Friday, January 9, 2009

TFS: the Secret Element of Fiction

vulnerability--a condition or state experienced by characters in stories which leave them open to be harmed, harassed, or hurt by external circumstances or by the activities of other characters; a state of unpreparedness or weakness resident in an individual character; a resident attitude or emotion such as hubris, pride, prejudice in a character that signals to the reader potentials for dramatic opposition or reversal.

An influential presence in story, vulnerability in a character adds to the impression of plausibility in that individual, enlists the reader in the process of wanting that character to succeed or fail, paves the way for potential conflicts of interest or changing of agendas.

Questions to ask of a character: What is he/she vulnerable to? Flattery? Enhanced social position? Power? Love? Money? Enhanced professional position? Guilt? One of these or a combination can help define a character while simultaneously augmenting the dramatic quagmire in which the character struggles. Further question: Is a character who is not vulnerable a plausible human being?

Vulnerability is as welcomed in plot-driven stories as in those propelled by character articulation.

TFS--a useful acronym for fiction writers and dramatists who are overly given to descriptions and explanations; a reminder of the true task at hand. TFS: Tell the freaking story.

comma splice--the use of a comma to link two or more independent clauses, eliminating a conjunction in the transaction. Example: He went outside, forgot to close the gate behind him. Worse still: He went outside, forgot to close the gate behind him, left the dog free to escape.

Often given as a reason by editors for rejecting manuscripts without further regard to story, the comma splice by its very nature imparts a lurching quality to prose, distracting and distancing readers from continuing a narrative, perhaps due to the association its use provokes of gasping pre-teens, relating the plot points of a movie they've just seen. In the hands of experienced, text-savvy writers such as the late mystery writer Dennis Lynds, it can be an effective trait of a narrating character. Vladimir Nabakov, writing in Lolita of the death of Humbert Humbert's wife did so in two words (Picnic, lightning.), turning the splice into an art form. Thus the risk and gamble factors.

A comma splice may often be cured by changing the comma to a semicolon; it is also grammatically correct to cure the splice or so-called run-on with "and," although this use opens another Pandorra's Box in which that use of "and" places the user in company with everyone's favorite habit word (See), producing such tropes as: She got up and walked across the room and looked out the window and saw the car coming up the driveway and then ran out to meet it. Such excesses become a reminder that while "and" is useful and readily understandable as a connector of clauses, "and" is best used to enumerate rather than connect.

The best cure of all is to familiarize yourself with the conditions and circumstances of the comma splice so that when you discover them during revision, you can deal directly with their causes, removing the stylistic lurches.

newly wed hostess, the—a condition of unease, nervousness, or feelings of insufficiency found in beginning writers; a tendency to want to perform the literary equivalent of offering dinner guests more than they can possibly eat; giving a character an unnecessarily long resume or backstory in hopes of making that character seem more interesting to the reader; adding unnecessary plot twists to a story in hopes of keeping the reader interested. Nor is it unusual for a beginning writer, fearful of being substantial enough in character- and story-development to pile on the adjectives and adverbs in hopes of enhancing style.

Seasoned hostesses, particularly successful ones, are more apt to set a simple-but substantial table, requiring fewer trips to the kitchen, and no emergency runs to an all-night market or wine merchant. With proper planning, a seasoned hostess may even be able to dine off the leftovers or have the basis of yet another party.

To extend the metaphor, the seasoned hostess is in many ways like the veteran writer, each outing being a kind of theme party or celebration where interest, suspense, empathy, and taste are present in significant measure. Check for books with significant author card pages listing other books by the same author. These authors were published in the first place for a reason—a judicious balance of character, story, and originality. They do note dilute the effect of their work with ungainly style, overly convoluted style, or unnecessary descriptions. In today’s crowded marketplace, repeat authorship is no accident. Study the way some of these repeat authors present a variation of a popular recipe, enhancing it with one or two variations which make it seem fresh and highly palatable. In the culinary arts as well as in fiction, presentation goes a long way.

In life and in writing, metaphor goes a long way, inviting the obsessive and compulsive in our midst to visit self-judgment, then overstay the visit. The newly wed hostess may over prepare, set too complex a table, but at least she does prepare and, in time, learns to use the left-overs for another day.

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