Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XVI

It will come as no surprise to you that I write to you today as an advocate for at least an awareness in your work of irony if not in fact the actual presence of irony.  Thus will I have introduced my pair of topics for the day, my twofer, surprise and irony.

Surprise is an event, revelation, or turn of circumstances the reader was not anticipating.  This is different from an event, revelation, or turn of circumstances where the character who is to be surprised was taken unprepared.  This is so because you want to get the reader used to thinking he or she knows a tad more than the character, is perhaps more worldly, more cynical, more prone to expect things to go wrong.  And this often proves to be the case because readers are used to reading narratives where things not only prove wrong, they explode in the characters' faces.  This is, after all, the basic spine of fiction.  Things go wrong.  Things don't work.  People change their minds. get better offers, have that well-known affliction of buyers' remorse.  If things went right in story, there would not be nearly so many readers as there are and I can tell you from personal and professional experience with stories and story-related materials that you don't want to go around taking the readers there are out there too much for granted by not allowing things to go wrong in your stories.

Readers will tell you that they want things to go well in your stories, but the irony is that most of the readers who tell you this are either members of your family, close friends, or, worse, members of your writing group.  Can't you tell a happy story for a change, they will ask you.  Or perhaps they will suggest that you need a vacation or a few hours with a competent therapist, someone with whom you can talk over your growing tendency to make things seem so dreary.

You've probably seen advertising campaigns with digital clocks built in to them, counting down the hours left in George W. Bush's presidency or the length of time elapsed since one of Mel Gibson's melt-down screeds.  In the time you've been reading these few vagrant paragraphs of this letter to you, six young persons, twenty-two middle-aged persons, and one geezer have made the decision to become writers.  This is not a significant jump in the numbers and indeed some of them probably wish you well in your own pursuit of the goal, but still, that is a total of twenty-nine persons out there writing things who will be spending serious time thinking up things that can go wrong for characters, devising ways in which men, women, and children characters have their hearts wrenched in some way or other.  True, they will then have to devise some kind of effective closure to the mischief they have wreaked upon their characters, and in fact so will you be faced with providing more intriguing complications than those new writers as well as all those out there, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches with you, writing stories about individuals against whom Fate appears to be shutting the door, closing off opportunity, saying no.

The way to deal with this problem, this over inflation of things going wrong or, at least, not as originally planned is to surprise yourself, develop your skills at having outside forces conspire against you and your characters.  Surprise may come tentatively at first, but the more you work at it, your talents will grow and you will find hidden opportunities lurking in every new scene.

Your friends and family will argue that this is embedding a misanthropy within your creative process. cause you in effect to be chortling as you go about, flinging banana peels in front of your characters, giving them the opportunity to slip and you to laugh at their slipping.  Here's where the irony comes in:  you will be developing greater empathy rather than the misanthropy of which you are accused.  Knowing that disaster, embarrassment, even humiliation await your characters, you will regard them even more deeply than you ought.  You will carry this empathy over into your real time life, appreciating the disappointments and setbacks of your friends and family.  People will be drawn to you, wanting to confide their own setbacks to you because of their belief that you have come to appreciate the human condition with such conviction.

All part of the job, you'll say.

It must be wonderful to have such a job, they'll say.

And you'll be thinking, how great is it that you don't have to wait nearly so long for rejection slips or, on the longer projects, rejection letters; you can find them waiting for you in the in-box of your mail server.

Post a Comment