Friday, April 22, 2016

Tracks in the Snow: Mystery, Meaning, and Metaphor

Last weekend we woke to unidentifiable footprints out the front door. After omitting the usual suspects (Cat? Dog? Raccoon? Fox?) we were at a loss. Still are. Still perplexed. And slightly perplexed is mightily entertaining. It triggers the imagination, invites you to solve a puzzle, and keeps you alert and engaged. Will there be a different, better hint?

Tip: The great secrets of fiction leave you wondering, long after the clues melt away.

In this sense, every novel is a mystery novel—whether or not you include corpses or detectives. Your readers try to guess what’s ahead, what this detail signifies, and how the protagonist earns the ending. If you’re doing your job right, they continue guessing. Until the end. That’s where the surprise materializes. Not a total one, of course. The best endings leave readers scratching their heads over all those clever clues—not one of them misleading—that cause the ending. But never obviously. That’s where ambiguity comes in.

Milan Kundera observed that “The greater the ambiguity, the greater the pleasure.” To approach an almost-imitation of life, fiction can’t be too clear. After all, in reality, when is any choice or belief or outcome ever crystalline? For example, is the borderline between life and death always a given?

That’s why Joyce Carol Oates said that novelists toy with “The ideal art, the noblest of art: working with the complexities of life, refusing to simplify, to ‘overcome’ doubt.”  If you already know all the answers, are you sure that fiction is what you want to write? 

Like Oates, Scott Turow, famed for legal thrillers, believes that “The purpose of narrative is to present us with complexity and ambiguity.” What motivates folks to keep reading if you spell everything out?

Readers want footprints—visible, but not unequivocally identifiable. One of the best ways to get there? Metaphor.

Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse relies heavily on the central metaphor of its title. But what exactly does it mean? The unattainable? The illuminating? The permanent in the face of mortality? Art? Love? All of the above?

The fun is guessing, just as it’s fun to speculate why Jonathan Franzen called his book “Purity,” why Shauna Singh Baldwin chose the title “What the Body Remembers,” or the precise meaning of the bloom at the center of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The White Rose.

Guessing keeps people turning pages. Or pondering pawprints. Those melted before we could figure them out. And that’s okay, because “Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity,” Sigmund Freud claimed. And ambiguity is the privilege of drawing your own conclusions.

We can continue daydreaming about what marvelous creature strolled across our yard in the dark of night. Ambiguity lets things linger in memory. Fiction holds that same power. If you let it.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Opera for the Novelist?

Don’t enjoy listening to it? That’s fine. It’s an acquired taste—like blue cheese or the musty Indian spice Asafoetida. And yet regardless of your genre, goals, or commitment to gravitas, a taste of operatic idiosyncrasy might zestfully season your fiction. And you needn’t endure a single high-pitched note to apply these possibilities.

~ Passion.

Not just with a capital “P.” Rather, an entire word that’s capitalized in boldface. Consider Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux. The Queen loves Essex (Devereux), who’s madly in love with his dearest friend’s wife. It can’t end well. Spoiler: it doesn’t. And this has to do with contemporary fiction because…
…the higher the stakes, then the better. Build Concept. Corner your characters.  Want your audience to feel passion? Escalate the tension. Escalate it even more.

~ Motif.

Many of the loveliest operas revisit musical themes. But exploring themes radically differs from merely repeating them. This concept functions the way a poet plays off the six central worlds that build the sestina form: each encounter differs at least slightly. Same with the scarlet letter in Hawthorne’s novel: always similar, never identical. That familiar yet new variation amplifies tension, resonance, and complexity.  Chillingworth, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Hester all view that letter differently—and thus readers do, as well. This is relevant to you because…
…the best fiction has texture. Layers of meaning emerge from words and symbols echoing off each other. And recurrent variations let the audience intimately connect your world with their own—the way years of varied encounters cement a friendship.

~ Climax.

People who adore opera rarely notice how long it takes the protagonist to die, while that’s the first thing people who dislike opera mock. Why must it take so long? Because a lot has gone into this ending. Why rush questions like who lives, rules the kingdom, gets revenge, and wins true love (usually no one). This relates to contemporary fiction because…
…big stories need big resolution. Consider proportion. If your scenario is low key, as many good ones are, then hurry up. But if you’ve posed huge dramatic questions, give your audience enough time to savor, wind down, exhale.

~ Theme.

It’s likely a good thing that we no longer fuss much about honor. But the ageless questions of morality, betrayal, hope, irony, and sacrifice matter to you because you’re a contemporary novelist. Those questions will be the crux of story—forever.

