Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Authorial Flag at Half-Mast

Even the most engaged and facile among living authors has occasion to doubt the reader's ability to detect and process intended information. In a real sense, the late, lamented Titanic represents the author's intent while information represents the iceberg. The iceberg

The continuous creep of narration away from the author and into the domain of the character often produces a condition known among editors and critics as authorial flagging. This condition takes place when the author, wishing to make sure the reader has the necessary, relevant data, steps forth with information.

This isn't going to work, Fred thought.

True enough, this is indeed not going to work, any more than "Fred breathed (or heaved) a sigh of relief."  In the former example, "Fred thought" is an authorial flag, the writer using it to make sure we're aware that Fred actually thought the previous assessment, as though the reader had any other choice for the origin of that negative sentiment.

The time of this writing is well into the twenty-first century. If the reader doesn't understand that such a sentiment comes from Fred, who has already been introduced to the reader as the main (if not only) narrative voice. Who else is there in the text to offer an opinion?

If there is no one else present, or even if there is, hasn't Fred been the narrative filter all along? Why then do we need the authorial flag to tell us Fred was thinking, allowing us to see his interior monologue. There is no need to tell us he thought.

On at least a subliminal level, twenty-first century readers are aware of three main approaches to presenting dramatic information: (1) narrative action (2) interior monologue (3) dialogue. What the character does, what the character thinks, what the character says. Of course they needn't be separate; they can be represented within the same paragraph, even within the same sentence.

Fred had fond memories of the old James Cagney movie, The Public Enemy, where Cagney, seated at the breakfast table with Mae Murray, picks up a halved grapefruit, then smashes it into Murray's face. Seated here with Mary, listening to her mindless ramble, Fred wished for a way to get her to stop. "Why," she said, "are you looking at that grapefruit? Didn't you get enough breakfast?"

When we are readers, we often find ourselves turning pages to get past the information dump, back to the place where story picks up. When we are writers, we tend to forget. Sometimes, we may remind ourselves of the stereotypical new bride or husband, hosting our first social venture as a couple, wanting to make sure the guests know where the restrooms are, what's in the bottles, what mysteries lay piled on the layers of canap├ęs.

1. Don't tell the reader more than the reader wants to know, or even as much as the reader wants to know. Keep the reader guessing. 

2. Don't take the reader where the reader wants to go, until you are willing to bring the story to an end. If character A and Character B exchange meaningful, bedroom eyes on page two, your best advice is to keep them out of the bedroom until at least page three hundred--unless, of course, you're writing what's been called sudden fiction. 

3. Even such a trope as "Fred was hungry" is an authorial flag because we found out from the author, not from Fred or some other character who says, "Here, have some of mine. I can see you're hungry."

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