August 20, 2017

Recipes For A Starving Writer: Granola Bars

If you're like me, you may not want much for a snack or lunch break. I got used to throwing a pre-packaged granola bar in my backpack or messenger bag, either for work or travel. It's easy enough to just open it up, chow down, then move on. And they can't be too unhealthy for you, right? They have loads of fiber, thanks to the oats and nuts.

Truth is, they're also sugary (especially brands like Cliff, and any brand that throws in peanut butter and chocolate chips), and you end up paying a lot for so little (one box from the store will usually last me a week). So lately, I've endeavored to make my own, so the ingredients would be purer (less sugar and artificial preservatives) and to maybe save money.

After doing this a couple of times, I find that it's a quick and easy recipe, taking maybe thirty minutes to prepare and create, and it needs only a few utensils (just a baking pan, mixing bowl, measuring cup, spoon, saucepan, cutting board, baking sheet, some parchment paper). And the recipes are quite versatile--if you look around online, you can find hundreds of variants with all different ingredients and methods. In essence, all you have to do is make a sugary mixture (butter, brown sugar, honey) and combine it with some toasted oats and nuts. Chill it in the fridge, cut it into bars, then enjoy. One batch can make enough bars to last a week, and the ingredients can probably be used to make months' worth of batches. Cheap, fast, easy food for writers who need all the time and cash they can get. On top of that, they usually taste great--sometimes better than the store-bought brands.

Because there are so many different ways to make these things, I'm just going to give you the recipe I used the last few times. It's originally from a recipe my mother forwarded to me. But the possibilities are endless--some people used sweet condensed milk and no honey, others add coconut, others use peanut butter, you can many different kinds of nuts and berries, and so much more. This recipe is purposefully simple and basic so you can mod it to your tastes and experiment.

Ingredients (base)
  • 2 1/2 cups of rolled oats
  • 1/2 cups of roughly-chopped nuts
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cups of extra mix-in ingredients (such as  dried fruits, coconut, chocolate chips, etc)
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Line a 9-inch square baking dish with parchment paper or foil, and lightly spray with cooking spray (Note: I never used cooking spray on the parchment paper, the stuff doesn't stick to it anyway. Come to think of it, I think the original recipe just got its commas messed up).
  3. Place oats and nuts on a rimmed baking sheet and bake 8 - 10 minutes until lightly toasted.
  4. In a saucepan, add the honey, butter, and brown sugar. Cook over medium heat until the butter melts and the sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally. Then, remove from heat and stir in the vanilla and salt.
  5. When the oats and nuts are toasted, pour them into a large bowl.
  6. Add the buttery mixture and stir to combine.
  7. Add the extra mix-in ingredients (Note: if you're using chocolate, be aware that it will melt and become all swirly in the mixture. Which can be good in its own way. But if you want whole chips intact, wait until the mixture cools before adding). Stir some more until everything is covered in the sticky mixture.
  8. Place the mixture in the square pan. Use a rubber spatula or bottom of a greased measuring cup (or do what I do and place some parchment paper on top) and press down on the mixture.
  9. Chill the granola bars for at least two hours.
  10. When ready, lift the bars from the pan using the edges of the foil/parchment paper. Place it all on a cutting board and cut into desired shapes/sizes.
  11. Eat. Serve. Store on a cool, dry place. Enjoy.
When I made these suckers, I used cranberries and walnuts. For my first attempt, I also tried this granola stuff I got from the store, but found it unnecessary--oats are all you really need. I also tried to use chocolate, but as the instructions said, it all melted. But it turned out wonderful all the same. Last time I made these, I didn't follow the recipe and just went by memory. I probably used too much honey and sugar, but it all bound together just fine regardless. My attempts always yielded a fistfull of oats and stuff breaking off when I cut it--I figure that's just the way it goes, but some recipes out there will be chewier and less flaky.

July 26, 2017

All About Linkin Park

Once, I thought all heavy metal was just noise, with lyrics that glorified evil and dangerous things. Then, around 2002, I was perusing the Internet and I happened across Linkin Park, without really knowing who they were. The first song of theirs I heard was "In the End." The first few bars had good beat, and I thought maybe this was electronica. Then Mike Shinoda's rapping kicked in, so even and rhythmic. For rap, I thought it was decent. Then Chester Bennington screamed the chorus. It wasn't the same grunting, growling, screamo type of noise you get from bands like KoRn or Cradle of Filth or anything. For the first time, I realized that the noise still carried melody. Above all, it conveyed feeling and catharsis unlike any other genre. That was when I discovered the power and art of heavy metal.

For most people, Linkin Park will begin and end with their first two full-length albums--Hybrid Theory and Meteora. They were unique for their time (a time in which rap and metal were experimented with other acts--Kid Rock, KoRn, Crazytown, etc) and they remain distinctive in their sound and emotional lyrics. Subsequent albums have deviated a lot from the formula as the band experimented and became more alternative metal than nu-metal. Just earlier this year, 2017, the band released One More Light. It is such a radical change--gone is all semblance of metal, leaving only the beat and far softer vocals. It's essentially a pop album. And yet, it still bears the emotional weight of their earlier work--pain, sorrow, and regret.

Just a few months later, lead singer Chester Bennington passed away--he was found in his home, having hung himself. Only recently did I hear about all the pain and depression he endured--abuse as a child, followed by years of substance abuse and addiction. I never realized there was so much suffering behind the music, but in retrospect it all makes sense. Nearly every LP song reflects something Chester must have felt or experienced. Perhaps each song was some cry for help. After 15 years of following the band and clinging to every piece of music I could find of theirs, news of his passing was a genuine shock to me. I know some folks who have decried this as a waste of a life--it is indeed sad knowing Chester left behind six children, a successful career, and a huge fanbase that genuinely loved him. I wondered what could have pushed him to such an extreme end.

From the beginning, LP inspired a vast number of story ideas I've conjured. Even the most outlandish of ideas hinged a lot on the sharp beats, melancholy atmosphere, and intense vocal power of the band. While Hybrid Theory and Meteora are each loaded with songs I could never skip, I was also drawn to the energy and tone of Minutes to Midnight. A Thousand Suns alienated many listeners, but despite the filler tracks I found it a particularly excellent conceptual listening experience. I'm a casual fan of Living Things and The Hunting Party. And while One More Light is a far cry from anything else the band's done, it has merit.

That's not all though--remix albums like Reanimation have been very enthralling. They did a very solid collaboration with Jay-Z around 2004, successfully mashing up their hit songs sublimely. Their fan club (Linkin Park Underground) has released a treasure trove of exclusive albums--16 iterations to date that includes B-sides, live songs, and a plethora of demo tracks. With few exceptions, their demos are just as spectacular as their fully-realized songs. The first volume of LPU is the same as their very first EP, which has been out of print for years--the Hybrid Theory EP (different than the Hybrid Theory album), which is very raw and intense.

