"Gratuitous Motion"

pascal campion
You know how nice it is to discover someone else shares your view, and was kind enough to put it into a succinct explanation, right?  Well, I mentioned in Write It. Shoot It. that I am indebted to the fresh angle anime/Eastern animation can bring to the creative process, and today I want to unpack a method that I find is shared between myself and the award-winning animator Hayao Miazaki (whom I have mentioned on The Penslayer before).  You remember that there is a running fad in literature today to cut numerous "unnecessary" words?  This method kind of flies in the face of that.
I told Miyazaki I love the "gratuitous motion" in his films; instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.
"We have a word for that in Japanese," [Miyazaki] said. "It's called ma. Emptiness. It's there intentionally."
Ma. Emptiness. But not a meaningless emptiness.  On the contrary, this "emptiness" is swollen with meaning, with life, with a purpose which is not dictated by the rushing helter-skelter of the artist's idea of the plot.  This emptiness brings dimension and life to the character, because it makes that character's life so like our own. 
[Miyazaki] clapped his hands three or four times. "The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension at 80 degrees all the time, you just get numb."
I hear a lot of people tell writers to cut any text that doesn't progress the plot - and in large measure that advice is absolutely spot on.  You shouldn't fill your manuscript with unnecessary trips to unnecessary places, you shouldn't drag the narration out when you could have just split the section and picked back up where you needed to be.   But I do feel there is a time and a place for the "emptiness" to descend on the plot, if only for a moment.  Sit still for a moment.  Sigh.  Look at something which has nothing to do with the narrow tunnel of the plot: it gives breathing space, it gives dimension, it gives the sense even for the characters that life goes on despite one's own immediate battle.
If you stay true to joy and astonishment and empathy you don't have to have violence and you don't have to have action. [The audience will] follow you.
As a descriptive matter of course in Talldogs the other day, I sat one of my characters down with a book.  It is the sort of thing he would do.   I pulled in a jumble of plot tension and progression, and after that, as my characters were sorting things out, I had my main character ask the other what book he was reading.  The book has nothing to do with the plot, but the book has to do with their lives, with dimension, and technically that conversation about that otherwise meaningless book is emptiness.  It is only a small piece of emptiness, not enough to bore the reader, and yet I find it of an utmost importance because it gives breathing space.  Without it, the plot would be two-dimensional and the characters would exist solely for the purpose of "fixing" the plot's problems.  But that is not what they exist for.  They exist because I made them, they have lives because I wanted them to, and I give them dimension because I love them.  I let them have their breathing space.  I let them have the emptiness.  I have already seen in readers a response of refreshment from this imitation of life in art, so I am not afraid to use it. 
What about you?  Do you use ma?

14 ripostes:

  1. I am learning to use "ma". I find myself full of many abstracts that respond violently to other peoples' "ma", but it can be difficult for me to put those abstracts into words myself...but I am learning.

  2. While you are learning, do you enjoy it? Do you enjoy those quiet moments that are there, not because you are kicking your heels trying to figure out what comes next, but because that moment of emptiness must come next?

  3. I think the important philosophy of making every word count stripped the "ma" from my writing a while back, and while I can think of one or two scenes in which a bit was employed, for the most part everything has significance.

    At the beginning of this post, if I'm honest, I was rebelling. "What do you mean put in a scene/action/etc that won't further the plot? What's the point?" But you convinced me when you pointed out that breathing space is necessary. I suppose I take it for granted in the literature I read, and then when it comes to writing, forget about it. Time to work that little "ma" back into my plots!

  4. I expected that people would rebel at the outset. Ma is diametrically opposed to everything we are taught to do as writers. And yet ma is in lockstep with our lives. With something so simple as this momentary emptiness, this check - like a bird stalling on the wing before it lands - you infuse your writing with another level of reality, which is what we always strive to achieve in our writing!

