Monday, April 6, 2015

The Tom Sawyer Approach to Effective Dramatic Technique


The most daunting step in the presentation of story is the important step the writer must take after learning the basics well enough to have gained some measure of success.  This step is all the more a challenge because the measure of success, however modest, has been won with effort and thought, the perfect trigger for the "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" meme.

Let's take a moment to look at that plateau of modest success.  All the elements seem to take on a greater sense.  They appear like a model of a galaxy, stars, planets, satellites in their places, moving in their individual orbits.  

And you are no longer looking at these from a distance, you are at some vantage point where you see them in their orbital movement, pursuing their individual destiny while yet aware of their larger relationship to the others.

Why would you want to change this glorious sense of having been invited upward into deep space, where the universe of story arcs about its business?  Eyes to the heavens, you set out on your next venture, aware of the confidence that seems to radiate from your fingertips as you compose. You know you will never look back.  The map of the heavens is impressed in your imagination.  You begin to reach for new metaphor in order to make sure you understand the true universality of storytelling.

A fine new metaphor is the Periodic Table of the Elements, a tabular arrangement of all the known chemical elements, arranged on the basis of the number of protons within their nucleus, a vast, encompassing entity every bit as filled with implication as story, dialogue, character, conflict, resolution, story arc, denouement, and the vast family of relationships, properties, dependencies, and implications.  You see hints in the atomic numbers of each element, reveling in its individuality, marveling at its preferences for certain other elements and what amounts to an antipathy for others.

You walk a bit taller, pleased to be a part of such cosmic implications, positive now that story has every bit as much integrity and implication as astronomy, thinking even how you would surely have some remarkable post-modernist work if you were to consider all the known elements as characters in an epic trilogy or tetrology far more interconnected and vast than The Iliad or even the after effects, when Odysseus and his men sought their way home to Ithaca, after The Iliad had run its course.

This is about where the daunting step makes itself known to you.  The step presents itself as you read through the pile of pages you have produced since your epiphany that sent you into publication, thinking now you've moved beyond training wheels and are able to essay a bicycle.  Or perhaps the step comes a bit later, when you've completed your revisions on the subsequent work, thought well enough of it to have sent it on to an agent or an editor.  

Now, you hear that one word the writer most fears.  "Interesting."  Or perhaps the more formal expression, "Your work has held our interest."  Here you are, writing at near fever-pitch intensity, fueled by your new awareness, and what do they give you?  Fucking interesting.  

And so you ask about, beyond the network of your got-your-back writer's group, perhaps to an agent or an editor. Perhaps you see a review of your early work suggesting gaps or inconsistencies, a slapdash, last paragraph reference to your obvious skills as a writer--note, writer, not storyteller--and the hope for a greater maturity as your output continues.

Among the efforts you put into your achievements has been a considerable effort at close reading of other writers, historical and contemporary.  Thus you are aware of the likes of Theodore Dreiser, known for his clunky style but as well for his characters and their quandaries and travails, which meant a significant readership.  And you understand the nature of this anomaly, of his having a readership and sales record in spite of a turgid style.  

Perhaps you even had occasion to meet in person and talk shop with Louis L'Amour, who knew story, who knew structure, who had the observer's eye, but not the stylist's ear.  Nevertheless.  Dead since 1988, yet his books, nearly twenty years after his last work, continue to sell in the hundreds of thousands, have already sold hundreds of millions.

Whatever are you to do?  What are you missing?  How are you to push beyond that barrier of being interesting and instead become compelling?

You might start with that word, "storytelling."  You might question it, ask it what it wants from you, then treat it with the respect you have for a cherished older relative, someone you thought of at one time as a role model and now regard with the love and fondness you have for role models you've slowly moved past.  You might learn to read with a closer eye on the inner workings of how writers are constantly finding ways to get you to do to their work what Tom Sawyer got his boyhood chums to do to the fence that needed whitewashing.

You might look for ways to stop being a storyteller and more of a dramatist, using interior modes rather than the outer approaches of descriptive narrative.  You might look for ways to cause characters to reveal their angst and inner turmoil, all the while dreading the consequences of doing nothing.

You might begin delegating, not as the elder statesman delegates authority to the young persons about him but in the sense of a director who briefs his characters on what he hopes to send them into battle with, then allows them to pick the time, place, and structure of the battle.

You might start by trying to recall how many of the writers you admire to this day used the Tom Sawyer approach on you and got you to work at reading their material in ways you'd never consciously thought ever to work.

You might.  But will you?

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