Chester Bennington's done work outside of the band--before Linkin Park, he was the lead singer for Grey Daze (I've never heard their songs and their albums look like they're hard to find). Chester teams with Amir Derakh and Ryan Shuck for the band Dead By Sunrise (I only just downloaded it, and it sounds okay). And he did one EP for Stone Temple Pilots (High Rise, with "Out of Time" as the main single I caught on the radio repeatedly--it's pretty decent). If you happen across the soundtracks for Queen of the Damned and Underworld: Evolution, you can catch a couple of solo tracks he made: "Sysem," which is very dark and wicked, and "Morning After," which is very groovy.

Mike Shinoda is the rapper from Linkin Park throughout its career, although he's featured more prominently in the first few LP albums. In 2004, he kicked off a side project called Fort Minor, which is a very excellent brand of hip-hop. Shinoda's also been involved with bands like Styles of Beyond (one of their songs can be heard on the Transformers soundtrack). He's also worked with a few composers for soundtrack music (including the score for The Raid: Redemption). He also did a very loud and powerful remix for Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence."

Linkin Park's music has been everywhere in my life, even in the most unexpected of places. Just a few years ago, I visited Bangkok and I happened to hear an acoustic version of "New Divide" playing in a taxi driver's car. Even as a tribute, it sounded exquisite. I've heard LP's songs on the radio, in films, I've heard Fort Minor's music on the air, I've caught the band member's solo acts on various albums--it's been a far-reaching career and it's always excited me when I saw Bennington, Shinoda, or LP's name anywhere. Their brand of music, no matter the style, always promised style, beat, rhythm, and vocal power that would stir my imagination and my soul. Of course, if it wasn't for LP, I might not have ever gotten into metal to begin with. I have them to thank for opening my eyes and my mind, to look past the noise and see the structure and spirit of the music.


July 25, 2017

Film Review: Stalker (1979)

Next time you take a roadside picnic and throw something away in the grass, take a moment to consider what happens next. Ants will come out to pick up and carry the crumbs away. Birds will peck at seeds and fruits. Maybe some badger will grab a wrapper and get his head stuck in it. Suppose you chuck an alkaline battery away, or a canister of oil? Mere leftovers for us become mysterious and deadly artifacts for lesser creatures.

This was the basic premise behind Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's book, Roadside Picnic. What if aliens landed on Earth and left some junk behind? People and governments would surely covet it. It could become a whole new kind of black market. But what effects would such artifacts have on lesser beings like us?

1979's Stalker adopts this premise into a one-of-a-kind vision. From its opening credits onward, the film is seeped in hard, gritty textures and drab colors. In this bleak setting, the nameless Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky, notably bald, scrawny, and kinda alien-looking) takes a job to escort two clients into the Zone--the place where a meteorite crashed and became quarantined by the military. One man is a writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) looking for inspiration. The other, a professor (Nikolai Grinko) looking for scientific discovery. Despite the heavy guard and the threat of never coming back, the three break through and progress through the Zone. We never see any psychical threats, but the trio always react with fear and anxiety over invisible traps and unseen entities. Passing through dark corridors and ruins, truths are unearthed about each character, which puts their whole endeavor into question and endangers them all.

This is a long and mopey film. Gone are the pulp fiction roots of the original story--Tarkovsky sought to craft a meditative experience out of this, sculpting viewers' time as he always did to draw out each moment and force you to think about what's on screen and what's being said. It might be agony for some viewers, because each shot lingers for long, long, long stretches of time. It kills the pacing, especially when the characters stop moving and decide to discuss philosophy for minutes on end.

Fortunately, this film will reward patient viewers. The combination of dreary visuals and sharp writing directs the audience to contemplate greater implications of the journey. It's not so much about three guys walking through the woods--it's an allegory to religious pilgrimage, and synonymous to living life itself. The entire trip challenges each characters' faith, as they question the existence and validity of an all-powerful Room that promises them happiness and fulfilled wishes. Each performer puts on melancholy and understated performances, accentuating the stillness of the cinematography and the quietness of the soundtrack. The sheer mood suggests cynicism towards society, the arts, science, religion--the entirety of mankind. Viewers can infer any number of conclusions, as the Stalker himself distresses over how people lost their way.

This is one of the ultimates in arthouse cinema. Stalker has cinematography like no other, showcasing places and people so dark, but with a delicate touch that implies greater beauty in nature and power of forces above and beyond mankind. Best of all, the film offers content worth contemplating and reflecting on. Tarkovsky and the crew suffered toxic environments to realize this vision. Then, the film was destroyed--the Soviet laboratories were unfamiliar with the film stock and it was improperly developed. Tensions with the cinematographer (who was subsequently fired) only accentuated the frustration and cynicism Tarkovsky felt, before having to re-shoot the entire film again. What's left might be a reflection of his own anguish. And we are given a chance to stare into his abyss, to see what stares back at us.

If you have the interest, the patience, the willpower, the film is a must-see.


July 23, 2017

Film Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Imagine waiting in line, in which you don't know what's going to happen. Maybe you'll be shipped home, to safety and comfort. Maybe you'll die.

In 1940, 400,000 Allied soldiers faced awaited their fate on the beaches of Dunkirk. For nine days, these poor souls endured heavy gunfire and bombardments, while a fleet of civilian ships raced to their rescue. There was no naval fleet or air force to swoop in and save the day. The soldiers had no choice but to wait--to live, or to die.

The 2017 film Dunkirk is an intense cinematic experience that places the audience in line with the soldiers, the sailors, and the airmen. Offering little in terms of character hooks or color, the film immediately dunks the viewers in the madness of war, starting off with men running for their lives in the streets, before following them on land, sea, and air. Three specific perspectives are used to show the battle. One is the shoes of a soldier who does everything he can to find a ship home. Another takes place on the deck of a humble yacht, helmed by an old man and a pair of boys who want to do their part in the evacuation effort. The third happens through the eyes of Spitfire pilots racing to stop enemy bombers and fighters from killing more troops.

Despite each narrative having different lapses of time, they are all interwoven together. It can be a challenge to understand the order of events, since the film will show something happening (such as a plane going down), then follow-up with it again from a different angle. This method creates some fascinating disparities between perspectives, as some characters perceive events in one light, but then audiences see that their views were skewed or wrong. The finale in particular is a complex multi-sided affair, which ambiguously suggests both defeat and victory. The triptych plot also gives the film rhythm, so that it becomes a series of waves that washes over the viewers.

