Saturday, December 24, 2011

Boiling your inner lobster

You’ve pretty well admired a number of film and stage directors to the point of understanding how directly your admiration has to do with the movement and direction of characters you have created in the past, characters you may be currently dealing with, and all those casting calls for characters you will put forth for characters whose agendas and needs are at this point unknown to you.

In so many words, you need to see the characters of other writers and characters of your own devising as actors in circumstances constructed to suit your curiosity.  Of course that is not enough.  Although they are entirely reliant on you as their creator, your characters must not only have qualities, quirks, and abilities that impress you, they must also have some inherent ability to surprise you as they go about attempting to realize the goals you have established for them and the consequences downstream as they pursue their goals.  It is not enough to let things go to such concepts as poetic justice, whatever the hell that is.  If there is to be a payoff, then the payoff should come from one or more of them, the other characters, not from you, passing some judgment of your own version of Mt. Olympus or Rushmore or where ever.

Of course the story is your business, but your part of the transaction is to push the characters to extremes they did not believe they could tolerate.  Your part of the story is to make things as fraught with tension, doubt, and inner conflict as possible, to apply the heat to the crucible into which you have placed them, almost as though they were live lobsters you are about to boil as a prelude to turning those live lobsters into commonly acknowledged versions of edible lobsters.

Your business is not to explain the motives, afflictions, backstory, and agendas of your characters to the readers.  Your business is to guide the characters by limiting their actions, response time, dialogue, and inner monologue to the individual beats of activity they are engaging.  Your business is to listen to these creations of yours, these characters, then reflect on what each of them is doing at any given moment.

Suppose the reader is motivated from reading your version of the story to suppose things are going on, both on and off stage, that you had neither intended nor, indeed, considered.  High-class problem.  This is a sign that the characters have come to such a state of life that their off-duty activities are transmitting messages—they are reaching the readers to come.  If you intrude, which is to say explain or describe their activities of your characters, you are not allowing them the freedom to do as they wish, which is to take this story of your contrivance and render it into something memorable for the way it breaks free of the readers and their expectations.

Never take the reader precisely where the reader wants to go.  Leave the reader off a block too soon or a block to late.  Leave something unexplained, ambiguous.

True enough, you are in effect describing a kind of story you much enjoy.  It is not impossible for you to enjoy other kinds of stories, particularly the stories produced by writers who are not only not among the living now, they have not been among us for fifty or sixty years, perhaps even more yet.

Used to be the short story was resolved or brought to a conclusion with some kind of closure reminiscent of the punch line of a joke.  Such stories now—stories by the likes of Somerset Maugham and F. Scott Fitzgerald and particularly William Sidney Porter, aka O. Henry—but they are accepted now with the understanding that they are dated.  Clever.  Honest.  Illustrative.  Nevertheless, dated.

Stand back.  Let them duke it out.  Push them a bit.  Do not by any means make it too easy on them.  Under no circumstances explain their actions, however cleverly an approach you contrive.  No more of this “He would never forget this moment,” or “She understood now that she’d been living a lie.”  Both explanations may be perfectly valid, but it is better for the reader to see this than for you to include it with the stage directions.


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