The Big Idea: Philip Palmer
Posted on February 7, 2008 Posted by John Scalzi 8 Comments
Hey look! Another “The Big Idea” feature! See, now you can tell they are really here to stay on Whatever: we’ve had two of them.
In today’s installment: Philip Palmer. Palmer is a novelist, with the new and ambitiously all-over-the-place space opera/comedy/pirate adventure Debatable Space. He’s also a been screenwriter for several British television series, put together original radio plays, and teaches writing. Or, as he likes to put it: “I see myself as a glamorous hyphenate. Writer-writer-toolazytogetaproperjob-writer.” Hey, it’s a nice gig if you can get.
Given his multiplicity of experience, is it any surprise that Palmer’s Big Idea for Debatable Space is “more is more”? I now cede the floor to the author, to give us all the details.
I have been a screenwriter and screenwriting tutor for many years, before finally wising up and becoming an SF novelist. And one of the great rules for screenwriters is expressed by the wonderful phrase, ‘Less is more.’ If is a line of dialogue is too long, cut it, because ‘Less is more.’ If the pace flags, cut some scenes, even your favourite ones, because ‘Less is more’. And if an actor can convey an effect with a glance or an expression, cut the line or the speech, just have the actor’s facial expression; because ‘Less is more.’
For the screenwriter, the phrase means much more than ‘be economical’, or ‘don’t forget to trim away the boring bits’. It embodies the whole philosophy of screen grammar, and connects up vitally with the other great adage, ‘Show don’t tell.’ This is because in the limited confines of a hundred page script, a screenwriter has to be like a poet, expressing much with as few words as possible, implying more than saying.
And also, screenwriters have to write for actors; and part of the art of acting is how to distil, to convey a great deal without doing much. I always love the process in rehearsing a drama when an actor – it’s always the really good actors who do this – will say, ‘Do I really need to say this line?’ Because the actors know that to cut the line is to improve the power of the lines which remain; less is more.
This phrase haunts me; in my boxing gym, my trainer has a big sign on the wall saying, ‘Less is more’. (Though he has been known to say, ‘Not that much less, Palmer.’)
This phrase is not, however, my guiding principle as a writer. My guiding principle is a phrase which is the big brother of ‘Less is more’; it’s the much less famous adage, ‘More is more.’
‘More’ in this context doesn’t mean more padding, more verbosity; it doesn’t mean redundant phrases or tautologies; it doesn’t mean annoying repetitions; it doesn’t mean annoying repetitions; sorry! But you get the point.
‘More’ in this context means ‘extravagance,’ ‘abundance’, ‘generosity’. A TV drama like ER for instance wonderfully embodies the principle of ‘More is more’. In comparable British hospital dramas, two or three or sometimes four medical stories are stretched out over fifty minutes or an hour. In ER they may have as many as a dozen different medical stories in a single forty minute episode – tragedies come thick and fast – great medical stories are established then casually thrown away, to make way for the next great medical story.
And as a result of this abundant and frenetic storytelling, ER manages to be both hugely exhilarating and far more reflective of real life in a hospital (where it’s all about dealing day in, day out, with case after case after case…) This is what I call generous storytelling; unlike the miser dramatist (the kind who uses one tea bag to make three or four cups of tea), the generous storyteller just keeps the ideas flowing.
But ‘more’ also means more variety. Great TV dramas like ER and The Sopranos and The West Wing and NYPD Blue – all shows which were a huge influence on me in my TV writing career – range in style and tone from comedy to drama to farce to tragedy and back again. These shows have one liners that British sitcom writers would kill for; but they have subtle and brave character arcs too.
‘More’ can also mean more genre. It’s easy enough to come up with an idea for a supernatural TV drama in which demons are fought. But – to cite one of my pre-eminent examples of the ‘more is more’ credo – in Buffy the Vampire Slayer we have two genres, simultaneously, almost mating within our TV set. It’s a high school drama; and it’s a vampire horror drama. We have locker room scenes; we have vampires being killed. We have teenage angst; we have best friends becoming evil. We have a cheerleader story; we have demon dimension stories.
