Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Legend of Korra, and More Babbling about Pacing



It’s been a few days since I (finally) got around to finishing The Legend of Korra, and I have yet to come to a decision regarding what I witnessed. Really. I’ve not been so conflicted about a piece of entertainment since the Watchmen movie.

Because any fair evaluation of the mini-series brings up a lot of good qualities. The animation is, of course, beautiful, the voice acting is resoundingly superb, the characters are interesting, the story is mature without wallowing in darkness, and not only topical but endlessly discussion-worthy. Equality vs. the individual, the greater good, when good intentions become twisted into something sinister and deadly, suppression of rights, suppression of entire populations, bigotry, deceit, child abuse…there’s some heavy slabs of meat being put down to grill in The Legend of Korra, no different than its predecessor.


And yet…I can’t shake the feeling that something went wrong. A wrench stunting previously smooth-running machinery.

I should set this up by saying that I originally started watching Korra weekly when it first came on Nick, before life got in the way and I was unable to keep up with it as readily.

Well, that’s not entirely true. If I had desperately wanted to keep up with it, I probably would have found a way. But the sad truth is that I simply didn’t have the desire, and it’s this aspect I want to examine. Why did I not care enough about the series to find a way to watch it?

I remembered the series a few days ago and finished it off in an evening (I had stopped watching around episode 6, so it didn’t take too long). Watching the episodes all in a row, it becomes perfectly apparent what the problem is:

Pacing.

II. Another Few Words about Pacing

So if you read my The Shining review you’ll remember that I upheld the novel as a great example of pacing in genre fiction and my reasons why. And while I won’t go into those reasons here, suffice it to say that one of The Legend of Korra’s biggest—perhaps even its only issue—is pacing. But what a big issue it is.

Korra’s pacing is hopelessly disjointed. Plot points suddenly introduced out of nowhere, plots built up for three and four episodes forgotten until very near the end, moments that should have been carefully considered, timed, and lingered upon coming and going so quickly it almost causes whiplash, important pieces of information blatantly introduced without any setup whatsoever--a huge no-no that Avatar: The Last Airbender pretty much avoided entirely.

I simply can’t make excuses or deny the fact: Korra’s narrative structure is bordering on horrendous. And I’m going to list the two biggest reasons why.

Problem I: Huge Plot Points are Introduced with Neither Setup nor Foreshadowing

I should probably write a blog post one day on just how important foreshadowing is to the organic structure of a work (Note to self: write blog post on just how important foreshadowing is to the organic structure of a work. –E), but it really is paramount. Remember, humans like to see patterns. They want to comprehend. They want to see reason. So we wear the same shirt every gameday since it "made" our team win the last couple of weeks. And humans will be baffled when an important point comes out of nowhere for no reason with no setup. It’s simple human nature. Your brain notices structure, notices small bits of foreshadowing even if you aren’t consciously aware of it, and I like to think that when a badly-done deus ex machina occurs in fiction or on film a human brain literally twists in half trying to make sense of it. The whole reason the term “plot hole” came about was that people were aware, on some level, of things that flipped the rules of the story without appropriate consideration.

Now this section isn’t really about plot holes—it’s not even really about foreshadowing. It’s about pacing; but it’s very easy to mess up foreshadowing by bad pacing, and it’s very easy to forget to foreshadow because your pacing is not well-planned or progressing as it should.

The two worst examples of this come in the finale, where Korra—literally out of nowhere—can suddenly airbend and uses that to defeat Amon. The second is when Tarlok reveals that Amon is his brother. Both examples are indicative of different problems Mike and Bryan had with the interplay between foreshadowing and pacing.

For Korra’s airbending, it had been well-established in the first few episodes that she had a lot of trouble with it, mainly due to her lack of spirituality and connection to her past lives, as well as her insatiable pride.  Then the issue is entirely forgotten. For several episodes. It is literally not even mentioned. This is a problem, because when she finally does airbend it comes out of nowhere and feels completely unearned, requiring fans to make extreme gymnastics of logic to force the event to fit into the tapestry of the narrative.

But Mr. Eeeee… the three people reading this in Russian Siberia are asking. How could you make it feel earned and foreshadow it any better, especially in light of the fact that the last few episodes of the series move at such a breakneck pace? There’s no time to stop and reflect again on Korra’s problems with airbending.


There’s no simple answer to this, unfortunately, and it probably proves that Korra needed another rewrite that I doubt the two creators had time to get through. We’ll get to the time issue in a minute, but as it is, while it may be difficult to sprinkle the issue of airbending here and there, especially in the final arc of the season, you have to do it, in whatever way you can that’s sensible and logical. Maybe Korra reflects on her airbending with Mako. Maybe in secret, when nobody's looking, she tries it, even just to remind the audience that it's still a problem for her. Maybe she discusses it with Tenzin. Anything. And you should definitely bring up at least the idea that airbending—being a spiritual exercise—can come to you suddenly in the depths of despair and hopelessness and, yes, love.

