inner critic, the--a voice that repeats and repeats in the writer's ear,"You can do this better;" an interior conviction that a particular work under way is doomed because of its inanity; a self-inflicted editorial wound; setting the first-draft bar high enough to guarantee failure.
The inner critic's most powerful hold is on the ego of the writer, reminding the writer of all the truly gifted storytellers the writer must outperform in order to be noticed in the first place. The inner critic's second most severe hold is with the incessant warning that one must not proceed until all the previous work done on a project is in absolutely glowing condition, resonating access, success, and pellucid clarity of artistic intent.
Simply put, the inner critic thinks too much, is allowed too much critical leeway, and all the while insisting on his desire to make the work as perfect as possible, managing to render the work beyond completion. Whatever the work wants to be, haiku, short story, trilogy-level novels, the most effective means of heeding its call is to get it down on paper or screen as quickly and expeditiously as possible, comforted all the while with the notion that it can and will be revised. The most effective way to reach that point is through the expedient of turning off the thought process, comforted all the while with the notion that you are building your individual muscle memory for reaching as far as possible without thinking, then being called back into the creative velocity of capturing the essence of the project, from which comes subsequent drafts bringing the work into yet sharper focus, followed by a fiercely protected revision strategy, which does involve thought, creative thought.
Somewhere out on the myriad urban myths web pages is the trope of "real" writers, "natural" writers being distinguished from amateurs and wannabes by the fact of their being able to "get" a work down pat by the first draft, a few crossed-out words, perhaps, but not many. These literary elect are not plagued by inner critics because they already know the worth of their project and simply do not require inner critics, were in fact born without them.
Thus did inner-critic-less Mark Twain approach the end of his mortality with the belief that his best work was a biography of Joan of Arc; thus also did Twain frequently stop work on his most remarkable and honest work of all, Huckleberry Finn, losing several battles with his inner critic until the work was finally finished.
To get the better of the inner critic, listen to the tone of the inner voice that prompts a particular work, then carefully note that tone, whether humor, tragedy, romance, adventure or irony. The next step is to set forth with the goal of defining to yourself what that particular emotional compass means to you. In speaking of the difference between lightning and the lightning bug , Mark Twain made an effective comparison between the right word and the almost right word. Similarly, the difference between defining the intended tone of a work of your own and the close enough tone is the difference between locking out the inner critic or inviting him in with the sure knowledge that he will steal the silverware.
Saturday, January 31, 2009
inner critic, the--a voice that repeats and repeats in the writer's ear,"You can do this better;" an interior conviction that a particular work under way is doomed because of its inanity; a self-inflicted editorial wound; setting the first-draft bar high enough to guarantee failure.
Friday, January 30, 2009
flashback--a narrative device in which the forward movement of a narrative comes to a halt and the action shifts to a past time, in which a relevant scene is replayed; a technique for using a given narrator's sensitivity to reflect back on a past event as though it were taking place before the reader.
Largely archaic because of the universal discovery of the two-line space break separating one scene from another, the flashback is no longer necessary; the dramatic unities (See) to the contrary notwithstanding no contemporary dramatic decree or convention argues the need for a story of any length running in absolute chronology. Scene B, directly following Scene A, may have taken place fifty years in the past, a shift the reader can easily accommodate provided the writer give a simple, basic clue of when and where Scene B is in progress.
True enough, the contemporary novel or short story ought to take place more in the present than in the past, but such is the nature of so-called rules of composition that in any given venture, a novelist or short story writer could make quick work of that dictum.
verisimilitude--an overall sense of believability in the dramatic rendition of a person, place, or thing; a convincing sense of authenticity about a narrative; an override on the reader's skepticism and sense of disbelief.
In spite of some writers' defensive "But it happened that way in real life," verisimilitude makes the reader forget about such quibbles and settle directly into the story; it is a quality, almost pointillist in nature, of small, significant details that convey authenticity to the reader.
you--the unique persona of the writer; the experiences, opinions, tastes, and prejudices of the writer; the attitudes, curiosities, and fears of the writer emerging through portrayal of character, theme, and resolution of stories. The totality of the resident writer within as it emerges in the writer's stories.
In similar fashion to a wide range of actors taking on the same dramatic role, each writer brings to story a particular set of sensitivities, sensory awareness, and attitude. Could we imagine James Dean playing Hamlet? Could we imagine Norman Mailer capturing the angst and wrench of "Brokeback Mountain? Similarly, could we imagine Mel Brooks doing Lear or Dustin Hoffman doing Rocky Balboa? The question for the writer on any given story is Why you? This question is not by any means in the sense of How dare you? but rather what do you bring to the story that gives it the ridges and whorls of your own writer fingerprint? Would you bring Mel Brooks's antic humor to Lear or would you bring his incredible sadness from his personal life over the loss of his wife, Anne Bancroft? Possibly a hint of both? What could make Dustin Hoffman want to do Rocky Balboa? What could possibly have made Philip Seymour Hoffman, a large man, want to portray Truman Capote, an elfin presence? There are no right answers as long as there are indeed answers, specific answers reflecting the reasons you were drawn into writing and find resonance in it. The answers may come from anywhere within you, reflecting a spectrum of human emotions such as revenge, envy, proprietary power, exuberance at being alive, desire for respect or being noticed at all, wanting to share a vision, wanting to take down a vision, anger...
Think of it this way, you are a writer invited to contribute to an anthology, the literary equivalent of a pot luck dinner. What do you bring? A chunk of a novel? A short story? A poem? An essay? What says you? Why?
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Golem, the--a fictional being, made of clay and other elements, called into being in order to correct a moral, social, or social injustice, usually associated with Jewish folklore and tradition; often a servant of a prominent and learned rabbi; a series of servant-beings beginning with Adam, intended for a serious, life-affirming task before being deactivated, stored for future use should it be necessary.
The best-known Golem was a sixteenth-century creature, created by the chief rabbi of Prague from clay of the banks of the Vitava River, brought to life with incantations and a seal placed on its forehead bearing the Hebrew word "truth," its job to protect the inhabitants of the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitism.
The Golem bears an interesting analogy to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a farmer who was appointed as dictator of Rome by the Roman senate when the Romans were engaged in warfare with the neighboring Aequians. Cincinnatus quickly took control, organized an army and a campaign to defeat the Aequians, returned the powers of dictator to the senate, whereupon he returned to being a farmer. Another comparison might be argued for the creation of Dr. Frankenstein, particularly since the word golem in Hebrew slang can also be interpreted as a witless hulk.
Over the rural and urban mythology surrounding various golems, a disturbing side effect of their powers indicated a usurpation of power after it was granted them, in some cases resulting in violence, selfishness, and hitting on the rabbi's wife. In most cases the tide of admiration and support for the golems turned to a tide of fear and revulsion.
There is a bit of the golem resident in all heroic characters, thus our need to watch them carefully and their need to watch themselves, This vigil is necessary whether they appear as historically accurate representations or manufactured dramatic quantities, leaving them as Napoleonic, individuals whose sense of mission is trumped by their enjoyment of power for its own sake, thus the need for the writer of heroic characters to be on guard for the side effects of power. The golem writ large is a theme found throughout Western literature, from The Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare to the gun fight at OK Corral.
Cincinnatus remains over the years as a figure who used power wisely, meriting his choice as its recipient. No less remarkable in his own way was Atticus Finch who took up the role of defender with all due seriousness but who knew his own values and his own sense of justice.
P.S. The Hebrew word inked on the seal of the Prague golem's forehead was "emet," the word for truth. To make sure the golem was decommissioned, the "e" was removed, leaving the Hebrew word for death.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
secrets--information held by characters about themselves or other characters; confidences shared between two or more individuals; closely held details of family or organizational behavior.
So far as dramatic writing is concerned, the more embarrassment or humiliation a revealed secret can inflict, the better. The actual details of the secret, while potentially tantalizing, are not nearly so potent as the feelings of the ones for whom the secret must remain closely held.
As all humans do, all characters have secrets, data, awareness, lusts, memories of past behavior, hidden agendas. It is not necessary for the secret of every character to be revealed, but it is an enormous help to the writer to know what secret lies dormant within the front-rank characters. The revelation of a character's profound secret may be as dramatic and revealing in its mildness as in its extreme reach.
The moment Character A confides a secret to Character B, Character A is in effect writing Character B a blank check written on the bank of power. There are characters who make a point of confessing secrets, sometimes the same secret, to a number of recipients; it is up to the writer to unravel this particular calculus, make something intelligible, dramatic, perhaps even poignant from it. Characters who inflate the secrets they plan to reveal in confidence may be seen as wanting to achieve some degree of status not readily associated with them. Characters, particularly benign, mild ones who begin by apologizing for the mildness of their secrets convince us that they are covering some secret too shocking to reveal. The greatest irony of all is the character who affects complete transparency.
