Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Safety Net.

1. One serious reason for Jonesing in fiction is the knowledge that while we sit safely in our reading venue, the characters are sent forth to places where we do not wish to tread.

2. The readers' safety net is the knowledge that something worse will happen to the character before long; when worse things cease, so does the story.

3. As writers we know about this reader's safety net and exploit it by never taking the reader where he wants to go.

4. As readers we do what many affluent persons do in times of war--hire a surrogate to report on our behalf.

5. We are voyeurs as readers, our empathy growing in direct proportion to our concern for the safety of the characters and our growing suspicion that they will be led astray.

6. We know they will be led astray.

7. We want them to be led astray.

8. Never, never take the reader where the reader wants to go.

9. If you have ever considered travel writing, consider that the best venues to write about are the forbidden, enjoined venues, the boundaries crossed over, the trespass.

10. It is a splendid jape to establish a character with strict boundaries--then have that character step tentatively at first then boldly over the border. Now, you're cooking.

11. Characters who have intense senses of boundary--territoriality, you might say--are ripe for humor.

12. Characters who more or less annex the territory of others are interesting in the extreme and have the power to change, which is, after all, another condition of story.

13. As readers we hope to learn from the way characters respond to moral dilemmas or to feel superior to them for falling for temptations we fantasy but do not trespass into. Yet.

14. Temptation = the unthinkable come to pass. I.e. we each of us know the limits to trespass in the depiction of temptation.

15. You can never oversell temptation; it has a direct link to your vocabulary.

16. Do not write safe things.

17. Beginning writers allow the desire for publication to adumbrate risk, causing their work to seem ordinary.

18. Find out what your character wants, what your character is willing to do to achieve that goal, and where that character draws the line beyond which he will not trespass. Then have something tempt him over.

19. Writers who understand this causal equation may well be regarded as shocking or crude or brutal, but they will be read long past the time when what the wrote about seems shocking or crude or brutal.

20. You can be concerned with being nice after you've finished your day's writing quota, but not during.


Unknown said...

This made me think of American Psycho . As a reader, I am difficult to shock or disgust, on an emotional level. That book did both. I admired it enormously, and still do. Ditto Sabbath's Theater , much the same kind of book, about pushing a character further than anyone ever dreamt he would go, and letting the reader squirm at his own voyeuristic pleasure, and the knowledge that if faced with the same situation, he wouldn't do the same things ... except that if he could get away with it, he absolutely would do the same things.

I sometimes have a curious notion that fictional characters serve as the modern equivalent of the Celtic Sin Eaters.

But that's not a notion I really talk about ... although at my funeral, I rather hope that Magnus Eisengrim shows up to consume my wrongdoings. I would consider that a fitting end.

R.L. Bourges said...

10. I splendid jape indeed, monsieur Lowenkopf. Tell me - do you like braised duck, Moroccan style?

Unknown said...

18 and 19 strike home with me. I am often hesitant to write of the things I wish to, for fear of shocking and disgusting readers. But I look back at the author's whose works are still discussed with either horror or fondness, and find that they are the ones who dared to venture forward, and say the things that are in everyone's minds, but that we work to bury and hide so well. One specific example called to my mind is the Marquis De Sade. I am forcing myself through "Justine" at the moment, just to say that I have read a piece of his writing. It will probably be the last that I read, but the fact that it is still being read today, long after his insanity has blinked out of existence in the physical world, says something to what readers are looking for. No, we don't want the mundane, we don't want the predictable, or the comfortable. We can turn to our own personal stories for those things, but the things that take us outside the sphere of our own lives, and into other venues, are the ones that will last. Tolkien and Lewis take us to other worlds, De Sade takes us to the most abhorrent depravities of the human mind, Orwell and Huxley both take us into a ghastly future while reminding us of our ghastly present, Braham Stoker and Mary Shelly take us deep into our fears of the dark and what we think may lurk there. And on it goes, where authors reveal dimensions of ourselves that we have locked the doors to, and conveniently misplaced the keys. They are skilled locksmiths, those authors. We long to be taken away from our perceived mundane world, and also to realize that the author has done nothing more than hold up a mirror to who we are, which is not quite as mundane as we originally thought.

Anonymous said...

I love this post. Not blogging doesn't mean not writing. You are still my teacher. Just wanted you to know - Gloria