Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A little less fish, a lot bigger barrel, please

fish in a barrel--a metaphor for removing the need for skill in a contest or competition; tilting the conditions of a confrontation to a degree that insures easy solution; purging the doubt of final outcome from a dramatic narrative, thus an easy outcome from an endeavor.

This trope is an important one for the writer to remember. Readers do not want--cannot abide--results that come too easily. Even now, in the twenty-first century, there are those who think David got off too easily in his "contest" with Goliath, whom they try, in their revisionist history of the legendary sling-shot event, to represent as overly given to hubris. While it is true that readers respect and admire skill and cunning, they want these qualities to bring results after some pattern of trial and error. The scientist should not be allowed to come forth with a cure for cancer after spending only a week or two in the lab; she should have some added burden or incentive as a goal or as part of an emotional partnership approaching that of Capt. Ahab and Moby-Dick or Santiago and the great marlin.

The actual phrase "shooting fish in a barrel" has many possible meanings, beginning with the obvious question, is there any water in the barrel? Fish in a waterless barrel would likely be dead, making them a stationary target for the shooter. If there is indeed water in the barrel, discharging a gun into it would probably kill all the fish, thanks to the reverberation of sound. The common denominator in the concept is the absolute ease of outcome. The applicable dramatic denominator here is: Never take the reader where the reader wants to go, which is to say make things such as risk, misunderstanding, reversal, and surprise exponentially more likely to join the party as the story progresses.

A fish-in-a-barrel narrative is one in which the goal was not exquisite enough or was achieved too quickly and/or too easily, leaving some doubt in the reader's mind whether it was actually a "real" story or merely a shaggy-dog story. When a reader comes upon a story where some stated goal is achieved early on, the reader intuits the sinister hand of consequences, reaching metaphorically out to bring big time complication raining down on the protagonist. The reader waits for these complicating consequences.

Thomas Hardy rode into the twentieth century with a number of notable anti-fish-in-a-barrel novels, notable among them Jude, the Obscure, in which the protagonist had a specific goal for which he was emotionally and intellectually qualified and which, had Horatio Alger been the author, Jude would have at last achieved. But Hardy was Hardy, and Jude's seemingly reasonable goal met some fatal complications.

Bottom line: Something has to be given up, lost, or at least tempered before the goal is achieved, an observation that can lead to the ironic ending comparison between what has been gained and the price paid to achieve it. Not all endings are or need be ironic, yet it is nice to know that irony is there, waiting to be invited in.

Monday, March 30, 2009

P is for Partner

partner--a co-worker or confidante with whom a protagonist can exchange ideas and background; a relationship between protagonist and antagonist suggestive of a dramatic symbiosis if not an actual partnership; a love-hate relationship between two characters.

One of the earlier partnerships, the master and the slave in Aristophanes The Frogs, sets the potential for dramatic symbiosis in motion. The lead player is Dionysus, accompanied by his slave, Xanthias, who is clearly the more pragmatic and gritty of the two. The major goal of the story is to repair the state of tragedy in drama. As Dorothy Gale would do some time later when she traveled to Oz for information from the wizard, Dionysus must travel to Hades to bring the great tragedian Euripides back from the dead. In discussing how to best begin their task, Dionysus and Xanthias engage in what has become known as the buddy system, reminiscent of the comedy teams who followed them over the milenia: Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Rowan and Martin, the Smothers Brothers, Burns and Allen.

Partnership of some sort in story is too much a convention to be considered merely an interesting coincidence; it was absolutely essential for Sherlock Holmes who, had he been allowed by Conan Doyle to go it alone, would not have got far, thanks to his attitude and tone. Captain Ahab could have ruminated to Starbuck about the way his life had been shattered by the great whale, but the story would have not achieved its stature without the actual presence of Moby-Dick, a partnership made in the hell of Ahab's psyche. Nor would Santiago, the protagonist of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, been complete with only the presence of Manolin, the young boy apprentice, or Santiago's friends who are mentioned but who do not appear in person. Santiago needed the huge marlin, arguably the biggest catch of his life, as a partner, just as Ahab needed the whale.

To extend the metaphor of partnership in yet another direction, imagine Macbeth as unmarried, a middle-aged soldier who'd focused entirely on his military career. With no Lady Macbeth in the story, several dimensions fall away, leaving the mere carcass of a powerful drama.

In the more modern setting of Boston, private investigator Patrick Kenzie and his girlfriend-partner Angie Gennaro provide a moving thematic thread to the investigation of an abducted four-year-old girl, moving Dennis Lehane's Gone Baby Gone from being merely an intriguing puzzle, and into the landscape of deep moral inquiry.

The danger of not having a partner takes the writer directly into the murky landscape of one character on stage alone, having nowhere to go with dramatic information but the interior monologue, which often drags forth such weary tropes as How had it all begun? and What would she do now?

Such remarkable fiction as Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn (in which the protagonist has Tourette's Syndrome), or Mark Haddon's The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time (where the fifteen-year-old protagonist suffers from severe autism and in a sense "communicates" with his favorite character, Sherlock Holmes) are notable exceptions, using the first-person point of view to move them beyond the need for a partner.

But here we are again, with Mark Schluter, the twenty-seven-year-old protagonist of Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, involved in a near-fatal accident that causes severe brain trauma, inducing the Capgrass Syndrome. Victims of this affliction tend to question the authenticity of those closest to him. Accordingly, a perfect partner for Schluter is his older sister, Karin, who gives up a good job to care for him, all the while aware that her brother does not believe she is really the person she claims to be.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Here I come, worthy or not: Notes on the Worthy Opponent

worthy opponent--a character whose personal and/or organizational interests run antithetical to the protagonist of a novel or short story; an individual of significant enough stature to insure a sense of fear in the reader that the protagonist will either lose outright or have to relinquish some of the prize.

The concept of shooting fish in a barrel comes to mind when considering the dynamics of the worthy opponent. It would take a poor shot indeed to miss hitting at least one fish thus constrained. By extension, an antagonist who is made to seem evil for its own sake or merely contrary for the sake of being contrary prove no real threat to the protagonist or the reader, leaving additional metaphors such as paper tiger or tempest in a teapot to hover over the story.

An ideal opponent for a protagonist in a story is a person in his or her own way every bit bigger than life than the protagonist, a person of steely desire and purpose, equipped with such tools as a brilliant sense of humor, an obvious intelligence, adaptability, charm, and that great catch-all, people skills.

The goal is to provide the worthy opponent with enough clout that the outcome of the story is in doubt to the very end. A plausible opponent is one who might, in a mystery, outwit the detective; win the heart of the protagonist in a romance; supply superior magic in a fantasy; have a grittier social/existential problem than the protagonist in a YA novel; have loftier motives than the protagonist in a science fiction novel. There is no genre in which an unworthy opponent would be more welcomed than one with some interesting, intriguing dimension.

We may begin historically with Achilles and Hector in The Iliad, where it is still possible to root for Hector against the anointed hero, Achilles; then we can move to a trope in which a personified Nature presents a worthy opponent, first as the whale in Moby-Dick, then as the marlin in The Old Man and the Sea. To be sure, there is Dr. Moriarty, standing against Sherlock Holmes, emphasizing the common denominator here--a worthy opponent plausibly stands between the protagonist and the protagonist's goals.

In the original Star Trek TV series, the Romulan commander tells Capt. Kirk, "I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend." In the TV drama, The Wire, Omar Little was heard to observe, "A man got to have a code." Little had such a code, lived by it, and in tropes reminiscent of Greek tragedy, died by it. Another splendid example of worthiness in opponents also appeared in The Wire, where the characters of Avon Barksdale and Russell "Stringer" Bell were school chums, then loving partners in a flourishing Baltimore drug trade before a clash of philosophy led each to action that betrayed the other.

