On Writing: The Two Ingredients of Good Writing

“If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

–  Toni Morrison

 

Take yourself back to third grade for a minute. Back then, nine long years ago, I was learning about finding greatest common factors. If anyone else learned these the same way I did, you probably had to take the numbers being compared and break them down with little trees, again and again, until you had them all reduced to 2’s and 3’s and other small numbers being multiplied together—aka, until you had a list of all factors. Then you found the greatest ones in each tree, proudly circled the answer, and got your sticker.

This was the best example I could think of to paint the simple picture in your mind of a chart where one thing is at the top, then it’s broken down into smaller increments, and smaller, until it’s all reduced. I could’ve gone the ‘family tree’ route, but those don’t exactly show one person being broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. At least, I hope not.

Get to the point, you clown.

Alright! The reason I kicked off this post with this example is because I think I’ve finally figured out what makes good writing—in strictly my opinion, of course. And I needed the tree breakdown example because one thing I think we can all agree on is that books (well, good ones, anyway) are complicated. It’s not just about having a good story, or concept…it’s about having good characters, and setting, and humor, and drama, and a satisfying conclusion, and oh by the way each of those have different amounts depending on what genre you’re writing for. We don’t want too much humor in a story about death nor too much drama in a children’s picture book. And no, I haven’t forgotten about nonfiction books, which are just as hard to write.

So, that’s the bottom of the “good writing” tree, and I’m not smart nor experienced enough to pick through all that. Instead, I’m zooming back up the tree to the very top, to the one thing (or two things, in this case) that envelops all others. The two things that, if you without a doubt have these, mean that everything else is or will be there in appropriate amounts.

Okay, let’s continue this abysmal math metaphor with an equation.

My personal, subjective equation:

Thought + Emotion= Good Writing

Now. Any officials in the publishing or agenting industry who just read that are most likely slapping their keyboard and/or about to commit a drastic crime. When it comes down to publishing, a book is about a million other things than good content. It’s about proper font, and formatting, and professionalism in editing…

Which is why I specifically said this equation equals good writing, not a good book. I’m just going off the assumption that if an aspiring author has good writing, they can figure out the formatting for themselves. And if they can’t, I’m sure not the person to ask.

So, since I have some time, I’ll examine these two elements under a microscope (ooh, we’re doing science analogies now!)

 

1. Thought

First of all, allow me to appease any grammar Nazis who are currently contemplating the best way to detach my head from my body. Yes, grammar is an essential ingredient in writing. I didn’t leave it out of the equation. It’s included, right here, under ‘thought.’ You’d better believe that in the English language, having proper grammar takes some serious thought. And one of the primary ways to inject thought into writing is to decide, with extreme care, how words are going to be linked together not only to make sense, but to convey the clearest meaning.

Writing where thought is most important is non-fiction, of course, such as with information books, instruction manuals, or personal memoirs. Yes, some memoirs are much more emotion-based, but not everyone who has an inspiring story or is famous can write well. Just look at Snooki, to name one example. She could have the most tear-jerking tale of all time (the world could also end next week; anything’s possible). But if Snooki’s book reads anything like she speaks, I won’t be able to make any sense of it. Probably a blessing in disguise, but that’s not my point.

Thought goes beyond just using words, though. It also means putting thought into your story. I can’t define this too well other than to say it. Putting thought into story. Things like the complexity of Severus Snape’s past, or the elaborate explanation of crimes in Sherlock Holmes. These required conscious effort on the authors’ parts, and it shows.

As for non-fiction, thought is still required beyond words. This is more deciding how to organize what you’re trying to say, and researching facts before you regurgitate them. I would rather be bound by my imagination, but that’s a personal preference.

 

2. Emotion

It’s my belief that people are quite wrong if they assume emotion is strictly for fiction writing and memoirs. Fact-based books without even a drop of emotional appeal don’t read well, and while their information may be correct, there tends to be limited success in conveying said information to the painfully bored reader. My AP World History textbook, loathed even by my patient teacher, is a perfect example of this.