Because that’s basically what happens right? Amon’s about to but a serious hurtin’ on Mako, Korra has no recourse, her bending’s been stripped, and she basically lashes out in desperation at Amon, and somehow that triggers her airbending? Even though there was no mention of this kind of action or necessity in the rest of the season? If we went purely by the evidence we’re given at the beginning of the season, airbending is a spiritual discipline, requiring patience, mediation, and peace with oneself. In no way was that Korra’s state of mind when she’s suddenly able to airbend. Meaning it makes no sense. Meaning the way you make it work is to go back and introduce the concept of desperation/fear/emotional based airbending into a season that may possibly have been already completed; and the only way to do that is to meddle with the structure—the pacing.

Make no mistake about it: doing this sucks. Especially when you’re on a deadline, have six or seven different departments waiting on instructions, and have assumed that you’ve got the thing finished by now. It’s especially especially difficult to do it in a realm like television, which actively resists an overall structure simply by the episodic nature of its storytelling—which in turn can often lead to such travesties as the end of the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica, a span of thirteen episodes so blisteringly awful that I honest-to-God cannot enjoy its previous seasons anymore.

This also pertains to the reveal of who Amon actually is. And let me make it plain: I actually liked who Amon turned out to be, as well as the back story of the two characters involved. Through the entire series I was afraid that Amon’s true identity—unless they went the mind-bendingly subversive route of never revealing his true self, but everyone knew that wasn’t going to happen—I was afraid his true identity would be a supreme disappointment; it wasn't, and that was a nice surprise. The disappointment came in the way it was elucidated. You just. Can’t. Do. what Mike and Bryan did with Amon’s identity: have a character who’s had no discernible connection with the bad guy suddenly grant this big reveal and give a huge info dump on everything that we didn’t know about him, and in the last couple of episodes, no less. It’s the equivalent of George Lucas coming out of nowhere with the idea that Luke and Leia are twins in Return of the Jedi—you can pull off this kind of twist earlier with the right setup. But you cannot do this at the bare end of the narrative without it being a bad use of deus ex machina, or even worse, a desperate saving throw.

If Tarrlok had explained the situation to Team Avatar in the middle of the series, it would have been okay. But explaining every single bit of it in the final hour-long episode is simply unwieldy in the narrative sense. Meaning if you want to keep the reveal of Amon’s character to the final episode, you have to set it up beforehand. There are no hard and fast rules to creating narrative art, but this is as close as it gets: If you are going to have a huge reveal at or near the end of a story, it Has. To. Be. Foreshadowed. Otherwise the audience’s brains are simply going to reject it. And to bring this diatribe full circle, if you’re going to foreshadow this paradigm-shifting twist, then you are going to have to meddle with the pacing of your story, allowing time to introducing “hints” and “elements” so that the twist finally comes at the end of your story it will be a matter of “Holy crap, it all makes sense now!” instead of, “Wait…what?”

Maybe you go back and tweak a couple of episodes. Maybe you mess with imagery; one really easy thing you can do is have Tarrlok mention that he had a brother and look all glum and guilty about it.

Heck, here’s an even easier one: in the fight Tarrlok has with Amon, when Amon is able to resist bloodbending, have Tarrlok make an “Oh my God, it can’t be!” face. Or say something along the lines of—“It’s you? No…no it can’t be…” He mentions that he recognized Amon as Noatok from his bloodbending signature—so why didn’t we see a sign of that during the fight itself?

Just do anything so that the twist doesn’t come literally out of nowhere. A good example from the previous series? Iroh’s white lotus tile.

PICTURED: It's more than just a game.
Now, when Mike and Bryan and the other writers made the White Lotus tile a plot point in Season I, were they expecting it to expand in such a big way in Season II? Probably not. What it accomplished, however, was to give the audience’s brains a pattern to lock onto, so when the white lotus becomes what it does, they can look back and say “Aha! It makes sense all along!”

The sad thing about this lack of pacing and foreshadowing is how it effects the entire relationship between the characters, i.e., the dramatic, emotional moment when Tarrlok kills himself and Noatok on the boat. This was a very shocking event to me—partly having to do with it being a “kid’s show.” But some of the emotional effectiveness was lost simply because the complex relationship between the characters had in no way been built up, and therefore their tragic deaths lose some of the tragedy that make the moment so gut-wrenching and shocking.

Problem II: The narrative structure is too focused on ultimately inconsequential pursuits, while losing sight of more consequential ones.

So let’s talk about pro-bending for a minute.


Pro-bending is a neat idea, a natural extension of the developed setting Korra takes place in, and a rather fascinating, well-constructed game in its own right. It also, at the end of the day, has nothing to do with the overall plot. It’s a side quest, nothing more. It’s also a major part of the first half of the season. These things do not mix.

Now, you can have pro-bending in a twelve episode season of television. But…here’s that word again…it has to be paced better. And in this case, better pacing means eliminating about half of the time spent in the pro-bending arena. Move Amon’s attack on the arena up, set the stages of the second half of the season in motion quicker, and use that extra time you have to focus on Korra’s issues with her spirituality, airbending, connection to her past lives, all of the much more important aspects both narratively and thematically in the series.

