Non-Visual Description, Part 2

For my “non visual combat” exercise, I chose the Batman: Arkham Origins trailer to translate into prose. I did not want to re-write the Deceived trailer, but I wanted something a) equally geek credible, b) equally focused on visual action and c) equally awesome. The following is the play by play of the trailer, without expansion or editorializing, that I will use to craft the finished scene.

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Gotham city skyline from across the bay. It’s snowing.

 

Gotham city street in a warehouse/industrial neighborhood. Street is covered in snow, unplowed. A black SUV speeds into the scene and skids to a halt. A thug armed with an assault rifle jumps out the rear passenger side and opens the back. With another thug he grabs a foot locker type box from the back. A third thug closes the back and pounds on the SUV. SUV speeds off. The two carry the box and the third follows them.

 

Inside a warehouse, the two thugs carry the box in and the third walks in front, apparently the leader. They put the box down and he walks to a table. He pulls off his mask which is hard black plastic and looks like a face/skull (Note — he is wearing a ski mask underneath and keeps it on). He tosses the mask onto a table, on which is a calendar open to December with every day through the 24th X’ed out and the 25th is circled.

 

Leader Thug1 turns on a light switch which causes a bulb on the christmas lights to blow. He orders Thug2 to check the breaker. (Note — Thug2 and Thug3 are wearing ski masks too, with their plastic skull face masks pulled up onto their heads.)

 

Thug2 walks up to the breaker box with a flashlight in hand. he puts the flashlight in his mouth before he opens the box. As he opens the box and hand comes from behind and smashes his face into the panel of breakers. Other thugs have heard something. Thug2 is down, bloody. The flashlight is still in his mouth but lit end in so his cheek glows red.

 

Thug3 readies his submachine gun and moves toward the noice. The floor opens up beneath him and hands drag him down. He scrambles for a grip but is pulled in.

 

Thug1 steps up to the hole and sprays bullets into it. He stops firing and backs away. he does not notice the looming figure of Batman behind him. When he does, he turns and fires. Batman blocks the gun and grabs Thug1 by the throat. Batman lets him choke for breath for a moment before headbutting Thug1 into unconsciousness.

 

Note — Batman’s costume is black with a grey breastplate, on which is a black bat symbol. No apparent yellow or other colors.

 

Batman throws Thug1 to the ground. he looks and sees the strongbox. It is green and marked “Queen” (apparently for Queen Industries/Enterprises/Incorporated).

 

Batman kicks open the box and hears beeping and sees red flashing. Inside the box is a bomb: lots of chunks of concrete plus 3 wired up squares of C4, one of which bears a timer starting at 4:95 (seconds). It counts down to 3:79.

 

Cut to exterior. Wooden sliding warehouse doors. Parked forklift. Snow. Batman (in slow mo) crashes through the doors, followed fast by a fiery explosion. The shockwave of wood and smoke slams Batman to the ground. Batman shows minor pain and fatigue as he picks himself up.

 

“I see you got my invitation,” says Deathstroke from on top of a stack of shipping containers. “It’s just you and me. Comeon!” he taunts and then sprints. batman throws three batarangs which just miss and stick in a container, then sprints on the ground after Deathstroke. Deathstroke parkours his way up higher on the container stack. Running after, Batman fires his bat-line and “flies” up to intercept a twisting-flipping Deathstroke. In slo mo, deathstroke draws his collapsable staff as Batman closes in and gets turned around enough to knock Batman off course with it.

 

Batman slams into the side of one container then slides down the snow covered top of another. He drops down another container level and hits hard on his back. Deathstrokes leaps off the same container and brings his staff down butt first but Batman dodges and comes to his feet. Deathstroke attacks with the staff and Batman blocks with his armored greaves.  Batman ducks to get around him, and Deathstroke attacks again. Batman blocks but leaves himself open and Deathstroke side kicks him. Batman flies back against a container which dislodges one above.

 

Deathstroke is forced to dodge the container which slides out of place at him, opening him up for a kick by Batman. Deathstroke is knocked off the container. As he falls between two containers, he twists his body and wedges his staff so it gets stuck like a high bar. He flips around it and flies up. Batman is looking over the edge and gets both Deathstroke’s feet in his face. Batman is thrown backward and down another level on to another container. Deathstroke jumps down and Batman drags himself to his feet.

