On italicizing thoughts

The field of creative writing has several oft-repeated bits of advice which shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Show, don’t tell. Kill your darlings. Never get involved in a land war in Asia. Write what you know.

These rules are like a sign posted by the door of an airplane advising passengers not to jump out while the plane is in flight. A very good idea for your beginning passenger, but not a universal rule. You can have fun jumping out if you have a parachute and know how to use it.

In fact, in writing there are no rules. Anything that you can get away with, is legitimate. The secret is knowing what you can get away with. So all of these short bits of writing advice should be followed up by the proviso, “until you understand why I’m telling you this.”

The latest principle for novice writers that I’ve heard suggested is, don’t report your characters’ literal thoughts in italics in the text (or with tags such as “he thought”). I’ve been doing some thinking about the reasoning behind this (proposed) rule to decide whether I agree with it and to know when it’s appropriate to break it.

First, what is this intended to prevent? I’ve read a lot of amateur prose and I can tell you that it’s often painful to see italicized thoughts. Things like this:

Randy entered the bedroom and closed the door softly behind him. What the hell? Where is my dachshund? he thought, flipping the covers back. I’m sure I left him here and he’s too fat to move on his own. Has somebody stolen him? “Jingles?” he called. “Where are you, boy?”

Let’s assume that we’ve met Jingles previously and we know Randy carries him around everywhere. But wait, I hear you arguing, why should we assume that? Might this not be how the author tells us these things?

Well, yes, it might, but the downside to introducing the information this way, is that Randy comes off looking like even more of a putz than the average person who doesn’t realize that his dog is way too fat. The use of italics and “he thought” suggests to the reader that these literal words are going through the character’s mind, that they’re sub-vocalizing them. And for the most part, people don’t do that. They don’t narrate their lives, they just experience them. The odd word may cross their awareness, but if you ask someone to express what they’ve just been thinking, almost never are fully formed sentences at the tip of their tongue. They have to think how to put it into words.

Maybe, for instance, Ted was thinking that the blouse you are wearing, is an unfortunate color that makes your face look even more like a beet-root than it normally does. But unless he was consciously planning to make a derisive (and unwise) remark about it, he hasn’t been putting those words together in his head in just that way. He might have envisioned a beet-root and noticed the similarity. He might have winced internally at the jarring color combination. A word or three — “blouse”, “chartreuse”, “kill me now” — might have entered his awareness, but not the whole sentence with syntax and all.

So what I’m asserting, is that putting thoughts into italics, or saying “blah blah, she thought,” signals to the reader that the character is really hearing those exact words in her head, just like following something with “she said” means that was her literal utterance. It follows that the times you want to do this is when that’s what did in fact happen. So, for instance:

  • It’s a short interjection, like, “Holy cow!” or “Hot damn!”. For example, here’s a quote from Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, very near the beginning (you can see this in context in the preview on Amazon.com):

As if, she thought.

Kingsolver is a master, and we’d do well to learn from her. The character is expressing skepticism, and does it in four short words. The choice of those words tells us something about the character. This is how you can tell someone knows what they’re doing; the words do double duty (or more).

  • The words really are something this character would at least sort of say to themselves, silently. Later in that same scene of Flight Behavior, we get this from the same character:

Trysting place, she thought, words from a storybook. And: No sense prettying up dirt, words from a mother-in-law.

This character likes storybooks well enough to see things and think about how a storybook would describe them. She likes words. And in the next sentence we learn not only her opinion, but its source, and that various sayings of her mother-in-law come involuntarily to mind in an appropriate situation. In two short sentences we’re learning a lot about this character. And it’s plausible that she would think those words.

  • There’s no other way to make it clear what’s going on. Here’s an example from Charles de Lint, from his story “The Big Sky” (in the collection Moonlight and Vines). The character has been experiencing some weird shit, and:

I’m dreaming, he thought.

Would a person in such a situation actually think out loud, I’m dreaming? Very possibly. Plus, consider some alternatives. If you’re not reporting the character’s thoughts verbatim, you summarize them.

He thought he must be dreaming.

Not as good. It took more words, and the distance from the character is greater. It would be nice to get rid of the filter words “he thought”. It’s not as good to say,

I’m dreaming.

because that’s a jarring shift of point of view.

