, Given That This Book Contains More Words Than Any Three Languages Combined, and had upon publishing that book, revealed it to be 1,000 words...

...even if they were a great 1,000 words...

... what would the reaction have been?

(Aside from the people who emailed Martin to say TL/DR, I mean?)

So length, like time, and the amount of pizza I claim to have consumed versus how much I actually consumed, is relative: the same amount of words in a different context is both too long and too short. It's Schrodinger's Wordcount! 

(I'm at 730 words as of that last exclamatory remark, in case you're wondering.  Would it help if I said the latter as ICYW? Does it matter if I abbreviate everything so that there are no actual words?)

Let's try: Itpwssitlan!

Okay! See you tomorrow!


I'm back. I think I proved my point: I said I think people who say something is too long are nuts!

When I went to see The Avengers, which in my mind is still in the top 5 of all movies I've ever seen and I'm only saying that because I don't want to take the plunge and say it's the best movie I've ever seen even though I secretly think it is and if you pressed me I couldn't tell you what movies I would likewise put in the top 5 and where they'd sit, when I went to see The Avengers I was forewarned by a guy at my office that it was too long.

"It didn't need to be 2 1/2 hours," he said. 

So I went to see it, and I disagreed.  That movie needed to be four hours.  Or six hours.  It needed to be a series of movies (as it kind of was) that never ended and which I could just go on watching until all the stories had been told and I was full of movie.

When the final battle started (that's not a SPOILER ALERT!; you know there's going to be a final battle and I'm not telling you how it turned out), I realized it was the final battle and I got a little sad, thinking "This movie is almost over and I don't want it to end, ever."

That is a great movie, and that is an argument against making things shorter.  Remember Kill Bill, which for Pete's sake do not say was two movies, it was one movie cut into two because it was too long to see in the theater...

...combined running time for both Kill Bill segment: 247 minutes.  Running time for Titanic? 194 minutes.  247 minutes is nothing: The longest movie ever to win an Oscar was War and Peace, clocking in at 7+ hours...

...Kill Bill wouldn't have been half as good if it was half as long, and most things do not benefit from shortening.  (That anti-shortening slogan could have been brought to you by the makers of lard, whose story was shortened, and made less interesting, by Planet Money some time ago.)

So I thought about this and thought about this and then I realized I was at work and thought about stuff I get paid to do and then came home and played a game of Falling Stars with Mr F and then I played a game of Cargo-Bot with Mr Bunches, and then I gave them their bath and then I went to bed and now I'm up and thinking about it again, and thinking about the best long stories that I loved and which clearly benefitted from being longer, ever longer, stretching out in great story form, and I decided to officially kick off my {TS/DR} campaign, a campaign I UNofficially started on a comment to Michael Offutt's blog yesterday.

{TS/DR}(the {fancy brackets} assure you that it's a high-class program) is going to be my fight against the forces of shortening, editing, cutting, reductionists who want less story, less character development, less action, less of everything.  When I come across something that I think could have benefitted by being more, I'm going to comment {TS/DR} and let that person know - -at length, of course -- why I felt their piece could have been longer.

Not everything needs to be a sound bite, after all.  I know that people read these things at work, or on breaks -- but who says everything you read has to be read at one sitting?  We don't insist that TV series be broadcast all in one day.  We don't demand "books" of only 1 page so that we don't have to linger over them.  When I open up my The New Yorker on my Kindle and see that there's 8 long articles plus 14 smaller ones, I love it.

And to kick off  {TS/DR}, here are The Best LONG Stories, in no particular order other than the order I put them in:

The Stand, by Stephen King.

There are, by most estimates, 774,000 or so words in The Bible.

Stephen King has written, by most estimates, more words than that.

Any review of long stories has to begin with King and his best book, The Stand, not just because Stephen King appears to understand that cutting words means cutting words, and stories are made of words the way you are made of organs; they can say you don't need that appendix but when they take it out, you've got a little hole where a part of you used to be, and that's what happens to words cut out of a book.

Length is relative, of course: King's work doesn't seem long in comparison to Proust's In Search of Lost Time (word count 1,200,000 [estimated]), the World Record holder for longest novel (It's issued in 7 volumes) but King can write a lot of words, many of them very good words.

The Stand was originally issued with substantial edits, for "brevity."  The edits cut out 400 pages -- an entire novel, or two entire novels, by modern standards, or 1,600 posts that someone on the Internet would comment only by saying TL/DR, by today's standards.  The edits were done because Doubleday thought Americans in 1978 wouldn't read a long book (what else did they have to do, besides wear tube socks, while waiting in line to see Star Wars?)