One of the dividing lines between the worthy opponent and the mere opponent is fairness. The worthy opponent plays fair, in large measure because he is confident of his abilities and his cause, thus he is "allowed" to play fair. The mere opponent uses any means at his disposal to win. A helpful recipe for creating the WA: give him or her ten percent more in some relevant, thematic ability than you give the protagonist. Heat to boiling, then serve.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Get a Room, Editorially Speaking

stet--from Latin stare (to be) for "let it be" or "let it stand"; editor or proofreader notation indicating a marked word or passage on a manuscript or proof is to stand as now indicated; a writer's note to an editorial suggestion or deletion, thus an authorial override on an editorial opinion.

Editors have a complex menu of responses to matter included in a manuscript, ranging from the highly idiosyncratic to the recognition of house conventions. Some responses relate to the use by the author of comma splices or Arabic numerals instead of spelled-out numbers. Other responses are more substantive, involving material the author wants in the final text as opposed to the same material the editor would like to see omitted from the text. When an author answers an Author Query or AuQy on the manuscript with a stet, the author is having the last word, presumably after taking the editor's query or suggestion into serious consideration.

By the time the decision is made to publish a particular work, and the deal has been contracted, notes and queries from the content editor are considered friendly, helpful suggestions, particularly since the editor was probably a party to the arrangement for publication. Editorial notes and suggestions made after the fact of contract are not mandates; the agreement or contract may have had provisional mandates--change the narration from third to first person, make the ending a happy ending,don't kill off Uncle Fred--and the writer will have been aware of these. The stet decisions involve last-minute details. Example: An editor may conclude that a particular exchange of dialogue will by its very use of words and specifics convey that Ms. Kitty is angrily energized and thus mark for deletion the attribution "Ms. Kitty said hotly" as a goes-without-saying notation. But the writer, wanting the reader to be sure of Ms. Kitty's frame of emotional mind, may say stet, at which point the editor says OK before moving on to the next matter.

Copyeditors are less likely to query on usage; their work is mechanical intervention in the service of consistency of use according to a house style (if book, the style guide is likely to be CMOS Chicago Manual of Style); if magazine or newspaper, more likely to be AP, NY Times, or a style guide based on these). Writers are not likely to get into stet decisions with copyeditors unless the copyeditor is challenging a statement the writer has set as a fact. For an example, in a story in which the writer has claimed that a character who is a professional boxer bears a stylistic resemblance to Muhammad Ali, the copyeditor may circle Muhammad Ali and write in the margin "who he?" The writer may believe Mr. Ali's name needs no attribution and thus lines out the query, then writes stet.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Monday-morning quarterbacking, instant replay, and perspective

retrospect--looking back at a moment or era in time; a point of view containing information or knowledge of the consequences of past action; a narrative or personal attitude arrived at after the fact; Monday-morning quarterbacking.

A significant use of retrospect comes when the details of a novel or story are filtered through one or more characters giving historical versions of a story, allowing them to reflect attitudes or subtexts of regret, pleasure, or moral superiority over past events. This use of retrospect becomes one of the writer's first major decisions, coming right after who or whom the narrator(s) will be. The issue now becomes at what rate of awareness to set the story; is it meant to seem as though it is taking place in the immediate present or at some remove, after all the issues and permutations have been sorted out. Thus the necessary decision, was the narrator naive, reliable, or unreliable then? And,indeed, is the point of view is retrospective, has the narrator remained naive, reliable, or unreliable?

Huckleberry Finn was told from the narrative eye of a young boy. One of the few anomalies is the likelihood of his being literate enough to have composed any narrative in the first place. His honesty and pragmatism quickly override any tendency to suspend belief. His approach to all matters seems appropriate for a street- and country-wise person of his age, a pragmatism that makes him all the more likable and seemingly truthful. Certainly he is in touch with his emotions. Would Huck have been more convincing in his depiction if events if he'd picked up the Conklin fountain pen ( the one with which Mr. Twain began the first draft) in his forties or fifties to reflect back on the events? Most likely not--even more likely, the story would not have been so resonant. It needed, in fact, to be told as it was, as though it were happening to a twelve-year-old boy in the immediate now. As readers, we "forgive" him his literary abilities as we jump directly into his explanation of the device by which he came into being in the first place, "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer..."

Twain uses in the opening sentences a stunning device that actually paved the way for Primo Levi and his frequent trespasses into postmodernism. "...but that aint no matter," Huck assures us, and indeed it isn't, thanks directly to that street-smarts honesty. In the second sentence, Huck tells us, "That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly-- Tom's Aunt Polly, she is -- and Mary, and the Widow Douglas is all told about in that book, which is mostly a true book, with some stretchers, as I said before." By the first paragraph, we're in, willing at that early point to trust Huck's retrospective account of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Shortly after the retrospective account begins, Huck tells of Aunt Polly's sister, Miss Watson, "took a set at me now with a spelling-book." Thus between Miss Watson and the soon-to-appear Tom Sawyer is Huck put on a collision course with literature. Mostly Huck's street smarts win out and mostly we are left with the precious relic of him at the age where he lit out for the territory ahead because Aunt Polly and Miss Watson wanted to civilize him, and he couldn't stand it.

The focus from immediate present to retrospective shifts one hundred eighty degrees as the unnamed narrator of Daphne DuMaurier's unforgettable Rebecca addresses us as directly as Huck did: "Last I dreamt I went to Manderly again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gatge leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me." We now know exactly where we stand in regard to the framework of time, and we have as yet no reason (nor will we have any) to doubt the reliability of the narrator. True enough, she is in at the payoff, telling us, "...it was my lack of poise that made such a bad impression on people like Mrs. Danvers. What must I have seemed like [to Mrs. Danvers] after Rebecca...?" This retrospective assessment makes her all the more believable a narrator. Unlike Huck, who wants to light out for the territory ahead, this individual is sitting on the veranda with her loved one. "I fix my dark glasses, reach for my bag of knitting. And before us, long as the skein of wool I wind, stretches the vista of our afternoon."

In law and in writing, the perspective of timing and intent are everything. Scenario One: Bill goes to the neighborhood pub to collect a bet from Fred, who denies having made the bet in the first place. The two get into a scuffle in which Fred, alas, does not emerge alive. Scenario Two: Bill takes his gun with him as he goes to the neighborhood pub, intending to teach Fred a lesson if Fred decides once again to renege on a bet.

Worst case in Scenario One would be justifiable homicide. In Scenario Two, worst case is murder.

The differences between retrospective and present time perspectives are significant, just as significant, as Mark Twain reminds us, as "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Schadenfreude brings out the worst in us

schadenfreude--pleasure at the evidence of pain or misfortune in another person; delight at the reversal of fortune experienced by someone else.

One of the many words on loan to English from another language, schadenfreude is a shot-gun marriage of two German opposites, damage and joy, thus You lose, I smile. This pleasure helps us understand what Aristotle meant when he tied the can of catharsis to the tail of the dog of tragedy.

Schadenfreude allows the reader to feel pleasure when a character, say George Amberson Minafer of The Magnificent Ambersons, gets a well-earned come-uppance; that such a feeling exists in many humans is often an embarrassment until, on reflection, the larger perspective is revealed. We are able to experience tragedy in literature with empathy for the fall from the heights of the major characters, but only after first experiencing relief that we were not the intended targets.

