OVERTONES

In our example of the two lawyers we end with their conflict unresolved, but that doesn’t mean that such a story is pointless.  We return to the same place, but with a much fuller understanding.  When we were young we believed that every question had an answer, every problem a solution.  As adults we realize it isn’t that simple.  Sometimes the “answer” we achieve is our better understanding of all the ramifications of the “question.”  So with writing, especially writing in which we are exaggerating conflict to heighten drama, the “resolution” of the conflict may very well be, not only our understanding what happens, but also our experiencing all of its ramifications.  And, don’t underestimate the power of symmetry.  Art gives structure to events, and that, in itself, is a type of “resolution”–a way to make sense of the seeming randomness of life we are always trying grasp.  It’s the basis of the next principle, Principle #4, but here’s an analogy using music I hope clarifies what I’m saying.        

 

You can look at classical music as plot without story. Granted there may be certain allusions, but the “meaning” of music is the way a piece is developed–its melodies, harmonies, rhythms and orchestration.  In one of his TV lectures Leonard Bernstein explained this in terms of a baseball diamond.  Home plate is the principle tone (the tonic); the other bases are notes that are different from, but related to the tonic home plate. One can run around these bases in order, or one can skip among them arbitrarily; but the point is always to return eventually home, to our tonic home plate.  When we strike the single note of C on the piano, for example, we hear not only that tone but also other notes that make up C, called overtones, which are at the same time higher and fainter.  C is our tonic; the overtones are C, an octave higher, G a fifth higher than that, C again, now a fourth further higher and E, yet a third even higher.  You can prove this by depressing the middle C on the piano very carefully so as not to let it sound; then sharply strike and quickly release the C an octave below.  As soon as the lower C is released the upper C vibrates sympathetically as the first overtone.  So C, E and G are the bases (at this point a baseball triangle, rather than a baseball diamond).  Expand the overtones further in this way and you have the five-note scale.  Run them different ways to get different folk tunes.  No matter what the variation our ear wants to return at the end to C, the tonic.  Expand these overtones further and you end up with seven-note scale and eventually our twelve-note, chromatic scale.  

 

In a story or article, the first time we state the conflict is like hitting that tonic note.  The complications of the plot or the development of the theme are explorations of the overtones of that conflict.  When we return to the conflict, directly again at the end of the piece our “ear” now consciously hears all the plot “overtones” that it unconsciously heard when that conflict was first stated.  The material itself suggests a structure–we’ll examine that in Principle #4–but once you, as writer, are aware of that structure it’s very productive to think of it like the structure of a piece of music.  As we respond to music, even though it is devoid of semantic meaning, our audience will respond to the structure and development of a piece of writing as well as responding to the experiences the words represent.  This is most obvious in poetry, which unhesitatingly combines sound and sense. But it’s also true of all other writing, including non-fiction.  The essays and letters of E.B. White are fine examples.  A beneficial exercise is to take a book that has multiple themes, such as George Elliot’s Middlemarch, and analyze its structure using musical terms.  Here is one story line (or melody) that is horizontal, flowing through time in a linear way; and another running horizontally at the same time in counterpoint.  Concurrent notes sounding simultaneously give us chords or a vertical sound.  Additional characters provide the equivalent of this vertical sound or harmony.  When you start to see a layering in the writing of others and look for possibilities of doing it in your own writing, you’ll never be satisfied with anything less than rich composition again.   