"I will tell you something I have never told another living person," a character says, and the reader leans forward to listen to it, realizing too late how effective that confession is in eliciting the shifting of body weight to lean forward.
A splendid ratio of effectiveness may be had by the simple expedient of the writer comparing his or her own secrets with the revealed secrets of contemporary dramatic writing, and the triangulation against the characters produced by the writer.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
attribution--identification of who is saying, thinking, feeling something relevant to the story at hand; also a quality possessed by an animal, a person, place, or thing in a story; most common use, a direct distinction of who is saying what, perhaps even with the adverb or adverbial clause attachment of how the thing being said was spoken.
Even at the risk of repetition, the identity of the speaker or performer is uppermost, beginning with the reader knowing for a certainty who the narrator of a given scene is and at all times who the speaker is, who the listener is, who the one who acts is, who the one being acted upon is. This important standard prevents such awkward, difficult-to-unravel locutions as "She knew she would go with her no matter what she did or when she did it because it was her basic instinct to help her whenever she felt she needed help." The reader is literally so grateful as to forgive repetition of names, although this gratefulness does not extend across the board to careless, unintended repetitions, which do nothing but make the reader cringe (if the offense gets past the editor in the first place).
In the matter of attribution in dialogue, the verb "said" has demonstrated over a long history its neutrality, thus Jim said, John said, Fred said will not raise any reader hackles that might have been raised if Jim said but John remonstrated, and Fred averred. Thus do not keep at hand a list of synonyms for said, particularly avoiding expostulated, admonished, and uttered. Verbs that convey feeling are welcome in all other places than synonyms for said, accordingly do not let characters bark or growl; ululate is also a no-no, the main reason being that the word may appear to be an authorial judgment rather than from a character.
Unless the string of dialogue between two characters goes on for some time, it is not necessary to continue with the "said." If there are more than two characters on stage, the writer might consider burying the "said" in mid action or mid sentence: "This is not going to work," Fred said, standing, stretching. "We need another approach." In such scenarios, the writer will do well to pick a dramatic (suspense producing) place to break up the sentence. "This," Fred said, standing and stretching, "is not going to work. We need--" he looked about him as though tracking a fly unseen by the others, "--another approach." Yet another way to tack an attribution to a line of dialogue is with a sentence immediately following that contains action. "This is not going to work." Fred stood, spotted a roving waiter, and motioned him over to them.
formula--a recipe or pattern for a story; a means of linking reader expectations with a plausible outcome; a narrative device for producing accelerated risk and subsequent resolution.
Some examples of formula in story:
1. A sympathetic character struggles against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal.
2. Sin, suffer, and repent.
3. Something happens and someone changes.
4. A journey and/or quest that produce unexpected results.
Often conflated with plot, formula is theme based, frequently traceable from culture to culture throughout human history, thus Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces but also the trickster, recurring in such diverse cultures as Native American and in the persona of Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx). Other widespread themes: Man against Nature, Man against machinery, Man against convention. The operating factor in formula is predictability; if you add element A, the reader will expect element B as a consequence, thus formula makes the reader vulnerable to the possibility of surprise.
A narrative spoken of as formulaic is likely to be predictable, suggesting the need somewhere in the process for the writer and characters to collude against the expectations of the reader; narratives that are considered non-formulaic are often those that end with a resolving force that veers sharply from expectations, as in Thomas Berger's Little Big Man.
Monday, January 26, 2009
attitude--an emotional presence often coupled with a state of mind, resident in a writer and, subsequently, in characters, serving as a pole star for the writer and actor; the resident timbre of a story or portion of a story; the prevalent trait or personality in a story or character.
Attitude is like style; it happens as a result of choices made by the writer and, subsequently, by characters, reflecting an overall view of the circumstances in which characters find themselves, their approaches to coping with these circumstances, their regard for one another, and ultimately for themselves. Writers such as Jane Austen (1775-1817) and William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63) showed their attitudes toward individual characters and the classes they represented through a narrative voice that was openly admiring, critical, or patronizing, yet each was able to engage readers without making the readers feel they were a target. In more recent years, W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) seemed to follow this path, using his narrative skills to take the reader into his confidence, the better to reveal the spectrum of human foibles to them through the prisms of his short stories and novels.
Attitude emerges from the writer's feelings and beliefs about a subject, whether the topic is political, sexual, or philosophy. One of the first things the reader notices in discovering attitude is the overall tone of presentation, followed by the behavior and relative flexibility or lack thereof among the characters. In some of his work, D. H. Lawrence emerges as if a schoolboy seated in the front row, waving his hand to get the teacher's eye because he, Lawrence, is so enthused by the information he wishes to present. Particularly in his short stories, Lawrence was so assured of his technique that his voice was more restrained, allowing the characters to step closer to the front of the stage.
A writer's preparation for executing a story could well begin with the writer checking in on the resident emotions that push the events of the story to the surface of the imagination. Begin with the notion that the story, however long or short, is like the toothpaste in a tube. The strength of the squeeze is directly related to the amount of toothpaste that comes forth. Attitude resides in the writer's grip: I'll show them, or This will amuse you, or I can't believe people still think this way, or I didn't realize what a good thing I had until I lost it, or...
marginal--a fictional or critical condition resident in a character or concept; a necessary condition of a person or idea to convey the distance from mainstream; the distance from the statistical mean occupied by a character or concept.
Marginal characters are highly provocative of story; they may take on agendas that will further remove them from the mainstream or nurse some desire to move closer to it; they may provoke envy or discomfort among those in the mainstream. Marginal ideas are equally fecund; ideas seen as conventional wisdom become threats or shibboleths to be accordingly shunned or promulgated. Many of the characters of literary and genre fiction began as marginal; some gravitated to the ironic conclusion of mainstream, others continued to enhance their marginality. A diverse array of historical and contemporary fiction address the existential condition of marginality, The Swiss Family Robinson, for instance or Robinson Crusoe serving to represent enforced separations from the mainstream, The Lord of the Flies represents quite another result as mainstream characters shift away from their societal armature. The political satire Catch-22 could be seen as an ironic triumph of the marginal man, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit could be seen as another commentary altogether on marginality.
Start with a character who is out of the mainstream, say a high school student whose parents have moved her to a new city where she has to start making new friends. There is a group of students who attract her, but they are tight-knit, jealous of their status. Add to the calculus a member of the in-group who is drawn to the outsider. Result: story under way.
One of the more productive dramatic clashes is the formula of the marginal wanting to become mainstream and the mainstream envying the constraint-free status of the marginal.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
literary story, the--a prose narrative written to discover a feeling, intent, or meaning; an exercise of the writer's curiosity to see where the problem will lead and whence the solution--if any--will come; a prose narrative in which the writer knows the conclusion or believes the provisional conclusion is in fact the conclusion, then retraces in order to clarify the obstacle.
The writer often begins the literary story with a dramatic construct located beyond his ability to see an easy way out, barely able to deal with the emotional impact of the story in the first place, but drawn nevertheless into the void. This ongoing challenge of the boundaries of safety is one reason why many writers are suspicious of everything, why their monsters and misfits may not willingly retire at the end of a day's work. A literary story is a contract made by the writer not to write anything safe. This covenant, between the writer and the writer's process, has little to do with the use of language as related to profanity, sexual or racial slurs, but rather instead as the use of language to explore layers of observed behavior, residues of speculation, and confrontations with the intransigent parts of the self.
Starting in more recent times with the literary stories of such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anton Chekhov, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather, we can sense an insistent pushing at boundaries of human understanding and the beginnings of a move away from the formulaic, one-size-fits all effect.
Thus there is no formulaic way to produce the literary story; a profitable approach, however, is the Oliver Twist approach, daring to ask for more oatmeal in an atmosphere where doing so was a simultaneous expression of acting on personal need and exposing the self to consequences. Need and vulnerability are great comrades for the writer to have on board. Also swimming about in the sea of the writer's uncertainty is curiosity, which should also be hauled aboard.
The difference between the literary and the commercial tale is the difference between risk of the unknown and replicating the established; each tale has a dramatic genome, each produces an emotional payoff, but the point of departure is in the depth and complexity of the emotion, the difference between the shock of awareness and the nod of amusement.
concept--a collection of characters and dramatic conditions prior to becoming a story; a set of events requiring a triggering device; a group of characters whose agendas and desires have not yet risen to conflict; a plan or potential agenda that has yet to meet with opposition or reversal.
John is rehearsing before his wife the speech he will make to his boss, requesting a raise in pay.
A noted author of children's books has an intense dislike of children.