He must be dreaming.

That’s not bad, and I think it’s an acceptable alternative to what de Lint did write. The word “must,” or expressing something as a question, is usually a clue that this is the character thinking, not the author telling us something. It would obviously be wrong to say,

He was dreaming.

That doesn’t convey the same meaning at all.

  • The character is telepathic (or the technological equivalent) and is reading or transmitting thoughts.
  • The character is figuring out a tricky problem and sub-vocalizes to organize her thoughts. (but that might be boring to read).
  • The character is schizophrenic and hears voices.
  • The character has something important/witty to say and is practicing it or restraining themselves from actually saying it. They may or may not end up saying it (probably not, because you usually want to avoid repeating information in adjacent sentences).

When purple pigs fly out of my butt, she thought. “We’ll see,” she said.

All those examples were in third person. In first person, italicized or tagged thoughts tend to seem even more unnatural, because when a person is telling about their own experiences, they rarely express themselves in this way unless they’re doing formal storytelling, as opposed to the informal narrative most common to, say, a detective novel.

The thug’s car looked familiar. Where had I seen it before?


That thug’s car looks familiar, I thought. Where did I see it before?

On the value of getting the details right

For my book Doctor Dead, which is set in 1904, I did a lot of historical research, or as my wife calls it, “wasting time reading ancient newspapers instead of writing.” I thought it was important to get the details right. This is not so much because there were likely to be many readers who would be able to correct me as regards, say, the top speed of a Welch motorcar with the new hemi engine, though certainly I wouldn’t want to be embarrassed in that regard. More so, it’s because reading the publications of the time and place you’re setting your story in, gives you a feel for the language and attitudes, current events, and every other little detail that helps a reader feel that they’re really in an unfamiliar but real setting. It’s hard to write the story first, then add that stuff afterwards, because you often don’t have any idea what specific crazy things were going on at the time that you have no idea about. How do you look up something you had no idea ever existed?

Not a lot of these details end up in the narrative; you don’t know what you’ll need until you need it. But having them already floating around in my head, I find, lets me be specific when I have an opportunity to make things real — that a light switch is a button, for instance, rather than the generic switch I’d be tempted to use if I hadn’t seen a picture of the real thing in Popular Mechanics June 1903 issue.

Of course, you’re not going to find every detail you need in advance, but you can always put in little notes in, like [light switch] to remind you to do the research later. I did a lot of that too, like when I wanted my characters to go out for lunch and didn’t know whether they could plausibly have had [burgers and cokes?]. So I flagged it for later. I absolutely didn’t stop right there and spend two hours reading about the 1903 World’s Fair, where the hamburger was introduced, and looking up which cities had Coca-Cola bottling plants at the time. No, I did not. Shut up.

Plus, knowing about these things in advance means they can also become plot points rather than just set dressing. If you already know that your character whose hobby is photography, would have read an article about radium that you spotted in a photography magazine of the time, that can give you the idea of introducing radium into the story, knowing he, unlike the other characters, would suspect it was a bad thing to ingest, because the article described it as causing burns when carried in a vial in one’s pocket.

And finally, knowing these trivial details can help you in real life. For instance, I was at Caribou Coffee today and their trivia question was, what year was root beer invented. I knew that. Saved 10 cents, which in 1904 money is enough to buy two root beers. Payoff!

Connection As Currency

More Than Unit-Shifting

The initial relationship between author and reader is a lot like flirting. So writing this post, I feel more like I’m giving dating advice than author-marketing advice. But some authors need to hear this, because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen or heard of the following scenarios. Have any of these ever happened to you?

  • The panel discussion ends, and someone steps up to thank you for your wisdom and buy your book… but you don’t have a physical product. You only have ebooks available.
  • After your reading, someone comes up to shake your hand… but they’re broke, or just aren’t in the market for your book right now.
  • You meet someone at a coffee shop and bond over the latest bestseller. They might like your latest book… but you have none on you right now.
  • The power goes out, and you find yourself trapped in an elevator at CONvergence with a group of people dressed as the cast of Firefly. They all are interested in your upcoming dystopian-steampunk-paranormal-romance.

