Saturday, May 5, 2012

Your Inner Alaska and Greenland


Story begins with the commonplace being threatened by the unimaginable.  An ordinary crisis may sound a warning bell, serving as an omen of what greater crisis will emerge from the wreckage of those earlier, minor ones.  But an ordinary crisis is only that, a build-up to the unthinkable.  When the unthinkable has come to pass, a crisis invades the status quo, bringing the realization that what was safe before is about to lose it’s shield of safety.

  This dramatic equivalent of the Norman Invasion may come when a character denies the truth about him/herself, or from the discovery that someone else, whose character has always been beyond question, is suddenly not beyond question.  Drama erupts when the safety net of delusion is snatched from us and we are left hanging above the void.

Drama happens when we believe we are in control of events outside ourselves, when we are comfortable in the certainty of our love for, or by, another, only to discover we were wrong.  Drama usurps the stage when terror becomes a plausible force as it happens somewhere else, to other people.  When we watch such circumstances, however remote they may at first seem, they become progressively more horrific as we realize they could afflicting us.

These delusions inhabit the Bermuda Triangle of dramatic writing, the staging ground between the mundane and the unknowable, between fantasy and reality.  These delusions are the mysterious and often seductive waters between the truth and the protective Saran wrap we apply to the truth as we would like it to be—as it best suits our agenda.  Here is delusion, the untested-but-game chorus girl in the musical films of the 20s and 30s, being given the lead role when the star is hors de combat.

Here, then, is the result of what a character believes he must do – and his inevitable discovery of what he must not do.  As with any line drawn in the dramatic sand, this line becomes the most reliable line of the story; it is the boundary market central character must be forced, denied, or tricked, into crossing.  Characters who stay within boundaries are neither exciting nor energizing; they lack the necessary momentum a major character requires.  They run the risk of becoming mired in passivity or niceness, both of which qualities are carpool lanes to boredom.

We need obstacles speaking with persuasive force to the demons that both drive and oppose the front-rank character, each obstacle as implacable in its resistance to reason or compromise as the other, an ironic show of equal opportunity.  The result is a character who has to make a choice, but does not know which part of himself to trust.
You’ve learned over the years to trust certain of your voices and instincts, respect yet others, and avoid eye contact with still other parts of you.  An ongoing joy in writing fiction comes to you when, within the framework of a story, you make this eye contact, which is to say you then recognize the less explored parts of yourself, the Greenland and Alaska and Siberia, not so much selected for their coldness as their remoteness.
You enjoy stories set in these remote extremes, often as recognition of the fact that you have not totally explored yourself to the point where you could record such details and maps as, say, Lewis and Clark did when compiling their journals.

Reading is a grand help.  Writing is even more a help.  You do both now without any memory of which first informed the other, nor does it matter.  Which came first, egg or chicken, arguments do not interest you so much as stories about what you would do if you had an egg and or a chicken.

Over the years, you’ve read through a wide variety of protagonists and antagonists, compiling lists of each to remind you of your need to reach within yourself to find protagonists and antagonists of at least the complexity and purpose of these you consider your tutors.  These are inspirations, but you must be clear about the need to resist the temptation to copy them.

The protagonists and antagonists you seek are camping out or living in lean-tos in Upper Peninsula, Michigan, or Greenland, or Alaska, and perhaps the Amazon jungles or the small offshore islands adjacent New Guinea.

They await your pleasure and your displeasure.


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