And it will feel like waves and waves of terror. The story by nature is terrifying, and the film is careful to remain understated and let the events speak for themselves. There's little dialogue to this (which will spark some complaints that the characters lack depth or presence). But the actors do succeed in making their struggles painstakingly convincing. It's all amplified by the film's style. Over each scene, Hans Zimmer's score washes over the soundscape with an eerie, creepy sort of industrial ambience. The camera moves organically across the geography--it gets a little rough when it follows the characters on foot and in the tight corridors of ships, but it's very smooth and elegant with the aerial footage. Most of the film is drenched in steely blue and gray--at times, it makes the environments look beautiful, but it becomes hellish when sand and water washes over the characters and threaten to smother them.

That's ultimately the point of all this: the experience of war-time fear. The style and script focus on the hopelessness of the situation, before exploring all the horrifying situations in which soldiers could die: obliterated by bombs, shot by guns, drowned in the hold of a ship, drowned in the cockpit of a sinking plane, struck or crushed by falling structures, and more. With the film showing so much danger and threat, it struck me that there is a (perhaps unintentional) parallel between the English channel and the River Styx. After all, these were men trapped in a state of limbo, being picked off by unseen, faceless enemies, while waiting for a safe crossing. Even if the soldiers get out alive, they still face an ambiguous future where war continues and more will face death.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is an industrial-grade thrill ride. It's looks and sounds steely, cold, and oppressive, but it hits hard--the cinematic equivalent of a Rammstein song. The narrative is rather odd, but it does succeed in dipping audiences into all the dangers of war. With the film's dedication to showing realistic replications of ships and planes used in the evacuation, it's also a faithful and insightful view of historic events I was otherwise unaware of. In spite of this, the film is a valuable experience in its own right.


July 16, 2017

From The Inspiration Shelf: Koyaanisqatsi

I don't remember how or why, but one evening in Seattle I was at a flea market with my dad and uncle. Among all the used household goods people had out for sale, I found a single DVD that caught my attention: Koyaanisqatsi. I knew it only by name, and even then I would have never known about its existence if it wasn't for my previous exposure to Baraka (a blind-buy I made years ago on the merits of its Blu-Ray picture quality). For a single dollar, I took a chance on Koyaanisqatsi.

Once I was home, I had it playing in the background while I busied myself with other chores and tasks. On the first glance, the movie bewildered me. It showed landscapes and cityscapes--no narration or apparent premise, just images and music. I knew it would be that way, given it's the same way Baraka is presented. But I kept wondering what the point of Koyaanisqatsi was and why should I care?

Then the ending happened--so startling and somber. The last title cards appeared to finally explain what the odd word Koyaanisqatsi means, and what the Hopi prophecies embedded in the music says. Then it all came together: life out of balance. The film showed the great rise of mankind's achievements, and warned of its potential downfall. All it took was a few key images, the right tone, and a select theme. Realizing the true depth and power of the film, I rewatched it immediately to let the entire experience soak in properly. I've since watched it three or four more times--the film still captivates me with its visual prowess, and it still staggers my mind with all it has to say. No other film stimulates thought or feeling the same way this one does--it is a stirring and cathartic experience that encapsulates human nature and sheds light on our world.

What Is It?

In short, Koyaanisqatsi is the Hopi term for "life out of balance." The film is a documentary that starts off showing still, peaceful nature, then transitions into human cityscapes where people work and play in a constant buzz of activity. The film uses some very long and nutty amounts of time-lapse photography and slow-motion to emphasize speed and drama. Collectively, the film shows a little bit of everything--men and machines, factory workers, cars, planes, entertainment, war, peace, demolition, construction, food supply, energy supply--to show how mankind has altered the Earth and turned it into an artificial place where life is truly out of balance.

There is no narration to point any specific detail out--it's totally up to the viewer to soak it all in and make their own conclusions. Some themes are pretty blatant, others not so much. Philip Glass composes the score--a very repetitive and rhythmic orchestration that accentuates the visuals and manages to be very hypnotic. The experience overall is cathartic and bittersweet--there are moments of grandeur to this film as there are somber moments. All together, the film suggests that mankind might be doomed in our current state of living continues the way it is.

I've gone into a lot more detail in a previous post that analyzes each scene.


The film and its themes might elicit a "so what" response for some people, but for me a film can't get more important than this. It's one of very few films I've seen that captures something as it is and projects it in a way that underscores universal truths.

All that being said, I don't necessarily believe in the doom and gloom the film suggests. If for no other reason than the level of awareness that exists now--when the film was made, notions of climate change and our understanding of the food industry were never mainstream. These days, it's all we hear about. People are aware of our unbalanced lifestyles, and some people are taking a stand and working to make it better. With all the knowledge we have, I don't really believe mankind will explode like a rocket any time soon.

As a film, I admire it a lot for its craftsmanship, especially since it was made on such a low budget from a group of people who had nothing to do with Hollywood to begin with. It's 100% experimental. I don't even think the themes of the movie came together until much later in its production--the filmmakers simply captured what they could and assembled the structure later.

Additionally, I like the film for its imperfections. There are other documentaries (including sequels to this one) that are a little more polished and "perfect" in their presentation, but they never hit me as hard as Koyaanisqatsi. This film has an organic look and feeling to it--partly because of the 16mm and 35mm elements that gives it so much grit and texture (whereas Ron Fricke's Baraka and Samsara were made on such premium formats they look so perfect and clear--but they do miss out on texture because of that). The organic nature of the film extends to its style--it's not perfect. Some shots are so candid and plain-looking, they might look rather boring. Color schemes are equally drab. But then there are inventive shots where the camera gets pulled around in various ways--hanging off a helicopter, hand-held on the street, placed in a shopping cart. A lot of it was unplanned and nobody set out to film scenes with the forethought of a "koyaanisqatsi" theme. They simply filmed, and the ideas came together in editing. That's just how the creative process flows.

As Far As Writing Goes...

If you're writing non-fiction, this film can help show the structure of how to present a theme, then use examples to reinforce it, then conclude. That's pretty much what the film does--it opens and closes with a visual "thesis" in the form of shots of the Great Gallery. Then it goes into all the different scenes to collectively underscore this theme. Then the movie concludes with all the definitions. Many folks say this movie is a tone poem, but structurally it's not too far off from an essay. It just happens to be composed with images and no words.

