Monday, December 22, 2008

A Little Fear, a Little Plot, a Good Deal of Chemistry

fear--an essential presence needed to effect the needed vision in writing, acting, music, and visual renditions. Fear comes after the idea begins to emerge, precisely when the executor is poised and ready to execute the words or performance or visions; it is the fear of having overreached this time, not having suitable technique to accomplish the vision. Without fear, the resulting performance would be variously rote, boring, and deadly safe. Without fear there can be no discovery. Without discovery, writing becomes reportage, acting becomes mimicry, music becomes mechanical, visual renditions become parody.

In Pat Conroy's remarkable novel, The Great Santini, the young protagonist asks his Marine Corps fighter pilot father,"Are you ever afraid of anything when you fly?" The father, Lt. Col. Bull Meecham, replies, "Yeah. I'm always a little afraid when I fly. That's what makes me so damn good. I've seen pilots who weren't afraid of anything, who would forget about checking their instruments, who flew by instinct as though they were immortal. I've pissed on the graves of those poor bastards too. The pilot who isn't afraid always screws up..."

Be afraid. Fear is a good thing; it encourages writing about unsafe things.

plot--a design or floor plan for the placement of dramatic furniture; a feng shui of emotional obstacles, arranged to produce stress, action, and either some degree of solution or recovery. In order to qualify as story, the most opaque and elliptical of narrative arcs requires some plot design to give the reader the sense of having entered at one point and being transported to another. Equally, the narrative arc must draw two or more characters into a situation where such events as choice, humiliation, understanding, exultation, frustration, or successful achievement are within sight. Plot means someone is vulnerable to something, whether the ticking clock of time elapsing, romantic or artistic rejection, or the awareness of failure looming like the marine layers of mist and fog off the California and Oregon coastlines. For a writer to use plot as a verb means to arrange a plausible set of obstacles for one or more characters, then track them as they attempt to work themselves free. For characters to feel that others are plotting against them, they must be aware of an intent to frustrate their stated goals. Not all antagonistic plotting has malicious intent; it may be merely a doctrinal or philosophical placement of obstacle. When a character senses that the plotting against him is malicious, the reader senses an enhanced dramatic presence.

Most memorable plots are wound about the armature of a single basic emotion such as revenge, fear, love, ambition,and jealousy. These emotions are widely recognized across cultures and time, powerful enough, each in its way, to hold the most determined character in a stubborn grip.

plot-driven story--a narrative experience in which the intricacy and persistence of plot appears to take charge of the behavior exhibited by characters; a story in which the domino theory of scene and event holds priority over behavior by individuals. In plot-driven stories, characters are more likely to respond to the placement and removal of obstacles than they are to respond to their feelings about another character or their reactions to events. Some plot-driven stories approach high levels of character revelation and investigation; yet other plot-driven stories are so artful as to make the reader overlook the plot-driven nature of events. One such example is Richard Powers' unsettling novel, The Echo Maker. On close examination, Richard Price's novel, Lush Life, fits the definition of plot-driven, both examples being offered as refutation of the belief that plot-driven stories and longer works are necessarily inferior to stories in which characters and their responses seem to dictate behavior.

The plot-driven story serves as a challenge to the mature writer who is able to moderate between the mechanics of goals and obstacles and the inventive discovery of dimensional characters.

chemistry--a symbiotic, often unplanned relationship between characters in a story; a force or attraction that draws a writer to a dramatic situation or concept. By allowing characters full rein to interact and respond to one another, unintended relationships may flourish as the story progresses. To be open to such thunderstorms of chemistry, the writer must scrupulously avoid cliche or any other convenient shorthand, allow characters to respond with honesty to one another, whether they act on that honesty or not. If a writer is attracted to a dramatic situation where the conclusion appears already forgone, rather than rely on plot, the writer needs to investigate the characters involved, looking for the chemistry that provokes the creative energy necessary for closure.

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