Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What's That on Your Nose?

aftertaste--a feeling or vision evoked after reading a short story or novel in which the reader takes up the characters and dramatic situations, giving the characters and their circumstances life off the page; a resonant impression triggered in the reader by the events, circumstances, and personalities in a dramatic narrative.

Some novels and stories are so evocative that they seem to continue in their readers' mind long after the ending has been resolved. For instance, how many of us have considered what would happen next to Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley after Barnes has delivered his famed closing line in The Sun Also Rises, “Yes, isn't it pretty to think so?” 

 Or, still with Ernest Hemingway, this time A Farewell to Arms. Catherine Barkley has just delivered a stillborn baby, then died of a hemorrhage. Frederic Henry stays with Catherine until she dies, attempts to find ways to say farewell, realizes he cannot, then walks back to his hotel in the rain. The endings of both novels, as written, leave no doubt that the story is over, but the characters were drawn so well that they do not fade from the imagination. The result is aftertaste.

Aftertaste is the emotive awareness in the reader of the entire narrative, the literary equivalent of the aftertaste of a particular wine or ale, the lingering effect of the very process by which evocation works, the affect and effect a skilled actor produces when portraying a character.

How to achieve aftertaste? Consider the goals of each character and the actions the character takes to achieve that goal. Consider how each character responds to frustration and reversal. Consider the endings of stories as dramatic moments of theme rather than explanations of their significance. 

 Consider the way Anton Chekhov ended his stories. Consider ways by which hints are introduced to pique the reader's curiosity, for instance what further conversations or actions Fortinbras and Horatio might have had at the conclusion of Hamlet.

A story that lingers in the reader's sensitivities has a life of its own, a life that will draw the reader back to hear more from the writer.


on the nose--a theatrical term indicating an action, behavior, or description is too literal; a reminder of the need for greater evocation of a desired result in all dramatic storytelling.

In a larger sense, being told a particular interpretation or scene is too "on the nose" is being alerted to the absolute moral white or black of meaning, of the operatic nature of one's drama. Human behavior tends more to gray than white or black; it is rich with shading and shadow. The judgment of "too on the nose" is a cry for greater complexity and depth of character and, accordingly, of the motive of character.

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