Showing posts with label The Good Soldier. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Good Soldier. Show all posts

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XVII

You've probably filed away as muscle memory the way the word "definition" suggests an explanation of what a particular word means, no doubt having gone through some dumb tests in your literature classes, questions such as "Define transcendentalism," or "Define an epistolary novel."

"What a word means" is a true enough definition of definition, but it fails to carry along with it the nuance of a high order, as well implying behavior and the particular quality of that particular behavior.

There are moments in a story which may be called defining because they embody or define the actual and thematic personality of the narrative.  The meeting of Romeo and Juliet is such a defining moment because it provoked the chemistry between them that became the spine of their attraction and ultimate fate.  Definition thus helps delineate the activity and supports the implications of its meanings.

As early as the first sentence of Ford Maddox Ford's memorable novel, The Good Soldier, its first-person narrator, John Dowell, tells us:  "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."  Dowell proceeds to tell us a story which, by the nature of his definition of it, causes us to have an impression of Dowell considerably at odds with the picture Dowell has of the events and of himself.

We are currently being barraged with the concept of high-definition, which applies to the sharpness and intensity of digital images.  We would do well, I suggest, to apply the same concept to the motives and behavior of the characters we set loose in our scenes, building with them to something that goes well beyond the twists and turns of a story as though they were some ride in an entertainment park but rather a more personal look at how individuals behave when they are auditioning for parts they wish to play in a performance of unrivaled complexity and consequence.

At the beginning, dear friends, definition is for us; it establishes parameters, boundaries, limitations.  As we engage the characters of our choice in story situations, it is up to us to see that the circumstances of story drive the characters beyond the boundaries, where the true story begins as they start to react to what they have done and what they must now do in order to continue.

Friday, July 17, 2009


nuance--the use of a particular word, concept, gesture, or intent for the best shade of meaning possible; the right word or concept in the right place in a story or novel; the difference offered to the reader between two or more possible interpretations; an opportunity for the close reader to appreciate the intent of a story in greater detail.

Nuance is a major challenge to the reader and the writer, a trail of literary crumbs left by the writer to lure the reader onward much as the crumbs left by the witch were used to lure Hansel and Gretel deeper into her clutches. Flaubert gained some note of attention because of his preoccupation with finding the right word. Mark Twain played with the same notion, speaking of the right word, not its second cousin, then to even greater effect, " The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Accordingly, nuance and subtext are not merely second cousins, they are kissing cousins, forcing the reader and the writer to examine the words that will best radiate the intent of the characters behavior and perceptions. Not one character in The Remains of the Day called Mr. Stevens, the lead, a naive narrator, and yet the reader knew through nuance and subtext of the numerous instances where Stevens simply did not "get" or properly read the intent at hand. When Lord Darlington asked Stevens if any of his employees were Jewish, for instance, Stevens was unable to read the implications, nor was he able to see Miss Kenton coming on to him. Indeed, Stevens' new employer, the American owner of Darlington Hall, has to remind Stevens to loosen up a bit, and Stevens dutifully reports to us that he will attempt to do so.

Ford Maddox Ford's breakout novel, The Good Soldier, begins with John Dowell, the first-person narrator, telling us, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Dowell continues at somewhat of a ramble, seemingly looking for a way to introduce the story of a nine-year friendship he and his wife, Florence, have shared with an English couple, the Ashburnhams. At length, Dowell decides to imagine himself at the fireplace of a country cottage, "with a sympathetic soul opposite," the best way of telling us his story. By this point, it is possible to suspect motives of Dowell, sympathy from us not the least of them. As Stevens does in Remains, Dowell presents a scenario of events which, through their highly nuanced nature, suggest an outcome that pays off directly on the opening line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard," but does so with a payoff that has lingering, ironic consequences.

Hint: Look for the effect you wish the reader to arrive at, then construct a situation in which one or more of the characters can demonstrate that effect. Dramatize, not state. Show by inference, not tell by authorial intrusion.

Friday, April 10, 2009

In the Muddle of Things

in medias res--literally in the middle of things; a reference to dramatic works that begin with a good deal of backstory having already taken place; a dramatically convenient way to expose the reader to the main characters.

One of the older, more enduring narratives with an in medias res beginning is The Iliad, where the Trojan War has already been raging for six years, and begins with a relatively minor incident in which one of the major players, Achilles, feels he has been insulted and consequently decides to stop fighting, indeed removes his Myrmidon warriors from the forces attacking Troy, a decision that could turn the tide of battle. Some of the other major players try to talk him out of his decision, during the course of which we get doses of backstory.

In medias res openings begin at some dramatic point which sets opposing forces in enough motion to engage the readers before taking a dramatic pause to fill in relevant details, descriptions, stakes, and issues. No less popular now than they were back in the early centuries, these openings become a valuable tool for writers to study. They support the removal of chronological constraints, and they guide the writer into beginning with situations where characters are actively engaged in conflict, by their very nature making it difficult for the writer to spend too much time on description or backstory the reader has not yet been prepared to accept.

A more recent in medias res novel worth study is Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, which in addition to its jumbled chronology, features John Dowell, at first a seeming naive narrator then, by degrees, an unreliable one.

There is nothing toxic or wrong with telling a story in more or less strict chronology. Tobias Wolff's memorable short story, "Bullet in the Brain," is a compelling example. "Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed," it begins, "so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers, anyway, Anders--a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed."

From this beginning, it proceeds in close chronology to the dramatic payoff.

In medias res openings often come as a result of a revision tactic in which the writer purposefully reviews the entire narrative, searching for the most ideal place to begin. Sometimes moving the furniture about for a better arrangement will transform a story from the ordinary to the memorable.