In each case, you make contact with people who are interested in what you do, but there is no sale. If you meet someone who is truly interested in your work, but you both walk away empty-handed, then you are doing something wrong. There are other transactions you can make that don’t involve dollars and shifting units. Continue reading

Taos Toolbox 2014

I’m attending the Taos Toolbox now (http://www.taostoolbox.com/) and want to share some little bits today with more to come later.

First, I’m finding the experience well worth the time and gold required to attend (it’s a two week duration).

The instructors (Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress) are effective communicators and are providing a lot of information (tools) that writers ought to understand and use. I’ve seen or heard or read most of these in the past, but the combination of hearing them, discussing them, and practicing them helps drive the lessons home.

Second, there are some wonderfully talented writers here as attendees. I feel privileged to be getting to know them and to share critiques with them.

One of the attendees, Stephanie Vance, dropped a link to the group from The Editor’s Blog (http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/08/punctuation-in-dialogue/) on punctuating dialogue. Go there now and follow the links to the related posts. You won’t be done for a good while, so I’ll come back later with some additional comments.

(I know that WordPress has nice features for embedding links. For some reason I can’t get those buttons to work quite right just now…)

Speaking of New Adult Fiction…

We have been posting about a new categorization called New Adult which is more mature than young adult – yet somehow not ready for prime time readers. Genre classifications annoy me anyway so introducing another one makes me sigh – the long drawn out kind of sigh.

Perhaps my problem is not so much with genre classification as it is with readers. Particularly readers who refuse to read a particular genre or will only read a certain genre. I understand that genre labels are meant to guide readers to their preferred fiction. I don’t deny that it is helpful to go to a book store (back when I was still doing that) and just seek out the Sci Fi or the Mystery section because that was what I wanted. I will even admit that I always avoided Romance as a genre because I made (somewhat unfair) assumptions about it.

Recently, I read a recommendation for an author, Megan Abbot, touting her as the best new crime fiction writer out there. Crime Fiction – didn’t that used to be mystery? Either way, I like mystery, thriller, crime and started tracking down more information. I found on Amazon, she was categorized as a Young Adult author. I purchased two books for my Kindle, the first one because it is her latest and the other one because it was only a couple of bucks: DARE ME. Dareme

I am venturing a guess that this is what publishers have in mind for the New Fiction category. My own take on this book was that it is a good read, Abbot is a good to great writer, and every one should read this book, including the teens that are considered “too young” for it.

DARE ME in a nutshell is a first person narrative from a high school junior cheerleader as if written by Ruth Rendell. If I had to give it a genre, Psychological Thriller would be the tag. Or maybe a better description would be – if James Ellroy wrote about teen girl cheer leaders this is what would come out.

The girls in this story are complicated while presenting themselves to their peers and the world in general as archetypical cheer leaders. Pony-tail perfect, hard bodies, and single minded. They are pretty much detested by everyone outside their circle, they know it and they thrive from it. Sex, drinking, prescription drugs are readily available and consumed. No one worries about pregnancy, disease, or being exploited. To these girls, all of the sex and drugs is just background noise, something to get them through the daily grind.

The actual story centers around the narrator and her relationship with her best friend, disrupted by the appearance of a new coach who changes everything. Abbot did a fabulous job of writing about the power maneuvers between the best friend and the coach as they lock horns on the edge of a precipice.

If it isn’t obvious, I enjoyed the book very much although it wasn’t perfect – for me there was a degree of repetition that drove me crazy. But teen age girls do that at times. I was curious about the genre rating and went to Goodreads to see readers comments there.

One of the first reviews I read was from a commenter who liked the book but felt it was miscategorized as young adult. Other commenters agreed with her giving the reason that the book has very “adult” themes. So I wonder now – would a genre category like New Adult solve this perceived problem?

I admit I come to it from a perspective of “I’d have been thrilled to see my kid reading anything, just to see him reading.” But I try to think about how I would have responded to reading this book at the age of sixteen. I know that I would not have “gotten” a lot of it, maybe even been bored by the parts that weren’t about sex – which isn’t really that much nor particularly graphic. I would have hated reading about what these girls do to their bodies to attain physical goal – I would not have been able to identify with that. It makes for fascinating reading as an adult though because Abbot writes with detail that makes you believe (see Tyler Tork’s previous post about gaining reader’s trust. Abbot did her homework and her prose rings with authenticity.)