When it comes to fiction and literature, this film can still be an inspiration. It shows everything and tells very little, especially on a grander thematic scale. The only clues viewers get concerning the movie's themes occur at the end and they remain rather cryptic. It is left up to the viewer to put the pieces together and come up with their own conclusions. And it was made that way on purpose. It's cobbled together to show certain things broadly, with a few recurring motifs, but nothing is explicitly explained to viewers. Writers can do the same thing with the same technique.
  • Provide direction with few words, reinforce them with the action, images, and emotions of the story. It can be done effectively with all the usual "show don't tell" rules.
    • Let the scenes and action speak for themselves.
    • Avoid on-the-nose dialogue or narration.
    • If you're writing with deep POV, use author voice as least as you can.
    • Use action and active verbs to keep everything punchy and fast.
  •  Use motifs, metaphors, comparisons, contrast, and figurative language.
    • The film repeats certain images to allow viewers to make connections--roads and rivers, construction and demolition, factories and street life, nature and cities, and so much more.
    • Metaphors exist in the film--the rocket at the end is one, and it's an image that drives home the theme that human achievement will reach an apex before something catastrophic happens and declines. The rocket becomes humanity--in one minute, the entire movie is summarized without any narrator drawing attention to it.
  • As potential exercises...
    • Look at the people shown in the film. Look at their faces. Are they happy? If not, why could that be? If you look at the people--who they are, how are they dressed, what are they doing--you could draw conclusions about them. One one hand, it's an exercise in your imagination--you could question if they're suffering from drama or stress. You could draw up a whole backstory for a person if you wanted. This is also a good way to think about the "show don't tell" rules for characters--the only thing you get out of this movie are looks, physique, clothes, ages, races, and the way they carry themselves. How else could you fill in these characters, and what are the possible motivations for the way they act or express themselves?
    • Think about how this film would be if there was a narration. Would you really like it if somebody like Morgan Freeman came along and explained everything you're already seeing on-screen? It's not really necessary, is it?
    • That being said, what about a character voice? Imagine an off-screen character narrating--not explaining anything on-screen, but solely focusing on personal thoughts and feelings. Would this same movie work if it was structured like a Terrance Malick film (Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, The New World, etc)?
On top of that, this is one of very few films you could potentially watch while you write material without becoming distracted by dialogue. All you'll hear is music, and if you look up once in a while at the TV, you might get a burst of visual stimulus to keep your mind working. However, not everybody can manage that--it's quite possible the film could still distract with its onslaught of visual stimuli.

As Far As Filming Goes...

I have a hobby: I film the places I've been. When I started in 2001, my videos were a mess--I spun around frantically trying to capture everything on tape, and I wound up getting fast, jerky, plain-looking shots that are rather hard to watch. But I always wanted to put music to it for that added oomph. I did this for the past 16 years, but thanks to Koyaanisqatsi and similar films, I started to look at these projects differently. I slowed down a lot over the years, preferring slow and steady pans and still shots over constant movement (even when I move, it helps to have a camera with an image stabilizer). Above all, I started toying with time-lapses, and I've been taking time-lapse shots like a fiend these days. On a newer camcorder with HD, you can make some very beautiful shots with clouds flowing over landscapes or behind buildings. Add nice music, and it becomes an experience to show off.

The film has also inspired me in the way I cut and edit video. I used to make videos in chunks, so I always faded them to black--these days I prefer to cut them into big 40 - 90 minute features with no breaks, and with the music tracks cross-fading, so it becomes a continuous flow. Because Koyaanisqatsi had a knack for fitting images together to spark thought over certain themes, I often find myself doing the same, trying to piece shots together in logical ways that could suggest one idea leading to another. My videos will always be mere travelogues--I don't think I could pull off anything as thematically meaty as Koyaanisqatsi without going out of the way to shoot very specific things. But it can create an impact even in the most mundane of video to put shots together in a structural way.


Philip Glass' score can be an inspiration as well. Even though it becomes repetitive, each composition has rigid structure. Sometimes, it sounds somber--parts of the score sound funereal as with the organs and the deep "koyaanisqatsi" chant. It accentuates the movie somberly, but on its own it's just as disquieting. When the tempo picks up, the music goes through some radical ups and downs, with a lot of heavenly choir-like vocals. Orchestral strings, brass, and synthesizers gives the music a lot of oomph to melodies that are otherwise very simple. It's a hypnotic, mesmerizing score, but it also has enough crescendos to make it a powerful piece. I can easily see any writer latching onto this.

Home Video

For years, Koyaanisqatsi was out of print due to copyright issues. A DVD was put out by MGM in 2002--it's perfectly watch-able and sports a few extra features. Blu-Rays popped up in Germany and Australia, but my copy from the inspiration shelf is the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray (part of the Qatsi Trilogy box set). It has probably the best quality one could ask for out of this film--the stock footage won't hold up as well in high-def, but all the original 16mm and 35mm scenes look quite sharp and natural. There is a lot of fine film grain, but given the history of the film, that's to be expected. Sound quality is really nice. There is a plethora of extras worth diving into, including a demo version of the film as originally put together in 1977. If you're seeking out a copy of this film, the Criterion edition gets my hearty recommendation (yes, even as part of the trilogy, the whole box set is worth getting).

Additional Inspirations

This film yielded two sequels: Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. The former (meaning "life that consumes another life to survive") focuses on the third world and how its labor supports the first world countries. The latter (meaning "life at war") has more to do with technology, the Internet, and virtualization, and how it creates conflicts through its myriad of languages and barriers. Both these films are worth a look--Powaqqatsi is a gorgeous feature with plenty to contemplate. I'm not a fan of Naqoyqatsi, because it does look rather gaudy and weird, and it's a harder feature to comprehend, but it does have nuggets of interesting ideas and scenes.

Godfrey Reggio went on to make the film Visitors, which is a highly experimental piece. It's extremely slow in pace--there's only 70 or so shots in the movie, and they're all about one minute long or longer. Its point is to show how people become entranced by technology, and it does so by putting the viewer into the POV of technology (thus, portrait shots in the film stare directly into you).

Cinematographer Ron Fricke went on to direct his own films. Chronos is a nice, short documentary that showcases a lot of time-lapse scenes in and around Europe. Baraka is a must--thematically, it's all about spirituality and human connections across multiple cultures and continents. It is a film that shows a lot of places and cultures I'll probably never see in my lifetime, and that alone makes it a must. Shot in 70mm with lovely time-lapses and slow-motion, it's also a beautiful film. Samsara is another film of similar quality--also shot on larger film formats, it looks striking and highly-detailed. It's described as a guided meditation--I've personally found that the film explores a lot of issues concerning the human form and how people in many cultures alter their bodies or make caricatures in their likeness.

There are few other films these guys have made that I haven't seen yet. All of these are pretty phenomenal and deserve to be watched at least once.

