Sunday, June 22, 2014


What are you reading for or watching when you are participating in the unfolding of a story?

One possible answer is:  the way the characters behave.  This is a good possibility if you factor in dialogue as an aspect of behavior.The better characters and the actors who portray them on stage or screen bring a spectrum of nuance to their behavior, their every word and movement a possible indication of some elephant in the living room, some secret, stashed in some vault.

You are also looking for surprise, aren't you?  What thing will the characters do or not do to one another, or to themselves, that will deepen your investment in the story?  Thus, you watch for clues, indications of the potential for details which seemed irrelevant to explode into importance.  The mere act of looking for surprise puts you on your guard.  

Without realizing it, when you find yourself awaiting surprise, you are in effect changing place with the baby sitter or governess in a horror film, told she can go anywhere in the house she pleases, but stay out of the_____ (fill in the blank:  attic, laundry room, garage, guest room). 

 And you know the baby sitter or governess will in fact go to that one place she was forbidden entry.  She will do so because she is curious, because she is not really a baby sitter or governess, but instead a spy or detective or distant relative of a former employee of the owners of this household, to whom some great misfortune has occurred.  

You know what will happen.  It may not be exactly what you suspect, but isn't that the nature of a surprise?  Thus this calculus:  surprise leads to a relevant discovery.

You may not have anticipated what the discovery was, but it did cause you an accelerated curiosity about what will happen next, what the characters will do.  And you will watch closely to see if there are any cracks in their demeanor, any clues, hints of another elephant, hidden under the carpeting of another room.

You have been experiencing two of the more vital presences on stage or page, tension and suspense.  If the story is in any way a success for you, the surprises, discoveries, and actions will have had noticeable effect on you.  In a sense, entering a story is of a piece with going to the doctor for a test, where the nurse puts sensors on vital spots of your body in order to monitor and come away with a record of your internal responses. 

 In the same sense, setting the book down or going into the lobby for a between-the-acts refreshment is the equivalent of the nurse removing the sensors, swabbing the exposed spots with alcohol, then directing you to remove the hospital gown and return to your clothing.  You know you've been through something.  You know your responses are important.

If you were a viewer or reader and there were no responses indicative of tension or suspense, you'd stop reading or leave the theater.  You'd in effect remove the hospital gown, the uniform of participation in a story.

The more you read or watch stage and filmed drama, the more you become aware of the need to look for clues embedded in the details and apparent frontline interaction among characters.  You need to search for possible relationships between what you believe the story to be and what the characters are doing in response to the things about them.  The more you read or watch, the more you become alert to the need for clues relating to the overall story and to a particular scene that appears to be contributing to your understanding of the context in which the story is set.

You are in effect looking for and at items which,were they built into wrist watches, would be called complications.  Some watches are so filled with complications that it almost seems an effort to consult the watch for the main reason you wear a wrist watch--to be able to tell what time it is at the moment you consult.

Some stories are so filled with complications that you find yourself losing track of what the story was in the first place, which is to say what the goal of the character is or what the intent of the character is.  

Most of your watches are complicated only by a device which shows you the numeral for the date.  The assumption is that you will know the month.  You have a watch or two with complications such as timers, but you can't recall having used it.

You like the notion of a layered story, filled with nuance an implication.  You're quite willing to take the current assessment of your short stories as being insightful and intriguing to some, baffling to others, but with no particular pattern of which has too many complications.  There were no signs of not enough complications, which is an indication you are at least getting the basics across.

Time was, many of your stories were complications which amused you, set in a pattern that seemed to move on an "and-then" basis as opposed to a "because-of" or "consequential" basis.  Much as you enjoyed writing and living those early ventures, there is more of a sense of accomplishment in the more consequential ones.

You read and watch now for the process of consequence in motion, thinking perhaps the right amount will rub off when you compose.

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