This also, of course, extends to the romantic dilly-dallies. An entire episode—“The Spirit of Competition”—is spent on the love triangle between Korra, Mako, and Bolin—and pro-bending. These things simply do. Not. Matter. Not in the grand scheme of the narrative. Not in the overarching plot.

The things that matter are listed above: Korra, Korra’s airbending training, Korra’s connection to her past lives and spiritual self—as well as the plot as a whole: Amon, Amon’s plan, the thematic conundrums that Amon’s agenda represents. You can’t waste 1/12 of a season on a filler episode that has no real bearings to the thematic or narrative structure of the season. And this manifests in the issues listed in Problem I. Moments that should have been expanded upon are dismissed or taken care of in a line or two. Plot points come out of nowhere, conflicts are resolved hari-kari, the last few episodes just move and jerk and feel oddly rushed, and you can pin a lot of it, maybe most of it, on the focus on unimportant side quests, especially in this first half of the season.

One of the biggest disappointments to me came at the end of the end, the last few minutes of Endgame. Korra’s had most of her bending arts removed, as has Lin Beifong. She’s lost her identity, her pride and hopes are shattered, she depressed to the point of implied suicide; this is big stuff. Monumental. And deserved more than an unearned appearance by Aang to make everything better in the literally definition of a deus ex machina. 

Like I've said before, any story element can be done well, including deus ex machina, a story trope that has become synonymous with bad storytelling; but it has become synonymous with bad storytelling precisely because of the kind of thing that happens in Legend of Korra. Basically a god comes down and heals all Korra’s ills in about five seconds with no repercussions nor any buildup to the moment. It just happens. Poof.

How could this unsupported, unearned, jerky end to the story been avoided? Again, it’s pacing. A moment like this, with Korra being rescued by her past life could, indeed, have worked. But it needed a lot more time than what was given. There needed to be lingering shots on Korra and Aang, a longer conversation, and a near-mini three act portion wherein the audience may start to suspect Aang will give her her powers back, but where they still aren’t sure. But the way it is? We barely have any time to process what happens, and this absolutely cripples the emotions that we’re supposed to be feeling when Aang restores Korra’s bending.

II. Time

Now the root of all these structural problems has been figured out long before I even finished the series, so I’m not going to rock anyone’s world by stating the obvious: the pacing is so disjointed simply because Mike and Bryan did not have enough time to flesh everything out. They tried to cram two tons of bricks into a half-ton container, and the results show. 

A lot of the criticism of Avatar: The Last Airbender (when there was any) focused on the “filler” episodes: episodes that, at first glance, were inconsequential to the overall plot. Examples of this include “Daydreams and Nightmares,” “Tales of Ba Sing Se,” “Avatar Day,” and about half of the first season, the most common thread of complaints being that said episodes were inconsequential and detracted from the overall narrative. If anything, however, The Legend of Korra illustrates exactly what those episodes do accomplish: fleshing out the world and allowing us, the audience, to really know the characters.

It’s a paradigm unique to serialized television; it’s the only medium where the audience gets to know, really know the characters. What they’d do and how they would react in every situation from the serious to the outright farcical.  It’s something even books can’t accomplish; even 10 entry, thousand page tomes. The only comparable outlet I can think of are short-entry, long-running children’s series like Animorphs. But even that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.  Animorphs has, what, sixty books, counting the ancillary stuff? Whereas Buffy: The Vampire Slayer has 144 episodes. Can you imagine a book series with 144 books? Sweet Lord.

What this accomplishes is a depth of relation between audience and character that’s unmatched by any other narrative medium. 144 episodes allows not only every single character in the Buffy canon to get their “own” episodes and moments to shine, it allows the time necessary to put them in every single conceivable situation, and build the arcs of the characters and season narratives in complex and interesting ways. By the time Buffy ends, we know these people. How Xander would react to something, how Willow would react to something. We’ve watched them learn, and literally grow into fully realized people. This is not something you can do with any other artistic medium except maybe those children’s series mentioned above.

Point being that the filler episodes sometimes mocked by Avatar: The Last Airbender fans finally have their vindication. Not only do they allow a fuller context for the world we’re watching, but it allows the story to easily have better pacing. A minor example: in Season 2, Aang has to learn earthbending. Now, the show’s creators obviously needed a young, new earthbender to teach Aang and travel with him. They also knew that they’d already introduced a powerful earthbender that Aang already knows and that is ready and waiting to teach Aang earthbending. They knew that they had to reconcile these two components; so what did they do? They wrote an entire episode (2x3: “Return to Omashu”) whose purpose is to fulfill one solitary function: explain why Aang can’t learn earthbending from Bumi, thus paving the way for Toph’s arrival.


Now they do some other things in the episode as well. It’s the first time the gAang encounters Azula and company. It showcases Sokka’s growing strategic mind, the factor that justifies his presence among these veritable gods of elemental power. It also covers poignant moments of reflection with the child of the Fire Nation officer and how he’ll grow up to be a killer…a very subtle moment that really only hits you when you think about it.

