Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Chicken Sandwich on Wheat Toast, Hold the Lettuce, Hold the Tomato, Hold the Mayo, Hold the Chicken

withholding dramatic information--a strategy for creating narrative tension and/or suspense; keeping information from the reader or one or more characters; using the curiosity or lack thereof in a character to influence agenda; creating awareness in the reader and/or characters of secrets relating to the theme or actual outcome of a story.

Story, however ambiguous in nature or elliptical in orbit, is an outgrowth of a natural inclination to assign narrative to events, whether they are as complex and intertwined as generational family history (and thus a search for unifying theme) or as seemingly random as boy-meets-girl, boy-meets-boy, or girl-meets girl. Story is implicitly and sometimes explicitly a tale told to provide evidence that life has a meaning, that certain events were ordained if not pre-ordained, that human behavior and destiny is not merely a series of random events, atomic particles spinning about in a reactor or collider that has been turned off for the night. Thus the domino theory (see), causality (see), and determinism; thus the parallel between story and the precedent-setting direction of many forms of legal evolution.

The skilled writer accordingly has learned to withhold vital information, making the reader curious about it, avid for more. Thus curiosity ranks just below tension and suspense as an important mortar, holding the isolated bricks of dramatic detail together. Until the reader has become interested to the point of empathy, details about a particular character often bore more than they illustrate. Some of the background material, for instance, about Eilis Lacey, Colm Toibin's protagonist in his 2009 novel, Brooklyn, is inconsequential until the reader has seen Eilis performing in social situations, at which point they become poignant to the point of being heart wrenching: this information has been artfully manipulated so that it appears to emerge from the character rather than Post-It notes from the author.

"Never tell the reader more than the reader wants to know" is an effective restraint for the reader to keep in mind: Withhold, then pay out in slow, incident-related doses. The downside of too much withholding can be seen in fiction such as the novels of Ian McEwan (see Saturday; The Innocent;The Child in Time), where the secrets to be discovered and the defining moments present on closer consideration the image of a highly skilled dealer at a casino rather than, however bravura his technique, a story teller such as Michael Chabon (see The Wonder Boys; Secrets of Pittsburgh; and The Yiddish Policeman's Union).

What is the right balance between withholding and being manipulative? First of all, forget any stigma attached to the word "manipulative;" all story tellers manipulate, having chosen the beginning point of the story and the ending payoff at the very least. Secondly, write from your own point of curiosity, playing to your own rate of discovery. Third, try not to attach too complex a meaning to things deliberately held in secret, traumas from past events that were completely or semi-occluded, or repressed memories suddenly unloosed on the consciousness.

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