Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Unexpected Solution

How much information in a story is too much?  Even if the story is cobbled from the bits and pieces of material you've fitted together from real life, there is a point where the dimensions of the living room in which the corpse is discovered becomes secondary to the fact of the corpse in the living room in the first place.

Did Melville, as some critics have suggested, put too much information about whaling in Moby-Dick?  Many of these critics are from well into the twentieth century where it is possible to question if not argue the diminution of attention span.  

And if someone were brave--or foolish--enough to think about a remake of the filmed version, would there be a tacked-on beginning showing how Ahab lost his leg to the whale as a way of making sure the audience knew what was at stake for both Ahab and the whale, to say nothing of the other members of the crew of the Pequod.

Are the rich, sensual descriptions you remember from such adventure novels of your youth as Gunga Din and The King of the Khyber Rifles the vehicles that transported you to other continents, other times, and unfamiliar menaces, or was it you who supplied the details, taking your clues from language much more spare than you recall?  

This is often the result you encounter when you return for a reread of some favored work, a result that has made you wonder on many occasions if this is a primary example of the less-is-more theory.  Eager for the suspense, encounter, and life-endangering test the protagonist must go through, you wonder if the reader doesn't in some way agree to enhance the menace to a point well beyond the reader's limits.

Now the reader is truly caught up in the intrigue.  The story has taken the reader beyond the comfort zone, then piled on the menace even farther.  The reader is beside himself and must admit to consequences even more dire than those originally feared,

Many, if not all the writers you favor have also mastered a sense of pace you envy.  These storytellers are able to drag out the revelation, the protagonist's awareness of this immediate situation being much worse than expected, to the point where the character feels there is no hope.  

To the point the character feels hopeless, the reader begins to see there might not be an easy way out or even a difficult way, rather one that will bring dire consequences beyond the reader's ability to conceive dire consequences.

You want enough information pointing to the utter disaster the situation has become, the overwhelming probability it has no solution,  and time for it this despair to sink in.  These are standards to which you put your favored writers, which raises the intriguing question, Are you able to turn the circumstances to the point in your own work where neither the characters nor you see a way out?

The answer resides within exaggeration of the depth of the tunnel in which the protagonist is trapped, the number of huge boulders in the rockslide that cuts the protagonist off from the rescuers, the exquisiteness of the moral problem in which the protagonist finds himself, realizing how he has morally painted himself into a corner.

Now you show him an unexpected solution, but it is one that comes at a price so high that he knows he will be forever a different person.  He does not readily see how being this different person can work for him, because, by its nature, it is so radical.  But the reader sees it.  The reader sees the effect in the same way the character cannot yet allow himself to understand.

We in fact like best those stories that send us deeper into the hole, spend more time cut off from civilization by the rock slide, and agonize the most about what attitudes must be compromised rather than how much ransom must be paid the kidnappers or to what extent the character can countenance an abrupt shift in social order.

We want others, not real persons, to be forced to make accommodations and negotiations we are afraid to make for ourselves.  Our margin of escape is our awareness of the degree of exaggerated lengths the problem is pushed.  Our salvation is in the bosom of a story where characters are forced to walk the plank, make decisions we do not trust ourselves to make.


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