Firefly plays the same double genre trick. It’s hard to do – it means riding two horses equally well – but when it’s successful, there are few things in drama more exhilarating than a genre hybrid. High School Reunion meets Hitman Movie – welcome, Grosse Point Blank. Horror meets SF? – yes, you too have seen Alien.
‘More is more’ is quite clearly the guiding principle of Debatable Space. I love space opera, but I know it’s a genre in which it’s hard to be fresh and different; so I welded it to the biographical narrative of the character of Lena. Judging from blogs and the reaction of friends, some readers like the soap opera elements but could do without the Lena strand; other readers (who tend to be those less steeped in SF) love the Lena stuff and the dark digressions, but aren’t as excited by the battles. But there are also some – these are the mad fools who I care about most of all – who really like the fact the book attempts to do many different things all at once.
Variety is the key ingredient in a ‘More is more’ piece of writing. Peter F. Hamilton, for instance, writes especially long novels; but the reason he embodies ‘More is more’ is because in, for instance, his double-novel Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained, he writes a space opera and a detective story and he has a great erotic love story in there too, and he does funny as well as sad as well as epic.
‘More is more’ is a banquet with many courses with appropriate wines, not a stonking great McBurger with a bucket of Coke.
Sometimes, of course a simple story well told is best of all; sometimes less really is more in all respects. But I rebel against the impoverished imagination and ambition of some of what passes for popular fiction and TV and film drama; and it’s in that spirit of rebellion that I set out to write a book full of ‘moreness’.
Visit Philip Palmer online here. And read an extract from Debatable Space here.
Hmm. Mr Palmer’s piece is cogent and resonant the ‘Less/More’ dichotomy is indeed key.
I have to say that, upon reading the proferred extract, it struck me that we were getting mostly ‘more’, where a bit ‘less’ might have helped, but maybe that’s just me. Also, I have sworn a solemn oath never to read any book written in the present tense – is that just me too? Please, anybody, break down this irrational prejudice with examples of essential present-tense reading . . .
“I have sworn a solemn oath never to read any book written in the present tense – is that just me too?”
Yeah. I have no problem with present tense myself — it can make the amp up the writing if it’s done well.
What I got from Philip Palmer’s piece was the memory of a distant college english class where we had to deconstruct King Lear. That play has a major theme (or more, it’s been a while), and probably a dozen minor themes running through; certainly this should qualify as “more is more” writing.
First person I can take. Present tense I can take. First person, present tense? Gahhh…
This sounds very intriguing, I will have to check out the novel.
Redcoat: On present tense – I really have a problem with this when I pick up a novel in a bookstore and read a few passages, but a good way to get over this to to read any on Charles Stross’s recent SF. Most of it seems to be present tense, and it goes down very smoothly. A few pages in and you stop noticing it. Plus, they have all been excellent. My $0.02.
I read an interview with the fantasy author Stephen Hunt where he said something almost identical about his first book Court of the Air – that he based his form on NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues, with as many different plot strands on the boil at once as he could get away with. Is this more-is-more a new .lit genre? Moreist? Moreovian? It needs a good name!
Hah! I just read the original post, said “dude, this thread needs a Stephen Hunt plug”, clicked through to the comments to make one, and here’s Jan Williams just beat me to it :-).
I’ve only read the book myself, not seen any interviews, but they’re not necessary to catch the similarity. Court of the Air is obviously one of those first novels where the author has spent years hungry to get to writing his first novel, but for the same reason has not yet made any contact with the business/market end of publishing and has just done whatever the hell made sense to him. The result is a crazy romp, combining a super-fast plot, a “spot the pulp genre being snuck in *here*” game for the reader, and his own sly and/or brilliant twists. It does burst at the seams a little; it isn’t perfect; but it is *awesome*, and in the end, hey, what’s more important?
So… yeah. I just put Philp Palmer on my “hey maybe check this guy out” list, and if you did the same, you might want to keep an eye out for Stephen Hunt too.
Maybe I should try writing a bit of present tense myself – see if I can make it work – actually I think I could see using it in snippets or ‘interludes’ for occasional moments of increased intensity. To my shame I have not entered the Stross Universe yet (although Amazon also pesters me with recommendations for his work – a pattern is forming . . .)