Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mona Lisa's Mustache (Apologies to Dali)


When you look at photos or paintings of pastoral scenes, you experience an interior sense of calmness, perhaps extending to a feeling of nostalgia for a time when you were at such a place.  There was no story present within the scenes, only the artist’s arrangement of landscape, tempered by light and shadow.

If anything, the landscape was so relaxing and peaceful that you found yourself trying to distract the imp of the perverse from awakening with mischief on its mind. Avid readers and habitual writers have come to understand how the relationship between calmness and ordinariness is so close to the destabilizing events we associate with story.  A beat or two before it is asked to do so, the mind of the habitual reader wonders when the storm will strike, or the dam will burst, or the fire will erupt.

The detective, after a grueling day devoted to the routines associated with securing witnesses, clues, or the leads necessary to propel a mystery story, settles down, at last to a long overdue supper or, better yet, snugs into the comforts of bed for needed sleep.  Again, that mind of the habitual reader begins to work in the form of a question.  Where will that next destabilizing event issue from?  A good bet is the telephone:  A superior officer calls, avid for news of progress in solving the case.  Perhaps another version of the call, a subordinate brings forth the news of a new crime, with newer complications.

Used properly, calming scenes, stabilizing scenes, or some dramatization of a return to a non-threatening routine can become the advance guard of first-rate suspense.  The reader not only wishes to know, the reader wishes to become suspicious, in the process, quite possibly threatened or intimidated.

This bit of psychology is well demonstrated by the image of a short fuse, only just lighted.  The reader will tolerate being manipulated a scant moment longer, but the destabilizing device must soon go off, otherwise all has been for nothing at all because two pieces of comfortable fabric will have been stitched together, causing one overly long narrative blah.

Unless the intent is for a venture in the kind of mystery called the tea cozy, calmness and ordinariness must be mugged with some regularity, extending in as many directions as possible, appearing with the argumentative intensity of plausibility.

In other words, calmness, restorative nice weather, and well-presented agreement and accord, presented in the proper small doses, serve to trigger the pressures, moral judgments, and psychological events the reader has come to expect.  You are attempted to repeat this because of its dramatic importance:  Too much calmness between earthshattering discovery will bring the story to a screeching halt, at which point the reader is wont to set the book down somewhere, then forget where it has been left.

The right amount of calmness has the reader wanting in metaphoric terms to draw mustaches on the Mona Lisa or spray paint gang graffiti on brick walls.  It is in fact your belief that nearly the entire range of graffiti fans are taken by it because it is often imaginative but also because there is a larger market for imaginative graffiti than supposed.  Graffiti is more than mere trespass; it is a statement of impatience.

Readers become impatient when there is too much calm, they begin inventing their own mustaches and graffiti if the writer does not do it for them.

Of course pacing is important.  Such wildly diverse storytellers as Mark Twain, George Burns, and Jack Benny were as famous for their timing and delivery as they were for the payoff of the story.

No points will be given for merely making things happen; things need to be caused to happen, presented at the crest of the dramatic wave or, to borrow an analogy from jazz and mix the metaphor, to borrow a beat from one measure, then place it in the next.

Telling a story is more than the mere relating of events, one, two, three; it is the shrewd intersperse of delay, threats of impending accent, and the surprise of an accent where it is not expected.

You could say—in fact you do—event in story is not the main feature.


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