Tragedy and humor have an uneasy relationship, both having kinship with hubris and the resulting behavior from such family ties. Tragedy tends to be less physical and posturing than humor, but nevertheless, it would likely not have established a foothold if the hubris of "My way is the only way" had not got in the front door.

Memorable characters may have their schadenfreude genome, taking a moment or two to gloat when an opponent seems to come out second best in a collision with Fate, but it is safest to leave as much schadenfreude as possible not to the characters but to the readers. Equally valid is the notion that the character who has met a tragic downfall or been handed a serious reversal of fortune and goes forth without breast beating or moaning is the character the reader will regard with the most respect. Once again, let the reader do the deconstruction.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Did Captain Ahab Forget His Meds?

Captain Ahab--a major causal character in Herman Melville's novel, Moby-Dick; a man so bent on revenge that he becomes the instrument for the death of all but one seaman aboard the whaler Pequod; a sworn foe of the great while whale, Moby-Dick;by extension a metaphor for an individual so focused on his goal that all perspective becomes lost. (See also Don Quixote, King Lear,Wile E. Coyote)

For all its enormity and discursiveness, there is little specific information in Moby-Dick about Captain Ahab; he is a follower of the Quaker faith (an enormous fact given his vengeful mission), has a young wife and son, is somewhere between his late fifties and early sixties, has spent most of his life at sea, is named after a biblical king. Using this scant information, Sena Jeeter Nasland has written a novel, Ahab's Wife, which further investigates his conflicting humanity and desire for revenge.

While it is possible to read Moby-Dick as an adventure, the characters within it engage in existential and moral questions to a degree that causes the novel itself and many of the characters within it to take on the dimensions and whale-like aspects of metaphor. (Ahab's first mate, Starbuck, for example, is a well-read intellectual, also a Quaker, who is able to argue and discuss with Ahab from a similar background.) 

Add to that calculus the fact of the whale, which clearly is making statements of its own with a considerable intelligence of its own. The interesting question arises, Did Melville deliberately or by artistic accident happen upon the American equivalent of John Milton's Paradise Lost? A pursuit of the answer to that question may well lead, for the appropriate seeker, to thematic insight at a comparable level to Nasland's curiosity about Ahab himself and the woman who married him.

Ahab's attractiveness for all writers of fiction begins with the unyielding strength of his purpose--to track down and destroy the whale. A Quaker whose moral code speaks to pacifism, Ahab's actions and determinations are encouraged by the inner voices of hatred and loathing in the face of the whale's supposed representation of pure evil. 

 Thus even were he to have won, Ahab would have had to face the consequences of his conscience. By now, over a hundred fifty years after the publication of Moby-Dick, it is no spoiler to observe that the whale is directly responsible for the sinking of the Pequod and the death of all aboard her except Ishmael (who survives in order to render his first-person account of what happened). Does this absolute sense of doom that begins with the very first line, Call me Ishmael, make the reader aware that the events are any less tragic than, say, King Lear?

Is it such an unfathomable jump for a writer to see connections between the character of Ahab and Don Quixote and Wile E. Coyote in a landscape haunted by the imperceptible divisions between revenge (Ahab's), illusion (Don Quixote's), and humiliation (Wile. E. Coyote's)?

Ahab is a gritty reminder of the ways a character's goals become the interior decorator for the setting, pace, and ultimate effect of story.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I'll Never Forget...

iconic characters--individuals who exert transformative influence on the stories in which they appear; adults and young persons who are simultaneously focused on a goal, imbued with stoical good humor and empathy, should either be needed; persons whose responses under stress create a lasting impression with readers.

Whether they are of the ilk of Cormac McCarthy's sociopath killer, Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, the squeaky clean moralist, Sir Galahad of Arthurian legend, or the rather plain-appearing Jane Eyre, iconic characters have their eyes cast not on their immediate problems but seemingly fixed in intimate gaze with the reader. Appropriately enough, readers carry with them the images of such characters, long past the time their exploits in dealing with the entanglements of their plots are remembered. Even the wooden puppet, Pinocchio, the puppet who wanted to become a real boy, is iconic not because of the choices he made but because of his goal.

What the character wants and the path he or she pursues in order to achieve these ends are often the most magnetic qualities for readers. Each goal becomes a pole star for the character, influencing direction and behavior. A good approach to examining the qualities of these icons, male and female, young, middle-aged, and old, is to start with the more simplistic ones, the Dorothy Gales, wanting to get back home from Oz; the Horatio Alger shoe boy in the eponymous Ragged Dick, wanting to work his way upward toward success and self-esteem; the quintessential male free spirit, Huckleberry Finn, wanting to get away from an abusive father and an overly structured social environment. From there move on toward stories in which the moral landscape is grayer, the issues less likely to settled with one last-chapter speech from the likes of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

Some notable icons and what they want, which includes the real-life Joan as rendered by the Irish dramatist, George Bernard Shaw:

1. Emma Bovary excitement
2. Nora Helmer equality
3. Captain Ahab revenge
4. Jeffrey Spaulding lunch
5. Ratso Rizzi an angle--any angle
6. The Wife of Bath a husband who values her
7. Madam Arcarti a spell that actually works
8. Anton Chigurh people to play by the rules
9. Hester Prynne a good life for her daughter
10. Florentino Ariza Fermina Daza
11. Heathcliff Kathy Linton
12. The Pardoner respect

There are of course hundreds of icons to study, the better to assess what it is about them to cause them to stand out in the readers' memories. Hint: it is not necessarily their professional goals so much as it is the way they go about achieving their aims, their emotional responses to other characters, thus their empathy. Added hint: it is often the way they behave when they are feeling the most vulnerable--and make no mistake about it, they are vulnerable at various times--every one of them.

Final hint: make two lists of iconic characters, the first including all those you see as being conventional icons, the other list being entirely your own favorites, which may include favorites from stories you encountered in any medium.

Monday, March 23, 2009


set-up--a strategy for initiating a dramatic event; a means of introducing a character with a particular attitude, skill, or defect into a story; establishing a set of circumstances either beneficial or hostile to a character's goals and welfare.

Characters rarely go where they should or take up with individuals who are likely associates or lovers; persons in real life may do such things to a significant degree, but not in drama or fiction. Set-up is the generic name for an elaborate foreshadowing or dramatic description of a physical or emotional landscape; set-up is background that will be of interest to the reader (because the reader can begin to see the complications and inherent traps for the characters.

Set-up is dramatic, situational, tense if not suspenseful. A high-energy character wanting to take her boyfriend home to meet parents and relatives is such a set-up, the very mention of it causes the reader to envision older brothers who have no sense of humor and who shake hands as though they mean to hurt fingers of anyone unlucky enough to shake hands with them. Set-up is nearly concept, bordering on wanting to be story, certainly an added energy to one or more scenes. Set-up legitimatizes consequences, a warning that the protagonist either should have known better or had no choice.

Set-up is analogous to setting a trap for a major character, allowing the reader to see how he or she behaves, how he or she is regarded by others. Neil Simon claims not to have known on a conscious level what the consequences of having a character named Felix Unger would be, nevertheless having such a character with such a name allows Simon to cause Felix Unger to leave a scolding note for his roommate, signed with his initials, FU, thus another way in which Felix Unger worked as a set-up.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

It's that time

chronology--an arrangement of events in time, beginning with the earliest; a sequence of activities set forth at the time of occurrence; tracking a person, place, or process by its age and subsequent growth.