 

Batman grimaces/scowls. Deathstrokes stares him down (with his one eye).

 

Deathstroke steps forward, draws his sword from his back and charges. Deathstroke attacks repeatedly and Batman blocks with his greaves. They step over a gap in the containers. Deathstroke goes for a jumping spin chop. When Batman blocks it his is able to lock it down and hit Deathstroke with a forearm across the face. They trade a couple more blows and Batman is able to catch the sword blade in his greave blades (arms up in an “X”) and break the sword. Batman punches. Deathstroke attacks with the broken sword. Batman leans back to dodge then comes forward and grabs. They grapple for a moment. Batman slams Deathstroke’s head against a container. Deathstroke comes back with a head butt and then bends Batman down backward and with his broken sword to Batman’s throat. Batman “walks” up the container side and flips over to a reversal and uses his momentum to throw Deathstroke ten feet or more (still on top of a container).

 

Deathstroke slides to a stop. He stands and draws a second sword but its blade is shot off. Deathstroke (without missing a beat) turns away from the fight and points the broken blade to the skyline across the river.

 

We see him through a high power, high tech scope. A figure in a nondescript green ski mask crouched behind what looks like a .50 cal sniper rifle chuckles. He moves his head away from the scope revealing a glowing red eye prosthesis and says, “Not so fast, Deathstroke. He’s my kill.”

 

Batman suddenly fires his bat-line at Deathstroke and grapples him by the neck. He jerks Deathstroke in and clotheslines him. After he hits the ground, Deathstroke draws his pistol and turns and fires. Batman knocks the gun away just in time which allows Deathstroke to stand as Batman goes for another kick. Deathstroke catches his leg and elbow drops Batman’s thigh/hip.

 

The two continue to fight in the now red hued sniper sight. Batman is behind a column or girder so the targeting reticle moves up to a coupling holding a hanging container. (Note — an electronic finder of some sort locks on the coupling before the reticle follows.)

 

Batman throws Deathstroke onto his back. Deathstroke kicks up with both feet and sends Batman flying back. The sniper fires his rifle and the bullet flies out in slo mo. The bullet severs the chain holding the coupling (again in slow mo) and the container lets go. Batman looks up to see it descending. We see the container hit and crash but there is no indication of Batman’s fate.

 

Dark.

 

Deathstroke is standing and an out of focus figure is walking up behind him. The figure asks, “Find a body?” Deathstroke answers, “No.” He turns and tosses his broken sword toward the feet of the approaching figure. “And next time,” he says, “keep your other assassins out of my way.”

 

The figure is revealed to be Black Mask (white suit, shiny black skull mask). He says, “You had your shot, Deathstroke. But you’re not the only assassin.” Then he adds menacingly, “And the night is young.”

 

Black mask walks over to where Thug2 or Thug3 is crawling away from the flaming wreckage of the warehouse. He squats down next to the thug, considers him, and stands back up holding a smoldering two-by-four. Very deliberately he comes down hard on the head of the thug with the two-by-four.

 

Dark.

 

The bottom of a shell casing in a black gloved hand. It reads “AMERTEK”. Hand drops it and it falls into black water.

 

Batman is kneeling a snowy bridge abutment top. He stands and looks heroic. Music plays. Titles.

 

END

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My final post in this series will be the prose I come up with to tell the above in a way that doesn’t feel like a transcript of a visual medium.

 

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Deceived by “Deceived”; or, Using Non-Visual Description in Action Prose

Perhaps a year ago, being a Star Wars fan and interested in trying out some mass market licensed sci-fi, I picked up a copy of Star Wars: Deceived at my local library. That I chose this particular title as my first exploration of Star Wars novels since the Thrawn Trilogy was no accident: “Deceived” was also the title of the absolutely amazing cinematic trailer for the Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called Star Wars:The Old Republic. I swear those four minutes were better than the entirety of the Prequel Trilogy, but we’ll leave that argument for another day. Here, were are discussing the novel Deceived.

