Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Drawing Attention to Things

I've read a bunch of short stories in the last couple of months, and over the last week, I've had the interesting experience of editing a bunch of short stories all written by different people. One thing I've noticed is that many writers have the same technical difficulties.* That's not surprising, considering that we're all trying to do more or less the same thing (writers like Lydia Davis notwithstanding).

I've noticed particularly that writers are having difficulty emphasizing passages in their stories, and I've seen similar techniques attempted to draw attention to things, techniques that don't quite work. There are two ways writers tend to accent passages: set the line off typographically, or turn up the amplitude on the prose.

Typographical emphasis:
What I mean by this is when a writer makes a sentence or a sentence fragment into a paragraph of its own. You've seen it before, I'm sure. The story is going along, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

And then there's this sentence.

The story then continues, blah blah blah blah blah. This tactic generally fails, for two reasons. The first reason is that we've all seen this done a bunch of times before. It's a cliché and so it doesn't surprise us (and therefore doesn't move us emotionally). The second reason this fails is because it likely doesn't solve the real problem in the story's structure. More on that in a minute.

High-amplitude prose:
What I mean by this is when a writer wraps the bit of prose they want to emphasize up in florid or ecstatic or frenetic language, to heighten the emotional intensity of the passage. You know, the story is going along and Johnny walked down the corridor, moving against the tide of his fellow students, making his way to his locker. He had only a minute before his next class began and he was in a hurry. Johnny found his locker, spun open the combination lock and found his chemistry text. As he angrily slammed the uncaring locker shut, he heard the metal hinges' high-pitched squeaking that scraped tinnily with all the rushing agony he felt for his young life, a miniscule wail lost in the terrific indifferent din of the echoey corridor and so on and so forth for fifty or sixty words and really Johnny's just slamming his locker door but we want to show that he's upset.

This doesn't usually work because in general there's a stylistic shift into the purplest of prose and the actual meaning of the sentence gets buried under all the modifiers and editorializing. In the sentence above, every noun has at least one adjective, every verb at least one adverb, and I'm also telling you how Johnny felt and about what. More effective would be "Johnny slammed his locker door." Really it would, especially if you've solved the structural problems of emphasis.

I promised to talk about structure, didn't I? Yes, I see that I did. Anyway, the biggest failure when writers attempt to emphasize something is structural. It's not the sentence's fault that it doesn't jump off the page the way you want. You need to leave that sentence alone. There are two good rules that I try to follow when I want to emphasize a passage:

1. Use the simplest, plainest language I can in the emphasized passage, because it's the story event that I am trying to highlight, not my godlike prose style.

2. Prepare the event in the preceding passages.

Rule Number 1 is very important, and you can easily lose momentum by throwing a lot of poesy prosey at your victims readers at an important moment. Be clear. Focus. Let the characters and the premise and the emotion carry the moment. If your characters and premise and emotions can't carry the moment by itself, you have probably ignored Rule Number 2.

The thing is, a story is an object. It's a thing, that takes up space and has a discrete size and a set beginning, middle and end. It's right there on the page; you can see it for yourself. And within this object are traffic patterns and forces at motion. You've put them there yourself. Sometimes the forces don't go anywhere, or they don't go in the direction you want. This means that your story is broken.

This object of a story should have a single most important moment in it. It can be the Joycean "epiphanic moment" where the protagonist sees something and his life is forever changed. Or it can be simply the moment where the central conflict of the story is either resolved or not, the "crisis moment." Whatever you're doing, be it Joyce-style or Chekhov-style, you should know what the One Big Moment in your story is. And all of your storytelling should aim to set up that moment. The prose on either side of that moment should not muddy the issues, should not lessen that moment, should not for God's sake comment upon that moment. If the moment you're going for does not stand out, does not create emotion in your reader, you should look at the shape of the story. You should look for movement within your story that contradicts what you're attempting. You should look for vagueness that muddles the meaning of your One Big Moment. Don't just look at your Moment, look at the whole story. Very likely, the sentence you are laboring over for hours and hours is not the real problem.