July 15, 2017

Film: Interpreting Koyaanisqatsi

Of all films, Koyaanisqatsi is the one that has emerged as a unique, one-of-a-kind game-changer. The way it juxtaposes images and music in contrasting ways shed important light on our society and all the haphazard madness of mankind's constructions. Chances are you might have seen the film's influences and not realized it--parts of Philip Glass' music score was used in 2009's Watchmen, the Simpsons parodied the film in one episode, and the same techniques in time-lapse photography have been aped in countless commercials and music videos (ever see Madonna's "Ray of Light" video? It's almost like a mini-Koyannisqatsi with dancing).

For me, it's a film that has consistently moved my soul and stirred my thoughts, becoming one of my biggest cinematic inspirations. It is a film where less is more--it offers nothing but images and music, but it's up to the viewer to determine the artistic merit. Some viewers might not see much beneath the surface, but I do. It's a dense brick of a film, and these are my thoughts about what it all means.

Behind the Scenes

In the 70s, Godfrey Reggio set out to make a difference. He worked in Albuquerque on a media campaign funded by the UCLA--this led to some visually striking commercials that drew attention to the invasion of privacy in the technological age (something really ahead of its time), and government mind control. As a result, Reggio netted enough funds to help the youth of New Mexico by eliminating Ritalin as a behavior-modifying solution from various school districts. He still had $40,000 to spend, so he decided to make a film.

Without a script, Reggio shot some scenes with cinematographer Ron Fricke on 16mm film (it was all they could afford). They shot in St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, and New York--at the latter place, they toyed around with portrait shots, and some pedestrians posed in front of the camera thinking it was for still-images. The initial shots weren't particularly thrilling. But as funding trickled in, the filmmakers captured additional footage over the years. With proper 35mm film, they shot at many more locations. Additional work and exposure introduced the notion of time-lapse photography, which enabled them to add another dimension to the project. With the help of Francis Ford Coppola, the filmmakers released the final product in 1983--a film with such a different style and structure, it was highly-praised in the arthouse circles and has made its mark on society.

What Does It Mean?

Koyaanisqatsi's definition comes from the Hopi language. In the simplest terms, it means "life out of balance."

The ways in which the film shows a life out of balance is through specific images and themes, which are reinforced by these prophecies sung throughout the film's soundtrack.

The film specifically shows man's efforts to dig into the Earth, using explosives and machines to reshape and transform the landscape into something artificial. Then, skyscrapers appear (often reflecting the blue skies and clouds so clearly they appear like giant grids in the sky). There are airplanes and jets. After some lengthy sequences that dive into the industry and lifestyles of man, the film ends with the fist Alpha-Centaur rocket exploding in mid-flight. Thus, all three prophecies are shown visually, and all together they suggest something apocalyptic.

It's easy to walk away from the film feeling pessimistic, in spite of these messages and the ending. The film is more than that though--it revels in the triumphs of man just as equally as it suggests doom. It makes the entire experience bittersweet.

It helps to keep these definitions in mind while watching the film, because it will help put perspective on what all the images (even the most unassuming of them) are saying. Here's the scene-by-scene analysis.

The Film

The film is book-ended with shots of the Great Gallery--giant pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah. They stand about eight foot tall in height, and appear as weird, tall, thin black figures around a central figure that has odd patterns all over it. This is known as the Holy Ghost panel. It was made somewhere between 400 and 1100 AD by the Desert Archaic culture (predating the Fremonts and Puebloans). The canyon was abandoned by 1300 AD. Nobody really knows what happened to the ancient people who used to reside in the canyons, and nobody knows what the rock art actually means. There is no denying that they look like ghosts--which is appropriate, because the people who made this art are long gone, and the art itself is a mere trace of their culture (and in itself a ghost).

The Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon UT

After a long, sustained pull-back of the rock art, the film transitions into showing fire that fills up the whole screen. When it fades, we see that it's actually the thrusters of a shuttle very slowly taking off. There's nothing but metal, falling debris, and flames. It's nothing like the previous shot, which was a tranquil and natural scene--this is a violent, artificial thing. The contrast is stark, and it prevails throughout the entire movie--nature scenes, followed by the artificial. Put together, it shows how humans have exploited the landscape in the name of technology and progress.

A good 18 minutes is spent on nature scenes--we see miles and miles of the American southwest, with its distinct red-tinged stone, unusual rock formations, mesas, deserts, sand, rivers, lakes, and mountains. With time-lapse photography, we see clouds form and evaporate in minutes--they flow and drift over hills and mountains. These are calm, serene scenes. Very little actual life is seen, but it's there in the form of the moving air. The biggest thing to understand out of all this is that the Earth has been here for millions of years. Nothing moves, everything is balanced. Left alone, it would all remain still and tranquil for millions of years more.

Lake Powell, UT
Then, BOOM! Mankind finally makes its appearance on the screen, in the form of machines that till the ground and blast mountains and hills to pieces. One digging machine spews black smoke swirls around it and engulfs the worker nearby. All this violence against the land leads to power lines popping up all over the deserts and hills. In addition to roads.

To me, some power lines look like giant people looming over the landscape, holding up cables. Could it be that these shots of power lines were meant to mirror the big-shouldered figures seen on the Great Gallery?

What do you think? Do these look a little anthropomorphic?
One thing is certain--you can't have cities until you lay down a foundation. The film shows some overhead views of power plants and a dam, which are necessary to feed energy into human civilization. Gone are the flat, clean, pristine views of nature.

A woman is seen sunbathing on a beach. The camera pans up, and we see a big, gray, ugly power plant towering over the beach. There's a lot that can be inferred from this--I can't help but to wonder what kind of runoff or pollution is spewing onto the beach and waters, unbeknownst to the sunbathers.

In the next scene, a group of people are mingling about, looking up at something. Some of them are taking pictures. In the next shot, we see the side of a giant building, reflecting the blue sky. It's nothing but a wall of blue with black lines--a grid in the sky. Kinda like a net, or a web, wouldn't you say? With the way people are gawking at this building and the majestic music score, it leads us to believe that this building is a marvel and an achievement. All buildings like this are, and the film showcases many as it goes on. They are so huge they seem to touch the sky (hence the term "skyscraper"). But with this initial shot, I can't help but to think about 2001: A Space Odyssey, when monkeys gather around the black monolith. I don't think it's an intentional parallel, but both scenes have a sense of awe to them, and in both the monolith has a captivating effect.

For a really long shot, we see an airplane taxiing on a runway. The screen wavers constantly (because of the heat), distorting the plane until it comes so close it fills up the whole frame. This is probably my least-favorite shot of the movie (because it's so bloody long), but the theme of human progress is there. Planes criss-cross the sky all the time (forming "cobwebs" it would seem, although the film never shows this in a literal sense). Later on, we see a couple of shots of city traffic, and a plane cuts across the middle of the frame. It looks funny because the plane looks mixed in with normal cars and buildings. It's there to show the constant bustle across many transportation modes.

