Sunday, June 30, 2013

“Hamlet” and the Concept of Story

If you can possibly see American Players Theater’s superb version of Hamlet or any other version, go for it. Why would today’s novelists care? Because this isn’t just a psychoanalysis of a neurotic guy or a righting of the moral order (“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!”). Shakespeare tackles the nature of storytelling itself.

The play cleverly opens with someone other than Hamlet confirming the validity of his murdered father’s ghost. We know the ghost is “real.” But only Hamlet hears the instruction to wreak revenge, and “there’s the rub.” Does the ghost seek justice, or does it ascend from hell to doom Hamlet’s soul? In other words, how do we know what’s true?

The entire play flirts with this. Hamlet looks to theatre for the answer. He’ll study the king’s response to a dramatization of the ghost’s version of events: “The play’s the thing,/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

To gather information, Hamlet feigns madness. Yet even Ophelia’s ridiculous dad (Polonious) says of Hamlet, “this be madness, yet there is method in‘t.” Method indeed. Hamlet’s step-father (Claudius) freaks at the re-enactment of how he poisoned his brother to steal throne and queen. It’s a lot more convincing than mere “Words, words, words.”

But when Hamlet unwittingly kills his “girlfriend” Ophelia’s father, she goes quite literally mad. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Now Hamlet’s supposed friends become enemies, and enemies (like Ophelia’s vengeful brother) become friends. Treacherous Claudius convicts himself, leading directly to “The rest is silence.” The play concludes with nearly every character dead, and only Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio left to fulfill Hamlet’s last request: “Tell my story.”

This tragedy transcends one story to capture the power of storytelling itself—an art so persuasive that Plato wanted to drive all storytellers from the city. As a novelist, you’re a storyteller, and whatever genre you write in, this play teaches some new old tricks.

~ Convince us. (Shakespeare uses a ghost to prove that Hamlet isn’t mad.)

~ Tease us. (The ghost is tangible. But is its message real?)

~ Play us. (Hamlet refuses to be played on like an instrument. But in the end, he, too, is dead, as we both did and didn’t expect.)

~ Entertain us. (Even in this tragedy, there’s flirtation, sensuality, and both wry and broad humor. Tragedy needs humor; humor needs edge.)

~ Persuade us. (As Hamlet puts it, “More matter with less art.” Focus on the substance, not just the style.)

~ Move us. (The uncertainty, pain, vulnerability, and courage—Hamlet is all of us.)

Tip: As Cole Porter put it, “Brush up your Shakespeare.” You won’t be sorry.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Characterization: Depth + Complexity = Credibility and Drama

In real life, as we get to know people they become both more predictable and more surprising. On one hand, if we say or do certain things with certain people, we can expect laughter or teasing, anger or anxiety. On the other, if we say or do exactly the same things, but in a slightly different context or during an invisible mood, we can get exactly the opposite of what we were certain we could expect.

Why would living, breathing characters be any different? They’re not. Certain elements are a given. The protagonist can’t be pathetic or erratic; the antagonist can’t be inexplicably volatile or cruel to the point of comedy. Once that’s established, understanding of character grows continuously more complex, exactly as it does with real people.

Overly consistent characters are boring. Obviously inconsistent characters are unbelievable. How do you strike that perfect balance?

·         Consider how characters are and aren’t like real people. To make this practical, start with your own novel. Are its characters like folks you know? How do they both parallel and deviate? Much more importantly, why do they parallel and deviate?

·         Use causality. If people pretend they’re secure when they’re anything but, situations that breed insecurity will always breed certain behaviors in them. Decide what these are, both generally and for your own characters in particular.  Then decide what you can use in your book, not only in situations you’ve already included but perhaps scenes you might develop.

·         Check consistency. Maybe shy Sara always responds predictably whenever a man looks at her, much less flirts with her. If your goal is getting her married, Sara still has to freak—at least somewhat—when she meets Roger, even if he will turn out to be her soul mate.