  5. You - among other writers - taught me ma. I looked at bits and bobs of my writing just now and noticed a great deal of it - the game of draughts, for instance, and the lionskin. (IF you know what I mean.) I think the trick is not adding in huge long sections about characters tooling off to stores simply to give the reader more time with the character; the trick is just writing, and allowing those extra moments, those short exchanges, to slip in where they want to. You just have to make sure you're on the lookout for them, because otherwise you'll miss them - and they often end up being much more important than you would think at first blush.

    I mixed one for him, and then, after an uncertain moment, another for myself, brought them back to the living room and shoved the glass at his face. “Here. Drink up—drown your sorrows.”

    He roused with the scent of alcohol under his nose. “What’s this?” he asked mechanically; but he took his first experimental taste before I answered, and by the dart of pleasure in his face, I gathered it was more acceptable than my tea had ever been. I hitched myself onto the stool and for a time there was reverent silence while we drank, only the ice making an occasional sharp comment.

  6. I do enjoy it--so much. I am all about the little things in life, and notice them like many people do NOT. I just enjoy them without exploiting them...which doesn't do much for "ma" in my stories but is pleasant enough itself. :)I am learning though! You have taught me, among others.

  7. "To alcohol! The cause of - and solution to - all of life's problems." Or at least your characters'. As Abigail has adroitly demonstrated, the act of imbibing, such a ubiquitous and ritualistic act as it is, often provides the perfect space for these little breaths. Your character wanders off the dusty trail into a drinking establishment, orders a drink (which drink will tell the reader a lot about him already, or at least about the kind of day he's had), and banters a bit with the server - about the weather, local politics, the outcome of various sporting matches - all those little background realities that take up so much of our time. And this pattern will hold true whether you're in a smoky dive in SoHo, a tavern in 1500's London, or a grimy cantina on some backwater planet in the Outer Rim.

    Related to both this and your previous post, I am becoming increasingly convinced, the more I read, and especially the more I read more (post-)modern authors, that aesthetic is as essential to a good story as characters. Plot (or some semblance thereof) is necessary, of course, but becomes tertiary at best when compared with the actors and their metaphysical setting. To return to an oft-used touchstone of mine, Ulysses is probably the ultimate example of this, where a "day-in-the-life" story becomes a tour de force of linguistic aesthetic.

    Every story has been told before, multiple times. It's the how of the telling - the individual facets of the gem that we choose to polish, the truths that we choose to emphasize (and those that we choose to leave dormant) - that distinguishes our turn at the orator's podium. As such any scene or paragraph or sentence or word that establishes or builds or reinforces the aesthetic is welcome, peripheral to the story as it might be. The reader can learn to be patient, or he can sod off. Of course, that doesn't mean that fat-trimming and darling-killing and all those other editorial evils aren't necessary - the engineering maxim "form follows function" still holds, but in the case of art function can be form.

    One final thought: one of my pet tropes is the notion of truth by way of negation - the shadow proves the sunshine, so to speak. Your concept of emptiness applies here as well: by tracing all the empty space around a thing, the thing itself appears.

  8. I like this notion. I think the idea of stillness within a story can be startling at first: how do I write without knowing where I'm going? But the concept of ma is much more powerful than that, though I did not know its name until today. It's choosing to suspend the action for the time being, just long enough for the ice to clink in the glass as Abigail's excellent snippet displayed, but still knowing fully and acutely where the plot will go next. The momentary lull that gentles the reader's senses rather than overbearing him with fire and clash and sunlight every waking moment. Rosemary Sutcliff does this masterfully; I think some of my favorite moments within The Eagle of the Ninth were the ones when Marcus or Esca would pause, whether in speaking or acting. That breath of emptiness would often strengthen and enlarge the following action.

  9. Oh, wow Jenny, you've really hit the big time - you've got spammers!

    (For those of you who maybe don't spend a whole lot of time on the Internet, I would strongly recommend that no one click on the link in comment number 9.)