Chronology is to time as alphabetizing is to the alphabet, leading to some urban mythology among writers that biography and story must be set before the reader in time sequence, beginning with early, then working its way toward the present. Perhaps because they have been bored by strict chronology, readers have come to expect a severe stirring of the pot. Abraham Lincoln may well have been born in a log cabin in Hodgenville, KY in 1809, but most of the multitude of his biographies begin elsewhere, say as a young lawyer or congressman or even as POTUS. Novels often begin in medias res (see), working their way forward and backward at the hand of dramatic whimsy.

It is probably a good idea to know when and where characters were born so that a plausible background can be constructed for them, but the entire subject of chronology raises the better issue of the information a writer needs to know about a character as opposed to the demonstrable and implicit facts the reader knows and deduces. Entire mythologies have been created around such iconic characters as Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade, but the original venues in which these characters appeared--dramatic narratives--do not rely on the mythology, they depend on the story.

Begin with a character's birth or some other significant rite of passage, if you must, but do not expect the reader to be as interested as you are, perhaps because the reader has not yet seen the character under stress or in thrall to some agenda, but equally perhaps because the mere fact of a birth, bar/bat mitzvah, christening, graduation is not of itself dramatic. The character George Amberson Minafer illustrates this point.

George is a principal character, you might even say a spoiler, in Booth Tarkington's novel, The Magnificent Ambersons. Named after his maternal grandfather, thus his first and middle name,

"At the age of nine, George Amberson Minafer, the Major's one
grandchild, was a princely terror, dreaded not only in [the]Amberson
[mansion] but in many other quarters through which he galloped on his
white pony. "By golly, I guess you think you own this town!" an
embittered laborer complained, one day, as Georgie rode the pony
straight through a pile of sand the man was sieving. "I will when I
grow up," the undisturbed child replied. "I guess my grandpa owns it
now, you bet!" And the baffled workman, having no means to controvert
what seemed a mere exaggeration of the facts could only mutter "Oh,
pull down your vest!"

"Don't haf to! Doctor says it ain't healthy!" the boy returned
promptly. "But I'll tell you what I'll do: I'll pull down my vest if
you'll wipe off your chin!"

That is George's introduction to us, from which point we move well back in time to the point where George's mother was engaged to a man much other than the one who became George's father.

A chronology is most useful for the writer when the work at hand involves the activities of a number of front-rank characters, some of whom may or may not know one another. In such cases, it is a useful guide for planning the order of scenes and, thus, the possibility of a particular character being able to appear in two successive scenes. Chronologies often provide alibis for suspects in mystery novels and, indeed, for stories in which sexual jealousy is a motivating factor.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Paper? Or Screen?

paper or screen ?--the medium on which a writer composes; variously lined legal pads, three by five index cards, computer screens.

If you are of a certain age, the implications of the title of this entry will provoke an animal-like noise resembling exasperation. How dumb is that? No one writes on paper anymore. Paper is something you stack into a printer to print words you have composed on a computer.

If you are a certain other age, an age where you can still remember preferences among Remington and Olivetti and Underwood, an age where the print ball on the Selectric was still a novelty. You wrote on such instruments because your handwriting was so terrible, and because everyone who wrote to be published worked on one of these, whether they could use the so-called touch system or, like you, had to be content to live with rows of X's used to block out unwanted lines

If you are yet another certain age, you probably remember DOS and WordPerfect. Even though your printer then was dot matrix, with a draft and a final copy setting option, you felt the surge of progress inherent in the move away from the typewriter, along with a sense that writing was going to be transformed into something easier, something that would allow you a more direct contact with your material (whatever that means). Being of this age, you can identify places on your body and psyche attesting to the fact that being computerized did not make writing any easier; you were simply giving up typewriter ribbons and those rascally thin mylar tapes associated with the early electrics and the Selectric. These no longer unravelled or tangled or simply ran out of ink. But until then, you had never had to deal with crashes, freezes, diskettes, or such words and practices as burning or ripping.

Writing not only did not become easier, you were discovering, thanks to modems and printers, even more remote sites on your planet of frustration.

Nevertheless. All these potential or actual memories dance around the issue of why anyone with today's equipment and gadgetry at hand would want to compose on paper in the first place. Paper is so New York publishing, which is to say tanking the way they are doing it. Nevertheless, if you are of a certain age, there is the heft and smell and convenience of a book because that was what got you doing what you do in the first place, writing things on paper to preserve the material prior to shipping it off to its fate, which also involves paper.

Thanks to Microsoft Word, iPages, and the no-nonsense new kid on the block, Open Office, it is theoretically possible to get your words down on the screen, save them, submit them, have them edited via the Track Changes tool, accept or reject various edits as you will, and not touch paper until your author copies arrive in the mail. It is also possible to indulge your early, before computer, muscle memory by doing your first draft on a lined legal pad before you begin the revision process, at which point you'd do the actual keyboarding onto your very own hard drive.

There is no correct answer to the question posed here. Sooner or later, you'll want to capture the keystrokes (notice how easy it is to pick up the lingo), thereupon to back them up on your Time Machine if you're a Mac person or the likes of Mozy or Novastor for the PC user, plus for both the added off-site use at Google and Yahoo. Until the sooner or later, you can use a flash stick to save each day's increment, email it to your gmail or Yahoo account, and/or download it to your Lacie external hard drive.

A new work day begins and during the course of it, you experience a mild disillusion with your chosen point of view or your entire tone. You simply save everything you've done under the heading of version 1, save it to your hard drive and other storage vault, then head off in another direction you might enjoy more. You could not do this with mere paper, not unless you photocopied, color-coded your drafts, and set an enormous process of merging that would still require you to spend more time at your keyboard.

Which ever way it is--paper or screen--get it down as quickly as possible, then on with the electronics.

Writing remains as difficult as it ever was, but at least you will be in a better mood when you undertake it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Convention Wisdom

Reader's Second Expectation, the--a set of conventions found in genre/category fiction; basic assumptions for inclusion a reader will make upon choosing and beginning a particular narrative.

Almost as though he were returning from a mountain top with freshly etched stone tablet in hand, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov brought forth in fiction an ethos that subsequently became a tradition, the ethos being The Laws governing robots:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In similar fashion, there are expectations if not actual laws covering the relationship between the reader and the genre. Readers of mysteries, for example, have a right to expect intriguing puzzles. They also have a right not to expect Roger Ackroyd-type endings in which, towards the very last paragraph, the narrator casually reveals himself, don't you know, to have been the murderer. (See Christie, Agatha. Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?)

The fantasy reader has a right to expect some form of magic and indeed, the romance reader is well entitled to meet an appealing woman protagonist who becomes involved in issues relating to her status as a single person. No less emphatic an expectation is that of the reader of science fiction, who buys into the story hopeful of encountering some significant application and extrapolation of a physical or social science.

Just as readers of the genera have expectations, writers of them have obligations:

1. Writers of a genera will have some awareness of the origins and icons of the genre.
2. Writers of a genre will have read at least one hundred of the first generation titles of the genre.
3. Writers of a genre will, even at parties where the punch has been spiked, be able to discuss with some intelligence the expectations inherent in the genre.
4. Writers of a genre will be aware of the works of at least two up-and-coming writers of the genre.
5. Writers of a genre will be able to discuss with some degree of intelligence the direction the genre will take with it into the future.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Readers' Expectations

reader's first expectations, the-- reasons provided the reader by the writer of a story as well as the characters, incidents, and settings depicted within the story that will cause the reader to suspend disbelief; the primary state of the reader's mind when approaching a work of fiction.

Readers know in advance that a story is invented. On some basic level of awareness, the reader enters the transaction with the writer and the text with a conflict of interest in which he wants the text to become a rendition of reality while openly seeking any possible detail that prevents the story from appearing real. 

