Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Watch, the Mirror, and the Tell

If there were somewhere to your knowledge a pledge, you would sign it, but absent that, you vow to the following:

1.  You will never again use the device of a character, standing before a mirror, examining him- or herself in order to convey to the reader a sense of what the character looks like.  No more "She regarded her face, first in profile, then full on, thinking its oval asymmetry was not by any means unpleasing to look at."  No more.  

One possible exception:  "She consulted the mirror to see how much she could rely on the effect of those contact lenses that shifted the hazel color of her eyes to a deep, ultramarine blue."

2.  Although you wear a wristwatch, which you consult at least twenty times during the course of the day, and know for certain there is a built-in clock on your kitchen gas range and another on your toaster/oven, in addition to the time readily available on your iPhone and, in your work area, your iMac computer, you will never again have a character look at his/her watch to determine the time.  You have grown tired of reading in manuscript and printed text the unimaginative ways in which characters learn what time it is.

You don't know where you read or heard this approach, but you can picture the two friends, well into an evening's carouse, wondering if they have time for a final round at the neighborhood pub.  Neither has a watch, which causes one of the toppers to observe, "We're screwed."

His drinking mate says, "Not so fast.  Watch this."  Whereupon he bursts into a loud, off-key rendition of an old standard.  Before long, the two carousers hear the sound of a window, being raised in wrath, followed by a voice, calling out.  "What the hell's wrong with you, singing that loud at two o'clock in the morning?"

You either have time or you don't.  You're worried about being late or early, or you aren't.  But you don't have to let readers know what time it is in specificity in the first place, and even if you do, you don't have to freight this information by having your character look at wrist, wall clock, or built-in, glow-in-the-dark kitchen range.

Story, you keep reminding yourself, students, and those who have retained you to edit their manuscript, is not descriptive; story is evocative.  By this, you mean story emerges as a cloud, replete with dimensions and implications.  You expect a story to be presented as a dimensional form rather than a line, something the reader will, if you are successful, infer rather than envision because you have described it.

3.  This may be a longer way of saying show, don't tell, but you don't mind, because show, don't tell bores the pants off of you and you have objections to moving about with no pants.  Besides, there are places where telling is a good deal more dramatic than showing.  Drops of rain began to splatter about him and off his head.  Should have listened, and taken the raincoat.

Confused by the litany of repetitions of this mantra, the beginning and intermediate writer will in consequence have the character count the number of steps from the entryway to the living room of a suspect's house.  

The writer will have done so in the firm belief that she is conveying the placement and dimensions of the house rather than describing it. (As if we needed that information to enter the story.)  How much better to begin with the notion that the reader infers rather than discerns, thus it becomes the writer's job to evoke rather than describe.

Think of telling instead as the author, stepping forward as though the story were a Woody Allen film, stopping the action, then calling our attention to some aspect of the story.  He, for example, was desperate.  Or, She had no idea what to do next.  Even, He was hungry.  Those are the sorts of tells you look for in everything you read, not the least of which is within your own drafts.

When curiosity or interest or even nostalgia take you back to a favored writer, say Wilkie Collins, and, amidst the flow of things that cause him to remain one of your favorites, you see a tell, the answer is clear.  You reread the tell, recast it as though you were making editorial suggestions, then, most valuable of all, resolve to be alert for such tells in your own work

Some of the best dialogue imaginable--which is to say that it becomes memorable--has its precise effect because of what is not said, and yet the reader not only hears but supplies to the text.  No more of this "He felt a bead of sweat form at his shoulder blades, then pick up momentum as it ran down his spine, while he searched for the words that would get him out of this painful situation."  

You can see why such tropes would cause the reader to set, if not throw, the book down.  Your job as the writer-director of this situation is to provide information from which the reader is able to draw inferences rather than to narrow the reader's choice to the absolute acceptance of the one way you visualize.

By its overwhelming nature, Reality is ambiguous, chaotic, uncaring.  If there is in fact such a thing as good or bad karma, those qualities begin and end outside the boundaries of Reality, which is to say they are not based on behavior ascribed to Reality.  If you are kind to everyone, pay your debts in an orderly manner, help old ladies across the street and avoid the temptation to pull cats' tails, you will likely be happy most of the time, but such behavior will not prevent a minor part from an overhead airplane from falling on you, causing you incalculable harm.  

Nor will the incalculable harm prevent you from questioning what you did to deserve this woeful result.  We do not abstain from pulling cat's tails for the goal of transcendence, rather we don't do it because we feel better not doing so.  We do what we do to make ourself experience comfort and ease in a Reality revolving about chaos, change, loss, and sorrow.

4.  Observation and avoidance of these elements will not make you a better writer.  That comes from your ability to represent the more nuanced inner workings and composition of your characters, goals you hope to approach.  Observation and avoidance of these elements, the watch, the mirror, and the tell, will remove obstacles you place between yourself and your readers.

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