Big and Small)
A couple months ago I saw the new Dune movie based on the novels by Frank Herbert. I had heard of the Dune stories before, but this was my first direct exposure to its world. As a complete newcomer there was a great deal to process, from the complex politics to the systems behind characters’ powers to the nuances of desert life on an alien world.
However, if I were to sum up this universe in a single word, I would simply say that it is “big.” It is big in how massive its sandworms are, big in the architectural style of the House Atreides, big in the length of names and factions that are behind its politics, big in the mysteries of the cryptic Bene Gesserit, and big in the consequences that follow the characters’ actions. The story wants you to feel immersed in a world and system that sprawls beyond your view.
Contrast that to the likes of Winnie-the-Pooh, which invites its readers to be fascinated with things that are very small. There is the physical smallness of Piglet and Pooh’s home built into the base of a tree, but also the sweet smallness of the simple philosophies that are held by its characters. Everyone in the Hundred Acre Wood tends to think on a very small scale, because they are perfectly content, unfettered by the “big” troubles of grownup life. Each of the stories’ plots are about small problems that are solved in small ways.
What is interesting about these qualities of bigness and smallness is that they have virtually nothing to do with either of these narratives, yet they are still somehow ingrained in the story’s identity. They are design decisions that define the way each story feels, but which would never be mentioned in a cliff-notes summary.
Lights, Camera, Action)
In fact, sometimes a story’s defining characteristics take place entirely outside of its own narrative. Sometimes it emerges only from the medium being employed to tell it.
Take, for example, the use of color in Schindler’s List. Though filmed long after the advent of technicolor cinema, Spielberg elected to make this a black-and-white feature…mostly. At the film’s opening we see a candle burning, and its flame is portrayed in full color, and a few times later we see a small girl in a jacket that is colored in red. These are the only splotches of color in this otherwise grayscale affair.
Now, obviously, this special coloring is only visible to the audience. To Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern these items have no more color than anything else in the world. At least, they don’t have any more color in any physical sense. But the girl in the red jacket does have special significance to Schindler, because she represents the cost of innocence being exacted by a system he previously viewed in shades of grey. And the flickering yellow flame represents Stern’s fear of his unique people being snuffed out. Thus, color and light become key components in Schindler’s List, even though they only exist from the outside looking in.
Or what about the frenetic camera movement of the Jason Bourne movies? These films are recognized, and sometimes reviled, by their quick, choppy cuts. The middle entry, The Bourne Supremacy, has an average shot length of only 2.4 seconds! While it may not fit everybody’s taste, the frenetic approach does give the film’s fight scenes a sense of scrappy chaos. We truly believe that these agents and assassins aren’t following a predetermined choreography, they’re innovating and adjusting on the fly, and so is the camera!
Or what about the way actors are reused in the Broadway musical Hamilton? This hit piece of theater explores the sprawling history of America’s founding fathers, covering dozens of years and numerous maneuvers, both political and private. But in spite of its wide array of characters, it has only a limited cast, who must therefore take on multiple roles. This adds interesting layers that are not apparent in the narrative itself. For example, Anthony Ramos plays both John Laurens and Philip Hamilton, the two characters who die prematurely. Thus, the very actor’s face becomes a sign of tragedy, but that sign is pointed outwards for only the audience to see.
The Value of a Signature)
Now in each of these stories I have picked out a single nearly invisible feature, but obviously there are others. I could have just as easily called out the era-inappropriate accents in Hamilton or the starkness in Schindler’s List. The point, though, is that many stories have “watermarks,” elements that are not part of the narrative itself, and which sometimes go entirely unnoticed, yet still contribute to a sense of stylistic cohesion in the work.
In my latest short story, it is easy to call out obvious features like the strange technology and the parallel worlds, but there also less obvious features that will shape the way it feels.
One of these is my use of physical coldness. At several points I make mention of how the temperature is rapidly dropping or how a character is shivering in the water. Like the “big” and “small” of Dune and Winnie-the-Pooh, this helps to put the reader in a specific state of mind, but it is not an element that is important to the actual narrative.
And like Schindler’s List, Jason Bourne, and Hamilton I have another feature in this story that is a side-effect of its medium. I am posting this story on a blog where I try to limit each week’s entry to about 1,000 words, and I am sure that this restriction will put a distinctive fingerprint on this story, a sort of rhythmic pulse to its rises and falls. I’ll be honest, this isn’t something I deliberately intended when I came up with this posting schedule, but I frequently see its mark on my work all the same.
It might be worth your time to consider what sort of hidden signatures you’re putting into your own work, both intended and otherwise. What are the unique qualities that define the way your story feels, but are unlikely to come up in any writer’s group discussion? If you can identify and cultivate these, then you can use them to echo your story’s main themes with nearly silent voices. The reader might not consciously register them, but the seed will have been planted regardless.