Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Working without an Umbrella

Surprise is the elephant in the living room of story.  We work to get the details, motives, and character traits so plausible that they are practically pestering us for spare change or information that will lead to securing the services of a literary agent.  We spend hours working over story arc, particularly those of us who are not natural plotters or planners.  Honing.  Sharpening.  There is event, intent; there is consequence followed by remorse or exultation, each of these elements squeezed out as through a narrow birth canal, pushed from a flash of imagination to the point where these events and intents and asides are all arrivals in present time of the unthinkable.

We no longer think about surprise; instead we think about surpassing the moment so that we achieve a scene in which the results become not only memorable but emblematic of right now in the twenty-first century.

At the expense of our own emotional ease and well-being, we edge in for a closer, more honest look at what they, our characters, want and what they are willing to do to themselves and to others in order to achieve their ends.  Of course we provide them with ends.  Dude who is a lock for the job of Thane of Cawdor is already looking beyond, wants to be something more.  A black chauffeur has to take a job driving a persnickety old gal.  Keep that goal shimmering in front of them, something they dare not hope for but dare not forget.

Any number of individuals are willing to settle, going so far as to start right now, reaching for practicality, packing their one or perhaps two dreams into a sturdy container, then setting it aside while they go about, building up a security system for themselves and their families, even trying to connect that security system to the American version of the holy grail, The Great American Dream.  Nothing wrong with that, and a lot about it that is essentially right, but such a system does not produce viable characters up front.  Maybe someone who's been paying into that sort of system for too many years, then begins to think other, as in some sort of dream.  Bingo.  Enter story.  All of a sudden, someone wants something because he or she has seen a time line.

Front-line characters are not willing to settle; they are lying if they say they do.  The surprise is this thing they have been nourishing all along, feeding it the way a young person caches away a puppy or kitten which is now being fed from scraps sneaked from the dinner table.

How to exploit surprise?  Start by asking yourself what is it about you that has surprised you in the past?  What has been your most recent surprise?  Is there any relationship between past and present surprises?  Are you still paying off in conservative coin for the surprises you discovered in past renditions of yourself?  Are you still buying into the tired old chestnuts about preparing for a rainy day, or are you now wishing you'd put more time into preparing for a rainy day.

There was a time when your father had a job selling insurance policies.  One of his props was a booklet he was instructed to show prospective clients, a booklet featuring a full-page photo of an umbrella.  One of the last pictures in the booklet was of a funeral, graveside, coffin still above ground. You turned the page from that to a family being protected by an umbrella.  Long after the fact of his having given up that particular line of work, your father told you how much he hated using that booklet and its highly managed photos, showing the benefits of that umbrella of protection against the rainy day of the inevitability we all face.  In all likelihood your love for him became more and more articulate as he harked back to that time in his life and how he wished to distance himself from it.

Some professional gymnasts, aerialists, like to use the term "working without a net."  You could say the same thing about working without an umbrella.  You came by it by indirection and observation, your resume or, gussied up for teaching, your curriculum vitae, attests to the places you worked with and without the umbrella, the times when, accordingly, there were or were not any surprises in store.

The surprise is within us as readers and as writers; we ignore it at our peril, looking for the story points on some document of proposal or sales pitch, in effect taking cheap formulaic solutions as opposed to those that rock the reader's consciousness and the writer's uneasy dreams.  Mind you, this is not surprise merely to do something unconventional but rather to let some lingering, perhaps even festering emotion have its say.  Remember Julian English in John O'Hara's Appointment in Samara?  Throwing that drink was waiting to happen and probably came after O'Hara had had a few drinks, himself, freeing up the energy to one of the more forceful conclusions possible.

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