Monday, October 1, 2012

Writing up to the Edge


The unspoken joy of reading is being taken somewhere—some surprising, unanticipated somewhere you had no thought to go under any circumstances.  When reading takes you to such a place, you are stunned for a moment to find yourself “there,” before you begin telling yourself, so this is what it is life.

In one way or another, readers know about Aristotle (approx. 380 BCE) and one of his many works, The Poetics, to the point where they have some expectations when they pick up something to read.  Publishers also know about these expectations.  They expect the writers they publish to be familiar with the conventions and expectations referred to by Aristotle.

Readers, publishers, and writers also know about genre promise, where the mystery reader expects a corpse, the romance reader expects the snarky guy who bumps into the protagonist on page one to work his way into becoming Mr. Right, and the fantasy reader expects a charm, spell, or curse, or some sense of the paranormal that can packaged as magic.

The real strategy here is for a reader to pick a writer who manages deft and startling surprises, time and time again.

At the most basic level, you set forth each time to observe the conventions of drama to the extent of your ability.  At the same time you are watching the shoreline of dramatic conventions, you are painting yourself into the dramatic corner from which there seems to be no way out, not without tracking a great deal of paint.

Not lost on you is the relative effort you expend developing the depth, complexity, and seeming hopelessness of the circumstances nipping at the heels of your characters.  You find this effort the equal to your previous attempts to learn how to plot stories.  Yet this more modern predicament comes with the joys of knowing it has a built-in trap for the predictability of formula.  So okay, you won’t be formulaic.


Your characters—along with you—must confront this predicament with the delicious mixture of despair, hopelessness, and the zesty mischief of self-confidence.  The complication from your last story isn’t complex enough, causing you to wonder how you were ever able to press the characters in the past venture to except such trivial need for a way out.

You might be tempted to use the literary equivalent of watered booze, but it is wrong to look down upon readers, so you pile on the complication—make that plural—you craft a web rather than a singularity of complication, an extra shot of Cointreau here, a splash of Benedictine and Brandy there to the point where you have a serious cocktail on your hands.  This is in fact serious enough and of your own devising to cause you to wonder how you are going to get to the point where you’re about to resolve things.

If you’ve held anything back, you’ll have cheated.

At the present moment, you’ve taken some time off from a nonfiction project that happens to be about fiction.  You’ve spent much of the day introducing characters who all want something different.  The individual you recognize as being the torchbearer, the main man, the point of view and, most appropriate, the discoverer.

You’ve spent the day throwing rocks at him to the point where there aren’t any rocks left to throw.  Now what?

For starters, not quite out of Aristotle, but close enough, how about killing off the person you thought he was going to go into business with on page two, then making him a suspect?

That could easily get you back to your nonfiction project for a day or so.



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