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MANIPULATING SCENES

$1.75 MOVIES

 

Even within a genre there are endless variations.  As an active reader you can analyze them all in terms of the affect they have on you, then use then use what you learn to find the best way to pull your audience into your subject.  Here’s an added bonus of Principle 3: You’ll never see bad movies or read a bad book again.  Let me explain.  I love $1.75 movies.  You don’t feel “had” as you do at a full-priced theater when a heavily hyped feature turns out to be a colossal turkey.  About five minutes into one of these cheap movies, you can tell if it’s going to be good or fall somewhat short of your expectations.  If it is bad, that’s when I start analyzing the creative choices that were made in its production. Given the scene the director starts with, what would I present next?  If it confirms my prediction I feel clever; if the movie enacts another scene instead, then I try to anticipate, given that pattern, what the third scene will be.  Of course you can also do this with television programs and books. But don’t overanalyze things you really love. It takes the magic out of them.  You are going backstage to learn techniques from people who are trying to move an audience, just as you, a writer, are trying to move an audience.  We have an affinity for certain directors and writers because they have sensibilities in doing this that are similar to ours.  And, that is part of your appeal to your readers: you ‘re acknowledging the role of the audience and trying to make the story interesting for them.

           

Let’s try another example.  You are in a shopping mall, waiting for your husband or wife.  It’s early December and you overhear someone saying, “Isn’t Christmas a great time of year.”  You think to yourself, Is it?  Certainly if you’re young, healthy and expecting wonderful presents Christmas seems great; but what if you’re old or poor or alone?  This is a story idea. A story idea is something you want to explore, not quite knowing where the subject will lead you.  How will you find its truth?  If you’re Charles Dickens and you have the chart of different type of reactions (Figure 1), you might simply see what your character’s reactions are to people, places, and events in the past, in the present, and in the future. Seems rather contrived, yet it works. The reason it’s effective is that audiences find this taking stock of past, present and future is a way of regaining one’s equilibrium.  And that’s appealing, especially at that time which is right before the end of the old year and the beginning of the next. Remember, as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future appear to Scrooge so they appear to us and take us with him to the corresponding scenes he witnesses–and reacts to. The past is nostalgia, the present unfulfilled promise, and the future–for Scrooge, as much as for Oedipus–represents death.  And when the ghosts disappear we are left having undergone a rekindling of our feelings. They are real emotions, though the mechanism that evokes them is formula.  As a child hearing the recording of Lionel Barymore read A Christmas Carol on the radio every Christmas Eve, I thought: This is probably something I’ll hear every year on this holiday for the rest of my life.  I was wrong.  It was replaced on television, by something that has become even more a part of the Christmas tradition—It’s a Wonderful Life.  But look at the story line.  We get a flashback to the James Stewart character’s past, we see his present, and with the help of an angel (in place of a ghost) we see what could have been had he never been born (a twist on Scrooge’s pondering what his life has meant while at his gravestone with the Ghost of Christmas Future). And it works. From the audience’s perspective, it works like magic.

           

A TICKING BOMB

 

What other things can we do, besides add characters and change the order of scenes, that would build reader interest?  Let me describe them informally, and later I’ll give you some technical names and definitions.  Picture a generic film noire, black and white classic movie of the forties. A train is hurtling through a stormy night.  Inside a suspicious, foreign looking gentleman is nervously glancing out the window.  Suddenly, without warning, there is an explosion.  The sky is filled with a tremendous white flash.  The train is blown to bits. Tragic?  Yes. But not necessarily suspenseful. 

 

An Alfred Hitchcock would have some fun with the same scene, building tension through juxtaposing different scenes and different elements within the scene.  He might start with the same establishing picture, perhaps throw in some suggestive touches–the man is reading No Exit, for example.   The scene switches to the mail car.  A clerk is eating his lunch.  The camera is viewing him from floor level.  As it changes focus we realize the camera is under some kind of cot and inches in front of it are sticks of dynamite attached to an old fashioned alarm clock.  The dial fades into a wristwatch dial of the foreigner as we return to the passenger car.  He looks up from it, beads of sweat drip from his brow.  Two customs officials make their way down the aisle stopping at each seat.  There’s a flash, and the lights go off in the car.  But, it was only lightning.  And when the lights come on everything is back in order.  Except the foreigner’s seat is now empty.  Cut to the mailroom.  The clock’s minute hand jerks to one minute to nine.  As the clock’s ticking becomes ominously louder the camera again changes focus–the foreground blurs, the distant shape of the mail clerk becomes clearer.  He picks up an apple which slips from his hand.  In slow motion we see the apple hit the floor, bounce one or two times, and roll toward the cot. In fast motion we see the foreign man hurrying through a passenger car, opening the doors between cars pushing past a crowd of people waiting in a dining car.    A hand reaches under the cot feeling blindly for the apple.  It pats the shape of the clock on the bomb, and its fingers clutch the dial just as the hand snaps to nine.  The train whistle screams as the train crosses a trestle bridge hundreds of feet above a canyon.  For an instant the face of the man running through the train freezes in close-up, and then… 

