Omitting company names to protect the innocent (sic), I had this through the post the other day – the old-fashioned post, I know, but still. It’s a slip of paper bearing the message: “We are pleased to share with you the exciting news that the takeover of [one company name] by [another company name] has succeeded and our new brand name is [a third company name].” I’ve kept it. Occasionally I take it out and imagine the pleasure, the excitement, the wild celebrations – the parties, the dancing on desks, the instantly regretted spontaneous hugs and kisses – and I think about writing them an impassioned letter – through the post, of course; green ink, scented paper, the works – to tell them how much the news that [one company name] has changed into [a third company name] has changed my life for the better.
I get over it quickly enough (although I'm tempted to go ahead and write anyway). The second single-sentence paragraph on the slip tells me what the company does. There’s something marvellously zeitgeist about sharing all that excitement and then feeling the need to explain who they are and what they do. And something even more zeitgeist about an explanation that leaves me none the wiser. This company is “a market-leader in the delivery of technology-enabled solutions”. Unlike all its rivals, who are backward-looking providers of spare parts for stagecoaches, of course.
I remember the opposites test - may even have invented it. I used to apply it, still do, and once I even wrote about it in a book (Can I Quote You On That? Harriman House, 2006). The test is: could this person (or company) say the opposite and still make sense? If not, they can safely be ignored. A doctor telling you that she cares for her patients can be ignored, because she couldn’t say the opposite. But a doctor saying that she treats everything with a short course of tablets is telling you something worth knowing – if you believe in talking cures, for example, or the restorative power of fresh air and cold baths, or homeopathy, you might want to go elsewhere.
The opposites test can be applied to politics, although the results are almost always disappointing, and might be a useful tool for generating follow-up interview questions, for interviewers prepared to go off-script and chance it. A variant is to replace "men" with "women" and vice-versa in any text about who's equal to whom, et cetera. We only achieve true equality when the two versions make equal sense.
But the new thing is the right-relation (not) between statement and emotion. We don’t really believe, do we, that the staff at [one company name] were quite so gripped with enthusiasm when management got them together and told them they were now working for [a third company name]? We know, don’t we, and they know, that the next exciting conversation will be about achieving efficiencies? And we know what that word means. Same applies to every announcement these days: are you really that thrilled? If not, why are you bothering to pretend?
All that excitement is the house style of the connected economy, and at best it’s meaningless. At worst - if the emotion doesn’t fit the statement, and both fail the opposites test, well, that’s an exciting opportunity to engage proactively with the challenges that the future presents to us as individuals, isn’t it? We appreciate your contribution over the years, and wish you every success in whatever you choose to do next. Here's a box for your personal items. Goodbye.
You see, the older John Connor is successfully leading The War Against The Machines*, which began when Skynet became self-aware (in, er, August 1997) and realised that people were trying to turn it off. Skynet’s losing the war (so much for AI – ha!) but it does have a time machine so it can kill the hero while he’s still young. This isn’t Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot short-story collection (Gnome Press, 1950) because Skynet is concerned for its own wellbeing. Self-interest rather than protecting people from themselves – how times change.
Bad T, as we might as well call him, is an advanced prototype, made of liquid metal**, a T-1000 to Our Arnold’s T-101. Bad T can take the shape of anything he (it) touches. Young John’s question is, why can’t it become a bomb and get him by exploding? Reasonable question, and there is a case (although this isn’t one of them) for films that end with the hero(ine) being wiped out at an early stage*** to give us all a bit of a rest while we watch the bad guy take over the world and then have to start fielding complaints from neighbours about, I don’t know, the latest economic data and Brexit.
Sorry. All this explanation has slowed down the blog post. Where was I? Oh yes. That question. You’re making an action sci-fi movie, and sooner or later, your audience is going to wonder why Bad T doesn’t just get close to John Connor and explode. So you write the question into the script before the audience gets to it. But then you have to answer it in a way that doesn’t slow down the action…
…and all of a sudden it’s time to halt the narrative again with another laborious explanation from me. I read a lot of fiction on Kindle, independent small-press and self-published fiction. I like writing that’s published that way, because it’s subject to natural selection: you’re either good enough to find an audience, or you’re not. And why shouldn’t you go direct to an audience for that judgement? And yes, it is standard practice to offer the first 10% of a book as a free sample before buying. But, oh, the explanations. Oh, the number of sub-Chandler detectives who are visited out of hours by an alluring would-be client with sex appeal and a secret … detectives who then take us through a laboriously explained, clumsily scene-setting reminiscence of who they are and why their world is as it is.
Oh, the action heroes who have only to pick up a gun to remember the chapter-long entirety of their military careers and weapons training; oh, the fantasy heroines who have only to get up in the morning and find they're out of coffee to remember the entire history of, say, witchcraft as it works in their world. If I was running a creative-writing course, I’d say: trust the audience! With the exclamation mark. Let the characters know what they know, let them show it through their actions rather than bore us with a back-story dump at the outset, and let’s just trust the audience – I would say “readers”, but the ebook trade seems to prefer “fans” – to pick up or supply the rest.
So my point is – have I explained this enough? – give the audience something, even just an acknowledgement of the issue (not an evasion), and they’ll do the rest. They don’t want the narrative to stop any more than you do. And now back to the blog post.
John Connor asks his question. And what could happen is: the entire film could grind to a halt while Arnold Schwarzenegger explains the imaginary but necessary science behind shape-shifting terminators made of “mimetic poly-alloy” (brilliant). Without that explanation, we might wonder. But this is a big-budget Terminator movie. These people don’t stop for anything, and nor do their terminators. Arnold’s reply is a masterclass in how to handle any kind of explanation or background that might slow things down.
Why doesn’t the T-1000 get up close and explode? The reply starts with a couple of sentences about complex machines with moving parts, et cetera. Maybe a second or two of screen time. Then…
Then Mr Schwarzenegger gives us the all-important explanation. Everything we could possibly need to know about the T-1000’s limitations in one sentence.
“It doesn’t work that way,” he says.
And that, people who write the books I read before going to sleep, is how you do it. Please.
*Another war against the machines. See also the Butlerian Jihad, covered here.
**Another blob! Scroll down for last week's blob coverage. Just occurred to me that the thing in The Thing was a blob too. They're all over the place.
***If you haven’t seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), see it now.