As the film shows roads jam-packed with traffic, it shifts to a scene where rows and rows of cars fill up an entire field. I'm not sure if these are cars waiting to be sold, or if this is a car graveyeard. Either way, they are in disuse. Then the film cuts to rows and rows of tanks. We get into some intense montages of war scenes, with planes dropping bombs and rockets shooting off in the air (mirroring the first and final scenes). An aircraft carrier sports the E=MC2 equation on its deck--the formula for mass-energy equivalence. It means that any form of mass will have an equal amount of energy. And energy is expended throughout this sequence in the form of rocket propulsion and explosions that tear the Earth apart (echoing scenes from before). Ominously, there is a shot of an actual Fat Man in the mix. The film shows an atomic explosion in an earlier segment. The potential is limitless--people will expend great amounts of energy to destroy.

After a big Michael Bay style splurge of explosions, the film settles down to show cities. Buildings take up the entire frame, stretching across the landscape. This is what's popped up following all that Earthly destruction. But it's not all that pretty--this is Pruitt-Igoe, a housing development that became infamous for its poverty, crime, and racial segregation. In the film, the buildings are largely abandoned and in a state of decay. There's debris and garbage all over the streets. Light posts are broken. Building windows broken. People bust open a fire hydrant and play in it. It's not a particularly attractive place to live--inevitably, the buildings are demolished on-screen and collapse before our eyes.

There's a brief sequence that shows cities beneath moving clouds, and fresh new skyscrapers. It's as if following the destruction of Pruitt-Igoe, people have made way for a new set of living spaces.

41 minutes into the movie, now there are people everywhere. We've gone from a macro view of the world to the micro. We see people jam-packed in lines waiting for...something? We see them packed in the streets. And we see dramatic slow-motion shots of people as they pass by, occasionally gawking at the camera. In most portrait and candid shots, people can't help but to glance at the camera, and I took it as a sign that they were either curious or suspicious of the filming. Either way, we rarely see anybody smile. Their expressions are always of concern, worry, apprehension. In one ironic scene, people walk by with a giant billboard behind them that says "Have a barrel of fun." But is anybody really having fun here?

There are a few portrait shots--women standing in front of a fast-moving gray background (a subway I guess?), a jet pilot in front of a plane, and Vegas showgirls. The latter is especially eye-catching because the girls stand there for a very long time smiling, but they shift and look around uncomfortably. I always got the feeling their smiles were purely superficial (as they would be anyway since they're posing for a picture), and it makes me wonder if it represents their roles overall. They're there to give people a good time, but are they happy themselves?

Is anybody having a barrel of fun here?
Next, the film transitions into nighttime shots of the city. And it's time-lapsed, so we see lights streaking across the streets beneath the buildings and their lighted windows. One of the film's most famous shots shows the moon (particularly big--it must have either been superimposed or taken with a very good telephoto lens) creeping into the sky and disappearing behind a building. More importantly, the speeding traffic looks like rivers of  light. Just as shots at the beginning of the film showed natural rivers snaking through the canyons, now we have man-made canyons and man-made rivers. All without stone or water. All very flat, angular, and sharp.

Grand central station, New York. Thousands of people flow through the wide-open platforms and corridors as if they're fish in a river. From here on (probably the most enthralling scenes of the movie), we see a huge montage of man-made things. We see lots of machines--factories producing the very same cars we've seen filling up the roads. TVs--they're produced in factories, then people watch and play games on them, and for one prolonged scene we see a time-lapse of endless programming, spewing images at us in light-speed (although if you look closely there are a few scenes of topless ladies spliced in there). Towards the end of the sequence, a big wall of TVs suddenly explodes. A product created, used, then destroyed.

But that's not all--we see a hot-dog production line (and it's kinda funny how the rhythmic music has vocals that almost sounds like "hot dog hot dog" over and over again). After a bunch of men gather around this machine, it spews meat out endlessly, with hands occasionally touching it to unclog jams. Produced food is shown a few more times--twinkies and some jam-filled pastry. In the midst of the montage, we also see people eating. They sit at restaurants and food courts, chowing down and sipping drinks while they chat. And as a time-lapse, it happens in a blur as people move behind and around them. Nothing but a whirlwind of activity.

The film just goes faster and faster as it shows people working then getting off of work, only to distract themselves with food and entertainment. Movie theaters. Bowling. The arcade. Disco dancing. Occasionally, there are a few slow-motion shots of people (who still look unhappy). As the film speeds up, it places the camera in the weirdest of places. One minute, it's on a factory assembly line, showing the point of view of a twinkie or machine part. The next, it's in a shopping cart, whizzing through a grocery store. In one inventive scene (something that might have been an influence on the first The Fast and the Furious film), the camera is in the back seat of a car, and we see the city lights streaking past all the windows. The lights continue to flash and glide past, becoming an electric, Tron-like display of pure speed.

Right at the climax of all this madness, the film jump-cuts to an overhead view of the city in daylight. It fades into circuit boards. The connection is clear, given the roads, the lights, the buildings we've already seen. Circuit boards exist to guide electrons across paths to make something work. Cities work the same way, only we are the electrons. This is the man-made world.

For the last segment of the film, the music becomes somber, and we're shown a montage of people. They are all unhappy. They shove themselves into packed elevators and cage themselves on buses and trains. There's a man with a hat that advertises sight-seeing tours--he seems to be looking around with a frown. One old man stares right into the camera and shaves his neck for some reason. A woman is smoking, but shakes her lighter when it doesn't work. A naked man stares out a window. An old man (with cuts on his head) walks up to the camera holding out change. People move among a pile of debris--a firefighter walks through smoke, presumably to help put out a fire. Medics lift a man off the street and put him on a stretcher. I think the most evocative image is of a single hand rising out of a hospital gurney, and a nurse comes along to hold it. Only a few of these people seem to be smiling or happy, but even then it's hard to tell what's real happiness among all this misery and chaos.

Man and technology--an unhappy union.
Inevitably, the film shows the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. It superimposes the images on top of each other, so the people become transparent as they move. Everybody comes and goes, but they don't stay the same way the places do. They are ghosts.

For a whole minute or so, we see stock footage of the first Alpha Centaur rocket blasting off. Its metal chassis heaves off the ground as fire rushes out of its huge engine. It rises...rises...rises... It explodes. Fire fills up the entire screen, before the remnants become a trail of smoke. The camera tracks the debris as it falls, before the film ends with another panel of the Great Gallery.

