Monday, September 1, 2014

Character Shove

When there is any doubt about shape, structure, and intent in story, your best answers come from a long-winded conversation with the paradigm for the mystery/suspense tale.  There, the goal is to identify the who in “whodunit?”, the why?, or motive, and the how?, or means of committing the crime.  

The mystery/suspense tale goes right to work, up-staging and stealing scenes from the fable or moral by offering the reader an opportunity to empathize with one or more characters tasked to solve the problem at hand, bring some anti-social force to justice, and in the process restore the fabric of community.  

Ernest Hemingway called out attention to the bigger-than-life fact that "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark 
Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”  In similar literary epistemology, most readers of mystery/suspense fiction know and any number of agenda-bearing moralist writers understand this salient fact:  All dramatic narrative comes from the story of detection.  

The unrelenting forces of evolution nudge and shove storytelling narrative ahead, like the mysterious movement of rocks that seem to move on their own volition, across the scorched floor of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley.  We now understand the physical forces urging the rocks forward. Geologists have identified the phenomena as a condition called ice shove.

 Thanks to a protracted bout of watching old and new cop shows on TV and haunting local theaters for stage dramas of any sort, you’ve begun to get a clearer picture of the movement of characters across the scorched narrative of story.  Your findings are subjective rather than scientific, although they do involve the observation of chemistry.  You call the phenomena character shove.

The story of detection started its way in the world focused on the musings and ratiocination of a single, bright, quirky detective. This gives us the outlier minds of Auguste Dupin, who might have been Edgar Allen Poe’s secret alter ego, or of the rose-growing detective, Sgt. Cuff, from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.  

Within a short span of time, writers knowledgeable in the construction of story began borrowing from earlier traditions, which were the equivalent of the buddy system, a narrative wherein conversations between characters, say Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, advanced the story beyond the limiting platform of one character on stage alone, thinking convenient, defining thoughts for the reader.

Thus came into being the buddy system, paired or partnered characters, chosen to advance the story through the dialectic of a chemistry where the consistent product was edgy, cantankerous differences of opinion.  From one of the earliest buddy teams of the slave, Xanthias and the god, Dionysius, appearing as a middle-aged man in Aristophanes’ The Frogs, to such modern teams as Rust Cohle and Martin Hart of True Detective and the electric combination of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, the chemistry of the buddy system drives story.

Among your observations about the effects on story being nudged on it by the evolutionary progress, there are these:  Story is becoming more visual.  Characters are driving story toward extensive trespasses on convention.  The lack of proper chemistry between characters can leave any given story at the starting line.

What to make of all this, and how to get it going:

1. Consult a recent edition of The New York Times Book Review.
2. Find the section in which the current best-selling titles are described in a single sentence.  Exaggerated example:  A moody Danish prince is persuaded to avenge his father’s murder.  Read at least twenty of these.
3. Write a similar log-line sentence for a novel you wish to write. Better if you do not know how your novel will end.
4. Compile a list of as many of the characters as you can to dramatize the novel.
5. Decide which character or characters will be the narrative filter (POV).
6. Decide which character or characters will be the narrative buddy of your protagonist.  Examples:  Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, M.D.; Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin; Superman and Lois Lane.
7. Write at least one improvised scene between your principal character or characters and every other character on your ensemble list.  The improvised scenes need not be related to the theme of the novel, their purpose being to let you see and feel the dynamic between all the characters in your cast.
8. Write a brief bio of each character, including their esteem, lack thereof, or outright animosity toward one another.  Make sure you have at least one case of ambiguity, a splendid example of this being the one between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad. Think about social, ethnic, age, and other societal markers.  Example:  One of the earliest detectives, the estimable Sgt. Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, is from the working classes.  The first interview he conducts is with the butler, Betteridge.  He is not only uncomfortable at the thought of questioning his social superior, young Rachel Verinder; she returns the compliment by being uneasy in his presence.
9. Allow your improvisation scenes to proceed to edginess and combativeness, your goal to produce clues to all parties that will produce as quirky and memorable an ensemble.
10. Write at least one paragraph about an incident that precipitates the goal of the protagonist.  Huck Finn wishes to get away from his abusive father.  Norah Helmer (The Doll’s House) has in secret taken a loan to pay off her husband’s debts.  George has promised Lenny’s mother that he will look after Lenny, this before the main action for Of Mice and Men.
11. Write what you believe will be the opening scene.
12. Write what you believe will be the subsequent scene.
13. Congratulations.  You are now well on your way toward completing a draft of a quirky, compelling novel.

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