We’ve been on a Star Wars kick at the Meek household lately. And being the Power Nerds that we are, this has included all of the DVD extras. Yes, all of them. (Well, Episode I doesn’t count.) Most of it’s stuff we already know, or the typical “Here’s the 27 different elements we shot to make 8 seconds of Jar Jar Binks getting his butt stuck in a space elevator” special effects breakdown. And yet, we still watch it.
Stuck in the middle of a 2-hour hagiography of George Lucas and the Original Trilogy is an amazing piece of footage. One that’s actually a remarkable lesson to writers, musicians, artists – really, anyone in a creative field. It’s not long – just a few seconds – and it’s not part of the final film, or even a deleted scene. Nobody’s in costume, and it’s in black and white.
What is it?
It’s audition footage of Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford enacting an early draft of the Millennium Falcon’s arrival in the debris field that was once Alderaan.
For those of you not familiar (or perhaps not recalling the particular scene), it’s a moment with some drama in the final film. Our heroes have a sense of something very big being Not Right. And while the scene doesn’t exactly play with over-wrought tension, it’s nevertheless an important part of the plot.
So, why is an early version of this scene so notable? Simple. Instead of playing it out with few words and many looks of abject shock, this earlier draft instead contains an extended explanation of the radiation readings.
Radiation readings? Yes, radiation readings.
Nobody cares about the radiation readings. Teching the tech doesn’t sell it to an audience – we don’t have any emotional connection to a fictional radiation scale, nor do we understand why our heroes are reacting more to a dial than the debris field that was once a planet with millions of inhabitants. Filling the moment with more words actually lowers the tension in the scene.
Everyone who’s ever taken a 100-level writing course has heard the phrase “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, leave some space for the reader’s imagination to interpret what you’re writing, and their experience will be fuller for it.
The concept is just as true in music. Too often, we hear dense harmonies on two mid-range instruments in a spot where one of them playing an open 5th would serve just as well. We hear 4-on-the-floor kick patterns that, instead of opening up to a “heartbeat”, devolve into 8th’s on the kick and quarters on the crash. (The universal sign that a drummer is out of ideas, by the way.) We hear vocal lines that spend the first 8 bars getting all their ideas in, and are then stuck for the following 40.
Throwing more stuff at the listener doesn’t always equal a bigger moment. Play the edges of the idea – show the listener the idea rather than telling them in explicit detail. Find the high point in the song, make it a moment, and work your part backwards from there. Find the important instrument in that moment (especially when it’s not the one you’re playing), and play to support it. Give the moment intensity by giving it focus.
Nobody cares about your radiation readings.