King wasn't even a new novelist at that point: He'd written Carrie and The Shining and Salem's Lot and was well-known, but still had to cut the book.  He re-issued the original (with some setting updates) in 1990, this time coming in at the original 1,152 pages.

That's the version I read, and I read it in four days.  That's not an easy thing to do, even when you consider that at the time it was summer, I wasn't in school, and my job was working at a Subway restaurant.  For four days, I read and worked and slept and did far more of the first than the last two: I only slept about 4 hours a day, reading into the night.  I carried the book with me on the five-block walk to work, reading it as I walked along.  It was that good.

I never read the original, chopped-up version.  Consider meat: When you cut a steak off a cow and cook it, it's a T-bone.  When you grind it up into smaller bits to make it easier to cook and eat, it's a hamburger.*

*Note: I actually like hamburgers far more than steak.  That comparison was for literary purposes only.

The Stand works as a longer novel because it is an epic story: It's literally about the end of the world and a battle between the forces of good and evil.  It's apocalyptic in the best way (no zombies) and the apocalypse demands grandeur.  The expanded length of the work lets you get a feel not just for characters -- there's much more time to develop the people into real people with real emotions and real interactions -- but the setting, as well: You can say "the world practically ended one day because of this disease" or you can show it by having people slowly pick their way across that deserted landscape on their way to Colorado, and if you show it, the grim reality of that world begins to set in as though you are living in it.

And that's the feeling you want from a horror novel, or fantasy novel, or any novel, isn't it? That you are in that world?  The more time you spend in a place, the more you feel at home there.  Even if you don't want to.  Spending lots of time in the world that The Stand takes place in was a grim, unsettling experience.  Spending less time there would make it easier, which is why I imagine the movies and TV shows haven't worked as well as the book:  The Stand's real villain is the world that's left, and that takes some time to work on you.

Lost.  I almost didn't watch Lost.  The only reason I started watching the show, at all, was that I got the first episode free on my iPod way back when I first got an iPod that could play videos.

I didn't not watch Lost because it was long but because I don't get that much of an opportunity to watch TV -- most of my TV watching is done late at night after the boys go to bed, and I often find myself unwilling to commit to an hourlong episode of TV when I'm tired.

But I did watch Lost's first episode, and got hooked instantly -- so hooked that I went out a day or so later and bought the first season on DVD, as this was already a season or two into the show by the time I watched it.

Lost, to my mind, was kind of unique for regular network TV: a story that required that you invest time in it.  I'm not talking about the "time" that people could invest in searching out clues on the internet or dumb stuff like that: I'm not all that thrilled about turning my television shows into a scavenger hunt and would rather leave pointless exercises like that to those students at the University of Chicago who are lucky enough not to have to work their way through college and so can spend their time growing beards and volunteering to have their appendix removed for no reason.

What I am talking about is the fact that if you didn't watch Lost from the first episode, and if you didn't then stick with it without fail, you would either be unable to make much sense of the show, period (not that watching every episode helped me, much) or you would have invested a great deal of time for no payoff -- which if you wanted to do that you could have watched Battlestar: Galactica, the new series that ran not long ago.

Once I began watching Lost I realized the commitment I was making, and the trust that I was giving to the creators: I was deciding that I would either give a hundred or so hours of my life, over the next few years, to their series, or I would be wasting the time I spent earlier if I gave up -- and I was trusting that the creators would keep the series up to the level that the first few episodes promised they would, because what if I gave it three, four, five years and then suddenly it all turned to crap?

That's the problem, sometimes, with longer stories.  It's not that we don't have time to read them: It's that we don't have time to waste on crummy ones.  It's similar to what Jerry Seinfeld once said about why he's never made a movie: if you go to a bad movie, it's two hours of your life.  But if you make a bad movie, it's two years of your life.

With longer series, like Lost, it's hard, sometimes, to believe that the quality can possibly stay that high for that long, especially because the odds are against it.

Lost, though, not only maintained that quality, but managed to bring a higher level to storytelling.  Even with as little TV as I watch, it's remarkable that I can't think of another series that managed to juggle so many characters and themes and keep the focus on all of them and develop them into real-seeming people, to the point where now, years later, I can still recall details of even some of the minor characters.  And Lost managed to stick, stubbornly, to its manner of storytelling, which, too, was different than most other TV, not resolving all the storylines neatly and leaving loose threads hanging while developing a mythology that is just screaming to be revisited, over and over again.

3.  Battlestar Galactica.

Up until the last episode, at least.   BS:G answers the question I posed up there: what if I gave it three, four, five years and then suddenly it all turned to crap?  I started watching Battlestar around the same time as I started watching Lost, taping episodes to watch as I sat up nights feeding our newborn babies, and I was enthralled by the hyperrealistic feel of the series, by the expansion of Cylon culture, by the characters' growth with each episode. 

BS:G, like Lost, wasn't just an ongoing series, like Dallas, where you could say "Yeah, it's all one big story," or like Law & Order, where each episode more or less exists in a vacuum.  These two series really did tell just one story, with subplots and escapist episodes, sure, but the entire series, in each case, was a single unit, telling one narrative from beginning to end.

BS:G, though, unlike Lost, couldn't keep it together, and managed to in the final season completely destroy all the stuff that had gone before.  I'm not going to detail all the things that went wrong in the last episode -- I did that here -- but prior to that final season, the series was an example of near-perfect storytelling, balancing episodic features with a longer-term narrative.

Then, in the final season, it threw all that out the window in favor of flash and twists and turns, like M. Night Shymalan had busted into the room where the scripts had kept.  I'm including it on the list, but ignoring the ending.

4.   Harry Potter.

There are lots of fantasy stories I could put on this list; fantasy almost seems to lend itself to the long-term story that spans several books: Lord Of The Rings, the Narnia Chronicles, and Piers Anthony's Split Infinity series all spring to mind. 

And all of those series give you what is one of the best things about a long story:  The convoluted storylines that don't have to wrap up immediately (or at all), the payoff when something from two books ago comes back to remind you that it existed and you should have been paying attention, the ability to actually make characters that you care about because they grow as , as opposed to archetypes that fill a role.

Consider that, for a moment: Look at, say, Star Wars, and especially the first three movies versus the last three movies.  In the first three movies, six hours of running time or so, what is the development of the major characters?  Han Solo becomes a general and commits to the Rebellion. Luke becomes a Jedi, mostly offscreen -- and at the end of the older trilogy, things are pretty much the same as they were in the beginning.

The first three movies, by contrast, show a single character developing over time, the much-maligned Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader as he struggles to control his emotions and The Force, and at the same time show the birth of the Empire and destruction of the old order. 

While I liked Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back the best of the six movies, I did so purely on the basis of action and adventure, not story.  If Star Wars fans wanted story, they should have demanded that Lucas expand the later trilogy to four or five or six movies, spreading it out and showing more of the politics and personal interplay, allowing gaps to be filled in to explain why things happened the way they did.

But I was talking about Harry Potter, and that's why Harry Potter makes this list while the others didn't: Harry Potter's books manage to tell one complete story, too:  Call it The Training Of Harry Potter, beginning with his discovering he's a wizard and ending with his emerging into the world of wizarding as a full-fledged adult wizard (albeit one with almost no powers or skills, his primary achievement being "not dying... twice.") 

J.K. Rowling's major achievement in that regard is to create a world that expands out with our growth, putting us into Harry's shoes as we read: We are introduced to the wizard world at the same time as Harry is, and our knowledge grows as Harry's does -- and, as we become less innocent in the ways of the world, so do the books, growing darker and darker over time (as many great stories do). 

The exact same story, really, could have been told in just one book, had Rowling wanted to.  There's nothing inherently necessary about spreading Harry's education over 7 books.  But by doing that, Rowling essentially sent us to wizarding school, too, making us commit the time that Harry commits to learn about this world and become a part of it.

Longer stories do that: they immerse you in a way that shorter stories do not.  I read a lot of short stories these days, and I find that very few of them stick with me; I think part of that is the time I spent with them.  If you met a person at the bus stop, and had a brief conversation with them, a talk you found interesting or compelling or fun, you might remember that person for a while, but the more of those little talks you have the more each fades into the background.

If, on the other hand, you were to meet the same person each day and talk to that person for 15 minutes or so, for years, the odds are you would remember that person and many of the things you discussed, and you would miss him or her when they were no longer a part of your life.

It's not that a short story or poem or 1/2 hour TV show can't become memorable -- it's that it's harder for them to do.  Had Harry Potter only existed for a 2-hour movie, he'd be about as memorable as...

...well, I can't think of any other wizards I can't remember, but that's the point, right?

5.  The Crisis On Infinite Earths. 

Comic books have always been sort of a long-running story, but not in the right way: they're long-running the way Law & Order was long-running, episodic with no real long-term effects.  Growing up reading comic books, I came to understand that nobody ever got married, nobody ever stayed dead, villains would always escape, planets would always be put back together... comics were long-term stories with no permanence, like they were written by the main character in Memento.

Crisis changed that, for a time, at least: Crisis on Infinite Earths was a 12-months-long storyline that introduced new characters and killed off old ones and destroyed and merged worlds and combined comics and storylines and spanned into other issues and overall brought a more coherent, unified, permanent feel to the world of comic books.