So where should this book go on the bookstore shelf – or web page category-wise?? If it was me, it would be on everybody’s reading list as fascinating insight to an iconic teen girl mindset. Sadly, many people would lose interest right there because few of us place much value on that insight. Parents should read this book without assuming the author is making a statement about all teen girls or even all cheer leaders.

I hate to see anyone miss a good book because it is placed on the wrong shelf. Worse, I hate seeing readers pass shelves by assuming they wouldn’t like it. More genres and sub-genres result in narrower reading habits – although some might see that as a good thing. After all, who am I to tell them what they *should* read? But I say in the end, they are the ones missing some fantastic fiction.

Believability and the Reader’s Representative

I’m at 4th Street Fantasy Convention this weekend. In a panel last night, there was a discussion about suspension of disbelief. One technique mentioned (by Scott Lynch) was “lampshading,” in which the author, knowing that they’re taking extreme liberties with the laws of physics, or medicine, or whatever, has a character point out the discrepancy so that someone else can confess that they also have no clue how it works, or say, “oh yeah, we found a way around that.” Or in some other way indicate that the author is aware of the problem, and that it’s part of the fantastic premise, not a mistake.

This, it seems to me, is a subset of a more general technique for addressing issues of plausibility – communicate to the reader that you haven’t dropped the ball, by having someone in the story raise the reader’s objection. Then dismiss it, as in the lampshading technique, or deal with it.

For instance, someone else asked about elements which readers will disbelieve even though they’re factual. TV and movies have trained people into unrealistic expectations of the effectiveness of gun silencers, crime labs, and the ease of opening electronic locks. Ancient Roman statuary was brightly painted. And so on. You have to decide whether you want to take time out from your story to fight this battle. Do we include something we know is inaccurate but that people will believe, or just omit that element so as to not have to deal with it? Or do we plunge in and try to correct the misconception? Or hope we’ve established enough authority that the reader will believe?

I think there’s another way. Use the silencer, but have someone else there (besides the shooter, who already knew, and the shootee, who has other concerns) to comment, “Wow, I thought silencers worked a lot better than that.” To which the shooter might reply, “Yeah, you watch too much TV.” No further explanation needed. If the reader’s really curious they can look it up, and meanwhile, it doesn’t look like the author made a mistake. The reader isn’t broken out of the narrative (unless they choose to go consult wikipedia immediately) and their confidence in the author is increased rather than damaged.

Or, if someone behaves totally out of character, you have to decide whether you’ve established sufficient trust as an author to say nothing about it and explain it later (and you’d better do that), or whether you need to show that you realize there’s a problem. Sam, always polite to everyone, is terribly rude to the jeweler. You know why; the reader doesn’t. So maybe someone else on the scene who knows Sam, remarks on it. “Wow, what was that about?”

Of course, you have to be careful not to make matters worse by having a character whose obvious purpose is to shill for the author. To make this work, the situation has to be such that there can naturally be a character who would be puzzled by whatever puzzled the reader.

We also don’t want an “As you know, Bob,” moment. That’s why I think immediately explaining the inconsistency, as opposed to just noting it, is usually a mistake.

So to summarize, the “Reader’s Representative” technique (my term) has three variants, at least:

  1. Lampshading, in which you signal that you know there’s a problem, which you claim as part of your allowed quota of pretend play.

  2. The Promissory Note, in which you signal that you know there’s a problem and you mean to explain later — then you’d better not forget to do that.

  3. The Gentle Correction, in which you show that you know the reader might take issue with what just happened, but they’re wrong and they should look it up if it’s going to bother them.

But don’t do this unless you need it. If you’ve done your homework and shown that you really know weapons, then describe one that works in a way the reader didn’t expect, they’ll likely go along with it. It’s hard to know when you’ve established that credibility, but that’s where beta readers come in.

23 Mobile Things — Thing 1

This is a somewhat different post for me, as it is not about writing or ebooks or the world of historical research.  My library is doing a project called 23 Mobile Things, which is a self-paced learning program involving apps and mobile devices.  As part of this project, I am supposed to blog about each of the things / apps that I explore during this project, and reflect on how I can use this as part of my work in the library.  Because this blog is shared by my writers group, I am also going to post about things that I learn along the way that might be good for writers to know.