That being said, emotion is a much more important ingredient in fiction writing. A story without emotion is like a train that never shows up. Not every book has to be the next Harry Potter, but I think every story should at least make you smile, cry, laugh, or gasp in surprise. Good books like Harry Potter do all of the above, but that’s just icing on the cake.

Because if you think about it, isn’t that why we read fiction? Other than when our teachers make us, I mean.

 

Writing is difficult, which is why I only do it if my heart is in it (see epigraph). With these two ingredients, the whole writing process gets tricky, because thought and emotion go hand in hand. You need to think in order to feel and you need to feel in order to find the energy to think.

And those people who can think and feel in just the right way, in just the right amounts, while blowing us away with their cleverness?

Well, I like to call them storytellers.

My Thoughts on the “Sherlock Holmes” Movies

“Apologies, Mr. Holmes, for summoning you like this. I’m sure it’s quite a mystery as to where you are and who I am.”

“As to where I am: I was, admittedly, lost for a moment, between Charing Cross and Holborn, but I was saved by the bread shop on Saffron Hill. The only baker to use a certain French glaze on their loaves – a Brittany sage. After that, the carriage forked left, then right, and then the tell-tale bump at the Fleet Conduit. And as to who you are, that took every ounce of my not-inconsiderable experience. The letters on your desk were addressed to a Sir Thomas Rotherham. Lord Chief Justice; that would be the official title. Who you really are is, of course, another matter entirely. Judging by the sacred ox on your ring, you’re the secret head of the Temple of the Four Orders in whose headquarters we now sit, located on the northwest corner of St. James Square, I think. As to the mystery, the only mystery is why you bothered to blindfold me at all.”

 –  Sir Thomas and Sherlock Holmes

 

Sherlock HolmesI think the above quote (if you took the time to read it; which, let’s be honest, you probably didn’t) is a perfect example of why the first Sherlock Holmes movie in the Robert Downey, Jr. franchise is infinitely better than the second.

To be honest, I had mixed feelings about the first movie back when I saw it in theaters three years ago. Call me slow, but I had a hard time understanding some of the rapid-fire British accents. I missed some of the witty dialogue and explanations (which, trust me, there were plenty of both).

The second time, I found that subtitles lifted the movie to a new level. Seeing all of the dialogue made me realize how cleverly it was crafted, and just how well-made of a film it was.

I suppose that’s the thing I like most about it, in a nutshell: the quality. This movie has great re-watching value, and not just because it’s a mystery. All of the action, events, dialogue and situations are tightly woven together.

And of course, who doesn’t love Robert Downey, Jr.? He demonstrates his skills as an actor by flawlessly giving the titular character a personality we can’t help but love, highlighting the character from the books while showing off his own unique humor.

There are extra Holmes-esque touches added to the story that were quite clever, such as his explanations of fights and the integration of some original Holmes quotes. All of this, when carried by the all-star cast, it’s an adventure I personally am happy to see again and again, even today.

And then, there’s the sequel.

Okay, I’m still trying to sort out my feelings about Game of Shadows. My initial impression was that it was great, but not as good as the first one. That’s more or less true today, though it’s still hard for me to pin an official opinion on it. I liked the opening and loved the finale. I also enjoyed the Holmes/Moriarity scenes.

But, sadly, the second one had too many flaws for me to put it on my ‘favorites’ list. Holmes’ fight explanations are diminished. There is no actual mystery to be solved. The middle is kind of pointless. And yet, all of this might have been forgivable if only (spoiler alert) Irene Adler, played by the brilliant Rachel McAdams, wasn’t axed before the opening titles.

That, producers, was a mistake. And replacing her with some random gypsy lady didn’t earn you any points in my book.

