Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The magic of 300

No, not the number of Spartans who tried to fight off the entire Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae.

Rather, the word count of my film reviews.

That's right, I've been on a strict self-imposed diet of 300 words per review since about 2001. I say it's self-imposed, but the guideline actually originated with my employers. I don't recall the actual wording of their passage on this in the style book, but it conveyed the fact that we should be able to say what we needed to say about a film in 300 words or less -- whether it was Freddy Got Fingered or Citizen Kane.

Since many writers regularly broke it without penalty, the guideline was just that -- a guideline. But I thought it made sense, especially since we weren't breaking up our reviews into multiple paragraphs. One big chunk on a page gets a little unwieldy after 300 words.

As a newcomer, I was amazed by the thrilling economy displayed by some of my predecessors. In fact, although it certainly could have been beefed up, the review for Raiders of the Lost Ark feels pretty much complete, even at a scant 154 words.

I've never been able to be anywhere near that concise, nor would I really want to be -- even though I don't get paid that much, I feel like 150 words is stealing their money. But what strikes me as funny is that I pretty much do end up writing 300 words, whether it's a frivolous movie I hate, or a classic movie I love. The few times I've broken the rule, deciding that this or that film was good enough to deserve 375-400 words (a decision fully endorsed by my editors), I've always felt a bit like a failure afterward -- like I indulged, like I couldn't make tough choices, like I couldn't consolidate my commentary to what really mattered. Even though I break this rule only when I have too much to say about a movie I love -- say, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer -- I still feel bad afterward, like a less-is-more approach would have served the movie better.

A lot of time, I take these 300 words literally. I know no one is counting but me, but 301 words is one too many. You can always find a word to cut, no matter how tight you think your writing is. And it's a good lesson -- it makes you a better writer. It's not a lesson I follow too often on my blog, I'll grant you that -- I let the flab hang out. (Maybe I'm not as concerned about the consequences, even though I certainly should care whether you keep reading or not.) But I love the challenge in my reviews. Even when I'm up to 325, and I don't think it's possible, I can always get down to 300, and I'll have that much better a piece of writing to show for it.

Of course, such brevity is only possible due to the unique structure of the website I write for. Until recently, the reviews themselves bore no responsibility for explaining the plot. That task was left up to the plot synopsis, a separate piece of writing on a separate tab of the movie's home page. When our reviews appeared on other websites without such tabs, the synposes would appear alongside them, an indispensable companion piece to the review. This allowed us to just get straight down to it, to use our 300 words for breathless praise or snide sarcasm, rather than the who's who and the what's what.

Lately, however, there's been a change. My company's business is to provide content to other websites, which is why I see my name pop up in the darnedest of places. Lately, the company has become the sole provider of new online reviews for an institution with whom you are well acquainted -- in the interest of blogger anonymity, I won't reveal it here. And as a result of this new agreement, the review and the synopsis now appear as one, bulging the review's total size out to 700, 800, even 1,000 words.

The new system is a lot more like a regular long-form review you'd see in the newspaper, or in a magazine. But it's a lot less like the format I've gotten comfortable with over nearly ten years of writing only the review portion. I've written exactly five reviews of new releases in this format, and in each case, I've agonized over it. And in each case, I've breathed a sigh of relief when I could return to my regular format, the one I use on the back catalog of older films -- you know, like Seven Up, the documentary released in 1963, which I reviewed today.

This is a problem for two reasons:

1) Every critic aspires to write long-form reviews.

2) Every critic aspires to review new releases.

To hide behind my perfect 300 words is to shy away from both those goals.

The funny thing is, my consternation is not because I'm no good at writing plot synopses. I've written some 50 synopses for the site over the years, and they're much faster than reviews. I find it pretty easy to encapsulate what's important to know about a film without crossing over into that slippery territory of spoiling the surprises. In fact, if all I did was synopsize films all day, it would almost be a good substitute for reviewing them.

It's working the synopsis organically into the body of the review that really gets me.

I've found no better way than to follow this paragraph structure: 1) Opening with general thesis about the movie; 2) Synopsis; 3/4) More substantive analysis and closing thoughts.

So what's wrong with that? Eh, I don't know, it's just been bothering me.

I feel like there should be a good way to weave plot into my criticism, but I just haven't figured it out yet. I know other critics can do it. But I haven't figured out how to do it without that line of demarcation between plot and opinion, the line of demarcation that comes at the end of a paragraph.

And now I realize what it is -- it's not going over that perfect 300-word threshold that bothers me. It's going into that second paragraph (and the third, and the fourth). I don't really want to "outline" a review -- to figure out what I might say, when. I just want to string the sentences together from my witty opening to my zinging final line. Forget all the "structure" that comes between. A couple reviews I've written in the past have been split into two paragraphs. I've always thought it didn't look right, because I didn't write it to be split.

It's worked for me for nearly 10 years -- why change now?

Well, the answer is, it's worked for me for nearly 10 years. Comfort zones are made to be broken. Aspirations take effort to achieve. Who knows what forms my future reviewing will take, but if I stay content with 300-word reviews that earn me only slightly more that my costs, what will I really have?

A long, unchanging career where I must always keep a primary job to stay afloat.

So maybe 300 words is as much my curse as my blessing. Maybe, on my next assignment, I'll bust it open with pleasure, and indulge in those freedoms that more words can give me.

Hey, I guess it works on my blog, if you're still reading this.

No comments: