Wednesday, January 21, 2009

You Can't Exect Me to Believe That

speed bumps--events, descriptions, and reflections that impede the flow of story; a sense of stylistic devices waving their hands for attention during the otherwise orderly progression of a dramatic narrative; the jerky disconnect experienced by readers when writers are not careful about adding backstory, description, and the existential wondering of characters.

The thing to remember at some point in the telling of a story is that the narrative art is evocative, not descriptive; description has its place, usually in small doses, an occasional adjective or adverb, even a clause or entire sentence. There are specific times when the make and caliber of a gun, for example, or the year, model, and color of a car bring clarification to the narrative. A character's height or lack thereof, even some descriptive facial tic become not only necessities but tools in the greater process of evoking that individual's presence. Arrogant? Shy? Assured? Lazy? The overarching intent is to suggest. Ironically enough, some writers who should know better, fail to see the mischievous potential in verbs, relying instead on the adjective and the adverb.

One last pass in revision to "cure" adverbial abuse is a sure way to remove speed bumps.


revelation--a dramatic discovery, experience, or realization that has the power to change the vector of a story.

In a metaphorical way, a story is like a string of fire-crackers, each explosion adding to the collective effect, the individual pop of explosion being a surprise, the final one, the loud, enduring one being the revelation. Often expressed indirectly, through the medium of a front-rank character doing something that becomes a symbolic response, the revelation shows the reader the equivalent of a film or TV close-up reaction shot. In the novels of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, revelations were frequently spelled out in what writer Barnaby Conrad has titled "came-to-realize" moments, "and in that moment, she came to realize that he had been deceiving her all along." From about the 1980s onward, came-to-realize moments were replaced with a more outward display of a character having been struck by the lightning bolt of revelation, imparting less a sense of certainty and resolve, more of a sense of ambiguity tempered with probability. We readers would be certain that Character A knew Character B was wildly attracted to her and had been for some time, at the very least giving her a dramatic power over Character B, but we would not be sure by story's end if Character A were going to do anything about the revelation.

The payoff to Dashiell Hammett's much anthologized short story, "Two Sharp Knives," is an excellent example of how revelation can be used by one character to exploit another and how that exploitation can be used for dramatic effect on the reader.

In the motion picture, The Third Man, directed by Sir Carol Reed, the illusive and amoral Harry Lime has a surprise encounter with his chum, Holly Martens. They meet in the Riessenrad, the large Ferris wheel in the Vienna amusement park, the Prater. Looking down upon people beneath his high vantage point, Lime compares them to dots, then makes the wry, cynical observation that defines him and causes in Martens a revelation that has the effect of a line drawn in the sand between him and Lime, a line of morality over which Martens will not cross. "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

One of the many revelations to be had from reading the stories of Anton Chekhov is his own understanding and portrayal of how revelation affects characters, and how their movements rather than their interior monologue suggest the outcome.


plausibility--the dramatic sense of a character, deed, or event being believable to the reader; a depiction of a character's agenda, motivation, or desire being an appropriate, life-like expression; a quality of realism and trust in a narrative and its denizens that helps the reader maintain a sense of belief.

Just because an event portrayed in a narrative actually happened in reality, that does not automatically grant it a license for plausibility; the writer must naturally believe the event and the characters, he must write about them in a way that renders them as dramatic forces, considering what they want and what they are willing to do to get what they want. A good portion of plausibility is found in vulnerability; when a reader sees a defect or longing in a character, it becomes easier to forget that the character is only a smudge of someone else's imagination.

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