The invention must seem real in every detail; the characters must be plausible, their goals and plans to achieve these goals must resonate the sanity of conventional logic. Thus the reader notices anomalies, the green-eyed protagonist on page six who suddenly blinks her gray eyes on page nineteen; the subway stop in midtown Manhattan where in fact there is no such subway stop, a rifle or pistol of a particular caliber being afforded a range well beyond its real capacity, the winner of the baseball World Series of a particular year being rendered incorrectly. 

The reader does not object to the green-eyed protagonist on page six installing a pair of shaded contact lenses prior to blinking her now gray eyes on page nineteen, nor does the reader object to a wrongly placed subway stop in an alternate universe novel, possibly even thinking a subway stop at that particular location would be a good idea. Anomalies must be rendered to have a home in plausibility.

Thus the reader's first expectation is to be given sufficient dramatic, emotional, and physical information necessary to overcome the gap between actuality and projected potential. This story could be happening, this story is happening, these characters are real. The more skilled writers in our midst begin by nurturing a firm belief in their vision; if they do not have a vision, they add details in support of one, adding here, removing there until the vision clarifies. 

 They do not try to argue the characters, situations, and locales into being. Least of all do they rely on the sad old tropes: "But it really happened that way," and "But this character is based on a real person." The reader expects the writer to be right enough to dispel any doubt.

It is instructive to consider our individual lie detector, which usually becomes activated when we see attributes piled on a description of an event or quality, or when materials presented as facts cannot be attributed to reliable sources. Readers have lie detectors, but readers are fighting to believe. Their first expectation is to be able to do so.

The more convinced the writer is of the characters and circumstances in his story, the less likely he is to pile on attributes and stage directions and in fact the more likely he is to be taken at face value, right from the start.

A good place to begin engaging this reader expectation is with individuals who are in the midst of doing something that will lead to confrontation or, having already met the confrontation, started to cope with it. For convenient reference, think of Tom Sawyer's "solution" to having to white wash the fence, then set your own characters to work.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Categorically Speaking

genre--the various categories of fiction; specific niche fiction shelving in bookstores and libraries; a system for classifying types of fiction; defining characteristics of a particular type of fiction.

Readers approach fiction variously for escape, entertainment, inspiration, distraction, and other similar mind- and spirit-enriching reasons. The common denominator for all readers is the understanding that the characters and situations are invented, products of a writer's imagination. This common denominator extends to include the Reader's First Expectation, to wit that the reader will be given sufficient reasons to suspend disbelief, in other words to forget that the characters and situations are unreal, thereupon to consider them as though they were real and accordingly to empathize with them.

The Reader's Second Expectation is that the specific categories or genera will contain but not necessarily be limited to specific circumstances,complications, conditions, emphasis focus, and formulas.

Here are some of the more prevalent fiction genera and what readers expect from them:

Adventure: novels and stories about individuals at accelerated risk and danger.

Chick Lit: young women protagonists, confronting sexuality, shopping, romance, careers, friendship.

Chivalric Romance: men on horses fighting dragons, wicked royalty, and their own sexual urges as they pursue Ms. Right.

Comic Novel: Imagine Ivanhoe of chivalric romance fame, riding off into the sunset with Rebbecca on his horse instead of Rowena. Imagine also Chris Buckley, thanking us for smoking, or that other Chris, Chris Moore, in everything he writes.Imagine satire as a subgenre, in which case you'd have to consider Joe Heller's Catch-22 as an icon.

Crime Novel: one or more murders have been or will be committed,now someone has to find out who and why. The "someone" occasions subgenera such as private investigators, sworn police officers, little old ladies, large young ladies, park rangers, process servers, innocent civilians, etc.

Erotic Literature: Individuals of both genders attempting to get laid with a modicum of originality, told in evocative prose.

Fables, Fairy Tales, and Folklore: Since neither the reader nor writer believe the individuals in these narratives actually existed, the overall tone and payoff must offer the reader something, perhaps a moral or an insight or even a laugh, to repay the time put forth reading them.

Historical Fiction: stories set in a particular period in time, reflecting the details, manners, and customs of that time. These may actually include actual historical personages, either as protagonists or cameo roles.

Literary Fiction: novels and stories having to do with moral choices, philosophical issues, mankind as a species adapting to the social and ethical challenges that confront it.

Picaresque: a more-episodic-than-plotted novel in which a rogue, scoundrel, con-person, deluded or intelligence-challenged person sets forth on a mission (which is usually to seek a fortune, his own or someone else's). You could consider James Leo Herlihy's Midnight Cowboy in this category.

Political Novel: a novel in which one or more of the major players is a politician or is a close-at-hand observer watching politicians as they behave. George Orwell's 1984 is political as well as speculative and cautionary, demonstrating yet other genera. Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men is political as well as biographical. Allan Drury's Advise and Consent takes its title from the U.S. Constitution and involves a number of U.S. Senators in action.

Romance Novel: a youngish woman who is often more attractive then she realizes is forced to make romantic choices.
Speculative Fiction: a novel or story that portrays an if-things-continue-the-way-they're-going scenario; Utopian or dystopian views of as yet unrealized outcomes. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, George Orwell's 1984, and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America are speculative; so is Robert Heinlein's A Stranger in a Strange Land and, indeed, Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

Alternate History: stories and novels that rewrite actual history, then improvise on what the result might bring. See Len Deighton's SS/GB, and Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee in which, respectively, Germany won World War II, and the Confederate States of America won the U.S. war between the states.

Fantasy: stories and novels in which magic is a key element. These narratives may also involve alternate universes which are accessed through such a portal as the rabbit hole into which young Alice fell. A subgenera of fantasy has one or more individuals being transformed by magic into an other-than-human form. Yet another subgenera involves a quest for an object which is the power source of magic, such as the sword which only Arthur can withdraw from the stone in which it was embedded.

Horror: The writer's intent is to portray events that will seriously frighten the reader. See Stephen King for any number of role models.

Science Fiction: an extrapolation on actual scientific reality, extended to expand the dramatic, emotional, and moral landscape in the world as we know it or in imaginary worlds where most of the conditions we recognize exist in some modified form. Science fiction may use either the "hard" sciences such as chemistry, geology, or astronomy, or extrapolate on the so-called social sciences ranging from anthropology to political science.

Thriller: the clock is ticking, the metronome is hurrying the pace along, and the good guys are in, seemingly over their heads, in a mismatch against a hugely powerful opponent, while the risk to the protagonists increases.

Conspiracy Fiction: "they," whoever they may be, are against "us," whoever we may be in a paranoid scenario come to life. See Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate as a prime example, but see also the screen version of The Verdict, David Mamet's screenplay adaptation of Barry Reed' s novel in which a down-at-the heels lawyer, superbly played by Paul Newman, goes up against a particular "them," not to forget where it all began in Erskine Childers' still compelling The Riddle of the Sands, followed by Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear. Lest the genre sound too pulpy, consider Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and Umberto Eco's brilliant spoof, Faucault's Pendulum, by way of injecting literary tropes into the text.

Legal Thriller: bright young attorney goes up against prestigious firms with unlimited resources to tip the scales of justice in favor of an underdog client; fading, possibly alcoholic attorney scores a courtroom triumph, once again proving that justice will out. The deck in legal thrillers is always stacked against the good guys.

