Sunday, May 31, 2009

What's Your Discovery Rate?

rate of discovery--the pace and rate in which dramatic information is conveyed to the story; appearance to the characters and readers of story issues, deadlines, potentials for added disaster, needs for stop-gap or more permanent solutions; introduction of surprise, new menace, and potential disturbance.

The rate of discovery is influenced by the pace at which seeming stasis is beset by complications. A story usually begins on some emotional cusp, where a character may not yet have made up her mind or where an on-going agenda has become subsumed by a distraction, possibly one the reader can guess but, as yet, the character cannot. Then comes the discovery of adjunct dramatic information, waiting for an opportunity to catch the characters in moments of vulnerability. Closely following the discovery is some price to be paid, some awareness of down-the-line consequences, which lead the character to recall relevant events from the past.

How much have we really discovered about Romeo and Juliet within the thirty-six-hour time frame of their acquaintance? We have learned the details of the Montague-Capulet feud. We have learned, and from a Capulet, that Romeo is not such a bad kid. And we have learned from watching Romeo and Juliet together that they share a considerable, even consuming attraction? Is it really love? If they'd met under less combustive circumstances, would they have evolved into an enduring partnership? Best not to ask too many questions. Best to take the rate of discovery we've been given and see it for what it is, a romance of the best intentions teen-aged hormones can afford, running headlong into the dramatic opposition of social combustion. In a sense, the story is almost larger than the two principals, played out in subsequent forms against backdrops of feuding families, differing ethnicity, differing religions, opening the doors beyond the Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim collaboration of 1957, West-Side Story, yearning to be recast in its gay version.

If we provide too much background information at once, the risk increases that the reader will begin skimming, thus the warning to slow down the rate of discovery to the point where the reader is not only tolerant and willing to accept but rather impatient, demanding to know. The analogy between cholesterol and discovery, if somewhat a reach, may help: Cholesterol tends to produce plaque in the arteries, discovery tends to clog up a story, yet each under control is a necessity to its respective system.

As always, the question of How much is the right amount? arises, and as always, the answer sounds political and evasive: It is better to withhold, to delay information than it is to pile it on as though it were food portions at a truck stop restaurant. The same observation must be made for dramatized moments of complication. Too much action in too short a time imparts a heavily plot-driven atmosphere to the story. Equally political and evasive at first blush is the rhetorical question, Would Moby-Dick have been more accessible if a first-rate editor had removed forty to fifty percent of the material about whales and whaling? (Probably not.)

Hint: Given the universal story nature of the mystery, select one mystery novel by Frank Morrison "Mickey" Spilaine, and one by Kenneth Millar writing as Ross Macdonald. I, the Jury, and The Zebra-Striped Hearse are good models, each accessible used from Amazon. Compare the rate at which the two detectives, Mike Hammer and Lew Archer, discover things (including things about themselves), then select your place within that spectrum and discover away. For short fiction, try "Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor, and "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" by John Cheever.

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