An elderly resident at an adult care center begins to receive expensive gifts from an unknown source.
Each of the above examples is a concept needing at least two other dramatic elements to turn it into a viable scheme for a story, the primary element being a plausible character with some exploitable background or emotional state. The next element is a dramatic beat of some sort, an action or discovery.
When John comes home from work, his wife has prepared his favorite meal and splurged on a bottle of champagne. Still not a story yet, so we add the complication that John has not only not been given the raise, he has accepted a reduction in salary.
The noted author of children's books has been asked to appear on the Oprah show with a group of reader fans, one of whom throws up on the author's shoulder.
One of the gifts received by the elderly resident turns out to be the director's missing Rolex.
Each of these concepts has now been energized to the point where a confrontation is quickly forthcoming--and the story is under way.
Stories often begin from concepts, from the writer imagining downstream consequences from a meeting or defining event. A particularly useful author to study in this context is Louise Erdrich, whose short stories often morph into novels with complex interrelationships. Alice Munro writes long, complex stories, often from more than one point of view, often beginning with the hint of a concept before the pull of story takes over.
Even in its more elliptical format, the modern short story is distinguishable from the concept because of the way something emerges for the characters to understand or not, but which the reader can see.
Saturday, January 24, 2009
verb tenses--tools for the dramatic expression of time or the articulation of time filtered through action; a method of measuring when an action takes place; the demarcation between past, present, and future actions.
One notable way to distinguish the accomplished, well-published writer from the beginner is to notice how much more graceful and seemingly conversational the prose of the accomplished writer emerges. Much of this effect comes from the way the writer deals with verb tenses.
In conventional dramatic narrative, the writer uses the immediate past tense--the preterit--to convey action taking place now. "John woke up early this morning 'is thus understood by the reader to mean Here is John, waking up at this very moment. If someone in the scene wants to make sure John is indeed awake, that person will ask, "Are you awake?" or the gerund form, "Are you waking up?"
John may provide a further clue by responding that he is "already up," or that he has been "up for some time." This time frame can be facilitated with the already (John was already awake when the alarm sounded.) or by the introduction of the auxiliary verb had (John had been awake for nearly an hour when the alarm sounded). In every case we have a sense of John's waking progress and the further awareness of his preparedness for what is to come. The only thing we've missed is capturing John at the precise moment of his movement from sleep to wakefulness, which is "John was waking up just as the alarm sounded."
Conditional circumstances are expressed with adverbial help. "Ordinarily John would have slept until six thirty, but this morning was special; he was awake just before five thirty." This construction allows us a peek at John's usual habits, a sense of the specialness of today, and when he awoke on this morning of the story."
Since about the mid 1960s, narrative writers began employing the present tense to track dramatic action. "John wakes up just as the alarm sounds." To use this verb tense format to indicate that John had been awake for some time, we bring in the auxiliary verb format, "John has been awake for over an hour..."
The conditional approach is rendered in present tense with a slight shift to the tense of the auxiliary verb. "John is usually able to sleep until the alarm sounds, but today he is up an hour early."
Interior monologue and expressions of subjective volition also have usage shifts that have become conventional. However correct it is for John to wonder in a third person narrative, Now what will I do? he wondered, the conventional approach has become a shift in the pronoun and verb tense, Now what would he do, he wondered. Likewise, while grammatically correct for John to think, I can't go on like this, the conventional narrative use has become, He couldn't go on like this.
The presence of the auxiliary verb had is a clue to the reader that the action under observation is completed past action. "John had wanted to go" becomes an indication that John had at one time in the past wanted to go. He may have a different feeling about it now: "At the time, John had wanted to go, but now he was glad he'd remained home," a straightforward rendition of showing us John's past and present feelings and in the bargain demonstrating the need to watch one's use of the auxiliary verb had, which appears considerably less formal and clunky if used as a contraction as in he'd, she'd, even I'd.
I have gone implies the completed past action.
I went implies having gone there once, probably witnessed by the reader.
I used to go implies having gone there a number of times.
I might have gone implies the possibility of not remembering or leading up to a mitigating circumstance of why I didn't go.
I'll do it later implies future conditional intention.
I shall do it later implies future volition.
A good standard for adopting such conventions of verb tense to fit one's individual narrative style is the standard of reading writers whose work you admire, noting the places where they so adroitly convey the differences between completed action, recently completed action, ongoing or continuous action, conditional probability, and future probability.
Friday, January 23, 2009
frame-tale format--a narrative or series of separate stories built about an incident, an historical moment, or theme; a single or multiple narrative constructed with recognition of an earlier work; a staging or formulating device for the presentation of a group of stories within a single story. Thus Tales of Scheherazade, or The Thousand and One Nights, a series of stories told by a young woman to a misanthropic Persian king who had the habit of marrying a new wife every day while beheading yesterday's candidate. Thus also The Decameron, in which a group of young nobles, moved to the country to escape the ravages of The Black Death plague, told stories to amuse themselves. From his awareness of these and other frame tales comes Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, stories of individuals on a religious pilgrimage. Off in another part of the world comes the frame tale of the so-called Rashomon Stories, where a single event is replayed to reflect the point of view of the participants, illustrating, as Chaucer did in The Canterbury Tales, a significant view of the human condition from various vantage points on the social scale, a view which has remained constant over the Milena.
In more modern times, the frame tale has become ubiquitous; it appears in such forms as James Joyce's Ulysses, studiously framed on The Odyssey, Clint McCown's short story collection, The Member-Guest, dealing with a weekend golf tournament in a down-at-the-heels country club in the Midwest; and Pam Huston's achingly hilarious collection, Cowboys Are My Weakness, which is a variation on the theme of women being drawn to men who are more drawn to a particular lifestyle than to a particular relationship. Not to forget the memorable cattle-drive theme of the motion picture Red River, which was framed on the seagoing Mutiny on the Bounty, and showing yet another variation on The Odyssey with the Coen Brothers' film, Brother, Where Art Thou? Katherine Ann Porter's 1962 novel, The Ship of Fools, is framed on a 1494 narrative The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant; links of Porter's novel could also be argued to link to Hieronymous Bosch's painting, The Ship of Fools, which Bosch admitted to have come from the Brant narrative. It is a likely and lively comparison to argue the connection between Porter's Ship of Fools and The Decameron and certainly The Canterbury Tales.
The frame-tale format adds another layer of thematic connective tissue between the newer version and the original, the two versions becoming linked in the reader's mind--if the reader is aware of the source. This observation leads to the further observation that the more recent version of a framed tale must stand on its own dramatic merits, as though the reader had no previous knowledge of the original. The motion picture, Shakespeare in Love, had a richer level of significance for those familiar with Twelfth Night and the conditions of the English theater in which the roles of women characters were performed by young boys. Thus the reader familiar with Shakespeare would know that the character of Viola in Twelfth Night was performed by a boy, leading to the conceit in Shakespeare in Love of a young woman masquerading as a boy in order to win the role of a woman in a play, "causing" Shakespeare to "see" the inspiration for Twelfth Night. The play within a play or the story within a story has to stand on its own, to appeal to and transform an audience. The product of the framed tale cannot rely on the fact of its point of origin. Ulysses had to stand on its own, a reputation disputed by many critics and readers.
The doors of imagination fly open to admit possibe entrants for future frame-tale circumstances. What thoughts were dancing in the mind of Ray Bradbury when he got down to work positing the concept of a tattooed man in a circus, a tattooed man whose very tattoos came to life, each demanding its own story? What thoughts later danced in the mind of Mario Vargas Llosa, whose Aunt Julia and the Script Writer becomes another excellent example of exciting ways to tell stories within a larger story?
Thursday, January 22, 2009
vector--the direction a story takes and the magnitude of intensity with which it moves; the goal-seeking movement of a dramatic narrative; the orbital path of the attempt(s) made by one or more characters to cope with a dramatic problem.
A vector is a quantity with some degree of magnitude or motion as well as a direction. What better way to look at story: A dramatic force with some inherent inevitability, pointed in some specific direction. A group of individuals seated at a large dining table is not a story, in fact barely a concept until someone at the far reaches of the table asks for someone at the other end to pass the mashed potatoes. Now we have an essential ingredient--someone wanting something. All we need now is opposition, as in someone saying No; the last time you were passed the potatoes, no one else got any. Had the request to pass the mashed potatoes been politely and promptly filled, there would also have been no story because there was neither opposition nor any demonstrable ingenuity on the part of the individual making the request. Vector is the tracking of initiative against the friction and inertia of opposition. This is another way of saying that the emerging character with some want or need must earn his or her place by taking some steps toward achieving the goal, must not be awarded the goal as a result of passivity or lack of caring about the outcome. It matters less whether the character is successful than if the character tries to implement a strategy. Even though the protagonist of Jack London's short story, "To Build a Fire," is ultimately unsuccessful and dies in his attempts at a relatively simple goal, the story resonates poignancy because the character tried. (See throughline and story arc)
commercial story, the--a dramatic narrative in which the payoff is a direct product of the protagonist's ingenuity; a story in which there is some tangible prize or reward, achieved or at the very least strived for; a plot-driven narrative; a story in which the promise of a particular genre is paid off either as a prize won or as a surprise, ironic reversal; a story in which the ingenuity of plot and deployment of events trumps the complexity of characters and their moral choices.
