Wednesday, March 22, 2017


The news from your publisher that he wishes a revised edition of your Fiction Writers' Handbook sent you scurrying to an index card storage box in which you'd begun adding additional terms and concepts, should such a request come forth.

The first edition contains over three hundred seventy terms, a significant enough number, you suppose, to have distracted you from a necessary-but-uncomfortable realization. In a practical sense, your book is an annotated checklist of things you visit in one way or another each time you compose fiction. 

When you were in the midst of a weekly book review column that arced over five years, you arrived at the conclusion that your revisions of a given essay had no numerical parameters, only that you should read, reread, tweak, and revise until you were prompted to add some observation or fact that either surprised you with its energy, caused you the pleasure of discovery, or a combination of the two.

Handbook is an alphabetical arrangement of terms and concepts. You've begun your revision at the letter A, for which you've a number of additions and a term or two you're debating about removing. Arena is a term already in place. Your rereading of it suggests you've discovered yet another thing about the word which, under ordinary circumstances relates to a local where a battle or contest is engaged between rival sides.

But why stop there, your more advanced self asks of your earlier contribution. In its way, the locale for a scene is as important as the scene itself. Although you agree with your younger self that an arena is an appropriate way for you to consider setting, you want that extra touch whereby every setting is not only an arena, the setting has some quality amounting to a personality. 

The setting is never neutral; it is in some measure an atmosphere in which one or more of your characters will become so uncomfortable that his or her participation in the scene is changed.

The setting can impress its arena-like qualities upon the suffering character, who would be better able to enjoy or cope within the dramatic requirements of the scene. The character can become overwhelmed with nostalgia for an event at a similar arena, or angered, or distracted.

For the same reason details and descriptions must be inspected against frivolity, arenas must be chosen to have some impact on the protagonist and possibly even some sense of home court advantage for the antagonist.

No one gets out of the arena unaffected. If you remember this, you'll have in mind the dramatic need for an enhanced tightening of the chain of circumstances advancing upon the principal character the way a coven of marauding crows advances on a picnic.

If you push this with too much emphasis, your principal character will spend as much time disliking the setting as pursuing an agenda. The astute reader will notice and begin to lose empathy and identity for the principal character. But the character's awareness of the unfriendliness of the setting, however internalized, will have an effect on the outcome, which is precisely what the character does not wish, but remains what the writer wants--and the reader expects.

Net neutrality--yes. Dramatic neutrality, an emphatic no. 

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