Sunday, March 29, 2015

“A Muse of Fire”

Shakespeare’s Henry V begins with, “O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention,” a plea to transform the bare stage of the Globe into a French battleground. This great storyteller then asked something of the spectators: “let us…on your imaginary forces work.” Suppose that “when we talk of horses, that you see them.” Here’s the climax: “‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.”

Tip: The audience, reader or spectator, completes the picture.

Like the playwright, the novelist sets the stage, introduces the cast, and pits characters against each other. But that’s not worth much if everything is so blatantly clear that the audience can’t participate, or so painfully unclear that the audience can’t participate.

How do you let readers use their own imaginations just enough? Other than Aristotle himself, few people have sharper instincts about the mechanics of fiction than writer/agent Don Maass. His cardinal insight is that if it isn’t original, readers won’t buy it.

This is a classic argument. Plato and Aristotle, his pupil, disputed whether the truth of facts trumps the originality of story. We now agree that neither history nor story is superior. Each has a different purpose: fiction’s is to create a compelling, causal whole from what happened.

Tip: The quality of story comes from infusing a chain of events with your individuality.

To do that, you must dive deep inside. As Robert Browning urged, the “reach should exceed the grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” Sometimes, of course, you reach down, and—nothing’s there.  Your antagonist upstages your protagonist. A scene feels challenging beyond your abilities. When novelist heaven seem beyond your grasp, “C’mon, baby, light your fire.”

~ Distract yourself. Run, dance, commune with your music. Media can also work, though less effectively because it can deaden rather than invigorate.

~ Stimulate yourself. Do a little research, interview your characters, change your plot line, write scenes out of order. Remind yourself what you love about your book, your writing, and you.

~ Tease yourself. Forbid yourself backstory. Introduce secrets. Base conversation on what’s implied rather than said (subtext). End chapters within scenes (interrupted scene). Break habits!

At its best, fiction gives just enough, so that like Shakespeare’s play, battlefields arise from a combination of the author’s words, the characters’ actions—and the reader’s mind.

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