It's hard to really illustrate this without an actual example or two, I know, but time is short and I have stuff to do at the office, so I'll just leave you where you are. The structural lessons are hardest to learn, so if you're just starting out writing stories, I push Rule Number 1 at you and suggest you work with that for a few stories.

*Or, perhaps, I have aesthetic differences with most writers and I label those differences "areas to improve" in other writers.

23 comments:

  1. No, not rules! I hate rules! :)

    I agree with you on all of this, especially #1. But I'll admit I've used the sentence-alone-to-emphasize error, if it is an error. I'm always aware when I do it, so I'm sure it's working for what I've written, but perhaps not. I've seen it done poorly, and I've done it poorly before. Learning when to break paragraphs is an art form in and of itself, and one I think is often overlooked.

    You say: "This object of a story should have a single most important moment in it."

    This is exactly why I adore short stories.

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  2. I think the only time this has really been done well was in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the chapter that is the single sentence "My mother is a fish." In all other instances, I think I'd restructure the story. I don't know if I felt that strongly about it a few weeks ago, but I do now.

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  3. I'll be paying more attention to it as I immerse myself in all these revisions as of late. :)

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    1. And, you know, maybe it's just a style thing in some cases. I just know that in a lot of stories I've seen lately, it doesn't work. I can't swear that I don't do it myself. I'll have to have a look and think about it some more!

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  4. I think what you describe is definitely a good way of hitting the high point, Scott. Whenever this strategy works well, I am blown away by the power it can have. Other techniques can also work. Even the two techniques you describe first, in my opinion. I think of a lot of instances where the single line got a great reaction from me as a reader.

    I keep trying to escape the concept of having a high point in a story, but every time I ended up needing one again. But I will break the mold, I declare!

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    1. I want to write a story that's nothing but high points. I think that's impossible, though. Very little successful art has no contrast, I think.

      I'm willing to bet that if you look at stories where the single line was effective, you'll find that the story's been successfully shaped to point to that sentence. Setting a line off typographically doesn't automatically give it dramatic emphasis, is my point.

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    2. Yeah, that makes more sense, putting it that way. Just changing the format isn't going to fix the writing if it's not already working.

      Why isn't anyone commenting on this post? It's such a good post! I guess it's always fun to just sit in the room and talk amongst ourselves, eh? :)

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    3. Yeah, and talking to you two makes me feel less crazy than talking to myself. Unless, of course, you both don't exist, and I've somehow made you up. That would be funny if I spent all this time thinking I was blogging with a group only to find out I was crazy.

      P.S. Tara Maya has a nice post on character-driven fiction versus plot-driven fiction. It's funny and smart.

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    4. Tara Maya's post is funny and smart. Michelle and I are figments of your imagination, but we'll be sad if you stop imagining us.

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    5. You won't be sad. That's a test.

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    6. You can only test this by imagining us, and we're never sad when you're imagining us.

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    7. Even if you imagine us as sad, we're secretly happy to have your attention.

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    8. I don't know why, but I get some sort of secret thrill out of thinking I'm a figment of your imagination, Davin. You have such a lovely imagination. Scott and I are proof of that. :)

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  5. I think no one's commenting because we're all too busy reading over our stories to see if we have these areas that need improving. And then we're hanging our heads in shame when we realize there's not just one but a few one sentence paragraphs in our stories. I'm not talking about my self of course.

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    1. Mary, I did the exact same thing. Scott is like my drunken father: unpredictably demanding with a taste for physical violence. I joke.

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    2. I'm predictably demanding. Have you done the god-damned dishes yet?

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    3. Mary, I did the exact same thing. Do not feel bad. :)

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  6. I'd say it's hard to right a post like this, hitting so many nails on the head with one whack, and so I commend you. And I'll be looking for those one-sentence paragraphs!

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