Another view of the commercial story: the problem with which the characters cope or the choices they must make emerge as being larger than the characters themselves, more or less directing the reader to the cadences of plot elements falling into place.
Simplistic as it is to comment, the commercial story is any story that appears in a mass publication platform, meaning that a literary story may have enough of the qualities listed above to give it entrance to a larger audience.
choice--a decisional or pressure point inflicted on front-rank characters; a forced or self-induced decision made by an individual that will have relevant consequences in a story; some overt form by which a character takes a stand for which there will be a price to be paid, something to be gained or lost.
William Faulkner described fiction as "the agony of moral choice," a vivid way of illustrating the importance and variety of potential choices in any given story of his and of all writers. A character may chose to ignore something, take a stand on some issue, commit a particular act or deliberately not perform another; the character may stay, go, protest, smile outwardly and seethe inwardly. These and other similar acts are the individual beats a character performs during a story; they all have relevant consequences, which is to say they will have some effect such as provoking a recognizable emotion in another character.
One of the Newtonian Laws appropriate to fiction treats the effects of physical action by observing that each act has a consequence that is equal in effect and opposite in motion. In fiction, acts bring forth consequences, some of which are quite wonderful and positive in their nature, others are painful, inducing regret. A character faced with choice stands the risk of vulnerability, which may make that character more sympathetic for a time. The Newtonian product of choice is consequence and of course consequence may lead directly to subsequent actions and, no surprise here, more consequences.
If Daisy had accepted Jay Gatz straightaway in their courtship, the world would be missing The Great Gatsby; if Juliet had thought Romeo a dork, they would likely have gone on to marry others, living entirely different and considerably longer lives. If Sophie had not been forced to make her aching choice, William Styron would not have had nearly so plangent and moving a novel. If Nora Helmer had less spine, that door would not have slammed at the end of act three of A Doll's House.
Thus the paradigms are presented, the lines drawn in the literary sands: You're either with us or you're against us, In or out? Yes or No? Coming or not? Are we going home yet? I can't do this any more.
Choice allows the reader to see large and small moments in the lives of characters, moments in which they set sail on a causal sea of events that leads them through the white waters of conflict and resolution; characters who are confronted with choice become strategically immunized from the one condition that renders them ineffective in fiction--passivity.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
speed bumps--events, descriptions, and reflections that impede the flow of story; a sense of stylistic devices waving their hands for attention during the otherwise orderly progression of a dramatic narrative; the jerky disconnect experienced by readers when writers are not careful about adding backstory, description, and the existential wondering of characters.
The thing to remember at some point in the telling of a story is that the narrative art is evocative, not descriptive; description has its place, usually in small doses, an occasional adjective or adverb, even a clause or entire sentence. There are specific times when the make and caliber of a gun, for example, or the year, model, and color of a car bring clarification to the narrative. A character's height or lack thereof, even some descriptive facial tic become not only necessities but tools in the greater process of evoking that individual's presence. Arrogant? Shy? Assured? Lazy? The overarching intent is to suggest. Ironically enough, some writers who should know better, fail to see the mischievous potential in verbs, relying instead on the adjective and the adverb.
One last pass in revision to "cure" adverbial abuse is a sure way to remove speed bumps.
revelation--a dramatic discovery, experience, or realization that has the power to change the vector of a story.
In a metaphorical way, a story is like a string of fire-crackers, each explosion adding to the collective effect, the individual pop of explosion being a surprise, the final one, the loud, enduring one being the revelation. Often expressed indirectly, through the medium of a front-rank character doing something that becomes a symbolic response, the revelation shows the reader the equivalent of a film or TV close-up reaction shot. In the novels of nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, revelations were frequently spelled out in what writer Barnaby Conrad has titled "came-to-realize" moments, "and in that moment, she came to realize that he had been deceiving her all along." From about the 1980s onward, came-to-realize moments were replaced with a more outward display of a character having been struck by the lightning bolt of revelation, imparting less a sense of certainty and resolve, more of a sense of ambiguity tempered with probability. We readers would be certain that Character A knew Character B was wildly attracted to her and had been for some time, at the very least giving her a dramatic power over Character B, but we would not be sure by story's end if Character A were going to do anything about the revelation.
The payoff to Dashiell Hammett's much anthologized short story, "Two Sharp Knives," is an excellent example of how revelation can be used by one character to exploit another and how that exploitation can be used for dramatic effect on the reader.
In the motion picture, The Third Man, directed by Sir Carol Reed, the illusive and amoral Harry Lime has a surprise encounter with his chum, Holly Martens. They meet in the Riessenrad, the large Ferris wheel in the Vienna amusement park, the Prater. Looking down upon people beneath his high vantage point, Lime compares them to dots, then makes the wry, cynical observation that defines him and causes in Martens a revelation that has the effect of a line drawn in the sand between him and Lime, a line of morality over which Martens will not cross. "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."
One of the many revelations to be had from reading the stories of Anton Chekhov is his own understanding and portrayal of how revelation affects characters, and how their movements rather than their interior monologue suggest the outcome.
plausibility--the dramatic sense of a character, deed, or event being believable to the reader; a depiction of a character's agenda, motivation, or desire being an appropriate, life-like expression; a quality of realism and trust in a narrative and its denizens that helps the reader maintain a sense of belief.
Just because an event portrayed in a narrative actually happened in reality, that does not automatically grant it a license for plausibility; the writer must naturally believe the event and the characters, he must write about them in a way that renders them as dramatic forces, considering what they want and what they are willing to do to get what they want. A good portion of plausibility is found in vulnerability; when a reader sees a defect or longing in a character, it becomes easier to forget that the character is only a smudge of someone else's imagination.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
buyer's remorse--a condition achieved by a reader when it becomes apparent that the writer has let story slip through his grasp, allowed to scoot about uncontrolled like a dropped watering hose; a situation in which the writer begins to rue having taken on a particular story or the mentorship of a particular character; a time when the reader feels himself the victim of too much promise and not enough delivery.
red herring--a false clue introduced in a mystery or suspense story; a plausible-sounding device that convinces the characters and readers of its material relevance to the outcome of the story.
The concept of the red herring had its origin in the training of fox hounds in Europe and, later, of scent hounds in North America, whereby an aged fish is dragged across the trail of such legitimate prey as fox, bear, 'coon, and the like to draw the hound's attention away from the true scent and, thus, the true prey. Check the times in well-crafted mystery stories when the seemingly red herring falsity of a clue causes the clue to be discredited or rejected out of hand at first blush, only to have it prove to have been right on the nose.
on the nose--a theater and dramatic writing expression, often accompanied by the gesture of the index finger tapping the nose, indicating a concept or idea is too literal, wanting a measure of a more indirect approach. The judgment of a thing being too much on the nose is a reflection that the explanation needs to consider the complexities and variations in operation between two or more humans, a warning to the writer that the simplest solution may be the best solution--but not in story. In story, plausibility trumps simplicity.
Occam's razor--a concept of logic developed by a medieval English Franciscan, William of Occam; an injunction against the logical construct of unnecessarily expanding universes (by which he meant arguments); best known among non-philosophers and critics for his "razor" which he applied to any argument, "The simplest solution is the best solution."
foreshadowing--a technique in which a person, place, thing, trait,or concept is introduced in a seemingly casual way for later moments of expansion and exploitation; the deliberate avoidance of bringing up a detail without the need for stopping the narrative to explain its relevance to the story.
As much as readers enjoy, even look forward to surprise, they equally enjoy the sense of a smoothly progressing narrative, one that allows them instead of asking What blue jacket? makes it possible for them to agree, oh, right, Mary's favorite blue jacket, the one she always wore on such occasions. Explanations of key events, objects, or persons seem less likely to have been dropped in conveniently if they have been foreshadowed. Thus this suggested guideline: Whenever a particular noun (person, place, thing) attitude or detail has enough importance in a narrative to support a beat, that noun, attitude, or detail is best served by being introduced in a foreshadowing moment.