Since this program is supposed to be 23 mobile things, I will talk for a moment about me and my current mobile devices.

My iPad

I have completely ditched my laptop and now do almost everything on an iPad 2 with keyboard.  I love my iPad, and find it a great all purpose device for computing, content creation, research and time-wasting.  I use it not only for writing my novel, but also for my library work.  I use the library’s iPad as a mobile catalog, and to demonstrate databases and ebooks to patrons.  In meetings, I take notes with it.  I also use it extensively for library storytimes as a digital felt board, music source, and early literacy tool.

My current favorite apps for library storytime are:

      • Fingerpaint with Sounds — I use it to write the letter of the day, and it makes R2D2 noises while doing so!
      • Felt Board — Finally, a way to instantly create new felt board stories without all that tiresome drawing, cutting and glueing!  I love old fashioned felt board stories, but all the ones that I use are inherited.  I’m just not crafty enough to create my own.  I’ve found this app to be a god send, allowing me to create tons of felt board characters and storylines without ever having to pick up a pair of scissors.  The kids love participating in the creation of felt board characters as well, making suggestions about changes of hair style, outfits, etc.
      • Endless Alphabet — I use this one for the “bonus” vocabulary word of the day.  The kids love it because we wind up spelling the word right there in storytime, with each of the letters sounding out their own sound as they move in place.  It’s very silly and very cute.
      • Animal Sounds: A Fun Toddler Game — What can be better than to play an animal sound, and then have the kids guess what animal it is?  I then “turn” the ipad around and show them the picture of the animal.  They love guessing, and its a great way to get sounds of more unusual animals like donkeys.

Since this is a writing blog, my single most used writing app is google drive.  I have yet to find a good offline editing app that I really like.   If anyone has suggestions, I’ll happily consider them.

My eReader

I have a kindle paperwhite.  I take it everywhere with me.  I read on it constantly.  It is my single most adored device.  Check out this post for more on how I use my eReader.

My Phone

I have an android smart phone, but I will admit that I do not love it.  I use it to make calls and do GPS directions, and that is about it.   How can someone as tech oriented as I am be so lame when it comes to smart phones?   Honestly, if I get anything out of this project, I’d like to develop a slightly better relationship with my poor, sad, lonely little smart phone.


What’s your book gateway?

Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire, gave a talk last year where she discussed four different gateways to books: setting, story, language, and character:

One of the things that I found interesting about it was that it explained that different readers are looking for *very* different things from the books that they read. It provided me with an explanation of why books that critics might think of as “badly written” can be so appealing to such a large segment of readers.

I’ve discovered over the years that my primary two gateways are setting and character, with a slice of “language” on the side. If a book has a great setting and characters, and has beautiful language to boot, I will happily read for pages without worrying if the plot is moving quickly enough.

On the other hand, Da Vinci Code has a big-ass “story” (aka plot) gateway. I hated the characters, and the language sucked, but the puzzles and the setting (yep, it had a strong setting gateway — hey, look, here we’re playing in the back areas of the vatican) kept me reading to the end.

Several of the runaway youth hits in the past few years were nicely balanced between story, setting and character:
* Hunger Games — fast moving plot, interesting setting, fabulous main character
* Harry Potter — fabulous setting, fun characters, decent plot line once it got going.
* Percy Jackson — awesome characters, strong setting, fun & twisty plot.

I cannot explain Twilight, which in my mind did very little well, though I think that some readers really enjoyed Edward the sparkly and J (what’s his name?) the werewolf, but hey… Not every bestseller has to be comprehensible to me.

A lot of genre writers complain about plotless literary fiction, not realizing that language can be its own gateway. Several of the authors that I most love (esp. Neil Gaiman) have language as their largest single gateway. If you write beautifully enough, you can get a lot more leeway on one of the other gateways.

What’s your gateway, either as a reader or as a writer?


Once Upon A Time In The West – 1968 Sergio Leone vs. The Lone Ranger

The alternate title of this entry could be: I Sat Through Two Westerns So Now You Have To Read What I Think About Them.

