Tuesday, September 23, 2008

When, toward the end of what can easily be considered to be the travails of Jane Eyre, the eponymous narrator says of Mr. Rochester, "Reader, I married him." and Rudyard Kipling says in his Just-So Stories, "Dearly beloved," each was breaking a rule set in place with some firmness from about the Nineteenth Century onward. For different reasons, each was addressing the reader, breaking the so-called wall between author and reader in which the author did not recognize the presence of the reader.

In each of the cited cases, the lapse served to enhance my already intense pleasure in the material, my place within it as eavesdropper. Even now, as I write this, there is a distinct pleasure rampant within me at the thought of eavesdropping because it--that process--is so vital to the sense of how I read and write fiction. A conversation between two characters may well advance the story and reveal things about the participants, but it also provides me with the delicious sense of having overheard something that passed between two individuals who have life and agenda and secrets and fantasies and ambitions and--what else? I am in on some one's secret or some one's life; I may, if I persist, get more--

In real life, there is more of a gray no-person's land between eavesdropping and mere overhearing. Standing in line at the supermarket check-out stand , I hear bits of conversation which I may take in or block out as suits my whim. Waiting in line at a theater affords similar opportunities, cruising the aisles of a gallery provide even more. People talk, and who is to say when or where the best and most intriguing snippets of conversation emerge. My note pads and Moleskines are filled with actual conversations that went somewhere before they ebbed back into going nowhere, which is where conversations in real life ultimately go, the refuse heap of undramatic intent. Fact still remains, I ran the best 10-K of my career eavesdropping on two young ladies who were discussing various adventures on various dates. Fact also remains that Nancy Simon, Neil's remarkable daughter, once brought such a story into Saturday workshop, based on something she'd overheard at the Russian Tea Room, wherein a girl at a nearby table was telling her date, "So, this is the place where guys bring girls to break up with them," and the guy responded, "By the way, I think we should consider the possibility of, you know, seeing other people." Nancy's date had heard the same conversation and responded to her, "Yeah, I guess it's a tradition, taking them somewhere nice so maybe they'll think twice about crying." A conversation that quickly moved toward, "You know, you're the kind that would cry in a situation like that." I thought The Threpenny Review, which turned out to be just right.

There are numerous ways for and reasons to break that wall between reader and characters. I was more than fascinated by a production of Jack Gelber's play, The Connection, in San Francisco, when during the break between acts, the actors mingled among the audience, trying to hustle money from them, giving credence to the belief that these characters were actual users with big time Joneses. Some years later, as the co-producer and writer and actor of mystery dinner plays, I'd do in character to audiences what I'd hesitate to do in real life, including lifting shrimp from their hors d'oeurves plate and getting away with it, and in another instance trying to borrow a twenty from someone in the audience because the producer was a cheapskate.

Rules and conventions.

At the time of the Globe Theater, women characters were played by boys. Twelfth Night is a splendid example of a boy portraying a girl, Viola, who portrays a boy,Cesario. That convention was a given in the day. Look how Larry Gelbart used that very convention to the same kind of advantage with Dustin Hoffman portraying Tootsie.

Some rules and conventions to be looked upon with rousing suspicion:

Show, don't tell.

Only write from your own experience.

If there is a shotgun on the wall, it must go off during the arc of the story.

Don't use flashbacks.

If a character is left-handed, we should be shown some reason for it.

Plant your clues early so that they may be dug up at the right time.

Every story must have a theme.

Short stories should only have one point of view.

Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph.

Don't have a story in which characters have the same or similar-sounding names.

Don't tell jokes in novels or short stories.

There are more to be sure and each one can and should be taken down from its perch on the roost of Convention, defeathered, and eaten for a snack. Every one of these rules has been broken with panache and professional eclat by Joe Wambaugh among others they will be broken again.

Read Mark Twain's informative How to Tell a Story, not only for his wit and instruction but for the answer to whom among the others will break the rules next.

Rule of Writer's Thumb: If it sounds logical, don't do it.

4 comments:

mapelba said...

Talking about rules reminds me of people who say things like--I was only doing my job. My favorite comeback to that is in an episode of, yes, Doctor Who--"And with that statement you've just lost the right to talk to me."

I was only writing by the rules...

Matt said...

I've recently stumbled upon a wonderful pub just outside the heart of Toronto's financial district, where, even if I'm just sitting and reading a book w/ a pint at the bar, I can hear some of the best (and most foul) dialogue - such broad, brooding, cocky characters. With the volatility of the stock markets these days, I've been able to absorb some wonderful bits of "businessman stress language".

Shelly Lowenkopf said...

Marta: another "excuse I hear a great deal is, "But that's the way it really happened."

Matt: There's your entree to a grittier, more plausible-sounding docu-dramatic approach. One of the better TV series for me, in the pre-David Simon Homicide and The Wire world came out of Canada, dealt with a news-gathering organization, and had me thinking the Canadians understood dialog because it didn't blink.

Matt said...

Do you recall the show? Was it a drama/comedy? It's always a bit surprising to know what Canadian shows get exposure down there.