But if you had to bring the episode down to its essence, it was created for the reason listed above. That was its main purview. Now ask yourself this question: if Avatar: The Last Airbender season 2 had to be fit into a 12 episode arc, how would you solve this inevitable plot hole? Do you waste an entire episode, thereby diverting attention from other parts of the story which are probably more important? Do you casually mention it in conversation, which risks incurring the wrath of the audience and their B.S. radar? Do you try and cram “Return to Omashu” into an entire other episode? Like make half the episode “The Cave of Two Lovers,” and the other half “Return to Omashu”? Looking at it this way, we can see Mike and Bryan’s dilemma, and being as they wrote every episode, the onus is indeed on them. Avatar: The Last Airbender had eight whole other episodes to structure the story, characterization and plot around. The Legend of Korra wants to have the same level of story and characterization, but has little more than half the time to do it in. So—getting into the speculative a little—Mike and Bryan, instead of cutting ideas they love, tried to fit them all in, and the result simply doesn’t work. At least, not how it needs to. Gaps in plot, unforeshadowed events, emphasis on inconsequential events that cannot fit in a twelve episode series—it’s fairly obvious what happened.

And it’s a shame too, because there are so many good moments in the series. If this thing could have been pulled out to 20 episodes like its predecessor—heck, even fifteen, I think the result would have been a lot different.

In Conclusion:

Looking back over this, it seems I’m bagging pretty hard on The Legend of Korra, which was certainly not my intent; by no means do I want to imply the show is bad, or not worth your time. It certainly is worth your time. Flaws and all, it’s better than 90% of kids’ shows out there…actually, it’s probably better than 90% of shows period. It had interesting characters, an interesting story, interesting themes, and beautiful animation.

If anything it just goes to show how imperative good pacing and structure are to a narrative work. Because even with all the good attributes listed above, the series is bogged down by this crushing burden of bad pacing. Inorganic, I think, is the best word to describe it. The pacing is Avatar: The Last Airbender—especially season 2—is almost flawless. Season 2 specifically probably has one of the most organic arcs of storytelling I’ve seen in any medium ever, period. Everything naturally seems to occur, without contrivance, without a hint of an outside presence moving the characters along. The same cannot be said of The Legend of Korra, whose pacing is more along the lines of a sputtering car engine: jerky, constantly accelerating and decelerating, and obviously not functioning correctly.

And it is a shame, because if that one—admittedly major—kink could have been worked out, the series could have been as awesome as its predecessor. Maybe even moreso. As it is, it’s a cautionary tale. No, that’s a little too grim—maybe it’s just something aspiring writers could learn from. You can do basically everything else right in a narrative work: character, story, theme, animation/cinematography, writing, description, acting, what have you. But narrative functions on a very complicated plane. It has to keep the audience invested, and if any aspect doesn’t pull its weight, the end result can and will be detrimental to the overall quality. The Legend of Korra demonstrates not only the need for good pacing, but how it can effectively cripple all the other great things about a work.

Until next time,

Mr. E

 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

King's Korner: The Shining





Edition: 683 pages, Pocket Books Printing from Simon and Schuster, September 2001. By far the creepiest stare by a twelve-year old on the cover of any book ever printed, ever. I can’t have this facing me when I go to sleep. Seriously.

I. Introduction

The funniest thing about The Shining is that it couldn’t happen today. Undeniably, people still get snowed in and cut off from civilization, even in the good ole modern U. S. of A. Undeniably, people go crazy in their own homes and hack up their families while they sleep. What strains the imagination, though, in the year of our lord 2012, is the idea of a high-profile resort getting well and truly cut off from society, even in the most hellish of winters. The Overlook, after all, is not some backwoods shack with an outhouse and clothesline, but a five-star, nationally renowned resort, which in 2012 would comprise a state of the art facility with, I’m betting, underground phone lines, satellite linkups, a cell-tower cleverly concealed as a bush. Got to keep those money-dropping guests as happy as possible, and who can be happy these days without free wi-fi and a host of adapters for their latest Iphone?

The advent of inexorable communication has crippled the horror genre as a whole anyway. Even the schlockiest movies that take place in the modern epoch have to come up with some excuse as to why the characters’ cell phones aren’t working or how they forgot them or whatnot; and if they don’t they’re forced to face that terrible questioning beast of burden, the audience, who is then going to ask why they don’t whip out their cell phones and call the cops. Can you imagine The Shining as directed by Stanley Kubrick if he’d had to face this logical dilemma? One shudders at the thought.

So in a world of instant access and communication, where the average Indian family has three cell phones and no running water, is it a stretch to say that The Shining has been made impossible by the pitter-patter advance of time? Maybe, maybe not. You could maybe, today, write a book like this, with the same premise and the same set of circumstances. But it would take a lot more explanation to justify it. Audiences can be dumb, sometimes, but there are limits to their myopia. 