Monday, January 19, 2009
interior monologue--the soliloquy/conversation a character has while engaged in a dramatic narrative; relevant sensory and thought process from which readers may adduce and deduce a character's intent, motivation and, if necessary, doubt; a supplement to narrative from any point-of-view character, simultaneously advancing story and developing the reader's familiarity with the narrator.
Unless the design of a story allows or calls for the intervention of authorial comment, all narrative is seen as originating with the point-of-view character. Thus "John was waiting at the mailbox for at least a half hour before the mailman arrived," while yet simple narrative,becomes translated by the reader to extend beyond mere stage directions, spilling over to reflect John's eagerness to get what he anticipates will be included in today's delivery. To add an intensifier of interior monologue to the narrative, the writer might render, "Was today the day it would arrive, John wondered." And to nail it all down with dialogue, John might well greet the mailman with the spoken observation, "You're running late today."
Interior monologue is thought process; in order to be successfully dramatic, it must be made to seem action based. The best way to accomplish this step is to tie the can of consequence to the tail of the thought. Would she ever get here, he wondered. Would she recognize him after all this time?
A handy tip for the writer: Consider all narrative as originating from the particular character of point-of-view focus, using his or her vocabulary, biases, blind spots, range of sensory awareness. If that character is a particularly thoughtful person, the door is open for that character to think consequence-related thoughts. Would this work? Would she truly see the intended affection in his gift of daisies, or would she turn out to draw the line at roses? The hell with it. He liked daisies. If she couldn't see the beauty in them, what future was there in a relationship with her?
pace--the momentum with which a story progresses; the cadence in which dramatic beats appear for the characters and readers to respond.
Remember, dramatic writing is the result of characters reacting to stimuli. Even a character on stage alone is responding to past events, making plans for future ones--perhaps even by playing a waiting or delaying game. Stories that move at too slow a pace will make the reader impatient for something to happen. Stories that move too quickly take on a jerky, frenetic quality that turns moments of potential poignancy or suspense into farce. Comedy is tragedy sped up.
one character on stage alone--a condition where a single character reviews past relevant dramatic events prior to making a choice; a moment where one character waits for one or more associates; a dramatic cross-roads where a character lays out plans for a future event as a means of foreshadowing the event and its consequences.
Characters in film, TV, or stage dramas have recourse to the device of voice-over, in which the audience can hear them "thinking" aloud. The danger here is that the thoughts will seem to be reader feeder (See), "thought" for the convenience of the audience, undercutting the realism of more literary work in which characters do not do favors for the audience so much as they are propelled by their own agendas.
A film, TV, or stage actor is often an exquisitely tuned instrument, able to convey feelings and impressions with mere gestures, inflections of posture; characters are not necessarily so well-tuned and must be nudged, even prodded by the weight of events. A character left alone for too long has only one way out--in thought, which leads to one of the great cliches of written story: "She began to wonder how it had all begun, how she'd let herself get into this mess..."
One of the safer ways for a character to be alone comes when the character is somewhere he or she should not be, a situation enhanced by the accelerated risk of discovery. "What are you doing here? You're not supposed to be here."
Shakespeare addressed the problem by keeping his soliloquies short, bringing them in at about thirty seconds, when another character came on stage. In arguably one of his most famous soliloquies, Hamlet is considering a serious act with a serious consequence, his friends Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern on stage at a distance all the while.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
ghost of Hamlet's father, the--a young prince being invoked by his father's ghost to pursue revenge on his uncle; a metaphor by which a character is reminded of some debt from the past, related to a much loved or much feared friend, relative, or mentor, calling upon the character to become an instrument of revenge; the forces of guilt or retribution conspiring to drive a character to exact payback for events not directly related to him; the long, heavy-handed reach of obligation, conflicting with a character's personal agenda.
The ghost of Hamlet's father wants revenge against Claudius, his brother, for having murdered him and subsequently become the husband of Gertrude, his widow. What better instrument for the ghost than his son? A productive line of inquiry in family and dynastic narratives, placing the squeeze of conscience and duty on the present day protagonist, undercutting his or her own ambitions and recipe for achieving them.
In the traditional ghost story, the ghost has remained in a particular corner of reality, wanting retribution or some related form of justice before moving on to its place in history, reaching across time and cultures for an instrument to represent it in the here and now. Thus haunting is brought into the dramatic sphere as a force that wants something, reminding characters of obligations, debts unpaid, talents undeveloped, justice hanging fire--all of these connective tissue to someone, some ideal, some unfinished business. Thus too the haunted character is placed in the exquisite conflict between his goals and those of another, placing the haunted in a position to discover attitudes, qualities, and techniques which will allow him or her to cope on behalf of another, then become that great dialectic of independence with a long list of influential connections.
Not all ghosts rattle chains or moan at midnight, some are more subtle, attracting their mortal instruments across centuries, cultures, traditions, drawing complete strangers into their orbit. Sometimes the instrument of justice is merely an individual who speaks up to insist that Uncle Fred may have likes his peppermint schnapps but he was as well a wise, empathetic, and kindly man. In another such a fanciful scenario, the ghost and mortal instrument could easily be as diverse as, say the iconic but no-nonsense English poet great, John Milton, and a word-loving hip-hop singer from South Philly, happening on an unpublished manuscript in a centuries-old reading room at a college in England, then bring yet one more last and resonant word, perhaps his most important word of all, from the old poet to the world of literature. Thus too the genie in the bottle, waiting with growing impatience for someone--anyone--to find the bottle in which he has been imprisoned for thousands of years, remove the stopper, which allows the genie to step out for a stretch.
justice--a sense of closure to a conflicted outcome; the payoff of a story; the rendition of a negotiated settlement on some moral, ethical, or artistic conflict.
In a legal sense, justice should be impartial, balanced, perhaps not quite satisfactory to all built at least carrying a sense of attempted fairness. In the sense of reality, which fiction approaches with some degree of ironic vision, justice is more likely to reflect blindness or bias or rank unfairness, even to the point of referring to some outcomes as poetic justice.
One instructive way of determining the attitudes and visions of a particular writer is to consider how that writer's stories payoff as related to a scale of justice. Suggested authors on whom to start: Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Joyce Carol Oates, Willa Cather. Another instructive approach is to ask after reading any work of fiction, Was justice done in this story?
Saturday, January 17, 2009
humiliation--the stripping away of the self-esteem of a character who has been parading on the moral high ground; a significant goal of humor, in which some posturing individual or organization is brought to the extreme public ridicule of laughter. Much is to be learned about a character from the way he or she deals with a humiliating situation; the individual who brandishes humility is often arranging the stage for his or her own undoing. The character who becomes the deliberate prosecutor of his own humiliation earns the reader's admiration.
Humiliation, or public exposure of the emperor's nudity is seen by many readers and writers as the ultimate argument for the presence of cosmic justice. In his short story "The Cat-Bird Seat," James Thurber double downs on the famed Edgar Allen Poe icon, "A Cask of Amontillado," making his revenge-by humiliation seem even more effective and, in the process, more a public affair. In a remarkable display of the understanding of humiliation, Jack London presents a character who inflicts humiliation on an adversary from beyond the grave in his short story"A Loss of Face." (See Wile E. Coyote for added dimensions on persistence in the face of humiliation)
payoff--the orchestrated result of the ending of a scene, a short story, or a novel; the outcome of a dramatic narrative after the denouement; the target for which the writer aims and the characters strive. Scenes, stories, and novels, unlike the slot machines at a casino, have some payoff in the coin of emotion. If an ending does not produce some clue to the author's directed attention to what he wants the reader to feel, the ending is sending forth a 911 call for rescue. Readers of course love to see characters caught up in any or all the potential puzzles of the human condition, their delight increasing exponentially as the puzzle becomes more complex, potentially volatile and threatening.
Friday, January 16, 2009
scene, the--the basic unit of dramatic storytelling; an integral moment in a setting which one or more characters have entered with agenda and expectation; the crucible to which the heat of ambition, agenda, or desire is applied; a period of dramatic engagement in a particular setting where personalities and goals collide, producing a sense of movement toward a resolution or trial.
Put enough of these basic units together and they assume a form suggesting a specific path toward some arbitration, trial, discovery, or resolution. As the collection of scenes emerges, the characters in them appear to grow in resolve or stubbornness, producing varying dramatic options to the point where they become memorable enough to eclipse the narrative in which they appear.
In varying degree, scenes have at least the following ingredients: setting, characters, beats, pace, blocking, tension, subtext, dialogue. They may also contain reversals of fortune for one or more characters, shifts in the power exerted by one character or organization over another character or organization, shifts of allegiance within the cast of characters, surprise, discovery of relevant information, and revelation.
