Thursday, August 11, 2016

Rock of Ages

When the narrator of a story tells you, either in effect or so many words, I strained my six-foot-three-inch frame to reach the shelf where the box containing the valuable files lay, you can say of that narrator with great certainty, "You're so nineteenth century."

You could say a few more things, such as "over the top," and "exaggerated," but to those in the know, which is to say quality readers, quality writers, and experienced editors, "so nineteenth century" is quite enough, does not, in fact, require an exclamation point, which, in its own way, is every bit a relic from those distant times.

Things have changed. Much as you'd like to try your hand at portraying the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's play, Our Town, you'd look for ways to move him into the early twenty-first century, perhaps with gestures and pacing to get him up to some relevant speed, which is a different speed than a convenient, descriptive speed. 

Perhaps you'd work on a way to show the stage manager's angst at having had such a descriptive role, considering all the high school senior class plays he's appeared in, describing a wonderful story rather than reflecting or evoking it.Perhaps you'd try to find a way to portray an individual rather than a nameless character who is in effect a substitute for the author.

That's right; sometimes writers can figure no other way to "freight" or "filter" or convey a story other than to have some person appear in the guise of another character, his or her only purpose to serve as a mash-up of a person connected with the story and a Greek chorus or even the wonderful rendition Derek Jacobi gave in the Kenneth Branagh film version of Henry V, appearing as he did in a floppy duffel coat as the first person we saw on stage.

You're more than familiar with the older approach to narrative, having learned to experience fiction from that authorial presence, telling you what Character A was doing and who Character B reminded Character C of.  Having as well learned to write stories in which you thought nothing of stepping in upon to instruct whoever might choose to read your narratives.

There are a number of books, intended for readers of all ages, out there as reminders of how far back in history story goes, making  for a belief that "Once upon a time," or "In the city of X, there lived an ambitious man named Y" openings are suitable approaches to telling modern short stories, novellas, and novels.

In all your years of pushing story around as though it were some Sisyphean rock, you acquired a sense of the era into which a narrative fit, simply by hearing a few of its paragraphs read aloud, a standard by which you are able to measure such things as time and culture from which the story emerged. Only in recent times have you learned to do your best to keep yourself out to the matter.

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