  10. Chewie - By deleting the spammer, I seem to have inadvertently made you number nine. I've got spammers before, but Blogger catches the bulk of them before they are allowed to go live. Thanks for the warning on that one. :)

    What does the Good Book say? "Wine makes life merry"? (But then, that was Ecclesiastes, which reads uncommonly like Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.) Et, le bon Dieu est dans le detail. The small, seemingly unimportant details of a story and its characters are what make them relatable, real, and give them dimension. Tells you a lot about a man, which drink he chooses... Tangentially, I keep trying to convince people that "truth by negation" is what Lewis Carroll was doing with logic in his Alice stories. No one believes me.

    Abigail - That - that scene - is exactly what I am talking about. I think I was at some level of a Brandy Callum at the time I read it, so it definitely struck a chord with me. XD And the trick is just writing, coupled with that knack I mentioned before of listening to the rhythm of things. If you don't know that ma happens in your own life, you'll miss it when it should happen in your characters'. What you said.

    Elizabeth Rose - Again, it is very different from what we are taught in creative writing courses and in many of the self-help writing tutorials you'll come across. I've always felt that those books and articles and classes are too fast, they are all rushing at the end product, trying to make the writer perfect at once. "Don't Do These Things," "How To Avoid the Pitfalls of a Weak Character," "Outline Your Plot." It's all do - do - do and no breathing space at all.

    You remember the rose bush in The Eagle of the Ninth? That is ma.

  11. Ooh, nice post! I believe it's good to have breathing space, and you've expressed that so beautifully! Emptiness! I like it. :)

    I sometimes get annoyed when books are all bang-bang-bang action/danger/suspense/tension. (Which is why I get annoyed when people so constantly say that EVERY SINGLE thing in your book should advance the plot. All that does is make it so I'm never surprised at sudden "revelations" that the characters realize sometime, about some minor detail earlier. Because I know that if there's a detail, it's there for a reason.)

    Also I've only seen "Howl's Moving Castle" by that fellow, and I adored it. (Though nothing can quite replace the book for me... :D)

    I think certain movies (*cough* The Hobbit 2 *cough*) would learn a lot from this post... ;)

  12. Not at all, I'm sure... I had anticipated just such an event and deliberately omitted my customary Mystery Link from that comment, so as to avoid any future confusion.

    I'll buy that Carroll interpretation - after all, the man was a professor of logic and mathematics. His logic puzzles are collected in the Big Book O' Dodgson (by Mssrs Barnes & Noble, Booksellers) and he certainly writes with a certain incisive clarity that hints that his nonsense is intentional. I can't help but get the feeling that his modern spiritual successor is a certain balloon-butt pink pony. "And that's how Equestria was made!"

  13. Since I read the article in questioned several months ago, I realized it was exactly what I adored about Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki's movies. They let you stop and take a breath, really drink in the atmosphere, and I determined to do the same with my books. It doesn't always work, as my biggest fault is rushing through - but I'm getting better.

  14. Deborah - Those sudden "revelations," the characters seeing some minor detail, is a trick I learned some time ago, and still use. It is often a great way of folding in foreshadowing: somehow that momentary lapse of all large, "important" things and the focus upon some simple, small object in the foreground of the character's life raises the hair on my skin with a sense of the weird - in both the traditional, English sense of "weird" and in the Norse sense. That is not truly ma, but it is important in the way that ma is important.

    Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle" is not as good as the original book, although the film did incorporate elements from the sequel House of Many Ways. But...it's still Miyazaki. :P

    Chewie - If you're going to write a book so sensibly nonsensical as the Alice duo, you must have a firm grasp on logic itself. Is what I say.

    Mirriam - I think I read a snippet from the article when I was in Glasgow, and then the whole idea of the post came to me a few days ago. I'm rewatching "Kiki's Delivery Service," and really noticing the back-to-back scenes of simple quiet cityscape that have really nothing to do with Kiki or any of the principle characters. But they have to do with your sense of the space, and you as a character interacting with the story itself. Which is awesome. And I think it's a way of perceiving the world: you can't force it. You can't think, "I'm going to write ma." Ma just happens, like the space between clapping. But you have to be willing to slow down and see it to remark on it. :)