 

Or, rather, we are discussing why I did not end up reading the novel Deceived.

 

Whether Paul S. Kemp is in general a good writer of science fiction in general or Star Wars licensed fiction in particular I do not know. Whether Deceived was a good novel that fit into and enhanced the Star Wars canon, I do not know either. The reason is simple: I stopped reading before the end of the first chapter. I did so because that first chapter was essentially a “novelization” of the aforementioned, amazing MMORPG trailer.

 

In those few pages I managed my way through before finally giving up in exasperation, disgust and even a little sadness, I learned something terribly important: Star Wars belongs in a visual medium, be it film, television or (my favorite kind of Star Wars) comic books. While it would be unfair to say that there was no literary value in Star Wars, or that there have been no good Star Wars novels, the fact is that Star Wars (and George Lucas’ beloved creation is hardly alone in this) was created for a visual medium and its greatest strengths trade on that medium. STar Wars is about swashbuckling adventure: super-space-samurai laser sword fights, asteroid field laden  space dogfights and capital ship battles, and pulp fiction monsters brought to grotesque life by stop motion and/or computer generated graphics. And where it isn’t visual, it’s aural: the woosh of land speeders, the crackle of lightsabers, the pew-pew-pew of blasters and, yes, the thunderous ijn-space explosions. Certainly there is (melo)drama and some character development in Star Wars, but these are neither particularly well realized nor central to what makes Star Wars what it is.

 

All that said, I want to reiterate that I am not criticising Mr. Kemp for his writing. I am certain that given the anticipation for the upcoming MMORPG and the popular reception of the Deceived trailer, orders came from on high to include, even start with, a literary transcription of the battle seen in the cinematic trailer. The problem was that it was indeed a transcription —  a beat for beat, action for action, verbal description of what happens in the trailer. The thing is, transcribing a primarily visual event, however exciting it may be upon seeing it, almost always results in a boring or, worse, confusing description.

 

Think for a moment about the last time you described in words a primarily physical event or undertaking to a freind. Maybe you were telling a coworker about how you almost hit a deer on the way to work that morning. Think about how you describe it, the language you use. Think about how you enhance that language with visual cues: mock steering, inflection and facial expressions. Now, imagining writing it all down and sending it to your coworker in an email. Under which circumstances do you think your coworker would be more rapt by your tale of near-deer experience?

 

That first chapter of Deceived was like that. The author was telling me what he saw when he watched the trailer — the architecture, the costumes and, of course, the space-kung-fu action. What he did not tell me was how it felt to be in that battle, or what it smells like when a lightsaber cleave a jedi in two, or how the dust from the initial assault crash made it hard to breathe. Worse yet, I had already seen the trailer (probably a dozen times) so the description lacked even novelty.

 

Again, the point of all this is not to harp on Kemp’s writing — here’s a link to his books on Amazon; buy some of his stuff! — but to talk about how action sequences, particularly those we traditionally experience visually in films and television, are conveyed through prose. Deceived merely happened to be so jarring, likely due in large part to how intensely visually satisfying the cinematic trailer was, that it prompted my reflection on the subject.

 

The strength of prose, I think, is that it has the power to engage all of our senses equally. It is true that humans rely on our sight most of all, followed by our hearing, but all of our senses work together to build the simulation of the world through which we move every day. At any moment, any one of our senses can grasp us and force us to relive a moment in our lives — the smell of a specific perfume, the feel of a particular fabric against our skin, the taste of a one spice over another. It is easy and even a little lazy to focus the vast majority of our effort as readers and writers on just two of our senses, especially since other media are so much better suited to utilizing sight and sound to convey meaning and atmosphere.

 

So, how do we go about this. How do we use prose to describe a laser sword fight between psionic Shaolin space-monks, without merely transcribing their movements? On top of it, we still have to convey a sense of place and motion, meaning that we cannot simply abandon visual elements, either.

 

In my next post, I will be giving it a try, as a writing exercise and experiment. In the meantime, feel free to give your thoughts on anything from Paul S. Kemp to Star Wars novelizations to the use of non-visual elements in action-scene description.