Tip: Fiction comes not only from the imagination, but the world. The more of the world you put in, then the more your readers will get out of the fictional world you create.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Are You Omitting Someone from the Conversation?

Could be, unless both narrator and characters participate in dialogue. Why the narrator? Because despite substantial overlap in first person point of view, the narrator’s always a step ahead of the character. As storyteller, the narrator already knows the ending, and describes the trouble, rather than enduring it. Finally, the compassionate, insightful, charming, witty narrator can accomplish many things that characters can’t. Like speed up dialogue.

In rare instances, the tension soars and the dialogue is pitch-perfect. Then the narrator summarizing or describing would damage that white-hot pacing. Usually, though, you achieve optimal grounding, momentum, and insight when the narrator and characters create the illusion of conversation, which isn't much like an actual conversation. In this example from Saturday, Baxter and his accomplice Nigel hold an entire family hostage, including pregnant young Daisy:

Baxter puts his right hand in his pocket again.  “All right, all right,” he says querulously.  “I’ll kill you first.”  Then he brings his gaze back onto Daisy and repeats in exactly the same tone as before, “So, what’s your name then?”
          She steps clear of her mother and tells him.  Theo unfolds his arms.  Nigel stirs and moves a little closer to him.  Daisy is staring right at Baxter, but her look is terrified, her voice is breathless and her chest rises and falls rapidly.
“Daisy?”  The name sounds improbable on Baxter’s lips, a foolish, vulnerable nursery name.  “And what’s that short for?”
“Little Miss Nothing.”  Baxter is moving behind the sofa on which Grammaticus is lying, and beside which Rosalind stands.
Daisy says, “If you leave now and never come back I give you my word we won’t phone the police.  You can take anything you want.  Please, please go.”
Even before she’s finished, Baxter and Nigel are laughing.  -- Ian McEwan, Saturday

What if each character talked constantly instead of the narrator paraphrasing? What if you cut what the narrator adds to this passage? No, the narrator and characters must hold their own dialogue, with the narrator speeding, hinting, developing.

At the opening of Alice Hoffman’s Here on Earth, the mother and daughter have a brief exchange about being in a strange place, mired in the mud in an unpredictable car:

“We’re going to get stuck,” March’s daughter, Gwen, announces. Always the voice of doom.
“No, we won’t,” March insists.

Three paragraphs of narrator summary bring readers to the climax, omitting the obvious or redundant.

“We’ll get out of here,” she tells her daughter. “Have no fear.” But when she turns the key the engine grunts, then dies.
            “I told you,” Gwen mutters under her breath.

Tip: In dialogue and elsewhere, the narrator and characters must fulfill their respective roles.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Don’t Name That Donkey

You know you want to. Perhaps you already have. Jenny or Jack, Don or Danielle, you worked hard to imagine every aspect of this scene. How big is the pasture, how decrepit the barn, how blue the sky, how scratchy the straw. As a novelist, it’s your job to visualize all that. But that’s not your primary job. What is? Deciding what distracts and cutting it.

So. If Donatello merely shakes off flies rather than motivating or executing the upcoming murder, we don’t care that he prefers clover to alfalfa. And he doesn’t need a name.

Tip: The fact that you created or discovered it doesn’t mean that you should include it.

Why not omit all the extraneous material that clogs novels? Here’s a start:

~ Heaps of adjectives.
            Do you really need more than one? If it’s the right one?

~ Personal memories.
            Does this matter to the story, or only to you?

~ Fun facts.
            Do they make your novel more fun—or less?

~ Repetition.
            Do readers really want watch another character learn what readers already know?

Lack of focus blurs narrative—any kind of narrative. Aristotle laid this down in The Poetics, where he said that fiction imitates reality, but not exactly. 

That’s because story is orderly rather than chaotic; it transforms random details into a credible and causal pattern that an audience can follow. Excessive or irrelevant detail, however fascinating, interferes.  Unless specifics add tension or clarify causality, they actually subtract.

In an intriguing twist, playwright/actor Sean Grennan served on a jury and offered attorneys advice on how narrative engages and persuades. Here’s an excerpt from “Unsolicited Advice,” published in The American Bar Association Journal:

If your practice involves talking to a jury, then your profession is storytelling….Rule # 1: (Less is more. (See also: Try not to bore us.)… In good storytelling, anything that’s not your friend is your enemy, just like Thanksgiving with your family.
Take that wonderful, genius, world-changing, vivid detail you’ve come up with, and if it is a digression, delete it. Anything that slows or distracts or confuses is a problem.

Like the name of that donkey. Make your case. Delete clutter. Let your primary characters breathe and act—without Darcy the darling, dappled, dimple-cheeked, dreamy, drama queen.