The rocket--it must be the height of human civilization. It takes so much of our knowledge to build. It uses so much energy, which has to be harnessed from the Earth somehow. It allows us to reach space, going far beyond the sky to look down and support our cities with satellites. And yet, when the rocket explodes, it's as if we've reached a critical threshold. Something was unbalanced in that rocket and it couldn't sustain itself all the way into space. Thus, it burst and descended. The same thing could happen to human civilization itself. After all, other cultures (ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Easter Island) rose to great heights and fell when they couldn't sustain themselves. How much longer can modern civilization last under our current infrastructure, before it wears thin and bursts?

How much longer before all our accomplishments are turned to ruin and we all become ghosts?

May 30, 2017

Writing: Show Don't Tell

Over the past year, my writing output slowed down drastically. For a while, I doubted my own abilities and went through some level of mental anguish and frustration trying to figure out what's wrong with me. After reading through various articles, hearing some lectures, and doing a lot of reflection, I finally got a grasp of what was wrong.

I went through all this because a lot of the feedback I kept getting was distilled into a single, dreadful three-letter phrase: show don't tell. I never had this taught to me formally in school (not even when taking Creative Writing in college), but it is the first and most important rule for writing. Writers everywhere embrace it. They live it. Breathe it. I wonder if some chant it endlessly while walking in circles around their den and whacking themselves in the head with a hard-cover writing textbook.

Show don't tell on its own is such a vague phrase that can point to a vast array of issues. Most writing articles I found tell the basics: how to describe scenes and events in a literary way. But the rule can also be aimed at characters, the way they act and talk. It can be aimed at the plot. Maybe it's meant to criticize expository prose. Maybe there's on-the-nose dialogue, or maybe the themes are spelled out too obviously. Or maybe it's describing the entire work--readers can't care for the characters for some reason. And that can be the hardest thing to pinpoint.

The most frustrating thing about it is that show don't tell on its own, without any other direction on how to fix it, isn't helpful. And from what I've read, every writer goes through this phase where they have to overcome some simple, amateur problems and learn from those mistakes before being able to pump out quality work. For a while, I went through the same actions and reactions other writers have: I got hit with the show don't tell missile regarding characters and the pathology of the story, so I tried to "show" them by describing their reactions. That just leads to more problems: my characters were reacting to things through physical action, but with no clear indication of why. And that just hurt the stories more than they helped. Something was still missing, and I wouldn't figure out what until much later.

The problem was point of view. I needed to embrace deep POV in order to make my stories--any of them--work. But now this topic warrants its own nuanced set of issues. What level of internal narrative is considered "showing" vs "telling"? What if characters want to think of backstories or how something works--is that considered "telling"?

After studying and learning what I could, I pinpointed several key issues I had to rectify in order to make my stories work the way they should. Now that I know more, I can do two things: I can write a grade better than before right off the bat, and I can self-edit better and catch problems before readers eyes get burned. To do either requires something that might vary from writer to writer: the ego.

Another phrase writers toss around a lot is "kill your darlings." I'm not fond of that phrase personally--I find it melodramatic and weepy. But the point of it is, you have to let go. If multiple readers point to something as a problem, it's a problem and it needs to be fixed. It would be narcissistic to assume everybody's wrong and the writing has to stay the way it is--to let go of the words and let them change into something that works, you may find that you'll improve any number of things. Maybe the story will flow better. Maybe it'll be easier to read. Maybe the characters will jump off the pages and do an Irish jig in the readers' heads (which would be awesome). Maybe you'll fix one thing and figure out how to fix another. I've come to see writing not as an act of throwing words up and fixing them, and I prefer not to think of it as a grim reaping of darlings. To me, it's sculpting. The first draft is a block of clay. You have to chisel away at it, tossing excessive words and phrases, tossing all the "telling" bits, maybe adding more clay in some areas, chiselling away until you form a beautiful bust. There's nothing to miss from clay that's chipped away from the sculpture--it's dead weight and it makes the thing unshapely. Less is more, and if you learn to let go and open things up to change, you will find that text is just as soft and flexible as clay.

In order to chisel at text, you have to know what to chip off. Chances are there's more for me to study, but I've finally reached a level of confidence that I can share what I've learned--these key things to look for have improved my writing substantially, and if you find yourself being slammed with the show don't tell criticism, hopefully this will help you figure out what needs to be changed.

Things that show and should be used / implemented / left in:
  • Action. No matter how you write it, things happening is the meat of the story and needs to be reported as it happens. Assuming it's all experienced by a POV character, then it happens as that character experiences it, and would be written in that character's voice.
  • Character voice. Assuming you're writing in first or third-person limited POV, you will need to write their thoughts in their words, not yours. Doing so will show characterization in phenomenal ways. Using character voice alone can reveal so much about who they are, what they think, believe, how they perceive others, all without having anybody spell it out. To pull it off, it should be consistent and creditable. No matter what POV you're using, character voice exists to facilitate the inner narrative.
    • Characters thinking to themselves--as long as an entire thought process is being described, which leads to characters reacting, it is a form of showing. Some writers may not call it that, but it helps me personally to acknowledge that you are indeed showing a thought process. To me, this is the most important thing: every reaction needs an action, and my writing suffered for a while because I misinterpreted the show don't tell rules and assumed reactions alone was a form of showing. No, reactions on their own are meaningless, shallow, awkward--the thought and emotional patterns leading up to those reactions are what gives it all weight and allows readers to relate to the characters. This, along with wording things in the character's voice, is the essence of deep POV. Using it will help readers connect to the characters properly without having to be told characteristics. This can extend to their emotions, their beliefs, their political views, relationships--a whole breadth of areas that will paint them as deep and creditable people.
  • Deep POV. Goes hand-in-hand with using that character voice. But with deep POV in particular, there are a few more rules to keep in mind. First, you have to diminish or remove author voice as much as possible. Second, you can't transition to other people's heads without some kind of scene break (otherwise readers get confused and editors will drop your work like it's hot). 
  • Description. Sure, you could say it was a dark and stormy night. But it's much more dramatic and awesome to have a sentence like "lightning sizzled through the starry sky and boomed against the snow-packed mountain." If a description can be elaborated as whole sentences, then they should be expanded this way. And it will lead to stronger writing because it forces you to be more inventive with the writing, to the point where you can craft metaphors and personify objects in flashy ways.
  • Strong verbs. I've always loved verbs, and nothing's cooler than writing a sentence with words like "smash," "rip," "tear," "eviscerate," and so on! What makes verbs powerful is when you use them to solve the problems mentioned in showing description--if you want to say it's sunny outside, you could say "the sun is shining." But then you're left with a boring sentence. Replacing verbs has become my favorite way to jazz up sentences--what's more potent than saying something like "sun-rays blazed on the cracked ground"? Now you have a specific and distinct image shown to you with some flair. Every verb choice carries specific meaning, connotation, and will paint a more specific picture in readers' heads. This can get very interesting and artistic when you associate odd verbs with odd things, like emotions and intangible things. I found that Ray Bradbury had this incredible gift of making it feel like a bunch of things was happening, even when nothing happened. He did it with verbs!

