Friday, December 23, 2011

Son of In the Event

An event is an observable activity.  The more significant the activity, the greater the likelihood it will evoke rich and often complex feelings.  This activity is the dramatic equivalent of a cell in biology.   If your goal were to construct a living entity, you’d do well to start with a cell.  If your goal is to construct a story, you’d better start with an event.

Characters cause, express, and react to events.  Although characters may not intend to do so, they pass along the consequences and cumulative effects of event the way a sneeze explodes microbes into an environment.  Think about the times you have been thrown out of present time agenda and into some past event, surprised to find yourself there, the emotional equivalent of showing up at an appointment or gathering inappropriately dressed for the occasion.

A beat is a basic event, performed by a character—any character and every character. To the dramatic writer, a beat has the same function and purpose the cell has to the biologist.  The writer actively uses events to launch a story, a beat at a time.

At one time in the history of narrative storytelling, the writer described what characters did and how they felt while doing it, often stopping from time to time to address the reader with commentary about the story in progress, as though taking the reader beyond the boundaries of the scene in which the story took place.  The dramatic writer had no such luxury, nevertheless the gesture known as the aside was developed, allowing the character to speak directly to the audience as though conveying his agenda and a portion of the author’s.

Early in the act I, scene II of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Gloucester, not yet anointed as King Richard, has a confrontation with Lady Anne, the widow of a man he had killed to advance his succession to the throne of England he so coveted.  Before our eyes, he woos her, dramatically pressing his suit upon her to the point where she grudgingly accepts his attentions.  When she is gone, Gloucester remains on stage alone, where he tells us in so many words that he plans to marry her, then do away with her.

A modern playwright would more likely have allowed Gloucester’s entrance speech in which he chooses the role of villain, followed by the passionate nature of his come-on to Lady Anne to convey his full agenda.  For all his chops, Shakespeare wanted to make sure we got Gloucester’s intent.

In more recent years, the aside has vanished from dramatic presentations. The “reader feeder,” the device of less skilled fiction writers to convey vital information to the reader, is on its way to the revision waste heap.  As story evolves, the modern dramatist and narrative storyteller have in effect shared the burden with the audience by delivering event in ways that evoke rather than describe the dramatic action.

To be sure, we see things happen but thanks to the actions and accompanying dialogue, and interior monologue, the reader is well able to get the feel and intent of the activity being presented.

In the early draft stages, too much focus on details and justifications will distract the writer from visualizing the proper amount of beats, their cadence, and their intensity to produce the proper balance.  Best to overwrite and over describe at first, then revisit, removing or tweaking so that the key events are preserved and the distractions are eliminated.

When the events are in true focus, even when presented by writers known for the uniqueness of their narrative styles, the reader will absorb the style as well as the sense of intense presence in the moment of the scene in play.

Effective storytelling does present each beat, each event in its moment of occurrence; it does its job so well that even one misplaced or unnecessary word becomes a speedbump for the reader.

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