Monday, March 18, 2013

Jim Sidel - Reader's Digest Style

Recently, Tea Time had the pleasure of hosting AAU's own Jim Sidel for a discussion on the importance of Brevity and Subtext. Here's a little bit on what he had to say:

A Rube Goldberg machine

Brevity -- An Economy of Language

But far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth extremely transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the same time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some earthly reminiscence; -- even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of gulfweed in their newborn sight.

--Herman Melville, Moby Dick, (the Grand Armada)

Now, generally, one might not expect a discussion on brevity to begin with an excerpt from Moby Dick. That entire paragraph is only three sentences -- doesn't appear to be very economical, does it?


Brevity is not about being short, per se, so much as it is about reducing a sentence or idea down to what is absolutely necessary without losing any meaning. If you re-examine the excerpt, you will notice that, although it is long, each word carries it's own, particular meaning and thus is necessary in communicating the idea Melville so wishes to communicate.

Another Rube Goldberg machine with explanation.

Occam's Razor:
       Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.
or: "Thou shalt not multiply extra entities unnecessarily"

Developed by Logician, Philosopher and physicist William of Ockham (c. 1285 - 1349), Occam's Razor is a tool that refers to the act of shaving away unnecessary assumptions to get to the simplest explanation. Or: "The simplest explanation is the most likely"

To test Occam's Theory, suppose you come home and discover that your dog has escaped fro the kennel and has chewed large chunks out of the couch.

Theory Number 1: You forgot to latch the kennel door, and the dog pressed against it and opened it, and then the dog was free to run around the inside of the house.

Theory Number 2: Some unknown person skilled at picking locks managed to disable your front door, then came inside the house, set the dog free from the kennel, then snuck out again covering up any sign of his presence and then relocked the front-door, leaving the dog free inside to run amok in the house.

Which is True?

Well, the explanation of Theory #1 only requires only two entities (you and the dog) and two actions (you forgetting to lock the kennel door, and the dog pressing against the door)

The explanation of Theory #2, on the other hand, requires three entities (you, the dog and the lock-picking intruder) and several actions (picking the lock, entering, releasing the dog, hiding evidence, re-locking the front door). It also requires us to come up with some sort of plausible motivation for the intruder, a motivation that is, to us, entirely unclear.


An underlying an often distinct theme in a piece of writing or conversation. Otherwise -- the intent of a character that is not actually being spoken. See what sort of subtext you can find in the following clip:

All characters are based in their desires. In fact -- a character is nothing without them. For example, a talking rat is not a character, it is simply a noun, but a talking rat that wants to be a chef is a character. 

A character shouldn't speak unless it's achieving more than one objective. Otherwise you get stuck with dry back and forth or, characters like the appropriately named "Basil Exposition" who's sole purpose is to move the story along.

Dialogue should:

- Characterize
- Move the story forward
- Show relationships

Good dialogue also: 

- Contains a subtext
- Is alive with action 
- Reflects setting

These two literary ideas are particularly important for those students out there writing a thesis short film.   Are you wasting your breath on a scene that isn't even contributing to your main story? Try using Occam's Razor on your work. How does it hold up?

Do your characters have desire as the fire behind their ambition? Do the want something, and if so, to what lengths would they go in order to claim their prize? As Kurt Vonnegut famously said:

"Every character should want something, 
                       even if it's just a glass of water."

For the undergrads, finding subtext -- even just in our exercises -- will help us to create interesting pieces for our reel, while considering brevity in our actions will help us to create believable performances. 

"Strunk and White's: The Elements of Style" 
Frank Conroy, from his book, "The Dog Barks but The Caravan Rolls on."

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