The Shining is Stephen King’s third novel, and far and away his most personal up to that point in his career. He describes the genesis of it coming in three parts: 1) A desire to set his next book away from Maine, prompting a literal King family move to Boulder, Colorado. 2) A rather-creepy/awesome stay at a hotel that was closing up for the season the next day in which the King family was the only guests—highlights include eating alone in a huge ballroom at the only table prepped for dining. And, finally, 3) King’s own concerns and frustration at both his burgeoning dependence on alcohol and the sometimes hateful, violent feelings he felt towards both his young children. What emerged from these catalysts is one of my favorite books of all time, and in my opinion King’s best work. That’s an attitude that could possibly change if this blog continues and I make it through the rest of his novels, but for the moment The Shining firmly occupies a place in my top five favorite books, rounding out at number one sometimes depending on my mood and how pretentious I’m feeling. 

For the longest time I thought it comprised a perfect genre novel—and please note by “genre” I mean the specific intention of the novel, i.e. The Shining is a horror novel because its primary intent is the induce feelings of fear and helplessness in the audience. There’s a pattern and methodology to genre novels that doesn’t factor in to more “literary” novels, if you will. By no means is that to imply that genre novels are lesser than literary novels or any other such nonsense. We’ve been arguing for decades upon decades about that crap (Note to self: write post about genres and what they mean. –E), and no one has come to a satisfactory answer. I’ m not one to say, however, that there is no difference between genre and literary. There is. Sometimes the line blurs, sometimes literary novels have elements of genre, and sometimes they are completely indistinguishable. But we’re going with generalizations here, and why not? It helps us compartmentalize, after all, and what a large amount of qualities genre fiction contains in opposition to its literary counterparts is a certain kind of pacing.

II. A Few Words about Pacing

 There is little more important in a genre work than pacing. In fact, if you’re writing a genre work of fiction, pacing comes number three on the scale of most important attributes, after story and character, and the three facets are so interconnected it might not even be possible to put them in a sequential order. Pacing could be argued to be part of story, characters are the whole reason story exists, etc., but for our purpose we’re going to keep them distinct so I can declare unequivocally that if your pacing is terrible then most people aren’t going to care about story or character. They’re just going to want to do something else. This is that terrible death-knell of boredom

There’s a semi-internet famous chart that extrapolates Star Wars and shows how it manages to both engage the audience’s attention while simultaneously constructing a fascinating world and characters simultaneously. If only there was some way to…oh wait google search:


This chart is perfect pacing for a genre novel, a sort of catch-and-release of tension that allows for character development and story without overburdening the audience with too much excitement too fast. It’s very easy to mess up pacing in any narrative medium; in genre, messing up pacing can be catastrophic.
Now this isn’t to say that all novels or even all genre novels have to conform to the same structure to be “good,” but most of them, if you chart the ups and downs of their pacing, probably would look like this, even if the author didn’t intend it. It’s one of those ingrained things a good writer knows automatically but subconsciously: how to keep audience engaged, when to put in character traits, how to build tension, action, excitement; when to pull back on the reins to let the audience breath. The Shining is an excellent example of pacing, and an improvement over both Salem’s Lot and Carrie in terms of organically flowing from one piece to the next. Gone are the awkward transitions that sometimes popped up in Salem’s Lot. Instead everything flows naturally, nothing feels skimped on. Motivations and actions and foreshadowing all mesh into something sublime. And out of it comes a novel that, if you were to track its pacing, would look very much like the chart posted above. To break it down even further, these are the “peaks” of the pacing in the novel The Shining from what I’ve extrapolated (Note: Everything is a chapter name except notations written in italics. –E):

 “Job Interview” Page: 3 – Immediately establishes the main characters, the main location, and the stakes of the novel succinctly and skillfully. 

“Shadowland” Page: 37—Introduces the psychic element.

“In Another Bedroom” Page: 81—Establishes a sinister threat and stakes.

The family sets foot in the Overlook; Page: 94—Sets the stage for the overarching conflict of the novel.
“The Shining” Page: 116—Introduces possible sinister occurrences in the hotel, as well as explaining what the “Shadowland” element back near the beginning of the novel actually is, and how it can both help and hurt. In addition, foreshadows ability of Danny to contact Hallorann telepathically.

Wasp nest attack; Page: 195—Confirms supernatural elements in hotel.

“In the Playground” to “Inside 217” Pages: 305-328—Makes the power the hotel holds clear and its threat greater.

“The Verdict” Page: 385—The point where the dynamic for the rest of the novel becomes fixed.

(Note: A stumble in the pacing here. –E) : “The Hedges” 429—You can see here why the hedge scene and Danny explaining a possible supernatural occurrence AGAIN, and not too long after the 217 incident, is a bit out of place and unnecessary. “The Verdict” is a foreboding moment, and King obviously knew this because he made this one moment, taking less than a page, an entire chapter. Having a couple more instances establishing the “wow this hotel is dangerous” conceit, especially when that’s already been established, slows the pacing and lessens the import of “The Verdict.” In my opinion, the novel would have been perfect if it had gone through the chilling decision made in “The Verdict” to:

“The Elevator” to “The Ballroom” Pages: 448-465—Not really a “peak,” but the start of the final climb of tension in the novel. This is the equivalent of the beginning of the “Trench Run” line in the pacing chart.