The setting is the thematic and physical locale for the scene; the characters are the individuals who come into it, having just been somewhere else. The beats are movements or activities, a pause to consider, a decision to turn a response into a riposte, a reaction to an invitation or an insult. Pace is the tempo with which the beats occur, slow and leisurely or at staccato intensity. Blocking is the sense of movement and placement of characters in the setting, where they will go if they are in motion, where they will remain if sedentary. Tension is the atmospheric pressure of something about to happen, of impending pleasure or gloom or discovery, while subtext is yet another atmospheric pressure, the palpable awareness of the difference between what a character says and what that character is thinking. Dialog is what the characters say to other in ways that express who they are, what they mean, what they intend.
Characters come into scenes with expectations which may be met or frustrated. A character who achieves an expectation, no matter how deserving he may be of the success, may experience buyer's remorse or conversely indulge exuberant celebration. Just as likely, characters may enter scenes with fears, hopes, prejudices. A character who enters a scene with no expectations needs to be sent home and re-costumed to reflect the basic assumption of story that the characters within them have a sense of being right about something.
A character who is right about something--an interpretation, an entitlement, a sense of being a victim, a sense of having something to protect--has earned admittance to the tent of story and must now pursue the goals that drive him, perhaps tentatively at first, but then with the increasing intensity of ambition. Some characters require one or more scenes in which to ratify or shore up their sense of being right, which instills within them the glorious dynamic of defensiveness, which they are free to interpret as Justice must be done. Even the ghost in Hamlet has an agenda, which drives the story forth, stirring up from beyond the grave the stew of ambition, power, and sexual jealousy. That lovely, dysfunctional family, the Macbeths? They are also propelled by ambition, but who can say that Dorothy Gale is a passive observer.
Scenes should be wound about the armature of at least one salient emotion. Characters may not agree with that emotion, may be prevented from recognizing it by the sun-in-the-eyes of their own agenda, but the reader will see through all that and be able to identify the emotion. A significant example of this is found in the character of Bobby Dupea, wanting at this point in the film Five Easy Pieces nothing more than a conventional breakfast in a small roadside lunch room. "You want me to hold the chicken," the waitress asks Bobby, producing not only the crucible overflowing but a subsequent persona for the actor Jack Nicholson.
A scene is a crucible, an arena, a place where characters go armed with the baggage of their past, their attitudes, their agendas, fortified with the toolkit of their abilities and hopes. The scene is the Swiss Army knife of story.
magical realism--dramatic narratives told from the perspective of one or more narrators who have a vision of reality that differs from the conventional; stories in which beings, places, and events appear as though conventional, their existence supported by the behavior of one or more characters and/or the writer; narratives which suggest alternate origins, universes, and abilities than those found in conventional literature.
Against a setting most characters and readers would agree is a rigorously plausible rendition of reality, the writer of magical realism adds one or more fantastical elements that barely slip under the net of reader believability or are not overtly challenged because everything else seems acceptably real. Accordingly, characters in magical realism are less likely to seem vulnerable than those in super realism, the measure of a writer's ability and popularity measured in accordance with the degree to which readers believe their characters are subject to harm. Thus the intriguing comparison between two seemingly incomparable couples, Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, and Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry in Pullman's The Subtle Knife, the former being lovers from an all-too believable wartime reality, the latter lovers in a reality infused with alternate universe topography and magical realism. The argument here is that while the relationship between Henry and Barkley is convincing enough and poignant, the young love romance between Belacqua and Parry is the more memorable because of a greater depth of detail and nuance, in spite of being set in a patently unworldly world. The further argument becomes: no matter how fanciful the setting, if the details of a commonly felt emotion are strong and nuanced enough, the reader is more likely to suspend disbelief to the point of accepting the magic along with the realism.
Such widely diverse authors of magical realism as Ben Okri, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Alice Hoffman employ the medium with a significant lack of defensiveness, while the Japanese author, Haruki Murikami, is so deft in his applications that the reader may totally buy into his uses of coincidence, dream states, and implied symbolism.
A good governing principle for the use of magical realism is to set one magical element into a world of detailed realistic detail.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
tipping point, the--the point in a dramatic narrative where momentum changes to the extent of becoming irreversible; a literary equivalent of irrevocable consequences becoming the guiding force of events; the place in a story which, once crossed, makes it impossible for events to return to their previous status.
Thus the appearance of Hamlet's father's ghost, early on in act one, in which the ghost cries out for revenge, becomes the tipping point for the young prince. Even if he'd ignored the call for vengeance, Hamlet would have been racked by guilt for his inaction. Deciding to actively take up the ghost's request, Hamlet becomes the instrument by which the deaths of all the principals except Horatio and Fortinbras are assured.
At almost exactly the midpoint of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, Tender Is the Night, the growing personal attraction between a young patient, Nicole Warren, and her promising young psychiatrist, Richard Diver, has been set in motion, culminated by the two of them taking an afternoon stroll in downtown Vienna, then being surprised by a sudden rain shower which sends them scurrying into a narrow, protective doorway. What do persons who are attracted to one another do when caught in a rainstorm and forced to take shelter in a doorway? They look into each other's eyes. As Fitzgerald put it, from that moment, Diver knew that whatever Nicoles problems were, they were his problems as well. And were they ever.
Thus two places for the tipping point or point of no return to take place, almost immediately in the beginning, or at the mid point, two arguments for it being able to fit almost anywhere in a narrative, just so long as it does appear. It does not have to be as explicit as the examples cited, but it is a present condition in a dramatic narrative, and should be given due notice as one of the many elements stored in the tool kit of the accomplished writer. How to develop awareness of it? Read or recall from previous one hundred plays, one hundred novels, one hundred short stories. Identify the tipping point in each. Add tipping point to your Revision Laundry List, insuring you will look specifically for a place where it might have been included, a place you will note and, if necessary, enhance.
exaggeration--a device in which attributes, events, and gestures are significantly overemphasized to provide a dramatic such as humor or apprehension; a conspicuous situation in which a character will demonstrate with emphasis a response one hundred-eighty degrees in opposition to the resident condition or emotion; an extension of superlative degree to hyperbole; use of hyperbole as an ironic comparison to simple fact.
A drunk exaggerates sobriety in movement and speech, a liar who has been caught out exaggerates his protestations of truth-telling, both in tone of voice and rhetoric; a self-possessed individual is less likely to resort to operatic flair in defense of an opinion or position; a teller of tall tales deliberately minimalizes astounding or paranormal events.
Exaggeration is the equals sign between reality and desired effect. An individual is hungry becomes the reality, the hyperbole response is, I could eat a horse, making the momentary hyperbole comedic, rather than humorous. A character who is hungry for power has large ambitions and an agenda to back them up, the behavior in both cases given a stronger sense of dramatic intensity by exaggeration. The net effect on the reader is cumulative: the reader expects the character's exaggerations to bring the character tumbling down into the pit of humilliation, thus rendering the hunger for power a candidate for humor or tragedy.
The purpose of exaggeration is to remove it from the ordinary, continuing the dialectic between ordinary and extraordinary. Use of exaggeration alerts the reader to expect some revelation, whether in direct plot points or through thematic implication. Characters who emerge as larger than life broadcast the pheremones of some inner flaw or inability to cope on some level, said flaw or inability a useful tool in producing an end result or payoff.
Character who exaggerate tend to be unreliable as narrators; characters who overly rely on hyperbole emerge as less than likeable; characters who are themselves exaggerations, say the protagonist of Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, attract our sympathy and interest because of their vulnerability.
magic--a non-scientific ability to control natural phenomena through charms, spells, ritual,and alchemy; paranormal behavior or abilities exhibited by individuals and inanimate objects; a power that allows designated individuals to foretell future events and/or defy known physical qualities; the attribution of unusual traits, qualities, and abilities to real and imaginary beings.
Magic is the basic power in all fantasy fiction, its possession and use having effect on who the reader sympathizes with. Magic often has a time span, a character, for example, having the magic of remaining invisible for thirty minutes, after which point he will become immediately visible where ever he happens to be. Magic is the glue that holds spells and curses in place; it is a power to be possessed, used, challenged. Just as some adventure and historical stories depict the clash of rival forces, fiction is often presented as good or evil.
Magic often employs animals,spirit beings,totems, and arcane formula as adjuncts to mystical forces, directed by mortals or imaginary beings who have found ways of manipulating the force. Individuals who become magicians are able to manipulate elements, chemical reactions, and human destinies.