·         Mix it up. Maybe good old Roger is a wolf who turns sheepish at the sight of shy Sara. Good for him. Good for Sara. If you can convince your readers, better still. But it might be more credible if Sam goes on eyeing that long-legged blonde sunbathing in not much—even if he suspects he’s just met the woman who’ll change his life forever. And she’s not blonde.

·         Capitalize on your knowledge of human nature. The next time a friend, loved one, or stranger astonishes you with behavior at a supermarket, party, or traffic light, take note. What makes sense? What doesn’t? Most importantly, what would you need to change to make this behavior make sense to your readers? Help them feel they know your characters. Help them forget that we all already secretly realize that no one can really know anyone. That’s for life—not fiction.

Tip: The great characters—the ones who endure for centuries—are both coherent and idiosyncratic. Just like everyone else. Almost.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Vision and Voice

These two words have a tighter connection than just appealing alliteration. Here’s the thing: If you really know exactly what you want to say, you’ll have exactly the words to say it. Unsure? Any or all of the following might undermine that passage:

·         Cliché
·         “Telling”
·         Ungainly sentences
·         Imprecise language
·         Mixed metaphor
·         Repetition of words or ideas  

Happily, there’s no need to glare at your laptop, fearing that you’re stuck with this tenth-rate paragraph because the concept’s a bit woozy. Revision can rescue the words, the sentences, and the incomplete picture they never quite articulate.

These strategies help you contemplate your laptop neutrally, if not downright cheerfully.

v  Brainstorm a bit.
Jot down crazy possibilities for how to develop this moment. Something on your list might not be crazy at
all. You only need one “something.”

v  Shake things up.
Maybe you can’t write the scene because it doesn’t interest you. Turn it inside out to eliminate the
predictability problem.

v  Use the concrete world.
 “No ideas but in things,” William Carlos Williams said. He was right.

v  Eliminate something.
 The constraint of substituting for a missing character or scene or device can force an explosion of

v  Develop a minor character.
 “Less is usually more,” but not always, especially if a minor character resonates with either the antagonist
 or protagonist.

v  Introduce a new source of tension.
 Cornered characters are always more fun to follow, not to mention more fun for novelists to write.

v  Revise.
 Continue methodically reworking the passage until it gets clear. But revisit it, rather than staring and
staring, hoping for a solution. Remarkable how clarity generates exactly the right words.

High school teachers, including yours truly, sometimes assign separate grades for “content” and “presentation.” Here’s a secret: these supposed opposites more closely resemble a circle than divisive components.

Tip: Vision enhances voice, which enhances vision. Circles are beautiful things.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Revision and Vision

The words feel as if they should go in the opposite order (vision and revision), and not just for rhythm. One instinctively feels that first you have the storyline, which you keep reworking until it’s right. Not exactly. More often, reworking the original plot or theme, approaching it from different angles, choosing the exact words and smoothing the awkward sentences lets you—voila!— exquisitely articulate what you never knew you wanted to say.

Some people eagerly anticipate reworking from a solid base; others dread the anguish of not creating anything brand new. However revision makes you feel, without it, you risk losing the potential nuances and complexity of your vision. Revision lets you  discover what your characters and ideas want to tell you so you can share that.

Tip: Revision that addresses the architecture of your story lets you plumb the meaning of your story.

How do you revise for vision?

·         Watch the words.
It matters whether Penelope snickers, laughs, brays, or giggles. Be precise. Scrupulous wording creates powerful imagery and themes.

·         Ignore the words.
Precision counts. Just not at the expense of deep structure. Tinkering with words can't substitute for developing deep dilemma, genuine character arcs, and happy endings your characters actually earn.

·         Forget about yourself.
            If you put yourself, not to mention your ego, before your words and sentences, you won’t see what
            needs revising. You’ll only see your “self.”