“That Which Was Forgotten” Page: 654—King almost makes a mini-novel in these two hundred pages, culminating in the ultimate high/climax, the “Use the Force” moment, which is precisely at this line right here: “The boiler!” Danny screamed. “It hasn’t been dumped since this morning! It’s going up! It’s going to explode!” (654, emphasis King’s).

Many writers instinctively grow into pacing with practice and experience—read a lot and write a lot. A little gong will go off in their head that says “this chapter’s taking too long” or “nothing’s happened over the last fifty pages.” Sometimes this little gong needs to be ignored. Often, it does not.

PICTURED: Where it did not, but was.
As mentioned above, if there is a weakness in the pacing, it’s the couple of chapters when Danny’s hanging around the playground with the hedge animals; a frightening scene on its own, but when factored into the overall tapestry of the novel it doesn’t need to be there. I get the feeling it’s  a scene King really wanted—it does possess genuinely frightening language and moments—but coming on the heels right of “The Verdict” and Jack’s denial of supernatural occurrences, it just seems extraneous, and it drags down the pacing and tension level; we saw Jack come to this major epiphany a few chapters before. An epiphany that is going to define his character from here on out. Basic pacing logic suggests that you amp up the stakes subsequent to Jack’s realization and initial descent into madness; going back to the “Hotel does creepy stuff” parts of the sections before only lessens the impact of what happens to Jack in previous chapters.

That’s really the only mark against it, however. The rest of the novel is paced perfectly, and any aspiring genre writer would do well to track what, exactly, King does here that makes it so effective, especially in the first half on the novel. King’s always been a master of playing with mystery, feeding the reader detail by detail, enough to satiate their curiosity but never quite giving away enough so that the reader feels okay setting the book down. The Shining heralds the culmination of this skill. So whenever you as a writer want to blaze through the beginning of your work to get to the good stuff, remember: the plot of The Shining revolves around a family that gets trapped in a hotel. Said family does not even enter the hotel until page 94. 

III. Jack Torrance

In my opinion, Jack Torrance is one of the most affecting and fascinating characters I’ve ever read, and not just in the King oeuvre. 

Arguably the biggest theme in The Shining is addiction and the impact it has on both the owner of the addiction and the addicted’s immediate surroundings. King has made it clear the novel is an examination of his own addiction and his own fears about what he might do if it got too out of hand. This is more or less common knowledge nowadays, but it puts King in a unique position to form a character and give him a real honest-to-god addiction without it appearing hackneyed. 

This is a bit of a digression, but I’ve always wondered what would happen to literature and fiction whenever mankind reaches its desired utopia and all problems are solved. Who’s going to have anything to write about? How are they going to make anything affecting? Is it weird that I think about these things? Because fact is without the strife King put his family through with alcohol and drugs we wouldn’t have The Shining…
In any case, what I like about how addiction is portrayed in the novel is the two-faced, almost contradictory way it affects Jack’s behavior. Jack knows what he’s doing is wrong, damaging, will have severe consequences, possibly death. But some deeper part of him, the part where the circuitry’s wired incorrectly, compels him to do this action anyway. One of the more chilling parts of the novel is when Jack has the option of letting the boiler blow the hotel—and himself—to the stratosphere after his family got out:

(It’s my last chance)
The only thing not cashed in now was the life insurance policy he had taken out jointly with Wendy…Forty thousand dollar benefit, double indemnity if he or she died in a train crash, a plane crash, or a fire…
[Wendy and Danny] would have time to get out…
(Fire will kill anything.)
Jack suddenly started. He had been dozing off…What in God’s name had he been thinking of? (498-501, emphasis King’s)

Instead of a bad person doing bad things, it makes Jack Torrance is a tragic figure, whose selfishness and addiction end up obliterating all the good within him. Horror is, essentially, about the specters that lurk beyond human understanding, and what The Shining and all good psychological horror does is bring to the forefront the things that lurk beyond our understanding in ourselves. Who knows why Jack did what he did? What crippled part of his soul made him so that even when he realizes he’s punching his last ticket, he denies redemption anyway? It’s why I think someone who was/is an addict had to write this book. Because it flies in the face of all story logic. The protagonist realizes that he’s in danger, he works to get out of it. But Jack Torrance realizes he’s in danger, and even while he gets what it means, he goes forward and down into the spiral that will lead to his destruction. It makes no sense, but addiction makes no sense either. You don’t have to look any farther than Lifetime to find myriad stories of people destroying themselves no matter how often they were warned or how aware they were of the toll they were taking on their bodies.


