Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Squeaky Wheels

Because of the universal tendency to favor the squeaky wheel with the first round of attention, generations of hospital patients have learned to moan, crying babies get fed, and complaining customers get their concerns redressed.

When the subject of story arises, writers are directed to plot, characters, and suspense as places for the oil.  However helpful this therapy might be, it offers no guarantee that the squeak will be cured. To put the matter in more dramatic terms, the narrative lacks dimension.

What causes story to run "thin"?

The squeaky wheels of plot, characters, and suspense often distract the writer away from the vital elements necessary to get the twenty-first century models of story out on the road and running.  These elements are text, subtext, and irony.

Text is the entire run of the story arc, related from the sensitivity of one character, if we're dealing with a short story, upwards of six if the text is novel length.  There is no place in either medium for the author; stories in the twenty-first century do not require an authorial point-of-view.  If the author wishes to get into a story, the closest she can come is to introduce a character with whom she shares the dramatic agenda of this story.

Visualize an equation with point-of-view on one side of the equals sign and experience on the other.  If you see that, you're on your way to seeing what story is and some of the squeak will begin to disappear from your narrative.

Subtext is the gap between Reality-as-it-is and how the important characters see it; it is the difference between what a character says and what she feels, employing all the constraints, desires, and permutations arguing within her right now.  Think back about the smorgasbord of nuance at work in dialogue.  Subtext is the crucible cooking away within all characters.  The best dramatic treatment is heat, applied in liberal quantity, with the goal in mind of producing combustion.  When subtext reaches combustion point, add enough more heat to make the crucible boil over.  What your character will do might surprise you--and the other characters--but that's what you were reaching for.

When subtext reaches combustion point, then boils over, you will have installed the editorial equivalent of a plot compressor, a device designed to run on pure emotion, without the need for oil.

Irony has been enriching story for hundreds of years, making a notable appearance in Gilgamesh, one of the earliest dramas of our Western culture.  To show that it is also a staple of Asian literature, there are grand moments of it in the Hindu epic, The Bhagavad-Gita, where Lord Krishna, disguised as a chariot driver, tells the noted general, Arjuna, to STFU and do what he'd been educated and trained to do.  When Arjuna continues to dither, Lord Krishna,in effect, says, "Okay, you asked for it," whereupon he allows Arjuna a look at his true nature.  This detail is a perfect example of irony, which is the difference between Reality and Illusion or the gap between what one character sees and another understands.

The most famous example of irony in our culture dates from the early 1600s.  Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, an early prototype of the literary buddy system, provide yet another vision of irony at work, where the illusion is seen as real, the real is seen as illusion, and the reader is convulsed with laughter at the disparity.

Sometimes the laughter produced by irony turns to tragedy, as in the case of Madam Bovary, modeled with some deliberation on Don Quixote.  Other examples of the Quixotic refraction of Reality may be found through the centuries, into the present one.

Ironic characters produce the immediate presence of inner conflict and the broad potentials for using this device as a prism through which story can be refracted to an effect every bit the equal of suspense.

Next time you reach for the oil can, take a moment to consider the real reasons for your narrative running thing.

    

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