Monday, July 8, 2013

Questions, Always with the Questions

To continue with your insights from yesterday's investigations, what benefits are there in use of a question to start a narrative?  Questions require attempts at answers, don't they?  When a mere sentry opens Hamlet with the question, "Who's there?" we find out soon enough, don't we?

Aren't stories the equivalent of questions, dramatized?  Aren't essays voyages of discovery?  Perhaps the questions are unanswerable or not given complete definition.  Perhaps the essay leads us away from the port of origin, but does not lead us to the expected destination.  

More than once, you've heard the story about the Buddhist monk, who is accused of a number of improbable things by civilians, including the allegation that he is the father of an abandoned child.  The monk returns every allegation/accusation with another question:  "Is that so?"  From his tone, the response is not defensive, perhaps even tinged with a bit of open curiosity as though, were the accusation truthful, the monk would process the information in some unexpected way.

This exercise in parable rhetoric suggests the enormous convergence of possibilities within a continuous search for a defining answer to a question.

What a wonderful response resides in the question, "Is that so?"  Short, pithy answer, it is filled with the potential for causing dramatic as well as contextual mischief.

How does a character in written story convey meaning, nuance, agenda, and all the spectrum of emotions characters in any written story are intended by their authors to convey?  How would you, for example, portray the character of Bartleby?  How would you portray Jay Gatz from South Dakota, who has become Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island?  How would you portray Indiana Jones?  How do you, in various costumes, humors, and guises, portray yourself?  Who are you?

Isn't that last question the keystone to why you wish to be a storyteller?  If you knew the one answer you'd be able to provide every time the question arose, would that help you gain the skills for storytelling you seek?

While you're on the subject of questions, what effect do these seven recent questions have on your process as a person and your process as a writer?  If you were able to answer them, would those answers open the door at which you have been rattling the knob lo these many years in order to forge your abilities as a writer?

The questions, you hear yourself responding in the same tone as the figurative Buddhist monk of a few paragraphs back, are of greater relevance than the answers.  The answers can and do differ, with no tangible loss of sincerity.  The questions remain, fresh inquiries, persistent, haunting, provocative.

What does this say about characters who give long speeches as opposed to more simplistic, even reductionist responses?  Which says the most about a character, long answers to short questions or short answers to short questions?

How does a character convey feelings, agendas, and attitudes, using as few words as possible?

Let us return for a few moments to last evening's foray into the Shakespearean past, with our encounter with the three witches from Macbeth.  After the three witches agree to meet Macbeth "after the battle," how do we know they are being called by their familiars, or spirit helpers?

The first witch says, "I come, Graymalkin!"  No real clue yet, so an actor (remember, boys played the part of women back in the day) might appear to be listening to a call from off stage or at a distance, as though hearing a call we cannot hear.

The second witch nails the job with "Paddock calls."  Paddock is her toad.  Were you the second witch, you might cup your ear, then nod before you delivered your two-word line.  Then you might use your hands in a gesture to signal that you'd heard.

The third witch takes back to simplicity.  She simply says "Anon."  Six words, shared between three actors, conveying the notion that they are about to depart.  The first time you saw this play, it was a filmed version.  Young as you were, you knew something was up, but if you knew at the time about witches having familiars, you didn't know it well enough.  You had to look it up in the footnotes to the text.  Holy fuck, Graymalkin is a cat, Paddock is a frog.  No telling who or what the familiar of the third witch is, but there she is, going at it for four hundred years now, conveying her witch-ness, hearing her familiar--whatever the fuck it is--calling to her.

Now, time for them to leave.  In tandem, they say:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

A one-word stage direction, Exeunt.  They're gone and we're into a new scene.

Let's come back to 2013 with a question. How do actors on the page convey story without going off on long, reader feeder-type speeches and descriptions?  How do we turn the actor-beings in our mind to characters who filter the story for us, so that there is as much of them and as little as us--well, you--as possible? 

You could start with a question, then watch with great care to see how the character responds.

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