Saturday, January 21, 2017

Lessons about Story Learned from The Faerie Queen and "True" Freshmen

You sometimes need three or four paragraphs of warm-up description before you find yourself at the true beginning. You were reminded of this apparent need while, of all things, watching a televised football game in which the commentators spoke of a particular player being "a true freshman."

The very designation "true freshman" is enough to send you reeling wickedly down the path of distraction because of your immediate curiosity about what would constitute a false freshman. Such is your nature. You like the conceit, buried within an appellation or designation.  Years after your first exposure as an English major to Spenser's epic poem, The Faerie Queen, you still find yourself chuckling at the true Florimel and the false, chuckling deeper into mirth at Una, whose name suggests oneness, and Duessa, which derives from duality.

In any case, a true freshman is an athlete who has just entered high school or college, playing on a varsity sports team. In college athletics, an athlete has a specific number of years of eligibility, most likely four. An athlete may elect to "red shirt" or engage in practice sports without giving up a year of eligibility. This election is on occasion made for the purpose of working out with members of the varsity team, getting experience and coaching, without losing a year of actual playing time. An athlete may also opt to "red shirt" while an established athlete competes at the same position, in effect waiting out the competition without losing eligibility.

Look at the potential for nuance in the term "true freshman." What a splendid way of indicating status and, perhaps even agenda, particularly if you look at the possible scenario in which an athlete is told, "We'll give you a scholarship, but in order to get it, you'll need to red shirt for a year."  You, already admitted to undergraduate status, were once told you'd be offered a full scholarship after a commitment to be on the track team. But you'd need to red shirt for a year in which you a) worked out with the track team and b) gave up smoking.

Opening scenes, whether of a short story, a novel, or even a fresh chapter from a narrative in progress are problematic in direct proportion to your reliance on description. You in effect begin by describing physicality and potential conflicts of agenda and morality, red shirting in effect rather than starting right out with true freshmen.

This is as true of the opening chapter of a project you have before you as it is of the short story you're working on as a procrastination gesture to avoid facing the facts of the novel you have in mind.  Physical descriptions may help you see the characters and the situations, but they do little to entice the reader of the twenty-first century to metaphorically hop the train of story. You have sufficient experience from working your way up to your present level of ability and from your years as an editor with various publishing venues and with close to forty years of teaching a range of undergraduate, graduate, and adult students. On several levels, you understand that no reader will wish to hop a stationary train.

The train--any dramatic conveyance--must be in motion. How about "They threw me off the hay truck at about noon."? Most readers, even non James M. Cain devotees, would at the very least tarry for the next sentence.

All of which supports the argument that the best way to let the reader meet and get used to any character is to show that individual in some kind of motion. The descriptions of that character become impressions held by the other characters.

Rereading your opening scene caused you the motion of smiting your forehead with the butt of your palm. Alas, you'd red-shirted your characters.

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