Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Key to Effective Story Telling

"If you come any closer, I'll shoot,"  she said menacingly.

"I had no idea you spoke and read French,"  he said sarcastically.

"This is not at all what I meant,"  he said ironically.

What we have here is not so much a screed against the adverb, although you have in fact had that discussion.  Rather, this is a statement against the need for including stage directions in written narrative, in effect telling the reader what the reader can see or already knows.  The business with the adverbial use is a poor second.  You've in fact chosen exaggerated examples to demonstrate how each example stands without the adverb, the dialogue being in fact an embodiment of the adverb, thus causing the use of the adverb to add the unnecessary redundancy.

The difference you're after here is the distinction between descriptive writing--which has its place--and evocative writing, which is the more effective and natural nature of dramatic writing. The target of evocative writing is the passive reader, the reader who tells you he or she wants something to read that requires no thought, a text that can be swallowed almost without chewing because--well, because the reader claims to be tired or drained of emotion to the point of  not having anything to bring to the experience.

To that argument, you say "nonsense."  You say it because passive reading is like listening to music that takes you nowhere, evokes no toe or finger tapping accompaniment of the tempo, produces no internal resonance except perhaps boredom or the reminder that one has taken to reading or to music for the purpose of being transported somewhere.

You read to be transported, regarding the times when students have elevated you to somewhere pleasant as the most glorious reward of all to come from teaching, even a better one than the self-learning that comes from teaching.  All too often in teaching or working for a publishing company, you have been transported to the exact place you sought to avoid when you became committed to the writing life.

As much as you write to settle emotional scores or correct perceived wrongs or learn things about your inner workings, or the world about you, a major goal in your writing is to elevate your mood or with some deliberation cause you to resonate with a particular emotion.  Two great musical composers, J.S. Bach, and W.A. Mozart, understood the emotional significances of writing in a particular key, the former having gone so far as to write a treatise on the effects to be had from each, much as the discredited "science" of phrenology sought to associate various parts of the brain with particular qualities and feelings.  In retrospect, phrenology is not so preposterous as it was once made to sound; different parts of the brain are demonstrable centers for specific capacities.

Bach and Mozart (as well as other composers) understood that the key of D minor produced a haunting, lugubrious, moody quality.  D minor is a minor scale beginning with the pitch D, consisting also of the pitches  E, F, G, A, B♭, and C. In the harmonic minor, the C is rendered as C #.

Bach and Mozart may not have been able to give an accurate picture of why this is so, but of all the keys in which he could have written his Art of the Fugue, Bach chose D minor, Mozart's most plangent piano concerto, the 20th, is in D minor, his Requiem is in D minor, Beethoven's Ninth symphony is in D minor, and a full one third of the 500-plus keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti are in D minor.

While it is true that some dramatic writers are able to use word choice to produce an interior, resonant tone, their opportunity to use the literary equivalent of writing in keys arrives when they chose a resident emotion for a particular scene.

Whether the musician is a rapper or Beethoven, the goal to produce a feeling is tangible.  Even such diverse writers as William Faulkner and Candace Bushnell wrote to evoke a specific feeling in each scene.  In large measure, both these writers were able to accomplish their goal without opening statements of intent, a point that bears repetition because it speaks to the goal of taking the reader somewhere and the reader allowing the journey to take place.

You could not always read Faulkner until you began to understand where he was taking you and which worlds and circumstances he was asking you to accept.  Nor could you read Bushnell with ease until you saw how she was addressing an audience of her own selection, an audience that happened to be one of the major forces in contemporary publishing.  Whether you agree with her or not is no issue--the issue is the choice of the feelings the author is using.  Understanding of characters, motives, and outcomes depend on the reader's ability to translate the writer's prose in as resonant a manner as possible.

A dramatic writer is at the peak of being successful when her readers are engaged in a fierce argument about the motives and behavior of her characters.  Was Scarlett O'Hara a spoiled brat or a liberated, independent woman?  Was she a bit of each?  Was she in fact Margaret Mitchell's literary equivalent of the key of D minor?

Go ahead.  Argue.

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