Thursday, May 23, 2013

Distractions: Flies in the Narrative Ointment

The name for the condition that calls your attention away from its focus on a particular thing is distraction.Under normal circumstances, reality is as filled with distractions as a cheap hotel with cockroaches.  In reality we--you among them--are so used to distractions that we grow tolerant of them.  Perhaps we even reach the point of distracting ourselves from a focus because we are so grown used to being distracted that the stage of focus becomes abnormal.

Story is another matter.  Story thrives on focus.  In the same way a powerful hitter in baseball is said to have a good batting average, a gifted storyteller produces narrative without distractions.  A good writer, in comparison with a so-so writer, is a person with a high story focus average.

There are myriad ways to insert distractions into stories.  These ways distractions come from habits begun when we were learning language, being taught its nuances and subjected to words and tropes considered eloquent or possessed of gravitas.  In some cases, cultural ornaments seep into our narrative stream and need to be captured before the narrative is allowed to progress beyond the fourth or fifth draft.

In story, a distraction may be a small word, something that sends the reader scurrying into some kind of question or comparison, resulting in the narrative flow of the story screeching to a halt.  What was that word?  Why was that word used here?  Why would this particular character say a thing like that at a time like this?

We turn to story for any number of reasons, one of singular importance being our wish to avoid an atmosphere of distraction.  We turn to story to be led, sometimes down the metaphoric garden path, which is to say seduced away from a more questioning standard of belief or logic.  We turn to story with a strong narrative pull, which is to say a shimmering presence where we have scant awareness of the words and more a focused presence within the dramatic lines of movement and inquiry.  We are asking the same questions as we sense the characters asking, feel the presence of the same motives we sense to be the ones governing the characters.

Oh, well, a character says, and we say--at least you say--who would say such a thing in a story?  Only individuals in reality say such things and thus we are reminded once again of the reality the story is trying so hard to distract us from.  Thus we have become distracted by a distraction from an artificial world.  Such distractions may be the imputation of motives that do not seem appropriate, logic that seems tortured or at a great reach, or based on some premise we cannot connect with the character who seems to be emitting it.

The focus on revisions and editing leads you to suggest the processes are in effect the removal of distractions,  Any word or trope that disrupts the smooth progress of focus is a target for editing, for deletion or for being converted into a less obvious synonym.

There are times when you find yourself in reality, looking about for things that draw your attention away from some inner focus, some existential problem you're worrying away at.  Often the distraction is a strident voice, the offender equally male or female.  At other times, the voice wouldn't be so distracting except for its loudness, or some idiosyncratic speech mannerism you find to be an irritant.

Other times, distractions emerge when you are eavesdropping on a conversation, either because it is too interesting to ignore or so irritating that it has pulled you away from some other line of investigation.  The irritant is the logic, which requires mountain goat leaps.  Thus you can and do become irritated and distracted when logic eludes you.

Such moments do not--cannot--count as actual writing but they count as being research; they alert you to related gaps in your own narrative.  They alert you to potential mischief up ahead if you continue in the way you seem to be headed, not somehow insuring the integrity and precision of each word you set down then come back later to question.

A single, effective sentence seems an easy task to achieve, but only after it has been captured and examined for the literary equivalent of fleas.  Sometimes, in rereading, a sentence will strike you as silly or banal or inappropriate; it will impress you as being false, ill-made, simply not true.

In a similar manner, some batters in baseball have the knack of fouling off pitches not to their liking.  Each sentence has an optimal length, sound, meaning, and texture.

There are no accidents in story.  Some things may appear unplanned, but by this constant process of combing, suspecting, refining, you've built a certain ability to spot these accidents, recognize them for the effectiveness they bring, then sign them up for the big leagues.  What once may have been an accident has been vetted, examined for fit, welcomed into the narrative line with open adjectives.


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