Thursday, September 2, 2010

Train Wreck, Dramatic Style

Here it is, getting well on into the eleventh year of the twenty-first century, a number of disasters still raw on the face of the earth.  You think of New Orleans, still hurting and needful; Haiti, crying out in unheard agony; Pakistan immersed, soggy, miserable; the seeping wound in the Gulf of Mexico only just staunched but on this very day a new explosion of a rig.  No wonder an expression much in use is train wreck.  With ample pictures of train wrecks at our disposal we extend the metaphor to include any performance that did not go as planned, resulting in some disaster of language, performance, even intentions.  A train wreck has become short hand for Robert Burns' suggestion that "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley/An' leave us nought but grief an' pain/For promised joy..."

You have found unfortunate ways to extend the metaphor, the first of which is in things you read as a reader reading for enjoyment (might need an entire essay on what that has come to mean) or in order to provide editorial support, the other being disasters in your own work, accordion-pleated logic or detail strewn about after having collided with unnecessary description or the heavy hand of authorial intervention.

One of the great causes of literary train wreck is convenience, as in an event coming about in fortunate coincidence so that the star-crossed lovers meet or the grudging rivals meet or someone changes his or her mind in order to allow the story to arrive at some comfortable destination.  Perhaps as well a conversation between two or more characters in which vital information is FedExed to the reader, no signature required.  Hi, John, I've been meaning to talk to you about that business from last week.  You mean the one where we agreed to enter into an unlawful conspiracy against Fred?  No, although that was interesting and we might want to finalize that next week.  I mean the one where we both decided to raise prices we used to charge our clients.  Oh, that one.  Yes, that one.

Another cause is unnecessary description of any noun having the misfortune to appear in the story.  It can be the shape and/or color of the beard on the face of a homeless person the protagonist sees on his way to work every day, or a recitation of the exact number of steps a character requires to get from her desk at work to the photocopying machine in the work room, neither object, the beard or the photocopying machine having role or relevance in the story other than a demonstration of the character's acute awareness of quotidian details, thus demonstrating the sensitivity and regard for order experienced by said character.

Yet another train wreck may be an explanation, offered either by one of the characters to another, which is preferred over the explanation offered by the author, either an eighteenth-century author such as Henry Fielding (of Tom Jones fame) or the twentieth-century author Aldous Huxley, who so enjoyed explanations and descriptions that he became quite good at slipping them in between the more active paragraphs of his longer works and was no slouch at using them in short stories.

The more you think about the potential for train wrecks in the context of writing the more you become convinced that thought is a dangerous enterprise to indulge until you have completed at least an early draft of what you consider the work to be.  Even then you want more to listen to the material than think what you wish it to be.  If you listen carefully, you will learn what it wishes to be rather than the train wreck of what you think it ought to be.  Many promising dramatic ventures are spoiled by sending story and thought along the same track

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