Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Letter to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer XVI

Every time a character sets foot into a scene you have created, he or she comes armed with two essentials, agenda and expectations.  A character who enters a scene without either is a runaway from a writing group, incompletely formed, neither to be trusted nor endured.  Like you, the character thus waiting in the wings to go on has awareness of whence he or she has just come, what happened there, and under what circumstances.

Agenda is the character's goal, the one he or she strives before our eyes and by implication to achieve.  This agenda may well be inarticulate even as the character works or perhaps lurches toward achievement of it.

Expectation relates to the character's attitude while pursuing the agenda and is thus more time sensitive.  Each time a character enters a new scene, that character brings some tangible measure of the expectation that something will happen or, if there is to be a surprise, of some planned event not happening.  Looked at functionally, each scene becomes each character's anticipation of what will happen next, working in tandem with the reader's curiosity to see in fact what does happen.  A character can, for instance, dread going home for the holidays to a family gathering only to have such dread overwritten by the intense wonder of bonding and good fellowship, a theoretical outcome to be sure, but one following another dramatic certainty I commend to your attention:  Although the reader has expectations, they should be delayed as long as possible if they are ever in fact met.  Or to put it another way, don't take the reader where the reader wants to go because once the reader gets there, the story is over.

We all of us conspire with the characters against the reader in this last sense, hopeful of keeping the reader with us by constantly yanking the rug, table cloth, bed sheet, or any other similar length of metaphoric material from under him.  We conspire against out characters by blunting or misdirecting their expectations.  A character whose fantasies and wishes are met is not going to seem worthy of our interest, not for long.  Interestingly enough, a character who seems to have everything emerges as a character who is about to experience some comeuppance.  And that comeuppance had better not be too late an arrival at the party.

There is no sense investing our characters with these tools if they are not used, which is to say it is a good idea to know what their overarching goal is.  Doesn't hurt a bit to have an idea how far they're willing to go to achieve their goal nor to see how their expectations are faring as they wait to do whatever it is you have planned for them, where ever it is you planned on having them do it.  Nice touch if you can arrange a scene in which they interpret things to mean they're on the cusp of achieving their agenda or, conversely, that they are so far away from their goal as to be rendered inchoate with frustration.

Happy campers only work in commercials; unhappy campers are always on the cusp of entering a new scene with a new story.

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