  

What I’ve done in this example is to juxtapose scenes of our anxious passenger with those of a bomb about to go off.  The reader’s knowledge about the bomb (and the passenger’s ignorance of it) creates the suspense.  I go from the dial of the bomb’s clock to the dial on his wristwatch to draw the connection, then suggest possible things that might save him–his jumping off the train to escape customs, the mail clerk’s discovering the bomb before it goes off–then dash those hopes.  I contrast a distant shot of the train crossing a bridge in the thunderous storm with an intense close up of fingers clenching a clock face.  I slow down the time of the apple bouncing on the floor to intensify the drama of its possibly leading to the bomb’s discovery; and quicken the time of the man running through the train to convey his panic.  These are examples of techniques that can be used in your writing by playing one element or scene off another. 

 

Sometimes I think we can be too clever.  A reader may also be intrigued by something much simpler than the complexities of plot or techniques of juxtaposing and sequencing scenes.  For example, we have a basic need to just stare at another person.  That isn’t socially acceptable, so what do we do?  We go into a darkened movie theater where no one can see us and stare at a huge close up of another person often expressing a vulnerability  we would be ashamed to witness in real life.  A picture from a still camera fills another need.  It gives the illusion of stopping time so we can examine others without their constantly changing, or see ourselves as we think others see us (a change in perspective).  What is horror? Seeing someone change too rapidly from a handsome person to an ugly, distorted “monster.”  A time-lapsed photo study compressing time of someone going from an adolescent to old age does the same thing. The important thing is to realize you have many technical choices in how you present your subject that directly influence your audience.   You get to decide whether a scene should go quickly to build excitement or slow down so your reader experiences each detail more fully than that person would in real life.  It’s said that in Shakespeare a comedy always ends in marriage, and tragedy begins in marriage.  Think about that: The Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing as compared to Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Othello.  Whether you have a comedy or a tragedy may depend upon which scene you choose to begin or end your story.  It could be as simple as that. But what is true for certain is the observation of Barbara Tuchman. She said, “The best book is a collaboration between author and reader.”   

THE BRIDGES OF COOK COUNTY

Let’s look at a long hypothetical example (see Figure 2). We start with three horizontal boxes. I’m gong to purposely use the most common plot formula.  Each box represents a different scene.  In the first let’s put “woman loves man.”  In box two we’ll mark, “woman loses man.”  Box three is, of course, “woman gets man.”  When I filled in box two, I lost the interest of eighty percent of my audience.  Not because they don’t buy my story line–on the contrary they see some variation of it every day in novels, TV sit-coms and as the basis for much commercial advertising–but because it’s too predictable.  Yet this is the plot of The Bridges of Madison County, isn’t it?  And that was on the best seller list even longer than Love Story.  Robert James Waller keeps us interested by serving up particular ingredients of this formula in a slightly different way than we’ve been used to getting them–the woman is only with her lover for two weeks, most of their lives are spent in separation and she gains him only figuratively through the understanding of her children who find her account of their affair after her death. I’m not Robert James Waller, but I want to make the formula in our boxes more interesting also.