Attributing magical qualities to a person, place, or thing is also a superlative on steroids, a hyperbole expressing extreme admiration. Describing an individual, a setting, a work of art as magical is the ultimate hyperbole of declaring it too good to be true and thus by implication it can only exist through paranormal circumstances.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
sensory genome, the--a sequence of receptors for touch, sight, hearing, awareness of heat/cold, awareness of taste; the relative degrees in which characters experience sensation; a method of articulating individual characters; an adjunct of the psychological spectrum of a character
If you were portraying a character in a stage or filmed production, you'd have investigated the individual to the point of at least subliminally assessing the person's tolerance for heat, cold, pressure, hunger. You'd have an opinion about whether that character were more a "sight" or "hearing" person. Knowing the sensory spectrum of a character helps produce a more plausible and visible representation of that character. Such knowledge helps the writer determine defining specifics for a character: What would his favorite meal be? Was the character a cotton or wool person, dog or cat, wine or beer, vegan or meat lover. When coming into a scene for the first time, would the character first be aware of sight, sound, temperature, odor?
The sensory genome merits investigation with all ranks of characters because of the spontaneous appearance of thematic or otherwise relevant responses. Example: A pizza deliverer steps into a room and begins sneezing in allergic response to cats, which triggers a furtherance of an argument between the two front-rank characters to whom the pizza is delivered.
Individual character traits should have some relevance however remote to the landscape, tone, and outcome of the story, their inclusion determined by their enhancement of plausibility rather than the distraction of mere originality. Thus, in extreme example, a brief discussion of two cowboys during a cattle drive, in which they argue over the relative merits of hemorrhoid analgesic, speaks to the side effects of too much time on a horse, and adds a note of realism. The conversation might otherwise be deleted as having no material effect on the outcome of the story, but its inclusion will insure the characters place in the readers' memory.
writers block--a strategic narrative impasse occasioned by the writer not knowing what to write next; the result of too much thinking during writing time; the unwelcome presence of a cultural super-ego; a side-effect of the beginning writers belief in the notion of a narrative arriving all at once in near perfect condition.
One of the more effective approaches to coping with this affliction is to move on to the next scene, leaving a Post-It note to the effect, confrontation between Bill and Fred goes here, or sex scene goes here. Another effective approach is to stop thinking about theme- and plot-related matters in terms of questions, as for instance, What would Bill do now and is it plausible that Fred would want to stop him? Move instead to the id-related mode by asking, What does Bill want now? then listening for Bill's answer. If it turns out that Bill doesn't want anything right now, move on to the moment where he does want something. During early draft stages, thought is not a helpful ally, rather it is the equivalent of the dog or cat who jumps up on the bed at night, wanting the precise place on the mattress occupied by the writer. The true helpful ally is what the writer wants, repeat wants, to write, not what the writer thinks would be good to write.
audience for story, the--a group of students who are assigned the text of a particular narrative; a collection of individuals who read for pleasure or information; a number of friends and relatives of a writer; a team of publishing professionals who are on the look out for something; a writer who is obsessively compulsively driven to relate a sequential series of events; a writer who is bored with the prospect of having nothing interesting to read; a writer who has just finished reading a remarkable and compelling work by another writer; a writer who is pissed over some racial, social, intellectual, or scientific injustice; a reviewer who likes books; a reviewer who does not like books.
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
landscape--the physical, moral, political, ethical, psychological arena in which a given story is set; the lowest common thematic denominator of a dramatic narrative. Accordingly a story could be set in Revolutionary France, the guillotine blades still dripping blood, but the narrative instead is about individuals who had no sides in the Revolution nor cared about the consequences one way or another, thus rendering the landscape one of indifference, ignorance, or perhaps even some form of indulgence. Landscape decor allows the writer to show through direct or ironic intervention a sense of what the population of the story was feeling, thinking, doing.
Landscape is a core sampling of zeitgeist (See); the sense of the time, place, and denizens thereof. Landscape cannot--nor should not--help itself; it is the writer's personality and attitude, bleeding through the scenery. Example: The enormous sprawl that is Los Angeles represents to many writers a Dante-esque version of Purgatory conflated with Inferno, emerging from their writings as a landscape of crowded freeways, drive-by shootings, PhDs and out-of-work actors doomed to waiting tables or delivering pizzas, the faux yogic posture of freedom from arthritis. The characters, settings, and attitudes resident in this landscape will emerge with some sort of cynical tinge. The visions of L.A. cherished by other writers will emerge as eternally bright, undershot with the camaraderie of hope, shared dreams, and the sun-baked sizzle of success at every major intersection.
Five hundred words or less: What was the landscape of Spain when Cervantes wrote Don Quixote? What was Don Quixote's relationship to his landscape? What were the landscapes of England and Scotland during the writing life of Sir Walter Scott? Compare and contrast the World War II landscapes of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead with Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions.
Whatever your setting or time frame, it is your landscape; do not undercut it with attempts at objectivity or floridity any more than you would with a character. The reader can tell from the way a character walks, speaks, behaves, what that character's internal landscape is. Similarly, the reader absorbs your Los Angeles, your feudal Spain, your own sense of the Normans versus the Anglo-Saxons in Ivanhoe
Why should we care?--the essential, underlying paradigm for the reader of fiction; the link between concern for characters in a narrative and the surrender of disbelief in the plausibility of the narrative; one or more reasons why a reader will empathize with the characters in a story.
The number of partially read books under the bed, the agonized browse of the shelves at libraries, book stores, and paperback racks at airports and markets, the Sirens' song, luring us to a particular section in a display of fiction--all these are iterations of the question about our individual tendency to care for one type and not another, for one character and yet not someone materially similar. Why Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry and not Jay Gatz and Daisy Buchanan? What draws us to one face in the literary crowd while simultaneously allowing us to barely nod recognition to another.
The equation begins with the filter, the writer who, in the first place, draws the character forth from the experiential sludge in order to set him or her afoot on the terrain of story. The writer's first obligation is to empathize with the character, no matter what the individual may have done awake, in dream or fantasy, or in dreamless sleep. Liking the character is not an issue, but disliking the character is. Knowing in advance that Character A will lie to Character B (whom you do quite like), perhaps even cheat or steal from Character B is no excuse for the dislike. We will more likely care for Character A if we can appreciate Character A's goals and motives, even to the point of recognizing some of Character A's goals in our readerly self.
Where it begins for us as Reader is when we want Character B to get the prize, to achieve the end, the goal, the pizza with anchovy. Character B has to want something to a tipping point degree, drawing us along with the inertia of being in motion.
There is often no explanation for why a reader will identify with one lead character in a dramatic situation and not with another in a reasonable facsimile of the dramatic situation, thus the writer must accept that not all readers will care about his characters but must himself care bout the welfare, trials, and tribulations of the character as a sine qua non for any reader caring about the character. Helpful questions for the writer to ask about each character: Who is he/she? What does he/she want? What is he/she willing to do to accomplish the goal? What will he/she do if frustrated? What happens if he/she achieves the goal, then experiences buyer's remorse?
dialect--a variant form of a language, associated with a class, cultural or regional uses; a distinction given to a character to further define the character's social, cultural, and educational dimensions; an attempt to capture a regional, social, or ethnic tendency through spoken language.
Individuals from different parts of the world and throughout history have had different speech patterns, class identifiers, and expressions, the argument goes, and so why not use these in narrative to the same degree that any other relevant detail is used? One argument for moderation in the use of dialect is to observe the way excessive, court reportorial emphasis on detail leaves dust bunnies, the charming and worthwhile Uncle Remus being one example of how black dialect and speech patterns don't hold up very well in fact, and even less so when placed in contrast with contemporary tropes from Walter Mosley's character, Easy Rawlins, holds up and is likely to.
On a more general level, removing the occasional terminal g from gerunds might have an evocative effect of a larger dialect or lack of formal education, but removing all terminal g's might call such attention as to point the finger at the device. True enough, upper classes in England once used aint matter-of-factly in conversation (see Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Whimsey detective series) simultaneously with a middle-class American campaign to rid the language of it. Thus does dialect, slang, patois, and such coarse depictions of, say, Native Americans through such tropes as Ugh! and Great White Father, him say-um... defeat its purpose by providing self-parody.
Moderation is a good pole star here, so too is trying to capture the metrics and cadence of a dialect, using but not overusing regionalisms. Also worth note, the dialect used by the late Boston crime and thriller writer, George V. Higgins, particularly in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in which Higgins had some of his characters speaking in what was represented as Boston Irish working class, but was no such thing--it was Higgins' impression of Boston Irish working class English. Reading it, few would doubt the obvious shift away from Standard English and Boston Upper Class usage, thus the tail began to wag the dog; readers assumed that the Boston Irish spoke the way Higgins' characters do. Yet another gifted combination of dialect and regionalisms may be found in the suspense fiction of Elmore Leonard. Many of Leonard's characters would not score well on intelligence tests although they often have natural shrewdness, ambition, dreams, and plans reflecting their shrewdness, dreams, and ambitions. Leonard's dialogue and narrative are reflective of his characters; also clear is the fact that Leonard is not patronizing them.
