Sunday, January 27, 2013

Beat from all this activity

In much the same way objects may be broken down into such basic parts as atoms or even particles, story takes its shape and personality from its component events.  Those who deal with stories for stage and film open the door for our narrative versions of story by referring to events as beats.  We use beats from time to time, but often, we lose track of them, trying to keep  other objects moving in the remarkable juggle that is story.

If you were to take any given story, in particular one you felt had a continuous sense of engagement, leading to a resounding payoff, then break it into its component beats, you'd have an amazing record of action.  Mary wakes up.  Mary realizes she has overslept.  Mary rushes to get dressed, decides to skip breakfast. And so on, until some engagement with one of Marty's goals is attempted, missed or perhaps bungled, a level of desperation is now in place, where things look as bad for Mary's goals or plans as she could possibly imagine, and then, as a result of her own action, a resolution or negotiated settlement with reality is achieved.  All these movements and awareness can--or should--be represented by a beat.

You could take matters in hand by performing a beat of your own, which is realizing how the plot of a story is the strategic arrangement and presentation of beats.

What possible benefit could come from seeing story as a procession of events, a Mardi Gras of beats?  For starters, this vision could keep you out of the way of your characters, allowing them to see or not see as befits their contemporary attitudes and the cumulative effects of their experiences, without you around to nudge the reader or drop in stage directions.

Another benefit comes from the way such activity could allow you to start the story in the right place, without some long narrative equivalent of the old movie voice-over technique of an unseen narrator telling the readers where they are and what they are about to see.

Somewhere in the process, this allows you to see how many times you'd visualized the story through the filter of the verb "to be," which often produces an effect called passive voice, which is a way of making the object of an action into its subject.  The ball was hit by him for a home run. Thanks, but you'd prefer, He hit the ball for a home run, and when time for revision came, you'd likely take the matter more in hand with He hit a home run.

Passive voice is grammatical, thus you have to give it some thought when you reread your work because the spellcheck and grammar function of your computer is not going to do it for you; it thinks the passive voice is okay on the grammar and spelling side and as a consequence expects you to do the work with the narrative.

You could almost say that story was a matter of you throwing things at your characters, of some of them throwing things at others of them, of all of them trying to get out of the way of being pelted by these rocks while at the same time trying to get on with bringing their agendas to some sort of resolution.

Back to benefits from seeing story as events careening about.  Add this one:  Focusing on event keeps you from wanting so much to leave a fingerprint on the project that you throw in some fancy metaphor or high-faluting usage meant to produce a laugh or mount a high horse.  In the best sense, your fingerprint comes from the fact of the characters, under your direction, pushing matters beyond your own boundaries of safety and comfort.  Go ahead, you tell them, but you guys are going to have to clean up any mess you make.  They look at you as if to say, who are you?  We didn't come here to clean up messes.

And you, emboldened by the tingle of excitement of maybe having pushed matters too far this time, tell them, Look at your contracts.  Your job is to get into trouble.  Your job is to get into interesting, memorable trouble.  Your job is to make readers care and to make your creator care.

This is also a splendid thing to throw in the face of critics who come down on you for writing plot-driven stories, at which point you can tell them that your characters are pretty complex and may have started out with plans and notions based on a concept but are in fact so quirky, rebellious, and inventive that they have taken you first of all to places you'd never thought to have visited, having in your own life experiences been there with such dismal results.

If you have put any work and effort into understanding your craft, you'll have come to the point where you realize that writing begets editing and revision, which begets removing thinking verbs and replacing them with action verbs.  You'll have realized the need for practice the same way your artist friends sketch and your musician friends run scales to keep up their manual dexterity but also to help them associate actual sounds with actual keys or holes or guitar frets.

Story has evolved to a point where, in this century, you have the choice of describing your characters in action, as if from a distant, god-like voice that turns out most of the time to be your own, or evoking your characters in action, by allowing them to take the wheel of the dramatic chariot and stay out of the ruts while minding the way the horses behave.

To put it another, more action-related way, you have the choice between publishing or being self-published.

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