 Metaphorically, King makes use of the images of wasps throughout the novel in key instances. It’s an interesting choice, not in the least because of the bare-bones ferocity of it. We’ve become accustomed to images of addiction represented in a more seductive or pleasing fashion; like addiction “tricks” us with allures and promises of better things. These metaphors aren’t inaccurate, but addiction to King is something much less misleading. It’s straightforward and destructive. It’s ugly, bloated, and stirs up with the slightest provocation. Where it traps you is in its seeming innocence, lacquered with a varnish of normality. The first time Jack encounters the wasps, after all, is when he lets his mind drift while re-roofing the Overlook: “The ironic part was that he warned himself each time he climbed onto the roof to keep an eye out for nests…But this morning the stillness and peace had been so complete that his watchfulness had lapsed” (155). Fittingly, it is this moment where we first truly begin to learn about Jack Torrance from the man himself: his temper, his descent into the throes of addiction, the incident with George Hatfield. It’s also worth noting that the wasp’s nest is the first instance of a supernatural occurrence in the novel (Note: not counting “the shining” –E), when the supposedly-bombed-out husk comes alive again and stings Danny. King makes it clear that Jack’s addiction and the malevolent hotel are not mutually exclusive entities; that the one is inextricably linked to the other; that the latter can not—and as we learn near the end of the novel, will not—be able to function without the former: “’You had had to make him drink the Bad Stuff,’” says Daniel Torrance. “’That’s the only way you could get him, you lying false face’” (652).

All of this makes Jack Torrance one of the more tragic characters in anything I’ve ever read—almost Macbethian in its scope. A man with a sad history and an incurable, haunting affliction whose honest attempt to rectify his mistakes is halted and then decapitated by circumstances beyond his control. If anything, his fall is even more gut-wrenching than someone like Macbeth, whose greed and lust for power (and inability to shrug off his wife’s advice) led to his downfall. Torrance’s ultimate downfall is entirely out of his control, the machinations of a being of inestimable cruelty and unknown origin who devises a scheme to attack the man at his weakest, frailest point. 

Because at his core Jack is a host of conflicts. And King writes him so well that you can never decide if he’s a decent man with severe flaws or a selfish jerk hiding behind a layer of fatherliness and pity. He works hard. He loves his wife. He has moments of supreme selfishness, an abusive childhood, a bad temper and a brain chemistry that lends itself to addiction. He tries his best to raise his son and feels almost self-flagellating levels of pain for breaking his son’s arm in a drunk-fueled bit of rage when Danny was three—but then again, there is the fact he broke his son’s arm at all. He tries to redeem himself, gets off the sauce with monumental effort and will…but then he beats up a student—deservedly?—and not only that, did it while he was sober, thereby sending his whole family into chaos and insecurity. 

To put it bluntly, Jack Torrance has issues. Major, major issues. Issues that don’t preclude him being a loving father and husband, nor even a “good person.” But issues that go unchecked for the entirety of his life. This was ’77 remember. Only prissy losers who couldn’t handle themselves went to shrinks. But it’s glaringly obvious that a Jack Torrance circa 2012 would have spent the duration of the novel cycling out of AA meetings and psychological evaluations. Instead, a cripplingly flawed man is forced to confront his two major weaknesses on his own—temper and addiction. And fails utterly.

A scenario such as this makes the Overlook resemble an aggregate representation of the world at large, a final recourse of those with nowhere else to go. This is why the Torrances went to the Overlook in the first place. There was no other option. Life—through a confluence of personal mistakes—had given them no choice. And so, trapped and beleaguered there, Torrance despondently accepts the inevitability of his destruction. For what? Salvation? A sense of importance? It’s hinted throughout the novel that Jack is a deeply unhappy man at his core: “Poking at Danny’s father had been…strange, as if Jack Torrance had something—something—he was hiding. Or something he was holding in so deeply submerged in himself that it was impossible to get to.” (129; emphasis King’s). Like the wasp’s nest so cleverly submerged beneath the innocuous flashing, Jack Torrance’s own nest lies buried underneath a fa├žade so complete that only a psychic gets any real hint as to what’s underneath, and even then the picture is incomplete.
It’s no wonder then that Jack identifies so strongly with the hotel—why it’s hard for him to comprehend why it would want his son instead of he. The hotel and Jack share a common and complex bond; in a twisted way the hotel understands Jack better than anyone else in Jack’s life has. It understands his ambitions (conveniently leaving the scrapbook in the cellar), his instincts (the Colorado Lounge), and his insecurities: 

“And the manager puts no strings on his largess,” Grady went on. “Not at all. Look at me, a tenth-grade dropout. Think how much further you yourself could go in the Overlook’s organizational structure. Perhaps…in time…to the very top.”
“Really?” Jack whispered (535-536).

The hotel understands Jack’s deep-seated lack of self-worth and his need to prove himself; to constantly reaffirm his existence. It understands having a wasp’s nest buried almost untouchably deep inside oneself. After all, when the hotel explodes, whatever had lain inside reminds Halloran of a flood of hornets rising from a nest.

