Saturday, July 20, 2013

What is not said in a story is as important as the things that are said, he said.

 You pick up a promising novel, find yourself intrigued by the narrative voice issuing from a lead character, then watch for the anticipated event that will confront the character with the need to act.  Or react.  Or take steps.  Perhaps all of these.

In almost no time at all, you've bonded with that character, his or her narrative voice, and way of responding.  You may even begin to suspect the character of some quirk or flaw or predilection.  If all the circumstances are positive, you might even have a few moments of realizing you've been transported to a place you had no interest in going, arriving at a time other than the present, where you had no particular interest.

Let's say you're four or five pages in, aware of a growing commitment to the story.  One other moment of realization comes to you:  You're in to stay.  Unless there is some egregious flaw or breach, unless the hologram of plausibility and tension is shattered in some unanticipated way, you're in for the long haul, intending to real all the way through.

Although you do read many books during the course of a year and have dealings with entire manuscripts or portions of works intended for publication, you do not arrive lightly at the states you've described here.  Nevertheless, when you do reach that state with a work you're reading, a feeling of satisfaction and warmth begins to seep through your awareness.  

Even though the narrative itself may be horrific or disturbing in its thematic implications (such as the manuscript you're reading for a friend, dealing with a front-rank character who has just suffered a debilitating stroke), the warmth of satisfaction at being "in" a narrative is tangible, appreciated, welcomed.  Of course you hope to produce such an emotional landscape with every story you write.  These feelings are the ones that seem to have appeared as you set about trying to learn the storytelling craft.

Here you are then, engrossed, engaged, pleased to be identifying and sympathizing with this narrative voice.  You come to the end of a chapter, which ends in satisfying tension or outright suspense, for a moment smiling at the degree to which your focus has been arrested by the character's depth, complexity, and momentary dilemma.

With eagerness, you turn the page, only to discover the author has pulled the rug from under you, swept the tablecloth from under the place setting with a deft flick by switching to the point of view of another character, one who is being introduced to you in the opening lines of the new chapter.

Cut to you being in your publisher's office, having just had a pleasing chat with your editor, who has excused herself to get a copy of her notes on your recent work.  You're curious to see the notes, pleased to see your editor's office is every bit a jumble as yours when you worked for publishers.  There is a knock at the door.  In comes the editor's employer, the publisher, who introduces herself, then presents you with what you can only call a high-class problem.  

The publisher wants to engage you in a three-book arrangement which will be likely to occupy as many as five of the next years of your life.  You don't have to make up your mind right here on the spot, the publisher tells you.  Take your time.  Then she hands you her card.  Maybe by the end of next week you could let me know.  She offers her hand, then leaves.

You sit there, stunned, flushed with a sense of purposeful satisfaction at reaching such a plateau.

A moment later, there is another knock on the door.  It is your editor's assistant, holding a folder with your editor's notes on the project for which you were summoned here.

You've done here in imaginary effect what the imaginary book you were reading and describing a few moments ago had on you.  You've introduced parallel narrative lines.

With your hard won understanding about the nature of parallel lines in a geometric sense (having experienced severe difficulties with geometry in high school to the point where you did not grasp the concept of alternate interior angles of the same degree), you now accept that in reality, parallel lines meet only in infinity.  In dramatic narrative, they meet in the last chapter.

Or sooner.

Two distinct characters being set in motion, confronted with intriguing obstacles or decisions, causes you to understand on some level that their stories are tied by some link, the discovery of which will add even greater satisfaction to your pursuit of this narrative.  

You read on, absorbing the status and demeanor of this new character.  While you do, a new suspicion begins to grow in your mind:  Perhaps there will be yet another character introduced, causing you to have to go through this same exquisite tension yet again.  A favored novel, Wilkie Collins' 1868 The Moonstone, was written in this multiple point-of-view fashion.  You'd probably experienced this narrative approach before reading The Moonstone, but because of the effectiveness of this form of narrative, this has become the default example for you.

When you think about story and structure, no wonder you think about parallel lines; you are setting forces in motion, causing concern for their safety or possible detours into disaster.  You are creating the suspense of wondering how the character is who is out of immediate focus.  You are creating entire lines of concern you'd not imagined when you began puttering with what the story was and how best to tell it.

Parallel construction is a different matter altogether, a negative one that in effect creates distraction and that unwelcome presence, anticlimax.  Parallel lines keep the focus where it belongs, on the characters, away from you, the writer.

Parallel lines help introduce into the story the forceful presence of implication and evocation, both of which are well above simple description.

What is not said in a story is often every bit as important as the things that are said, particularly if the reader is saying them for you.

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