Dialect can be a helpful tool if used with moderation and inventiveness, ever alert to keep respect for the characters at the highest priority and a watchful eye for racial, gender, and class cliche.
Monday, January 12, 2009
It's eleven o'clock--the first part of an iconic advert, targeting parents of teens by asking if they know where their children are at this hour; a call for parents to have greater awareness of where their children are and what they're doing; a relevant analogy targeting writers to be more attentive to their characters.
Stories traditionally focus on the activities and attitudes of front-rank characters, nevertheless it can be instructive for the writer to know where, at any given moment, all other characters are and what they're doing while the front-rankers are on, being done to, and responding. One extreme example of the useful of this practice of keeping track is found in Tom Stoppard's Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a story in which the primary character is shunted to the background. Knowing where all characters are at all times in a narrative may not produce a result so witty and engaging as the Stoppard play or as revelatory as Valerie Martin's dramatic point of view shift from the eponymous Dr. Jekyll in her role reversal, Mary Reilly, but there may be surprises for the writer, the reader, and of course the characters. These surprises might not change the intended course of the story, but they can enhance the texture, which is to say the story becomes more dimensional and vibrant.
It is nearly time for denouement. Do you know where all your characters are?
What is the story about?--a major concern of every reader; an inventory for the writer to keep in mind during revision; a template defining the behavior and goals of characters.
True enough, many writers embark on a story to see what it is really about, only to discover that the story is about ways to achieve the stated goal of the protagonist or to understand better how to cope with some existential situation--love, death, birth, career, ethical conflict. Equally true that basic answers to the question sound banal, insubstantial: The Wizard of Oz is about Dorothy getting home; Hamlet is about the son avenging his father's murder, Great Expectations is about Pip being unspoiled by his rise in social class. Even the dark implications of Entertaining Mr. Sloan speak to the honest acknowledgment of personal desires.
Not sure what the story is about? Try asking what the main character wants. If that produces an unsatisfactory answer, try factoring in what the antagonist wants? Suddenly we are at the dramatic premise of Les Miserable, having now articulated what John Valjean wants, which is more or less to have his debt to society deemed paid, and Inspector Jaivert's insatiable demand for justice still raging. The story is about the convergence of these two forces, which indeed collide, forcing Jaivert's inescapable fate and, metaphorically, what the story is.
anti-hero--a male or female front-rank character somewhat or totally lacking such classic heroic virtues as honesty, morality, and/or social conscience; a protagonist-force character for whom the reader roots even though the character is lacking recognizably admirable qualities; a male lead as exemplified by the character Joe Buck in James Leo Herlihy's The Midnight Cowboy, or a female lead as exemplified by the character Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair; a protagonist whose traits are chosen to counter propagandist overkill that hard work, virtue, and empathy with fellow mankind will be rewarded.
Both the hero and anti-hero have resumes that will get them cast in plot-driven and character-driven stories; each is bigger than life, which is a significant requirement to get beyond audition stage, the next requirement being they need to have some quality or be in some existential situation where the reader will begin to root for them. Yet another example of anti-hero from The Midnight Cowboy, Joe Buck's eventual friend, Ratso Rizzo, a seedy, amoral con man. Many front-rank characters, male and female, in Elmore Leonard novels tend to be anti-heroic, their behavior often the result of self-protection from some vulnerability rather than because of essential meanspiritedness.
In many cases, the anti-hero is the idealistic paradigm evolved to reflect the symptoms of actual reality as opposed to fictional reality; the anti-hero is a conflation of those two exemplars from Arthur's Round Table, Gawain and Galahad, morphed into twentieth- and twenty-first century vets returning from disastrous wars, looking for jobs, coping with marital stress, parenting, and the betrayal of seemingly inherent promises of their social class. For women anti-heroes, their outlook and behavior reflects the conflicts of sacrifice of roles in a notably sexist society, the need to live their creative life during the nap time of their children, and the growing suspicion that they may have been chosen as a mate for all the wrong reasons.
The appropriate degree of anti-hero-ness required in a character is discovered through the trial and error of many drafts and/or a story construct where dramatic requirements help to define the need, a splendid series of examples to be found in the suspense fiction of Walter Mosley, in general, and in the character of Lionel Essrog in Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Mars probe, the--a complex data-assessing instrument sent from Earth to Mars to gather and relay climatic, geological, weather-based data, and other measurement-related information about Mars, back to Earth; a metaphor for the individual writer's sensory gathering apparatus, allowing the writer to send a probe into differing cultures, locales, relationships, and emotions, classifying and filing them for later use in creating settings and circumstances.
The very expense, energy, and planning needed to get Mars probes to their destination, or in orbital paths from which they can relay photographs, serves to enhance the metaphor for a writer: Often the search for the Big Theme or the Big Story causes the writer to miss entirely the smaller details which, on examination and understanding, provide such significant hints to human evolution, history, and emotional complexity, as as illuminating the texture of the expanding universe just steps away from the computer screen.
Each writer has a unique sensory genome, taking in, absorbing, synthesizing for future use the smorgasbord of available experience. This sensory genome contributes significantly to the emergence of the individual writer's voice, without which the writer is more a transcriber of event than a teller of story.
action IS character--an observation made by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon; a reminder that drama is an evocative rather than descriptive medium. Fitzgerald's awareness is worth spelling out: The best way to convey a dramatic image of a character is through the movement the character makes in story, showing agenda, backstory, and emotions through interaction with other characters and striving to achieve a goal against obstacles and reversals.
Taking this spelling out one step further, The reader takes more clues from character behavior than from a description of the character's physical traits. Some deft authorial intrusion may help a reader form a physical picture of a character, but having a character stoop to get into her car suggests some of the ongoing challenges in her life thanks to her height.
Some of a character's actions are subliminal, barely noticed except by the writer--and the character, who is, after all, appearing as an active rather than passive participant in a story. (Things may happen to a character, but then a character responds to them and to other characters as well, and perhaps even to characters who are marginally off stage and nearby or who are off stage and dead, yet still exerting some form of influence.)
content editing--editorial intervention focused on the logic, chronology, plausibility, accuracy, and dramatic intensity of a story; a structural oversight, usually performed by someone other than the author, with the goal of optimal presentation of the dramatic incidents in a narrative; not to be conflated or confused with copyediting, which is mechanical in nature with a goal of uniformity of usage conventions. Manuscripts are conventionally subjected to content editing first. The content editor's goal is to enhance the writer's voice, removing unnecessary repetition and the literary equivalent of throat clearing. Once any anomalies are addressed and queries to authors answered by the author, the manuscript moves to the copyediting stage.
first draft strategy--a recipe for securing with all deliberate speed a seemingly complete manuscript of a project; the result of saying what you have to say about a dramatic situation before undertaking revision (See); a deliberate experiment in rendering a narrative through the filter of a particular point of view; the exhaustion of the conceptual energy that brings a story or story concept to mind in the first place.
The strategy for the first draft is to realize that other drafts will be necessary, each being powered forth by its own energy (which is likely to differ from any previous energy). The systematize process of revision (See)may well begin with a decision about the point of view, followed with investigation of beginning and ending points. After chronology is decided, the middle point may provide occasion for choice, followed by a review of the characters, their goals, movements, what they say, and to whom.
Writers at all stages of development may find themselves at a momentary brick wall, unable to continue work even though there is available time in the writing schedule. At such a point, if 45 minutes elapses with no clue emerging, move on to the next scene, leaving a simple Post-It note to identify the intent of the unwritten segment: Sex scene goes here; Bill confronts Fred about missing bank statements; Phyllis confronts Fred about getting a job. Subsequent drafts may reveal the missing scene would not appear for the writer because it was not necessary in the first place.
This approach--to this point--is for writers who set forth to discover the arc of the story as they work or who have a particular ending in mind toward which they choose to build. For the writer who works from outline, the ideal first draft strategy is a list of scenes or a set of 3 x 5 index cards with a key phrase for each scene, arranged in what appears to be the most fruitful order.
There is a middle ground between the "Discoverer" writer and the Outliner: Move forward as quickly as possible, without stopping to think. When you hit a brick wall or pause point, think out a new complication, obstacle, reversal, or news of some off-stage event that will have effect on the story. Compose until that point before stopping or make sufficient notes to carry you to that point. Most writers will agree that a writing session ends best when the text has reached a need for a choice, decision, challenge, or review of options. Ending at such a point will keep the writing part of the mind working on the next session through and during sleep, daytime job, and personal to-do lists.
One of the many great myths surrounding writing has it that really gifted writers such as Louise Erdrich, William Trevor, Annie Proulx, and Tom Boyle are presented with the fully developed idea every time, no assembly required. Only one draft necessary.