Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hanging in the Balance

A mantra is a series of words or syllables which combine the names or aspects of the godhead and are intended as an adjunct to meditation. The word has its roots in Sanskrit, which is itself intended as a language by which to convey the meaning and intensity of mystical scripts, formulas, chants, and poems. To make matters even more intriguing, the words used in Sanskrit-based mantras are encapsulations of the personalities of gods and goddesses are additionally special, meaning that even a person who has some Sanskrit is not likely to use these so-called bija or jewel words except when chanting or meditating on mantras that contain them.

This is probably more than you wanted to know about mantras and Sanskrit and bija words, just as Melville probably, now that you think about it, told you more about whales than you want to know. But the fact is that there are mantras for the writing and telling of story; they are not in Sanskrit nor do they have bija words in them. One of the more powerful mantras for story telling is: Never take the reader where the reader wants to go. Meditating on this mantra has caused many aspiring writers to understand how important it is not to tell the reader too much about whales until the reader is sufficiently invested in the story that he has to suffer the stuff on whales to find out what happens to the characters. When the reader is sufficiently caught up in the story, the writer can successfully thrown in a chapter or two about whales and although the reader may ultimately complain, the reader will, as some recent characters in American political activities have put it, stay the course.

Another mantra of significant value to the writer is the single word withhold, a word and concept not to be taken lightly. The reader reads to be made interested in characters who take on a bigger-than-life resonance, continuing to read to see what happens to the characters. At more or less the moment the reader finds out, the story is over. In answer then to the question, when does a story end, the answer becomes When the reader finds out what happens. In exaggerated theory, the ideal place for the discovery or revelation or even the backstory-as-explanation is the penultimate chapter of a novel because, cumbersome as such an arrangement might be, the reader would put up with it to find out what happens. Come to think of it, the reader would even put up with all that stuff about whales to find out what happened to Ishmael.

The product created by withholding is suspense.

Suspense is the glue that holds stories together.

Mantras may lead to insight, even mystical union. Suspense leads to dramatic discovery.


Kate Lord Brown said...

Wasn't it Hemingway who said it's as much what you know and withold about a character as what you let slip that gives a story depth and suspense? It's the things you sense between the lines that keep you reading until the end hoping to find out what's going on, why someone is the way they are.

Rowena said...

I'm going to practice this mantra as I write the next installment of my saga. I do not think my specialty is suspense, but it would greatly improve things.

Your posts always give me so much to think about.