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.

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