Tuesday, March 10, 2015

It All Comes Back to Me Now

When you come upon the abbreviation o.s., which may also be rendered os, your default response is to go with it standing for off stage.  Makes perfect sense even in the face of o.s. standing for a term within a graphic arts meaning, old style, referring to a style of type face.  

A few of your friends who make much of their living either in designing web sites or as computer geeks are wont to use o.s. in reference to operating system, such as the likes of Microsoft Office, or the current version 10.10.2 of the Mac operating system X, also known as Yosemite.

There are still more uses for o.s.; when you go for an eye exam, for instance.  For much of your life, until your recent cataract surgery, your concerns were for o.s., meaning an abbreviation for the Latin translation of left eye, which was along for the ride, but not in the same league as right eye.  If anything, os is the king of the hill, even though right eye had always been and still is close to 20/20.

Off stage is a theater term, and for that magical summer when you worked live TV dramas as an extra, it served as well for TV scripts.  Os means one or more characters is no longer on stage, where the audience can see, rather waiting in the wings for a cue to come forth, lines and action at the ready to be a specific character with a particular goal and personality.  For reasons you will doubtless never understand, you were once cast for a Western story on the old Playhouse 90. At the time, you wore horn rimmed glasses.  Nothing was said about you taking them off.

Depending on the approach to acting craft by an individual actor, o.s. meant you were off stage, waiting for your cue to come on, deliver your lines, and use your body to convey the sense and intent of the character.  You probably kept in mind where, in terms of the story, you'd just been, and to the extent any of us has about the schedule of places to be and things to do during the course of the day, what was on your agenda after your next scene.  

To overstate the case, at one point when you were being Macbeth off stage, you knew that, later in the day, you were going to kill King Duncan.  As you waited os, you also knew at one point that you were going to lose your nerve, then report said fact to your wife, Lady Macbeth.  You also know that she is far more ambitious than you, less troubled by conscience than you.

This is all well and good for dramatic presentation, where the characters are interpreted by actors or, to use a term from the days of Macbeth's creator, players, as in individuals playing roles.  In books and journals, characters take their ease in the writer's mind, from which they are cued to go on, for the most part, at the author's will.  Should the writer lose contact with that character, in comes a potential for some brilliant improvisation or a disaster of performance art, in which nothing of the character's quirks and personality are set free.

In film and stage presentations, a rigorous schedule of rehearsal becomes the fire to drive the forge of creative interpretation from the director and various cast members.  The equivalent for short stories and books is the unlimited time the writer spends in revision, rethinking, improvising, trying to reach a balance of tension, authenticity, plausibility, and some resident emotion the writer hopes to impart to the readership.

Off stage has another meaning to you and the dramatist, often encapsulated in the word backstory, or "things" that happened before the present moment of story.  Backstory is a compendium of forces and events shaping the way the lead characters appear before us, often forces and events involving them when they were in varying degrees of being younger than they are now.

However adept you may be at storytelling, you know that backstory is a vital element, in its way as much a challenge as the moment-to-moment action of the present.  How do you b ring it forth?  How do you let the reader in on the facts from the past, waiting, as it were, in the wings to influence the immediacy of this story?

Why, you merely have the main character see something to remind her or him of the past, then think about it in enough detail for the reader to understand the potential for the lead character losing his or her cool during moments of stress.

All well and good, except that this is bringing the current story to a screeching halt where, if you are not careful, the reader will use the halt to disembark in search of a more direct train ride to a more hospitable terminal.

If you've kept up with your reading, you have alerted yourself that the flashback is a dated device, and so you work on setting the story in a non-chronological way in the first place, so that you'll be able to switch back into the past as opposed to having it all come back to Jack now how, as a little boy, he'd been traumatized by the very sort of confrontation he must face now.

By starting the story about fifteen or twenty minutes from a significant incident of confrontation, decision, or defeat, you begin building the reader's curiosity to a high pitch, wanting backstory which you offer only in the most scanty details.  Then, you'll have achieved what many critics call suspense.  When readers are desperate to know details, then and only then can you begin paying them out a bit at a time.  But not a moment before.


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