 

Let’s start by adding more boxes (see Figure 3).  We can’t have five scenes be “woman and man.”  That would be monotonous.  Therefore we need to add more characters.  This is still the story of the woman and the man, but now sometimes we are going to tell it by using the reactions of supporting characters.  I’m going to add some detail, and I want to keep it purposely obvious so you see the mechanisms at work.  Let’s say the woman and man have both been hired as new attorneys in a Chicago law firm.   There’s a mutual attraction.  They’re both good looking, young, smart and are interested in law.  Scene A with the man and the woman establishes this.  But they are also different.  Remember, it’s exaggerating opposites that adds drama.  She is from a wealthy suburb and is ambitious.  He is from a rural town in Wisconsin and more interested in enjoying himself than in making big money.  Scenes B and C can establish these characteristics, and to do that we’ll introduce two secondary characters: her sister and his college friend.  If Scene A is in the firm’s reference library, perhaps Scene B can be our male lawyer meeting his friend for a few drinks at a bar after work.  The friend is saying, “What the hell are you doing, Bob, falling for someone like that.  She’d be embarrassed to bring you to her parent’s house for dinner.  Besides, you’re too young.  You’re finally out of school, have some money and a great place of your own.  Come on, man, let’s party.”

 

Scene C shows our female lawyer shopping with her younger sister.  Sis is laying it on too, “Look at the statistics, for God’s sake, lawyers who have a husband and kids aren’t going anywhere professionally.  You’ve worked too hard to throw your dream away on some farmer, just because he has a nice build and a winning smile.  I’ve always looked up to you, listened to your advice.  Now I’m telling you, listen to me or you’ll make a big mistake.”

 

This is fun, isn’t it?  Following this progression, and limiting ourselves to these four characters, who would be in Scene D? 

 

We started with the man and the woman (Scene A), next presented the man and his friend (Scene B), then proceeded to the woman and her sister (Scene C).  The friend and the sister represent opposite extremes of the man and woman’s spectrum; to bring the conflict to its dramatic peak, Scene D should be between them.  Finally we end up with the climax in Scene E: the hour of decision. In a way we’re right back where we began.  And, after all they love each other so they’ll come to some way of reconciling their differences, right?  Well that’s why we escape from real life to romance novels, instead of escaping from romance novels to real life. 

 

 

Look at what we’ve gained.  We can now address the man and woman’s relationship directly or indirectly through other characters.  At times the couple is “on stage,” sometimes other people are in view instead, even though the focus is still on the couple.  This is already more interesting to a reader.  Now let’s expand these options even further.  Go back to Scene C in our diagram.  Its format seems very close to Scene B, and too convenient of a coincidence that the man and his friend are talking one day and the woman and her sister, the next.  We know what we want Scene C to convey (just as you picked scenes to dramatize certain character traits in the last written exercise), but there’s no reason our choice is limited to the present.  What if Scene C was a flashback ten years earlier, in which the two girls are talking about their hopes for the future within the wealthy environment in which they grew up.  We’re breaking chronology and it’s more credible.  As long as we are playing with sequences, why not switch Scene B in front of Scene A?  The advantage of starting your reader in the middle, rather than at the beginning, is that you double the reader’s curiosity.  Not only does the he or she wonder what will happen, but also the reader is curious about what has happened to lead up to these events. 

 

Remember, we are not changing the order in which the events occurred, only the order in which the reader is exposed to the events.  The most obvious example is a detective story.  The reader enters at Scene D, the unexplained crime has been committed. Now Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or Inspector Margret figure out what physically happened in Scene C that could account for the results of Scene D, but that leads them to look for occasion in Scene B that led up to Scene C and ultimately the motives from Scene A that are behind it all.  The story is revealed to us D, C,B, A, E.  Once all is exposed the resolution, Scene E, is anti-climactic. This manipulation of order works. In the case of a mystery, it also explains why we don’t want to read it a second time.  so the reader shifts from being hooked on plot to real insight into character, which can be even moresatisfying subsequent readings (e.g. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment). Of course there’s a certain monetary advantage to the writer of detective fiction in your reading his or her next book,rather than rereading the last. 