Crisis wasn't the best-written comic ever.  It wasn't all that novel of an idea, even -- Secret Wars did the same thing about the same time.  But what Crisis did was bring to comics the realization that if you want your stories to matter, they have to have an impact -- that for stories to get the reader invested in them, there had to be consequences and commitments. 

Readers, after all, like viewers or listeners, are investing their time, and if you want them to stick with you over the months or years, you have to give them a commitment back.  Long-form stories do that: they pay off in real characters with real emotions and real development.  In a long-form story, Luke doesn't just show up as a Jedi; we see his training. 

And in a long-form story, things that happened last episode matter in this episode.  That's why nobody cares much about Law & Order: you can watch those things in any order and never get lost or confused. 

Comics were like that -- are like that, as far as I can tell -- in that from book to book, nothing mattered much.  You knew that Spider-Man wasn't going to die; can you say that about most of the characters in Harry Potter?  Or Lost? You knew that he wasn't going to get married, even, and he never aged -- superheroes are frozen in time just like the kids from Family Circus.

So Crisis was novel in that it promised to bring change -- entropy, a feeling of time, a development -- to comics.  It did that, at least for a while, and made comics worth caring about. At least for a while.


Rusty Webb said...

Wow. I read every beautiful word. Of course I forgot some of the things I was going to say. I should have been jotting down notes.

Fantasy books are generally long - but you are saying you don't like George RR Martin? Is it because of the R's in the middle of his name? That bothers me too. Still, he's the champion for long books, I'd think you'd be a bigger fan.

Andrew Leon said...

Okay, I'm going to try to get in as many of my comments as I can remember, because, as is often the case with your posts, I didn't read this in one sitting, and I don't mind that. The only issue is that I sometimes forget what I want to see, but that's my issue not yours.

First, I totally agree, and I'm kind of mad, now, because I was going to talk about this "too long" stuff in a post next week, and you've sort of stolen my thunder. I'll still talk about it, but it will be in my head that you beat me to it. :/

My issue with Martin has nothing to do with it being too long, it's that it's longer than it should have been in that he sort of just kept writing because he went off story, so to speak, and I don't really believe he knows where he's going anymore. Robert Jordan did the same thing with a "trilogy" he was writing. I gave up on it after book 9, because nothing at all happens in the first 800 pages or so of that book. That series is still not finished, and Jordan has been dead for years. I think the final book, book 14 of the "trilogy" is due out in 2014 (from a writer working with Jordan's notes). I think Martin is working on something similar, and I'm not interested in starting another series that the author can't live long enough to see through to the end.

LotR is not actually 6 books. It was written as just 1 book. The publisher felt it was too long and that no one would read it and they made Tolkien go in and break it down into segments, something Tolkien hated doing, but he was under contract and didn't have a choice.

I haven't read any King, yet. I'll get to it some day. Of course, I've been saying that for some 20 odd years.

I watched the first season of Lost but haven't managed to get back into it, so I can't comment. However, I think BSG went off track in season 2. It was very apparent that the writers had no idea what was going on as soon as they hit the second season. The show fell apart because they pantsed their way through it.
The show you should watch is Babylon 5. That was written as a 5 season story arc before they even began filming, and -that- is an excellent story.

I can't back your decision to include Crisis as DC immediately discarded what they did in that series. By immediately, I mean within the year they fell back into all of their old traps and nothing lasting occurred. It was horrible, and the series was very nearly unreadable.

On the other hand, Spider-Man did make some very permanent changes to their comic. Spider-Man was the very first comic to allow characters to die. Capt. Stacy and, then, Gwen both died. It was shocking to the comic world at the time, because that had never happened before. And Marvel left them dead for a couple of decades (I'm not sure what's going on with that now, but I've heard that Gwen is back). Uncle Ben died in the pages of the comic, not just as a flashback. The Green Goblin died. He was the first villain, a very popular villain, to be killed off (and he stayed that way for decades, too, before Marvel did bring him back). Peter Parker got married, and that was almost permanent, lasting for a decade or so, before Marvel did some kind of reset (that I haven't read).

At any rate, DC's attempt to bring a coherent, unified feel to their world was only them trying to reproduce what Marvel had done two decades prior, and they failed at it and have continued to fail at it even up to their most recent attempt which they've already failed at, according to sources.

Anyway... as I've said previously, I fully support your TS/DR campaign. I'm so tired of hearing from people "that's too long." My response is something along the lines of "no, your brain is too short" at this point.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

You are on a soapbox. But I can appreciate the soapbox.

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