·         Incorporate your “self. “
Your emotions, memories, dreams, and mistakes make great fodder. But to incorporate or dump are separate processes. Infuse the world of your characters with your experience instead of reproducing your experience. Real life needs tweaking to seem credible and dramatic.

·         Use your plot to develop your themes.
Ideally, the bad choices, wrong turns, and learning these generate take your characters on a journey that reveals whatever you want to reveal.

·         Use your plot to discover your themes.
Ideally, living characters subjected to enormous stress will not only surprise themselves. They’ll surprise you, too. That’s the fun and thrill revision can offer.

Readers may not consciously realize it, but they mostly prefer novels that have insight—vision. Revision is the single best strategy for achieving that.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Novelty of the Novel

Does the contemporary novel require a facelift ? Major surgery?  Kenneth Goldsmith, who teaches Uncreative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania and is the Museum of Modern Art’s first Poet Laureate, asserts that the novel is no longer original enough:

Creativity is about the most worn-out, abused concept that used to mean something remarkable, something that differentiated someone, something that made them special...What was once creative is now uncreative.

Rather than coming up with his own analysis of why the Man Booker Prize is unoriginal, Kenneth Goldsmith quotes Craig Dworkin:

we don’t think of the Booker Prize Finalists as unoriginal, or uncreative, or plagiarized, despite the fact that they have close precedents and that we can imagine confusing them with another work.  Take ‘a story of innocence and experience, hope and harsh reality’: a quick Google search (conducted last fall prior to the announcement of the winner) reveals that these are the exact words used to describe Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”; Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”; William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”; Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club”; James Joyce’s “Araby” (and that’s just the first page of results).
     Nor do we think of these works as unoriginal, or uncreative, or plagiarized, despite the fact that just from the one paragraph synopses on the Man Booker Website we learn that 4 of the 6 shortlisted novels advertise themselves as featuring immigrants negotiating the difficulties of a strange land; 5 of the 6 hinge on the dramatic turn of a murder; 4 of the 6 reveal secrets from the past that come unexpectedly to light (half of them through the surprise arrival of a letter)…

…and so on. If the point is that all prizes are unsurprisingly and unappetizingly unoriginal, well, this isn’t news. What might be news is Goldsmith’s remedy:

Calling a practice uncreative is to reenergize it, opening creativity up to a whole slew of strategies that are in no way acceptable to creativity as it’s now known. These strategies include theft, plagiarism, mechanical processes, repetition. By employing these methods, uncreativity can actually breathe life into the moribund notion of creativity as we know it.

Hmm. Fortunately we have writers like Tracy Chevalier, Chad Harbach, Alice Hoffman, Ian McEwan, and Barbara Kingsolver—to name a handful—unconcerned about their “uncreativity.”

Like a rose or a football or the aurora borealis, a novel has certain characteristics that—happily!—make it a novel. How much can you change while retaining something with fragrance (rose), star power (football), and plot (novel)? If you add pictures, then you’ve changed what words contribute. Is that good? If you keep typing yesterday’s Times (as Goldsmith has proudly done) instead of engineering a solid storyline, is that good? If you shrug off the essence of creativity because we live in internet age, is that best of all?

You can’t tell a brand-new story. Too late. But you can craft the characters, interweave the symbols, shape the arcs, foreshadow the ending, build the backdrop—choose the words—so that ever could or will do it this way. Original. Creative. Meaningful. Yours.

The novel thrives. People read them; people write them. Many, many people. Today’s best novels are as good as any novels ever, maybe better. Yes, today’s stories recapitulate Henry Fielding, Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, and Kate Chopin. Of course they do. After all, how many human stories are there? That there’s a finite number doesn’t mean it’s time for “plagiarism, mechanical processes, repetition.” It means that today’s novelists have the honor—and the obligation—to reinvent the novel more and better without making it a comic book, a tone poem, or a psychological experiment.

Tip: The novel has been good enough since its inception. Still is.