Psychological Thriller: Is the narrator psychotic or merely naive? Are the inmates running the asylum? Will the bright young psychiatrist break through the catatonic seizures of the targeted character? What about Richard Powers' penetrating dive into what an ego actually is, via The Echo Maker? If ever there were a rich example of a genre, both literary and thrilling in its implications, this is it. Unless, of course, you wish to consult Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, in which the private eye genre and the psychological thriller meet up in a back alley somewhere. The protagonist in Motherless Brooklyn is a PI who is afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, a fact that may or may not trump Powers' protagonist, who is diagnosed with the Capgrass Syndrome.

Spy Fiction: Is it really espionage if you give vital information to a friend or worthwhile cause and are not paid for it? Are there moral justifications for spying? Suppose you are a spy for a cause you are willing to risk your life for as in, say, Graham Green's The Confidential Agent? Whatever your answers, readers of spy fiction are alert for betrayals, double-dealing, and covert operatives being lured into death traps, sometimes by alluring ladies wearing tightly belted trench coats, but sometimes by alluring young ladies wearing nothing at all. Any of the novels by Eric Ambler or John LeCarre will set the bar of performance at an appropriate level.

Tragedy: Back in the day,when Aristotle was alive to write about tragedy, the genre signaled the fall from grace or power of a member of the nobility; it might even mean the tumble from power of an entire family. Now tragedy has become democratized, Death of a Salesman earns its way in the front door, so too do the likes of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and the venture into tragedy inspired by the plight of Hester Prynne, Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Thomas Hardy's novels, particularly Tess, Jude the Obscure, and The Mayor of Casterbridge portray wrenching, tragic events which not only illustrate their own circumstances but remind readers how close at hand the prospect of tragedy is in their own life. Theodore Dreiser was well aware of the implications of his An American Tragedy, wanting to earn recognition as the American, middle- and working-class Henry James. If tragedy is not paced properly, that is to say, if it is speeded up, it tips over into the realm of comedy. Comedy is tragedy on steroids.

Western: first things first; a Western is a historical action novel, set in the American frontier some time after 1840. Some of its many potential themes are well dramatized in Jack Shaefer's magnificent Monte Walsh, which is an episodic, semi-picaresque growing up and aging of a cowboy. Other Western themes: Cows vs. sheep; ranches vs. farms; cowboys and Indians; Indians and the cavalry; the coming of the railroad: free range vs. barbed wire; cattle drives. Western writers to study for imaginative ways out of the conventional themes include Dorothy Johnson, Elmore Leonard, Larry McMurtry (particularly Horsemen Pass By and, later, Lonesome Dove), Mari Sandoz, and Wallace Stegner. In particular, the McMurtry Horsemen is a demonstration that the history of the West is still very much taking place now, involving some of the very issues with which it began its life under the hands of Owen Wister (The Virginian) and Zane Gray's epic, written in 1912, Riders of the Purple Sage.

See genre promise

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I'll pass

passivity--not in motion or operation; grounded in the inertial state of rest; a condition of lack of will; inert; lacking agenda or goal,thus reliant on outside energy or influence; having little or no motivation.

As a quality or characteristic, passivity is an attitude a character can least afford. Except for brief moments when a character may be stung by defeat or grief or fear,passivity precludes the energy and directed motivation toward goal that a character needs to sustain story. Dramatic narrative cannot proceed without a tangible vector of goal or a plan set in place to implement a goal. Characters have to want something; they need to want something with enough passion to be driven toward achieving that goal--either that or they need to be shown as they respond to the frustrations preventing them working toward that goal.

A frustrated housewife is one kind of story, finding significant numbers of readers. Add to the housewife-as-Sisyphus (See) the element of that housewife being a musical genius, capable of extraordinary composition and concert-level performance ability on an instrument, and the inherent story takes on yet added dimension and significance.

The Golem of Prague represents an example of a mythical character who was created from mud, given a mission, which it achieved, then was deactivated or rendered passive. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (appx. 520 BC--=/- 430) is best known for the episode in his life where he was yanked by circumstances from relative passivity to the surpervisory operation of maximum leadership to accomplish one goal, whereupon he retired from his leadership position, returning to a passive, contemplative life.

Characters are best identified by their goals. Those who seem to lack ambition or drive do not inspire empathy from the reader--unless the reader experiences the revelation that a seemingly passive character has shifted inertia for a particular reason, a reason that immediately is seen as an obstacle to be overcome.

One of the best obstacles to set before a character is frustration (another is guilt); the unquestionably worst obstacle to confront a character is passivity.

Compare and contrast: Oblomov (1859)by Ivan Ganchorov, and Ragged Dick (1867) by Horatio Alger. The eponymous Oblomov was an affluent member of the Russian landed gentry, a nice enough fellow who was given over to sloth and procrastination to the point where he remains in bed for the first hundred fifty pages of the novel. Author Ganchorov was clearly using him to make a statement about nineteenth century Russian nobility. The protagonist of Alger's novel is also a metaphor. Dick is a poor shoe-shine boy who, through unceasing hard work, clean living, optimism, and determination, rises from the ranks of poverty into the middle class status held forth as The American Dream. An immediate point of difference: Oblomov was passive, Ragged Dick was the very opposite.

Monday, March 16, 2009

You Owe It to Yourself

obligation--a duty felt by a character to perform; a debt to be repaid under specific circumstances; acknowledgment of a favor given and the subsequent expectation that an act of similar consequence will balance the account.

Obligations may be established between individuals and groups such as banks, clans, or families; they may apply to complete strangers as well as friends or relatives. In fiction, obligations may be real or imagined, tugging at the conscience and patience of the parties involved. Often felt as duties "owed" an older generation by a younger one, obligations literally have the power to disrupt lives, cause rebellious behavior, and produce the abrupt consequences of impatience and anarchy.

A character's hackles may be seen to rise when he is told, "It is your duty..." The building blocks of duty and, often, guilt become building blocks to story as yet another basic element of story is moved into place, the element of resentment.

The cloud of obligation has hovered over the human species throughout its development; in many cases survival of a prehistoric band or clan depended on it. A traveler accepting hospitality at the home of a friend or someone recommended by a friend was obligated to return the hospitality if the circumstances were reversed. Tradition placed heavy weights on the obligation of hospitality; if you accepted a person's hospitality, that individual became responsible for your welfare, a circumstantial crucible that could and undoubtedly did provide unexpected story elements.

It can be argued with some thought of success that a country in possession of the knowledge of nuclear fission has the obligation to use that knowledge to enhance the prospect of comfortable and peaceful living among the nations. An individual with knowledge of a crime has an obligation to take action to the point where justice will be served.

All the various narrative genera may be seen as reflecting obligations. Mystery readers, for example, expect challenging puzzles, thus the obligation of the mystery writer to make the mystery as intriguing as possible without removing it from the sphere of plausibility. It becomes the writer's obligation to provide elements a reader of that genre has come to expect, additional obligations include providing those elements with imagination and originality. It may even be argued that at some point a writer is obligated to interest as many readers as possible.

A 1972 play by Neil Simon, The Sunshine Boys, becomes an instructive example of the explosive relationship between obligation and resentment. Al Lewis and Willy Clark are a one-time vaudeville team who worked together on stage for forty years, during the course of which they attracted a large, loyal following. Trouble is, they grew to hate one another, spoke only when on stage during a performance. Clark, the stubborn one, resented Lewis' decision to break up the act and retire from show business. Now he has to make it on his own, doing commercials for a potato chip maker. The story begins with a television network inviting the team to reunite for a special tribute to the history of comedy. Neil Simon has caught with his superb rendition of the feuding team the combustive chemistry between the two characters, helping us see the potential for placing obligation and resentment in motion as the embodiment of two cantankerous old performers.

