Thursday, July 22, 2010

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

You've probably filed away as muscle memory the way the word "definition" suggests an explanation of what a particular word means, no doubt having gone through some dumb tests in your literature classes, questions such as "Define transcendentalism," or "Define an epistolary novel."

"What a word means" is a true enough definition of definition, but it fails to carry along with it the nuance of a high order, as well implying behavior and the particular quality of that particular behavior.

There are moments in a story which may be called defining because they embody or define the actual and thematic personality of the narrative.  The meeting of Romeo and Juliet is such a defining moment because it provoked the chemistry between them that became the spine of their attraction and ultimate fate.  Definition thus helps delineate the activity and supports the implications of its meanings.

As early as the first sentence of Ford Maddox Ford's memorable novel, The Good Soldier, its first-person narrator, John Dowell, tells us:  "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."  Dowell proceeds to tell us a story which, by the nature of his definition of it, causes us to have an impression of Dowell considerably at odds with the picture Dowell has of the events and of himself.

We are currently being barraged with the concept of high-definition, which applies to the sharpness and intensity of digital images.  We would do well, I suggest, to apply the same concept to the motives and behavior of the characters we set loose in our scenes, building with them to something that goes well beyond the twists and turns of a story as though they were some ride in an entertainment park but rather a more personal look at how individuals behave when they are auditioning for parts they wish to play in a performance of unrivaled complexity and consequence.

At the beginning, dear friends, definition is for us; it establishes parameters, boundaries, limitations.  As we engage the characters of our choice in story situations, it is up to us to see that the circumstances of story drive the characters beyond the boundaries, where the true story begins as they start to react to what they have done and what they must now do in order to continue.

1 comment:

Storm Dweller said...

My defining moment in understanding the meaning behind the word definition came when I started learning foriegn languages, specifically in the dabbling study of religious texts. It seems that words are more fluid than a contained definition found on the back of it's flash card. Who knew that a single word can encompass an entire concept that is titrated down into a simplistic explanation. We never take into account what is lost in translation, both in text, and in understanding. It is our jobs as writers to re-flesh those concepts, by breathing life back into the words and moments that so neatly contain them.