CAMERA SHOTS

One productive way to think of third person point of view is that the reader is in position like a movie camera and a tape recorder in position at a definite location, for example, up near the ceiling in one corner of the room.  Sometimes the camera is running (visual description). Sometimes only the tape recorder is going (dialogue).  And sometimes that camera-tape recorder moves.  It might be behind one of the people in the room and only see and hear what that person sees or hears.  It can also move into that person’s head and in addition record the thoughts of that person, or move to an entirely different location and show us what is going on there.  These changes must not be confusing to the reader (and there is a simple guideline that you will see is part of Principle #3 which spells this out). What I call “camera movement,” not only brings fresh perspective, but also is a way a writer can conceal things from an audience in order to increase surprise and suspense.  

 

In the first scene of Example 9 we are given the option of hovering a bit before looking at the situation through Rob’s perspective.  In the second scene the writer is able to temporarily withhold some things from the reader that heighten tension when they are revealed–Don’s having been fired and the teeter-totter dynamics to the two men’s relationship (Rob’s will prosper at Don’s demise).  Details fit more naturally, as does dialogue. Dialogue often seems fake unless it gives the reader insight into the conflict or into some hidden aspect of speakers’ characters.             

 

And that raises one other reason writers favor the third person: dialogue is always first person anyway, so a story or article using third person has the advantages of both first and third person points of view. The same can be said for using the past rather than the present tense.  Present tense (as seen in the garage sale example, Example #8) has a breathless quality that is hard to sustain in prose; it just isn’t the convention.  But, when a short story or novel is told in past tense, dialogue remains present tense, giving the audience additional variety.  We don’t really read past tense, as past anyway.  When in doubt, use a form of third person point of view and the past tense. 

 

FICTION & TRUTH 

 

If you take something you have written (like our first exercise) and rewrite it using a different point of view (switch it from first to third) you’ll see the effects of your creative choices. It’s not a matter of one being more correct than the other. Each is best suited to different results. Rather than favoring one from habit, make a conscious choice based on how you want the reader to respond.  Whether to present characters literally or fictionalize them is also a matter of creative choice.  One of the most challenging pieces I’ve written involved a series of connected stories each having as its subject a different member of my immediate family. At the time everyone was going through an important transition in his or her life, including myself (I had just gone through a divorce after many years of marriage).  It was difficult because I wrote this collection to be given as a Christmas present to these same family members.  I wanted it to be an accurate, but didn’t want to hurt their feelings.  It would have been easier to write the stories if I had fictionalized the people and events, and the result might have been even closer to the truth.  

 

Sometimes we just have to follow where our writing leads us.  Sam is my neighbor. He’s retired, about seventy; and two years ago he was run over by a truck.  It was a freak accident.  He pulled up to a driveway as a delivery truck was slowly rolling down it.  He noticed there was no one in the truck.  Sam got out of his car and ran over to the runaway vehicle.  Without any fore-thought he jumped up on the running board with the idea of opening the door and putting on the brake or throwing it into a forward gear.  He slipped on the running board and went under the tire. His wife called me from the hospital where they brought him.  Over the next several weeks I was to visit that hospital many times.        

 

 In one of the writing seminars I was presenting, Sam was my subject for the character development exercise.  The first scene I wrote took place in the hospital, as did the second in which his son rushed up from Chicago (where the son worked) some three and a half hours away.  As I was writing that second scene I filled in some details of the flashback with things from a childhood memory of my own past.  When I wrote the third scene, which took place three weeks later, I found myself asking: Why am I changing the facts?  Sam did come out of a ten-day comma; he was alive and happily making pottery as I wrote the exercise.  Yet in my written segment he did not recover.  I had him die.  Later we exchanged papers in the workshop, and I’ll never forget the comment my partner made to me.  He said, “It sounds like you’re deeply grieving.”  I thought, “My God, I’m not writing about Sam, I’m grieving the death of my own father that took place some six years before.”  The part that I had included for descriptive purposes was the background for the real subject surfacing through the writing.