Obligations are like visiting relatives; they drop in unannounced, stay too long, often leave a mess. And they are always "away" should you ever need a place to stay. You could smolder with resentment or use the list of personally felt obligations as a laundry list for story opportunities.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mon semblance, mon frere h/t Baudelaire

reader, the--the remote individual, unknown to the writer, who will read and react to the writer's work; persons known to the writer who will read the writer's work; individuals who know the writer, and who are also writers, who will read the writer's work; critics or individuals who consider themselves as critics, who will read the writer's work; persons who have some issue with the writer's ethnicity, lifestyle, religion or lack thereof, who will nevertheless read the writer's work; persons in search of artistic and emotional insights who will read the writer's work; individuals who will deliberately or innocently misconstrue the writer's work; persons who will read the writer's work in hopes of evolving their own writing ; persons who will read the writer's work in hopes of finding mistakes the writer has made; individuals who are convinced they can concoct and render better stories than the writer; individuals who are willing to experience transformative moments while reading the writer's work; persons who had never considered looking at some person, place, thing, or condition until they saw it portrayed in a writer's work; a person who is seeking a miracle and who has come to the writer; an individual the writer must simultaneously forget entirely and keep entirely in mind.

The writer/reader relationship is complex, somewhat of a piece with exchanging highly personal secrets with a fellow passenger on a trip, done with the knowledge of the separate and remote lives each party lives, of the unlikely prospect of their meeting again. And yet. Some writers have a following, some readers anxiously await a new work from a writer.

Readers who admire particular writers often feel as though the writer knows them personally, is writing directly to them, a state of emotion and mind not far removed from the unfortunate individual who sincerely believes that the anchor person of the six o'clock news broadcast is directing him through code and inference to commit acts of violence on behalf of some moral or political cause.

The reader/writer relationship is a partnership of selfishness. Under optimal circumstances, each party profits enormously. The path to achieving that partnership is filled with distraction, frustration, and the underlying subtext that each contact may be the last, a subtext that tempts the writer to want to say more and the reader to ask more.

One way to approach the relationship begins with the writer, who writes the first draft as though it were a deeply held secret, brought out into the daylight in a moment of recklessness. In subsequent drafts, the writer adds relevant details to the extent that he now feels the secret is out of the darkness and visible for what it is, at which point the writer becomes increasingly more aware of the reader, simultaneously adding such details as he believes the reader may ask, removing such details as he believes the reader will already know. Thus the equation of the Reader/Writer relationship: shared secrets.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


coincidence--two or more events taking place at the same time in a dramatic narrative, seemingly by happenstance; unplanned simultaneous occurrences which appear to cast a meaning of predestination; any events in stories that happen without being planned and which appear to effect positively the outcome of the story.

Accidental pairings of events may add complications to stories. Dick and Jane may be forced by coincidence and a full house to share a table at a restaurant, whereupon they subsequently fall in love, because that is a complication. Coincidences should not, however, play a major role in providing the outcome. The outcome is the result of some decisive and planned act on the part of the protagonist; the reader will feel cheated by any other scenario. Similarly, if Bill Villain, arch bad guy, winds up being repaid for his evil ways by having a landslide bury him, Bill Galahad, arch good guy will have in some way caused the landslide to tumble.

Friday, March 13, 2009

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

HIBK--abbreviation for Had I but known; a woeful cry from the 1920s, 30s, extending to the '40s, indicating a character in a novel or story whose past actions and decisions have produced unwanted consequences; a rueful equivalent of "If I'd known then what I know now..."; often attributed to the Sue Grafton of her day, mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, esp. The Circular Staircase.

HIBK, as it has been used in the past, is like a garden hose running at full pressure, then dropped, at which point it does a manic dance on the lawn; it is a device. Like any device used properly, it can be useful. After all, regret for past actions has a significant place in story, often producing more story, as in Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, in which a good portion of the protagonist's middle years were given over to expiating a particularly awful act performed in Chapter One. Thus does rue nudge a character toward the path of redemption and possibly even restitution, presenting as a lovely obstacle the obdurate refusal of the injured party to accept the remorse and restitution. Oh, how lovely it all is, provided the writer does not drop the running hose.

Some novels and short stories, particularly plot-driven ones, use HIBK as a narrative hook to arrest the attention and sympathy of the reader by hinting directly at the emotional and physical morass now engulfing the narrator and threatening to drag him or her even deeper. Along with the sometimes arbitrary admonition to "show--don't tell" is the greater notion of "Let the reader figure it out," which is to say, eschew any tendency of the rueful character to beat his or her breast, to take some action to cope with the consequences of the misstep, to recognize the buyer's remorse with an appropriate ritual, then get on with the rest of the story.

Besides, what the rueful character did may well fall into the "It seemed like a good idea at the time" trope, a connecting link with many a reader whose own life experiences have not all been rousing successes. HIBK remains a mnemonic for writers, reminding them of the shift away from the operatic, approaching the nuanced and understated. By all means allow characters to make rash or impulsive decisions, only to have to live with their consequences. Do so without the breast beating, teeth gnashing gestures of nineteenth-century opera. Allow the characters to move beyond the scarlet letter, into the realm of picking up the shattered pieces with some remnant of dignity and decorum left.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tear Down This Wall? Okay; Here Goes

fourth wall, the--the boundary between reader and characters; a conceptual enhancement of the illusion of the audience eavesdropping on characters in the midst of story; a convention observed by authors for the purpose of implying that their activity is happening now, in real time.

A character in a novel or stage play who addresses the audience is said to be breaking the fourth wall, which by implication extends the three sides of a stage setting to the remaining dimension, the space between players and audience. The convention of the fourth wall is as old as storytelling, a given that has produced memorable breaches.

As far back in time as Greek drama, characters were breaking the fourth wall by addressing the audience. Even before poems, plays, and stories were set in movable type and printed on a press, Geoffrey Chaucer was imaginatively breaking the fourth wall in a poem, Adam Scrivendi, by telling his scribe to copy his lines with care, avoiding the skewing of Chaucer's intended meter by using regional spelling and accent marks. 

Shakespeare would later have his characters break the wall with asides to the audience, including preludes in which a chorus would directly address the audience. In his film version of Shakespeare's Richard III, Laurence Olivier had Richard directly tell the audience what he had in mind. In eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century novels, numerous authors spoke directly to the audience in some manner, examples being Henry Fielding's frequent asides to the reader in Tom Jones, Rudyard Kipling actually addressing his daughter in the Just So Stories, and James Michener addressing the reader in the opening chapter of Hawaii.

The major objection to fourth wall violations is the argument of broken reality; a broken wall is thought to be an advertisement that the story is illusory, distanced from any connection with reality, to which it may be argued that the nature of the story, the manner in which the characters interact and respond to the dramatic situations are all factors contributing to the verisimilitude or sense of reality the writer strives to achieve.

It may be argued that use of the intrusive authorial point of view is a constant shattering of the fourth wall and indeed, some of the modernists (Donald Barthelme and Italo Calvino come to mind) may evoke the amusing conflation of Ronald Reagan's exhortation to Mr. Gorbachev, "Tear down this [the Berlin] Wall with the ghost of the elder Hamlet, haunting the battlements to enlist his son in his desire for revenge. Shall the fourth wall come down? Only if it has to.

It is a truth universally recognized that literary conventions arose in the first place in response to some technical impasse but now await artful trespass. If breaking the fourth wall in a novel or short story serves a purpose which will make the narrative more effective, then break away with clear conscience. 

