Set Dressing’s For The Birds

One of the most common pieces of advice given, in one form or another, for turning your draft into a popular novel is to edit out the parts that do not advance the story goals. This is not a bad suggestion. However, less advice time is given to the impact of this rule after publication: discussion of the wrong parts of a work are just as harmful as internal loss of focus.

Whether it is trimming a prologue to get to the main action, or removing a sub-plot that fills entire chapters, editing a first draft often involves the heart-rending task of convincing ourselves that some of the wonderful things we have invented, things that filled us with joy and carried us through the doldrums of the first draft, are now obstacles to the reader’s immersion in the story. Usually, we manage to do enough to see the second draft is better without 100 pages of history before the protagonist is mentioned. However, the same release of our clever ideas to focus on what the story is does not always make it past publication.

Earlier this year I finally saw The Birds. It is a solid psychological film: each of the characters reacts in a unique but believable way, and the tension rises. However, the very last scene of the film made the entire thing fall flat: instead of ending with some ideas about why all the birds are attacking people, the protagonists drive off into the sunrise. In terms of a film about people facing a confusing threat and overcoming their own weaknesses it is a good ending. In terms of a film about birds suddenly attacking a small town it leaves the reader feeling they have been cheated of the final reel.

It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.

Larry Niven

Looking at the film on its own, it is focused throughout on normal people facing an extreme threat: the town has no coincidental gathering of scientists; there are no government or military interventions; the question of why is only raised as the instinctive cry of any victim against injustice. However, looking at the advertising and popular discussion of the film it is usually about birds unexpectedly attacking people.

In reality the birds are not what the film is about; replacing the birds with a crazed ex-sniper would not impact the collapse of a happy population into fragmented groups fearful of entering open spaces. Imagine for a moment such a film about a sniper, which ended with the sniper not only free but unidentified. If focussed on the killer, the audience expects the plot to resolve the killer’s arc.

I do not know if Hitchcock himself thought the film was about the birds; if he clung to the interesting idea that created the work. But, whether or not he did, it is almost impossible now to watch the film without viewing the birds as important in themselves.

The same risk exists in writing. Obviously no writer can control what other people say about their work, but we can try to control what we say about our work. Whether it is making the blurb of a fourth novel more accurately reflect the core of the story, or being more thoughtful when précising a first work-in-progress when asked casually by family, it is good to remember that our words program the reader to expect a certain work. If we have programmed the reader to expect something different from what a work is we have set ourselves up to hear that it did not fulfil their expectations.

Maybe this is where genre is needed. Calling The Birds a psychological thriller places the emphasis on the characters reactions; calling it horror places much more emphasis on the monster.

Do you feel let down if a well-crafted work turns out not to be what you expected? Do you think the unique set dressing should be front and centre when describing a work?

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2 thoughts on “Set Dressing’s For The Birds

  1. I am a big fan of art that deliberately confounds the expectations of the audience. Playing on genre tropes is one way to do this. Quentin Tarantino’s “From Dusk To Dawn”, for example, starts as a crime thriller and changes rather drastically midway through into a survival horror story. Edger Wright’s “Shawn Of The Dead” presented as a horror movie, but was really a romantic comedy.

    Some audiences won’t accept that–they want to know what they are getting in advance. Me, I like to be surprised.

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    1. When I am in the right mood a good twist, or even some surrealism, a la Svankmejer, can be very enjoyable.

      I do get annoyed if there is too much of a bait-and-switch between foreground and background though: Dusk to Dawn was advertised as being a Tarantino thriller and both parts are; it would have annoyed me if it had been advertised as a road-trip on the basis it starts with a Winnebago.

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