   

I like a definition given by the poet, William Stafford.  He says, “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say, as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.”   Stafford trusted receptivity, the willingness to fail, a withholding of judgment.  He believed that for a person who follows with trust and forgiveness whatever occurs, “the world remains always ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment, with the combined vividness of an actuality and flexibility of a dream.”  Stafford observed, “Working back and forth between experience and thought, writers have more than space and time can offer.  They have the whole unexplored realm of human vision.”

  

READER INVOLVEMENT

 

William Stafford’s words about human vision are stirring for writers, but the writer isn’t the only player in the mmunication process.  In fact, for twenty minutes let’s forget about writing and look at what we’re doing from the standpoint of the reader.  I’ve pointed out some needs both share, but there are also marked differences; so much so that Principle #1 which applies directly to the writer (discovery through an unfolding process) may now seem to be contradicted by Principle #3 which takes the raw material generated this way and rearranges it to maximize reader involvement.      

  

Think of it this way.  To produce, you have on your writer’s hat (an old beat up fedora with a card in the band that says, “Press”).  When you employ Principle #3 you take off this fedora and put on the green eyeshade of editor (who is nothing but a glorified reader).  It’s important to keep these two in the right order.  Give the editor preeminence and, red pen in hand, that editor in you will say, “Whatever you’re probably going to do, won’t be any good.”  On the other hand, how many editors are great writers?  Let the writer discover the story and the editor will now have something real to fine-tune using his or her critical powers and a sensitivity to what the public wants.  When there is doubt always side with the writer.  It’s the productive choice.  Without the writer there would be nothing to edit.      

  

But for the time being, we are looking at a subject from the standpoint of the reader-editor. Have you ever read someone’s journal?  A journal is very “writer friendly.”  You write in it twenty minutes after dinner every night, for example.  On the other hand, let’s say a female friend has just landed a new job and she wants you to see what led up to it.  She asks you to read her journal entries for the last couple of weeks.  You then realize how “reader unfriendly” a journal can be.  Equal weight is given to trivial and important matters, you are locked in a boring “day-by-day” chronology, everything is seen from the journal writer’s point of view. How can we break out of this kind of monotonous pattern? The answer is to write in scenes, then alter the order of those scenes. Remember Principle #2 stated we should dramatize characters “rooted in scenes.” Principle #3 takes that concept one step further. 

 

Principle #3INVOLVE: The writer manipulates scenes to evoke emotional reactions from the reader.  Some techniques include: selection, juxtaposition, inversion, omission, and the alteration of time and perspective.  Surprise yourself.

 

 Scenes are vignettes that have cohesion in themselves, yet when strung together they create a whole that is even greater.  A scene has time, place, and a set number of characters.  Change any of these and you are technically into another scene.  Somewhere today a high school teacher is assigning the class to read six scenes of Shakespeare for homework; everyone will groan until one kid, who is counting the pages, realizes that some of the scenes are ridiculously short.  Every time a new character comes on stage or leaves there is a new scene.  But, doesn’t thake sense?  When we’re in a group and a person enters or someone leaves, don’t the dynamics change?   

  

Scenes are important for three reasons.  First, of all they ground the reader.  The reader knows where he or she is and who is there.  The reader doesn’t have to wonder about these essentials and can concentrate on what’s happening.  Second, because scenes are complete in themselves, they can be presented in a different way than in chronological order to achieve a certain effect, for example, to create suspense. I’m not talking about changing the order of the events, but changing the order in which those events are related to the reader. Third, the vantage point (moving the camera and tape recorder) within a point of view can be shifted subtly from one scene to another.