Thursday, January 1, 2009

Roy Rogers' Horse, Elephant in Living Room, Drunk in Parking Lot

trigger--a sensory recovering device by which sounds, smells, tastes, feelings and visions prompt the recall of previous incidents in the writer's life and then, by extension, may be transferred into the menu of response for characters; a process of recall and substitution allowing the writer to convincingly portray experiences and emotions the writer may not have actually experienced.

Many writers stumble onto this technique which is well known and used by actors, thanks to their fondness for music. The music may be used to drown out other ambient sounds--neighbors talking, telephones ringing, babies crying, dogs barking--or to provide an emotional background for the work at hand. The music triggers memories of actual events or memories of previous emotions, which influence the cadence, vocabulary, and tone of the work being written.

As the association with triggers increases (or the familiarity with acting techniques becomes more sophisticated), the writer associates memories of the feel of particular places or moods, or the smells,tastes, and sounds associated with past events to create a landscape for the work in progress. These sensual implants trigger associations within the reader, who is drawn farther into the emotions of a narrative.

Writers familiar with the technique keep lists of music they associate with particular moods or events, play that music while writing appropriate scenes. A notable example of a writer who appears to bring his lists into his published text is George Pelecanos, (The Night Gardener, The Turnaround) whose characters not only appreciate blues, popular, and rock music but argue about performers and specific solos. The genera of music and their composers are idiosyncratic and endless. Some suggestions: Howard Hansen, Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frederic Delius, Theolonious Monk, John Coltrane, Judy Collins, George Gershwin, Antonin Dvorak, Joanie Mitchell, James Taylor, Scott Joplin.

As the process of identifying triggers progresses, the writer will begin to see the value of keeping lists of meals and their varying tastes; beverages and their adjectival and sensual associations; and such potentials as the emotions evoked within the writer by a particular species of flower. This list of emotional associations could be extended to feelings about animals and insects. (Is a particular character a cat or dog person? Perhaps neither--perhaps a bird or a goldfish. Perhaps allergic. Perhaps fearful or disturbed by spiders or roaches. Or rats. Perhaps, as Count Fosco, Wilkie Collins' great villain in The Woman in White, did--keeping a pet mouse in his vest pocket.)

Not all persons, much less writers, will have the same emotional response to a particular stimulus. Not all listeners of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue will have the cultural background to associate the slightly sour opening swirl of clarinet with klezmer music, nor is that association necessary for them to be drawn into the composition, but such a trigger will immediately have impact on those familiar with klezmer. One land mine is a potential explosion, but it is not an entire war; one trigger is a potential emotional connection, but it is not the entire story.


elephant in the living room, the--the thing or condition noticed by characters but not talked about directly by them; a significant result of subtext (which see); a triggering force for the reader; the deliberate thematic presence intended by the author, an armature about which the relevant details of story are wrapped. Although often sexual in nature, the elephant in the living room may just as easily be political, religious, ethical, or a combination of the two such as science vs. religion.

drunk in the parking lot, the--a performance-impaired individual in a story; an individual in a dramatic narrative who is emotionally or physically challenged to a noticeable degree by the reader. The key to this trope may be found in actors whose role calls for them to appear drunk or under some related influence: they are seen as exaggerating their attempts to appear sober or normal or unfazed. The drunk in the parking lot may be seen trying to remember where he parked his car, then striding purposefully to it, perhaps too purposefully. The panicked individual is trying to hold onto a shred of control before abandoning it. The key is control, which the character in question has lost or given away and is now trying to regain.

matchmaker, the--a role played by the reader; a reader's natural tendency to pair up individual characters in a story. This is one of the places where the writer-as-consummate-control-freak must suck up the frustration and move on. As youngsters in playground situations are wont to observe, "This is a free country." A reader can and will do anything possible to a novel or short story, including misunderstanding it or putting it down unfinished. Readers will consider romantic possibilities between characters that the author never intended. Let them; it is a small price to pay. Being aware of the reader's tendency, add enough ambiguity to encourage the reader. (No, this is not pandering.)

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