Things that tell and should be removed / avoided:
  • Filter words. Any time you have a phrase like "he thought," "he saw," "he heard," etc., just remove them and let the action speak for itself. There's a natural tendency to channel everything through the characters with filter words because that's the way we see it in our heads--we see the guy experiencing something. But the POV is channeling the story through the character already--as long as the voice is working, readers will understand that the action is happening through their eyes. A few key exceptions exist: in third-person POV, it might be wise to use one or two filters at the very beginning to orient readers, but it's not necessary for everything afterwards.
  • Introductions and conclusions. This is the standard thing for essays and public speaking. It's not needed in creative writing. Anytime you write a sentence to explain what you're going to talk about next, you're being repetitive by telling readers what they're about to be shown. And if you put that kind of thing at the end, you're just recapping what they've already been shown. These kinds of sentences should be removed so the action can be presented as it occurs.
  • Passive voice. Any time a verb is preceded by another verb (especially "was"), most of the time you can condense it to just one verb. Having too many verbs slammed together dampens the action and distances the reader. Just write it straightforward: noun-verb-object. Passive voice should only be used when the noun is unknown (for example, "the place was ransacked," but we don't know who did it so this sentence is fine as-is. This shouldn't happen that often though--the majority of the time, you know who does what, so active voice should be embraced).
Things that tell and are actually okay to leave in:
  • Accelerated passage of time. If nothing happens in that space of time, there's no need to "show" those as full-blown scenes. Compress it with a quick and easy sentence, to maintain pace.
  • Epistolary works. If you're attempting something really fancy by piecing together a story with diary, journal, or newspaper entries, you're going to have to write them as they would appear in real life. That means you don't write these by "showing" every scene--nobody writes a journal for pages on end describing locations and dialogue and everything. You would assume a more telling style--one that's more akin to journalism than literature. So long as you assume other writers' voices really well and maintain the right amount of gravitas, writing this way might be worth toying with (although I don't know if the industry really likes these kinds of works or not).
  • Omniscient POV. By nature, omniscient POV eschews character voice and uses the author's voice more heavily. Doing so eliminates the ability to show, and relies a lot more on telling. The trick to this would be to tell in a way that works--maybe with humor, maybe with flair, attitude, etc. As of the time of this writing, omniscient tends to be discouraged by writers and the industry--I would only see a use for this if you want to take the focus away from characters and more on something in the plot or the setting. First and limited third person POV are safer bets, but some stories may warrant this style, and there are plenty of classics that have embraced it.
  • Recapping dialogue. If one character has to explain the whole story to another, readers don't want to sit through that if it's the exact same story they've already read. So, you can condense it into a simple sentence, like "he explained how he got there to the man."
Gray areas:
  • Adjectives and adverbs. Occasionally, I read about how evil these things are, and how some writers go on crusades to obliterate all of them. There's a good reason to: most of the time they're squeezing in some form of telling that's not necessary. The most blatant examples would be adding something like "cold" next to "tundra." Well duh, a tundra is cold by definition, so you don't need "cold." More importantly, words like these can be removed if it's shown in some other way (so if I've written a whole sentence that shows coldness, I don't need to describe the tundra as "cold." And if such a sentence doesn't exist, it needs to be written to replace the one adjective). HOWEVER: I believe it is possible to use adjectives and adverbs as description, especially if you want to maintain momentum or pacing. What sense does it make to stop everything to say "the car was red," when you could have a sentence like "the red car careened past me." In an instance like that, there is no other way to "show" a car being red, that's description. So why not entwine it with the action with adjectives and adverbs? The key is identifying what's an empty and useless "telling" description, and what's a description you can't have without having to stall things and say "x was y." I could be wrong about this, but I see successful adjectives and adverbs on occasion and I suspect this is one of the reasons.
  • Exposition. Otherwise known as the infodump. We see it all the time, in movies and everything. Anytime the text has to stop everything and explain to the reader something, it is inherently a form of telling. What makes it worse is that, most of the time, it's delivered either in author's voice (which should be a no-no unless you're in omniscient voice...I think), character voice (which can work if it's part of the action-reaction thought process, but can be intrusive if the character stops everything to address the reader and spell it all out), or in dialogue (which can work, but runs the risk of introducing "purple prose," or having characters talk in an unrealistic fashion, and it slows everything the heck down). If there are better ways to show information, do it--either with action, the plot itself, better-flowing dialogue, or something. HOWEVER: some things will have to be spelled out to the reader, finding the balance is the challenge. Science fiction demands some explanation for all the speculative technology and ideas that go into a story--Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, and most especially Michael Crichton explain all kinds of cool stuff to their readers. But they each find ways to relay their information in any number of ways, and it's not always a chore to read (Crichton in particular has this weird gift of stalling the action for essay-style writing, but still manages to entertain and make it accessible to laymen). Overall, exposition is a hard thing to nail down one way or another, you just have to use what tools you can, find a balance, and fix it when it doesn't work.
  • Narrative tags. This one might be up for controversy, but I've seen it argued time and again that "said" and "ask" are the only tags you can ever have. Anything else just trips up the reader and stalls their progress. Narrative tags must be invisible--"said" is a word readers skim over to read the actual meat of the dialogue (which is where all the "showing" happens anyway). HOWEVER: I'd argue that volume must play into your choice of words. "Said" has zero connotation of power or strength, as opposed to "yell" or "shout," which will make it clear that a verbal smackdown is happening. On the other hand, "said" implies normal speaking, but "whisper" or "mutter" suggests a volume nobody else will hear. How confusing would it be to have a character taking and nobody else reacting--but with the tag "whisper," there's no mistaking that the character's voice is going unheard. What really should be avoided are words like "reply," "explain," "state," "utter," etc. which add and modify nothing to the dialogue's tone, volume, or inflection. And if the tag tells the same thing that's shown in the dialogue, it should be changed.
There are many nuances and I'm not even sure I've captured them all. If nothing else, the following tips should help identify and improve your show-don't-tell skills:
  • Be specific. Generalizing leads to all the telling phrases and sentences. Narrowing it down to detailed descriptions is what prompts you to show everything.
  • Everything works with action and reaction. Unless he's the Joker or something, you're character is not going to run off and react to things without reason. Always dig into the "why" of everything they do, to pinpoint the source of their emotion and decisions with the inner dialogue so readers can follow and understand them.
  • Stop repeating yourself. If you've shown a thing, you don't have to tell a thing. Most self-editing I've done has been removing telling words and phrases that are inherently redundant to what's implicit to the rest of the writing. Look for those repetitive things and cut them out.