I am not a fan nor a follower of Westerns as a genre, but I don’t dislike them either. As a kid, I saw plenty of them – as most kids growing up in the fifties and sixties did. My first love was The Lone Ranger, so I also saw the recent remake with Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp.  The stories couldn’t be more opposite in style and structure, although they share a couple common elements (particularly in how marginally the female characters are handled.)

Many, many people have written that Once is the pinnacle of Westerns and clearly enjoyed watching it. Leone did do some ground breaking work in the cinematography, his use of sound effects, and the almost anti-plot structure. I had no problem with any of that, in fact, I was quite mesmerized by the film for the first hour or so. My problem was the pacing and Leone’s love of looooong slooooow close-ups that apparently pass for character development. The shots were magnificent and the art direction superb – the sets were probably the most authentic of the era before and after, at least until DEADWOOD.

The frequency and length of lingering face shots turned the film from tense drama to annoyingly lengthy and finally into a parody of itself. Those were some steely blue orbs when Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson finally (and I do mean finally as in when-the-fuck-is-this-going-to-end) confront each other for the last time -the really last time, not all the other times – for many slow seconds of squinty staring as the camera panned between the mens’ eyes. By this time, I had seen so many face and eye close ups that the movie was beyond flat. I no longer cared and beside, I had a really good idea who was going to win. In spite of all its innovations and anti-hero attitudes, the outcome was utterly predictable.

See how bad he is? Not as bad as his brother though.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with The Lone Ranger as a hero and the recent remake is a classic hero-in-the-making plot structure. Act One: a young man wants nothing more than to uphold the law in the courtroom and abhors violence. Oh, and he’s crushing on his brother’s wife who has full pouty lips. By the end of the act he is forced to pick up a gun and swear to protect his brother’s wife against the band of evil outlaws, led by Butch Not-Cassidy who we know is really, really evil because he is Ugly and Deformed with Really Bad Teeth. As the story progresses, we learn that the real villain is the Railroad Tycoon who is hellbent on building laying tracks andplotting against the local Cheyenne to acquire their land.

I’m not going to go There as far as Depp playing Tonto goes. The movie is paced to perfection with nicely staged action scenes that logically follow the storyline so the whole thing is as enjoyable to watch as something like Jurassic Park. Which I do enjoy watching, so I enjoyed The Lone Ranger. Ultimately, the protagonist becomes the hero he need to be to stop the bad guys and save the damsel in distress (possibly the only female character with lines in the movie and not that many.) There is no surprise in the story since it is an old and familiar one, but the tension is maintained with excellent stuntwork and Johnny Depp’s impeccable comic timing.

Back to Once. Boiling it down to the storyline is very unfair because it is built on atmosphere, sound effects, silence, and as I mentioned, long and lingering close-ups of the characters. The main villain is introduced almost immediately although not by his presence but by the dialogue. Frank is not present but sends his men to “take care of things.” Big mistake, as the man they were sent to kill is played by Charles Bronson, a character who is only known by his nickname: Harmoncia.

Harmonica earns his nickname as you would guess, playing a dirge-like tune on his mouth organ to taunt his enemies. And let me tell you, he plays it loudly, usually with orchestral back up to enhance the effect. While Harmonica is playing tunes and shooting it out with bad guys dressed in flapping dusters after a brutal ten minutes of staring at one another and listening to sound effects, there is mayhem going on elsewhere. Henry Fonda as Frank shows up at the ranch of a Good Family, the McBains who are preparing a wedding feast for the widower father, who is sending his son off to the train station to collect the future Mrs. McBain.

Frank is so evil that he smiles and spits a lot. Ok, that’s unfair because actually, Henry Fonda is a gifted actor and he is chillingly creepy as Frank. This is a spoiler so if you think you would rather watch the movie someday without knowing all the facts, you should have stopped reading a few paragraphs ago. One by one, the members of the McBain are shot down. The last one to go is the youngest son, about eight years old, who stares imploringly and beseechingly at Frank (and this exchange of looks goes on and on) until Franks spits, grins, and pulls the trigger. It is a shocker and the movie seems like it is now going to pick up and start speeding down the rails.

