Sunday, May 22, 2011

Read the Ingredients List

It is often said--and you have joined this chorus--that suspense is the lubricant of story, easing it along, building to some explosive moment where we are all of us, characters and readers alike, drawn forward, eager to see who will now do what, and what the implications are.

As bottles of various fermented beverages are required to carry on their labels some accurate indication of their alcoholic content, stories are often held up to the standard of suspense content:  How much did you care?  For whom were you  fearful?  For what were you most concerned?  Had you, alas, reached a point of suspected despair for the time spent following the story, wondering why?  Did the characters appear to be milling about, a nervous hive of discomfort as though wondering why they had allowed themselves to be wrenched into such a lackluster narrative?  Had they all decided on a trip to Esalen and a course in advanced yoga for writers?

Unlike Newt Gingrich, who has blathered himself into a corner, producing suspense of a sort relating to what new blather he will use to disentangle himself from his past locutions and moral outrages, you believed with all sincerity that suspense was the necessary condition but have come now to see it as a sufficient condition.  Tension is often as effective as suspense, but you must not forget that even outright suspense, when applied to a character no one cares about is not going to save the day.

The day saver is caring about the character in the first place; a way of approaching such care is to render the character in some way vulnerable.  Even hubris may be seen as a vulnerability because we know from previous reading that hubris will bring a snob or deluded person down.  If a hubris-ridden character is presented in enough dimension, she or he will command our attention because we, intellectual equivalents of NASCAR racing and mentality, want to see her or him or, for that matter, both of them, brought down.  There is the acute, delicious fear that they might not be brought all the way down and so we wish to make sure.

So let us rearrange the  constructive furniture a bit:  start with a character who is somehow vulnerable.  She wants something she cannot have, like that frightening Ursula Heggi novel about the undersized girl who has to come to terms with not merely being short but being a dwarf.  Disturbing character, made remarkable by her attitudes.  Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn takes the same precipitous path for a man afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, making us uncomfortable in our awareness of what he must accommodate with every breath he takes.

From vulnerability, let us move on to an individual character's agenda, what matters to her or him, just as you are now evaluating former positions of invincible weight in the matter of story.  Perhaps we can even see a bit of the inner wrangle with the agenda experienced by a character.

Then, you believe, time for considering suspense and tension; seeing a vulnerable, avid individual in some risk makes for a possibility that others will join us in caring.  Then a dash of tension, that taut, electric sense of polarity across which arcs the spark of confrontation.

Perhaps it will work.

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