I think Ian McEwan is a master. Whether you like his style or not, he knows how to write. Atonement is very much a story about storytelling -- from the first beginning (as Briony finishes writing The Trials of Arabella to the last scene), it's all about writing.
That's why I want to share with you Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules for writing fiction, and see how McEwan fares with Atonement:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
Arguably it depends on the readers. Some people think this book or movie is too slow, not interesting enough. Personally, I think McEwan engages us right from the beginning and makes us think about what we see and how we see things. The first half of the book or movie is very intricate and makes you wonder what happens next. And the ending. Some people may think they've wasted a few hours of their lives because of the ending (some feel that way about the ending of No Country for Old Men as well). To me, the ending brings everything together. I keep thinking about it, so it's definitely not time wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
McEwan's characters are so rich and wonderful. Yes, you may not like Briony or Lola or even Cecilia, but there are many characters we can gladly root for: Robbie, for one, and if he loves Cecilia, who are we to argue with him? Then there's Nettle, Fiona, the French soldiers, etc.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
I think that's where McEwan really excels. Every character wants something, and it's very clear what they want. They have very strong motivations through the end. And these wants and needs create so much conflict. Briony, Cee, and Robbie are strong characters because they have strong desires and needs. Even the peripheral characters want something: Marshall, Lola, Nettle, Fiona, Mrs. Tallis, etc.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
Again, McEwan does it very well. His prose is very layered. Some may say there's no action but I disagree. His plot is constantly moving forward, even if the pace is slow, but at the same time, reveals much character. The film excels as well in that every frame not only reveal character, but also advance the story. Even if you think the plot is slow in the middle, it never really stops moving. You always wonder what happens next.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
This is very hard to judge. The story starts in 1935 but ends in 1999. But I think what Vonnegut meant is that start as close to the inciting incident as possible... what the story is really about -- and that would be the fountain scene. That's when it sets everything in motion up until the end. Even Briony's story is called Two Figures by a Fountain. Some argues that the story should have enough background about Cee and Robbie to make us care about them more -- I agree, but at the same time, I think the story begins where it should. The backstories are filled in later.
6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Again, I think McEwan does it very well. The most awful things happen to the people we care about. And that's what makes drama so riveting. And I'm very interested in seeing the differences in reaction: Some people hate Briony, some think it's way too sad and depressing for them, some didn't really care -- I think that's exactly why it's such a great story, because it really does show us "what we're made of."
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
I think McEwan wrote this to please his wife, and it shows, and I don't think he strives to please everyone. That's why there are so many detractors -- people who hate epic love stories, for example. McEwan didn't write the story for them.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Now I don't agree with that. I think the rule I go by, as a writer, is this: Give your readers as much information as possible WHEN they're ready for it. I like suspense, and I think McEwan did a fine job creating suspense: What happened at the estate on that fateful summer day? What will happen to Robbie and Cee... and he kept the plot close to his vest. That's how I prefer to write as well. But I agree that when the time is right, you need to reveal as much as possible -- for example, the history between Robbie and Cee. You can't hold back information from them to force "suspense." They need to know where and why, and what is going on.
Here you go, another long analysis about the film. :)