The future Mrs. McBain arrives on the scene and announces that she already married Mr. McBain, so she is his widow. Claudia Cardinale plays Jill, the now widowed McBain and as soon as she’s alone in the house (who stays alone in a house after a multiple homicide took place there?) she searches from top to bottom but comes up empty.  A third character arrives at the house in the morning, another bad guy played by Jason Robards, who gets all the good lines. Robards plays Cheyenne, an escaped outlaw introduced in an earlier scene that I didn’t mention because it is not possible to describe each scene in this movie.

Around this point, I started asking myself who was the protagonist? Who was going to be changed by these events? Which one had a goal that carried the plot? It wasn’t obvious – and that was a strength of the film in the first half but ultimately a flaw.

Cheyenne likes Jill’s full pouty lips and her other assets. As the only female with more than a couple of lines, Cardinale plays a vixen/slut, well-endowed and attracted to every man that pays attention to her. She presents herself as independent and strong and amenable to rape because “that’s never killed any woman.” Ouch.

Cheyenne is a mixed bag of murderer and morals. He’s been accused of killing the McBains and wants to catch Frank and his gangs, the real murderers. Meanwhile Frank hooks up with his boss — an evil railroad tycoon hellbent on laying tracks to the coast who hired Frank to remove all obstacles in the way. The Tycoon is slowly deteriorating from tuberculosis of the bones and so is physically vulnerable, wearing a brace and walking with crutches. But he explains to Frank that he is powerful because he has money and money is the one thing that can stop guns.

Tthe body count is high in both movies, but in Once, the killing is extremely casual, even the McBain family is immediately glossed past.  With its four main characters, Once loses focus and fails to develop those characters with anything other than brief dialogue and more long meaningful stares. Robards is another fine actor and the movie is always interesting when he or Fonda are present. Cardinale is not much as an actress and is not required to do much besides gasp and clutch. Eventually she displays cleavage full-time which marks her character’s development from Poser Lady to Real Woman.

Gun blaze, bodies pile up, more glowering and staring ensues. I had high hopes we’d reached the big gun battle between Bronson and Fonda several times. I suppose I should explain what Harmonica has been up to. He has been tailing Fonda around, avoiding getting killed by him and naming the names of men that Fonda has murdered. He also forms an attachment/alliance with Cheyenne in their common cause of protecting the damsel in distress: Jill (Cardinale) who is being persecuted by the Tycoon.

Frank starts a shootout (after the requisite staring contest) with Harmonica but his gang turns against him, having been paid by the Tycoon to turn on him. In a surprising twist, Harmonica comes to Frank’s defense and kills the traitors, enabling Frank’s escape -and adding a whole lot of minutes to the movie. Harmonica explains to Jill that he “didn’t let him die” which is different than saving Frank’s life. Then he rides after Frank to kill him.

Frank rides to the Tycoon’s railroad car, where he finds a whole pile of bodies that were shot up by Cheyenne. The Tycoon is barely alive, attempting to crawl to a puddle for a last drink of water. Frank points his gun, spits, grins, and then puts his gun away and rides off. Tycoon dies a slow painful death.

Cheyenne and Jill are in the kitchen of the railroad construction camp (I’m skipping major plot points, sorry) when Harmonica shows up. Clearly, Jill is smitten with Harmonica while Cheyenne is smitten with Jill. But Harmonica has to go and confront Frank so no time for romantic tension. Major spoiler coming but seriously, do you think that Charles Bronson is going to be gunned down by a child killer, even if Henry Fonda plays him? Even if the movie is anti-plot, anti-hero, chock full of symbolism and running roughshod over the usual Western tropes (while worshipping others)?

A lot of this

And even more of that

Extremely long staring contest ensues but this one has flashbacks that reveal the basis of Harmonica’s motive. Frank and his outlaw gang had visited his town when Harmonica was a boy. They put a rope around his father’s neck and made him stand on Harmonica’s shoulders, forcing him to keep his father alive as long as he could stand. During this torture, Frank pulled out a harmonica and stuffed it in the boy’s mouth. Eventually, his father kicked him away in order to save him from stumbling and becoming the cause of his father’s death.

This takes awhile to unfold so Frank’s stare is starting to falter as he ponders Harmonica’s identity. When the guns fire, there is no surprise that Frank is the one to crumble, but he is still wondering who Harmonica really is. Harmonica takes out his harmonica and stuffs it in Frank’s mouth. Frank dies with horror in his eyes as realization dawns. Dramatic ending, it just took too long to get there. Oh, and it isn’t the ending either.

There is a love triangle to be resolved, remember? Cheyenne is the noble sort, even if he is a mass murderer, and steps back to let Jill embrace Harmonica and declare her love when he returns alive. But Harmonica isn’t the type of guy to settle down and after they exchange longing looks while more minutes crawl by, he walks out the door. She begs him to come back and he mutters “Someday.” in a tone that suggests she will be long dead before that happens.

Cheyenne sees that Jill’s heart will never be his so he decides to follow Harmonica and be his comical sidekick. He’s thinking that Harmonica could wear a mask and he could dress up as…no, I’m making this part up. He does catch up to Harmonica though but alas, he (Cheyenne) has a bullet in his gut. No real good explanation of how that happened but he expires after exchanging meaningful looks with Harmonica. And the movie ends but not until some long lingering shots of Claudia Cardinale in a revealing dress, bringing water to a bunch of hot, sweaty, and bare-chested construction workers.

Left in the dust, pouty lips and all.

Also left in the dust, despite pouty lips.

Just like Once, the female love interest in TLRis deserted in the end, as the Lone Ranger must ride off to continue his mission of justice. Only the Lone Ranger as a movie is a throwback, in spite of it attempting to have enlightened views of Native Americans, while it unabashedly marginalized women. The sole female is weak and serves to be saved – and gets abandoned because the movie franchise needs sequels, so the hero leaves love behind. Both movies end on the same note, Harmonica also leaves the chance of love behind to continue something, we’re not sure what but it probably has to do with righting wrongs.

NOTE: I totally forgot that TLR does have an alternative female role. Helen Bonham Carter plays a woman with an artificial leg that converts into a gun. The whole apparatus takes so long to set up that it is more intrusive as a device than clever. I was so impressed by her part that I forgot it entirely until searching for images. Oh, and Carter is a Madame of a whorehouse, natch. And then there was Silver, how could I forget about the horse?

I will point out that cows did appear briefly in ONCE, qualifying this post for a cow tag. As for recommendations, I am ambivalent about either movie. LONE RANGER is a go-see it if you have a soft place for the old shows and predictable archetype characters (and brilliantly choreographed action sequences.) ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is recommended for anyone interested or passionate about the art of film, the western genre and so on. It would be great grist for discussion but maybe not worth watching in its entirety if you do find yourself bored and restless. It is far more interesting to talk about than to watch and I am sure I failed to do it justice here.

What makes you stop reading?

An interesting post from GoodReads:
What Makes You Put Down A Book?

For me the list would be:

  • Characters I’d never want to spend time with in real life.  A protagonist who is whiny, self-pitying, arrogant, or just plain dull tends to lose me in the first chapter, unless there’s strong indication they’re going to be forced to change. This isn’t to say that I require all characters to be likable or good. Just interesting. Three-dimensional, engaging, with believable motives.
  • Moronic plots with gaping holes. Nothing gets me to throw a book across the room faster than an “Oh, give me a break!” plot implausibility early in the novel. Plots that hinge on repeated coincidences fall into this category for me. So do plots that depend upon supposedly intelligent people leaping to conclusions and never checking their facts or comparing notes with one another.
  • Lousy writing. Stilted/artificial dialogue probably tops the list for me in this category, with clunky or juvenile prose a close second. If the writing style makes me wince, or if it’s so painfully experimental in style that the story gets lost under the artifice of the structure, onto the Return/Recycle pile it goes.
  • Glacial plots. Even in a character-driven literary novel, I prefer a plot that moves faster than your average snail. Even a comedy of manners or a formulaic romance needs conflict, rising tension, and a satisfying resolution. If I get a chapter or two into it and it’s still just people sitting around yapping, with no evidence of a plotline emerging, I’m outta there.
  • Offensiveness. This one is tough to define because it’s so individual. I’m not that easy to offend, but I’ve got my hot buttons like everybody else. I might read a novel that features child abuse or torture, but if the writer seems to linger too long & lovingly on the details–fetishizing it–I’m likely to opt out. A supposed good-guy hero who ignores issues of sexual consent is another dealbreaker for me.

What has YOU closing a book and leaving it unfinished?