Saturday, January 10, 2009

Discovery, Reader Feeder, Metaphor

discovery--information arrived at by a character after deliberate research, by accident, or the intervention of another character; dramatic details that will have some visible effect on a character's behavior and/or understanding of himself; awareness achieved by a character through sudden or gradual process that specific conditions need no longer obtain or that previous constraints are no longer necessary.

When a character discovers that he is no obliged to behave in an advisory or subservient capacity, he is able to move forward with the energy inspired by that awareness. Thus a son may part company with a controlling parent, but at what cost or result. When a character discovers that a trusted and revered mentor has been passing off her work as his own, she may well require a measure of revenge before being able to move forward. When a married couple discover their shared boredom with one another, they are ready to move forth to counseling, a joint vacation, divorce, or...

In a real sense, characters are making small discoveries each time they enter a scene with other characters or, during the course of a story arc, have a conversation with other characters. When going through the effects of a recently dead relative or friend, a character may make discoveries that will change the way in which the departed is remembered. When a character discovers by accident that he is not the biological product of those he'd imagined, his responses will certainly include bewilderment, anger, perhaps even resentment.

A detective may discover a clue that exculpates a suspect in a criminal investigation, an archaeologist may discover a tool or artifact that defines previously undocumented behavior, a child may discover that assurances to the contrary, not all adults tell the truth, a character in a fantasy may discover a portal leading to a new world, an adult may achieve a long-sought goal only to discover she is far from pleased with the result.

Discovery is the dramatic equivalent of fermentation; with it personalities, situations, and opinions may evolve from one form to another. Discovery may be the awareness of one character of her romantic feelings for another, the dislike of her job, or the shattering of a long-cherished basis of unquestioned faith.

Discovery walks along the path with naivete and conviction, playing a divide-and-conquer game, imploding to change the psychological landscape for characters and readers. Discovery is forbidden knowledge, the awareness and understanding some characters are at great pains to keep from others. Discovery is the Alka-Seltzer tablet of transparency, dropped into the glass of human history.

reader feeder, the--relevant dramatic information the writer wants the reader to know, inelegantly force fed to the text; intrusive authorial introduction of subtext, backstory, or information related to relationships among characters.

As the name implies, the reader feeder has the effect of turning the reader into the goose who is force fed to cause enlargement of its liver for a result of foie gras. Dramatic information is best communicated by the characters themselves, either through action, dialogue, or a combination of the two--but the action must seem plausible, as though the dialogue could actually be said, the action a plausible extension of the ongoing story. Conversations that are manufactured or seem too pat and convenient severely undercut the sense that there is a convincing story underway. Characters stumbling upon convenient newspaper headlines or just happening to overhear information that will enhance the story become speed bumps, jostling the sense of reality a story conveys.

Exaggerated example: "Say, John, didn't that remarkably attractive redhead over there used to attend law school with you all the while working a night job and barely eking out a living as a single mom?"

"No, Fred. She wasn't the one who was at the Yale Law School with me. That person did go on to clerk for a circuit judge and later become a U.S. attorney. The one you're looking at now and obviously find yourself attracted to is, however, an attorney and she did work her way through law school while serving as a night shift checker at a neighborhood grocery."

In a real sense, story is a tactical matter of getting dramatic information on the page through the movement and awareness of the characters, the relevance of the information a pawn in the ongoing chess game of show-vs-tell. The more relevant the information to the nature and outcome of the story, the more onus on it to be demonstrated.

A workable strategy for the writer is to keep out of the narrative, allow the characters to freight the data where ever possible, and avoid information dumps that seem overly convenient. Even with the given that all the information the writer wants the reader to have is relevant, it is better to under tell than to over tell.

A valuable litmus test for the reader feeder: If the passage seems too convenient, it probably is.

metaphor--a literary device in which a comparison between two persons, places, or things (often unseen previously) is made; a sudden awareness of similarity; an emphasis on the smaller or larger emphasis of a synecdoche (See). "Sometimes," Sigmund Freud said, "a cigar is only a cigar." By that statement, we may assume he meant the shape of the cigar is not to be construed as a phallic symbol or even a wand, merely a tightly wrapped bundle of selected aromatic tobacco leaves. But no matter what he said or meant, story is different and Sigmund Freud gives way to Yogi Berra in that, as the former baseball great might have said, "Even when it is only a cigar it is not only a cigar." Not in fiction, it isn't.

Metaphor is the explosive result of man's presumptuous brain, linking things, comparing them, evaluating them. Thus does all story become metaphor for something other than what it is. Beginning writers,whose early attempts at story may be misunderstood, gradually come to realize the Zen-like need of letting go of proprietary control of what metaphor their work will convey, a letting go that leads them to embrace ambiguity, from which they take the next significant steps forth in the arc of their career as writers.

Writers at all stages of emergence are well reminded of the need to avoid cliche in their choice of comparisons; cliche inhibits the growth of metaphor in a story. You need to remember that.

1 comment:

Querulous Squirrel said...

I think it was Flannery O'Connor who said of the process of fiction writing "If the writer doesn't discover anything, the reader won't either."