This leaves us with three main wasp images: the first time Jack stumbles upon the nest, when the nest “comes back to life,” signaling the Overlook’s awakening, and finally the Overlook’s dissolution. There are more mentions of wasps in the novel—a few comparisons to them or conversations about them—but these are the three where wasps themselves play a critical part. Of these, two serve as thematic bookends, and are key in interpreting the link between Jack and the Overlook. Jack sticks his hand through the flashing and encounters the wasp nest—this signals a retrospection wherein, for the first time, we see the depths of Jack’s flaws and failings. The wasp’s nest inside himself. Then the final image of the hotel that we’re left with—the hotel Jack wanted so much to be a part of—is of a buzzing, angry flood of hornets. 

The caretaker Watson, near the beginning of the novel, discusses the scandals in the hotel’s history: “Watson shrugged. ‘Any big hotels have got scandals,’ he said. ‘Just like every hotel has got a ghost. Why? Hell, people come and go…’” (31-32) Most criticism of The Shining (and by criticism, I mean stuff I’ve read on the internet or message boards over the past few years) regards the final hornet’s nest image as proof that an eldritch abomination inhabits the hotel. If I’m not mistaken, even King himself has confirmed this (the two people reading this in Myanmar are free to correct me if I’m wrong). And not to start some “Death of the Author” post-structuralist debate…but I wonder about that. Or rather, what that means.
Because it’s not like the Overlook was built on an ancient Indian burial ground, or a place where Yog-Shaggoth fell, or something like that. It was just a mortar and brick building that had a lot of terrible things happen inside of it.

In a way I would agree that an eldritch abomination inhabits the Overlook. But it’s an eldritch abomination formed of human depravity. It’s nothing otherworldly, it’s just us. And layer by layer it built up over decades of murders, affairs, and shady dealings until it grew its own agency.

But it’s a very human agency. I think that’s important. The monster that is the Overlook works through manipulations—but it forgets things. One time it forgets a very important thing. It has feelings. It gets triumphant, and angry: “(No! Mustn’t! Mustn’t! MUSTN’T!)” (662; emphasis King’s). And with the images of Jack Torrance comparing his addiction to a wasp’s nest, and the Overlook’s final revelation of something like a cloud of hornets—it’s clear what the Overlook, in all its wrath, actually is. Which is why Jack is so fecklessly drawn to it. Because what is the hotel if not Jack Torrance without a conscience, without any redeeming qualities whatsoever? And the idea that Jack, or anyone, could be drawn to this thing—this monstrous thing—not only because they recognize it but that they believe it’s their last hope for recognition—that, simply, is a terrifying thought. 

PICTURED: So is this.

 IV. Creepiest part of the novel

No, it didn’t really matter, except that looking at the racked mallets with the single missing member had a kind fascination. He found himself thinking of the hard wooden whack! Of the mallet head striking the round wooden ball. A nice summery sound. Watching it skitter across the
(bone. blood.)
Gravel. It conjured up images of
(bone. blood.)
iced tea, porch swings, ladies in white straw hats, the hum of mosquitoes and
(bad little boys who don’t play by the rules)
all that stuff. Sure. Nice game. Out of style now, but…nice.
“Dick?” The voice was thin, frantic, and, he thought, rather unpleasant. “Are you all right, Dick? come out now. Please!”
           
V. The Aftermath

Writing novels with success is not only hard work, but requires a staggering amount of luck. Luck that the audience doesn’t lose interest, luck that the marketing’s good, luck that a great director makes a great movie out of your first effort. At any point along the 1-2-3 highway of King’s first three novels, it all could have crumbled to nothing. It took an extraordinary pair of opening novels, followed by a ramping-up of the stakes, to secure him.

But secure him it did, and I consider The Shining that moment—from the outside looking in and with the benefit of time—I consider it that moment where King could truly do anything he wanted. Next novel could have been his grocery list and it would have sold a million copies.

The Shining continues to be one of his most well-regarded works, helped along by yet another fantastic adaptation, this one courtesy of Stanley Kubrick himself. The Shining film version remains a staple of horror films—and is sort of enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately, with recent documentaries about competing interpretations and a whacked-out version of the film where it plays forwards and backwards simultaneously. King famously was—we won’t say disappointed, but not as thrilled with the result, and remade the book into a miniseries in 1996. The results of that were mixed. I’ve only seen a few parts of the miniseries—not enough to make a final judgment on it—but it’s kind of apparent that King’s talents as a novelist aren’t easily translated when he writes for a visual medium. There’s a lot of jump scares and any sort of subtlety—something that makes The Shining both book and film great—is completely lost. 

That being said, I still hold The Shining as arguably King’s best book and my personal favorite, and one that I think is secure in surviving the ebbs of time. Certainly the fame of the movie version will help with that; but even without the film, the themes in the novel are so powerful, the characters are so believable, that there’s no reason to anticipate it won’t continue to affect people in the same ways for decades to come.

The success and security of The Shining was key in King’s status of mind. Now able to do new and interesting experiments without worrying about the light bill, he turned to the past for the next novel, and hid behind the curtain of pseudonym to publish it. It is the first of this list that I have not read before. And it might just be his most controversial work, to boot.

Until next time,

Mr. E