Slow, short and sweet
In these times of the fast and furious, of the instant gratification, and of the opening which plunges you in media res into a story, I was delighted to attend the Slow Short Film Festival in Mayfield, East Sussex, last weekend. Set up initially by two local A Level film students, the films on display, from the compelling Jury-winning 'High Cities of Bone' to entertaining 'Investigations of a Dog', reminded us that slow and reflective can be good. The genre was explained as the difference between a normal feature in which two quick shots cut between a man leaving an office and then opening a door at a new location some miles away and the 'slow short' in which the audience follows his long walk between the two places.
It got me thinking about writing. With agents and publishers perhaps having just a few seconds to read the opening lines of a submission, what space is there now for the contemplative reflection or the gentle orientation in a landscape? How would Hardy's magnificent first lines of 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' fare on an agent's desk?
One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. They were plainly but not ill clad, though the thick hoar of dust which had accumulated on their shoes and garments from an obviously long journey lent a disadvantageous shabbiness to their appearance just now.
All that unnecessary reference to the season and the date: what was he thinking? And that long participle ending - 'were approaching' - duh! Let's have the more immediate past simple. Never mind that the opening would be denuded of its brilliant evocation of time and humankind's ant-like crawling across the globe's surface.
And so let's cut briskly to the current opening of my fantasy novel (yes, thanks for asking, I'm still editing it). It begins with a long, sweeping description of The Circularium, the underground prison modelled on Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon - real versions of which have been built, as in the Illinois version pictured here.
It goes something like this...
The slight man in the pale tunic surveyed his realm. The circular walls of the prison rose in dizzying heights above his head from the central wooden platform upon which he stood. There were seventeen floors, each floor making up the inside rings of an enormous spherical structure, dotted with numerous tiny frames. These frames were windows - although they scarcely merited the definition - and were themselves striped by rigid grey bars of metal. Designed to tilt upwards, the windows were elliptical, like the eyelids of a reptile, and were constructed of a glass opaque to the prisoner, but transparent to the man from his central rostrum, though at this distance the figures contained within each cube were practically invisible, save for the shadow of a tilted head, or the outline of a hand pressed against the glass.
(C) Mike Gould, 2018
Too wordy for the agents? Maybe. Better to start with the murder of one of the guards by a small girl prisoner. The 'quick fire' better than the 'slow short'? And yet, and yet ... perhaps my readers will enjoy the slow painting of the prison, its imagined ceiling with images from a Dante-like hell? Perhaps they will enjoy how I allow this imagined, huge jail to swell up in the readers' minds before I hit them with the action? Surely there's still a place for the wide angle and the camera that settles on the frame while the audience absorb all the details?
As a writer, there is always compromise, but just now I'm stuck in my slow-short phase, and I'm happy with that.