The only valid reason for not breaking the fourth wall or, for that matter, any convention is when doing so will seem more an act of anarchy or pretentiousness than a contribution to the artistic, emotional, and intellectual payoff of the narrative.

See suspension of disbelief
See also plausibility
See also conventions

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Your Place or Mine

decisions-- the outcome of choices of narrative voice, characterization, setting and other dramatic considerations an author must make when composing a story; the courses of action a character in a story must take after being boxed in an emotional corner or when planning a strategy to achieve a goal.

The writer is faced with decisions related to where to put things in, when to leave them out, how to render them, and at what length. Characters are--or should be--driven to the wall in developing and implementing strategies that will lead to achieving some goal, even the survival-oriented goal of seeking a minimum-wage job as a stepping stone to something other. 

The operant word here is other; characters who are comfortable or fulfilled are not Petri dishes for the growth culture of story. Indeed, story only begins when such a character comes face to face with a situation that proves the opposite.

Writers are sometimes overwhelmed with decisions, causing their literary agents and/or publishers no end of concerns. It might be argued with some measure of success that writers who are comfortable with their characters are less likely to get maximum performance from them.  But writers who are uncomfortable with their characters and reach within themselves for extra measures of empathy and restraint are more apt to produce iconic characters (See) who remain in the reader's memory, long after the very details of their particular story are forgotten.

The decisions writer and character must make represent the common denominator between the two.

Hint: Both writer and characters have secrets. Since both are linked by decisions they must make, why not have them exchange secrets. Writers are often accused of betraying the secrets of family, friends, and professional associations. 

 Why not make an even four by having the writer accused of betraying the secrets of his or her characters? And just to play fair, think of ways characters can rat out their creators.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Outlines, Outliers, Messengers, Massagers

outline--a template or design for a dramatic narrative; a scene-by-scene breakdown of an intended story; a thematic riff intended to lead the writer through the development and orchestration of a concept through its conceptual stage into viable story; the first step in a process that is completed with revision.

Some writers will not consider beginning work on the text of a story without some form of road map which guides them in varying degree of detail through the development and enhancement of a story. Other writers will argue that such an approach precludes surprise, an essential ingredient not only to the reader but as well to the writer. The late, prolific suspense and thriller writer, Dennis Lynds (aka John Crowe, Michael Collins, Carl Dekker) developed a mid-range outline in which he sketched a situation in which a character became engaged in a fast-growing complication, "wrote" his character to the edge of the complication, then stopped writing to expand the outline to cover the next forty or fifty pages before returning to text. Lynds did this until the final resolution, at which point he began revision, looking first for anomalies in the plot/motivation structure.

The jury is expected to be out for some indeterminate time on the outline or no outline question. There is no evidence to show that working with an outline makes the work easier or if, indeed, writers who outline are more prolific than those who do not.

Hint: How many of your last five stories (of any length) were written from outline? What does your answer to this question tell you?

Added hint: Try outlining in some detail your next novel, keeping opinionated notes about your progress as you proceed with writing text. What does this tell you?

Yet another hint: Try outlining a novel by using three x five index cards, one for each proposed scene, using as few as one or two sentences to describe the intended scene.

The major points to be made here: (1) an outline is not a sine qua non of a story or novel (2) there is nothing "wrong" with you if you chose to outline (3) there is nothing "wrong" with you if you do not chose to outline, and (4) the decision to outline or not is one of the choices you will have to make on your journey toward becoming a writer.

messenger--a character who physically brings news on stage (into the narrative); an individual who by example becomes a recognizable symptom that could befall a front-rank character.

Ever since the days in which authors not only could but were expected to directly address the reader, a persistent opposition to the practice has evolved. Henry Fielding's picaresque romp,Tom Jones (1749), and Laurence Sterne's rollicking Tristram Shandy (1759) led the way toward the authorial aside, a technique that may be yet employed today, provided it is done with an inventive purpose--otherwise editors will thank you for thinking of them and wish you good luck elsewhere. Enter the messenger, appropriately dressed for work in your story, bearing some message, intent, or example of behavior thought to be of contextual interest to the reader.

Messengers are of primary importance in contemporary fiction because the reader may still have his doubts about the author, but if the reader has gone beyond the first five or six paragraphs of a short story or the first chapter of a novel, the reader arguably believes the characters more than he believes the author.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Butting in Line

intrusive author--an anomaly in narrative where the author intrudes on text, upstaging one or more characters; dramatic equivalents of footnotes being wrenched into the text; muddying the waters of narrative voice by allowing the author to appear in scenes with characters.

Unless there is some contextual or stylistic reason for the author or authorial spokesperson to appear in a story as, say, the Stage manager does in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, or in a deliberate and managed backstory, as in Junot Diaz's opening chapter to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the message is clear: author stay out. Delegate messages and devices to characters. Spend time considering what things you want to bring on stage, then spend more time considering ways to dramatize those messages. NB: dramatize means provide for readers to infer.

Writers such as Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, D.H. Lawrence, C. S. Lewis, George Sand, and William Makepeace Thackeray, although wildly diverse in their political and social attitudes, have remarkable and distinctive voices, enhanced to a degree but adumbrated to a greater degree by their incessant asides and obsessive commentary on what their characters happen to be doing at a given moment.

Writers such as Elmore Leonard, Louise Erdrich, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Tobias Woff, Christopher Moore,and Joyce Carol Oates do not steal scenes or upstage; they become prisms through which their trained and vivid imaginations cast a spectrum of color in which the beam of Reality is refracted. The reader is allowed to discern, to see without being yanked by lapel or shirtwaist, argued into compliance.

Hint: You have a favored author who is booked into a local venue to speak on his or her approach to storytelling. You have purchased a ticket for the event, arrive early to secure a strategic seat, and now await your anticipated pleasure, only to discover that there are immediate, disagreeable complications. Your author is to be introduced by a local literary wannabe who is by no means your favorite person. The program begins with this wannabe immediately confirming many of your reasons for disliking him; he spends a good ten minutes explaining how anomalous it is for him to appear on the same stage with your favored author, then lurches through another ten minutes of describing how his own work fails to rise to the level of tonight's guest, then perhaps another ten minutes of descriptive apercu of the favored author's work. The introduction is now well on its way into an hour's duration, during the course of which you see the favored author, perhaps sipping nervously from a bottle of San Pelegrino, beginning to look as uncomfortable as you feel. Will you ever get to hear your favorite author?

This is the feeling the reader will have brought along with the nourishment of grudge if in your stories the author appears to intrude. There are, however, novels and short stories told as if from the author's point of view, example Heart of Darkness, in which the character Marlowe could be argued to be Joseph Conrad's spokesperson. These are done with great deliberation and are not meant to be considered as authorial intrusion. The opening chapters of James Michener's Hawaii and Centenial are unabashedly (and successfully) told from the authorial point of view. The opening chapter of Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is seen through the authorial point of view, or perhaps not, perhaps it is through the character Yunior, or perhaps Yunior is Diaz' spokesperson. In neither case, the Conrad nor the Diaz, does the reader feel the frustration of being lectured to at the expense of the story, waiting to be read.

goes without saying--a frequent comment left in the margin of a manuscript by a skilled content editor; a matter or issue already made obvious by story points; a response so obvious that it does not have to be explained.

"If you come any closer, I will shoot," she said menacingly.

The place to cure GWS responses is on the manuscrupt, before it is sent out into the world.

over the top--an expression meant to imply an action or concept that has been overloaded with theme, symbolism, and perhaps even verbally excessive; activity done to the extent that the reader will resent its detail; a dramatic beat performed as if on steroids.