But, I am hopeful about Sherlock Holmes 3, which is currently being drafted by the same screenwriter who wrote Iron Man 3. And if only they could bring back Irene Adler—which is entirely possible, since we never actually saw her die—they would have, I think, a hit on their hands better than the second.

 

In conclusion: the Sherlock Holmes franchise reboot is done in all the right ways, with top-notch actors, clever plotting, and (in the case of the first movie), ineffably witty dialogue. Even if the sequel doesn’t do much for you, the first one has few faults and is worth re-watching time and again.

Rate: 8 out of 10.

Taken by Surprise (Movie Review: Taken 2)

“Listen to me carefully, Kim. Stay focused; this next part is very important. Your mother…and I…are going to be taken.”

I’m somewhat upset right now, because yesterday—having read critics’ opinions that this movie was awful—I prepared a pun for my own review. “The producers have Taken this series a bit 2 far.” I’m upset; I can’t use that now…because as it turns out, I loved every minute of this movie.

Before I start: let me clear the air and say that when it comes to movies, old or new, I’ll always start my reviews of them by specifying whether or not said review includes spoilers. That being said, this particular one doesn’t.

The general premise: Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), his wife Lenore and daughter Kim go on a trip to Istanbul. There, a group of men plot and carry out revenge against Mills for his killing their friends in the last movie.

My first thoughts back in June, when I heard that a sequel to Taken was in the works:

  1. Wow, his daughter has some horrendous luck
  2. How are they going to make this different from last time?

The screenwriters addressed both. Instead of his daughter being kidnapped once again, the setup is reversed: Mills and his wife are both taken, and it’s up for Kim to rescue them (with Mills helping her from the inside).

I know it seems like I’ve just ruined the movie for you, but the thing is, that’s only the START of it. From there, Mills sets out to track down both his wife and daughter, as well as the man who took them so they never have to worry about this again.

What I liked about this movie:

  • It wasn’t anywhere near the same concept as last time; it was a nonstop chase with everyone going in different directions rather than a one-man hunt
  • The daughter and mother had much more expanded roles throughout
  • There was a definitive villain
  • It easily had as much heart/emotion as the last movie
  • Much more thought was put into the script this time around

I know, most of the critics and moviegoers disagree with this. I think the reason people didn’t like this movie is the same reason I didn’t enjoy the second Sherlock Holmes as much as the first: because it felt different.

This was nothing like the first film, where someone gets taken and Liam Neeson goes on a boss rampage to get them back. Instead, a chaotic mess results in he and his wife being kidnapped, and escape is only the first step in the nonstop adventure.

I was afraid it would just be full of car chases, shooting and not much else. There was plenty of that to go around, but also included were several touching scenes between Mills and his daughter, a rebuilding of romance with his wife, and an excellent one-on-one conversation with the movie’s villain.

If you’re worried about there not being any of the clever hunting techniques that we loved in the first movie, don’t be. Neeson still has the skills, as demonstrated at one point when he has his daughter set off grenades so he can count the seconds until he hears them. Liam Neeson is still Liam Neeson, every bit as awesome as he was the last time around. Slap that with a more intelligent script, and this is one enjoyable movie.

That being said, I want to end by warning you not to get your hopes up if you haven’t seen it yet. While the movie contains many positive aspects, it also goes in a completely opposite direction in terms of plot. If you want to see the Mills family’s story move forward, you’re getting exactly that, and it’s pretty entertaining. But if you want to be blown away, don’t expect to be. Just because it’s well-made doesn’t mean it’s the best movie ever…it just means everyone did their job in keeping the sequel from being the total wreck many people were anticipating.

So, in short: if you want more Liam Neeson in a new, fresh storyline with expanded backstory, you have it. Just don’t go in with any assumptions, and you might be pleasantly surprised by where the plot takes you. As for me, I came home last night already excited for a third installment.

And then one little snag occurred to me.

So, who’s left to take?

Rate: 7 out of 10.