trick

Unspooling, and the story of now

Of late, I have the word unspooling unspooling in my head. It occurs to me as I type that perhaps this longtime obsessive habit of hearing words, bits of sentences, and lines from stories in my inner ear, is, um, not normal. Is this one of the dangers of reading that “they” warn about? Is this what happens after years of mainlining coffee and diet cola? Should I be worried about my fondness for the smell of pennies? Par example, the other day, as I frowned at the back of a woman who raced to cut me off in a return line at a dread suburban WorstPurchase, a line from Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” popped in: “Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptive crybaby in front of him.” Then parts of that looped in my head for awhile — conceived his own towering hatred, presumptive crybaby— even though I didn’t by any means hate this woman (although maybe I wished that she had tripped over a display of coaxial cables, but then I noticed her cheap jeans and the acne scars on her chin, and I thought, What if she’s in a hurry because she’s got a sick kid at home?, and I got so depressed at my pettiness that I promptly purchased an overpriced HDMI cable).

Anyhoo! Unspool. I’ve actually been thinking of it in terms of storytelling, its connection to film: as a reel unspools, the images are projected to the screen, et voila: a story comes to life. On the page, I suppose, this would be unfold. (For digital formats, no spooling, so: uploads? plays? or just projects?) The words seem to suggest an unhurried pace, and for a reader or viewer, that is how it works, even in a fast-paced, action-filled story: the story arrives frame by frame, scene by scene, page by page. We absorb the story in small pieces, splice it together in our minds. In a film, of course, the movie time controls the viewer’s experience; in a book, the reader is in charge of the time-frame.

From the writer’s perspective, creating that sense of pacing, time and movement is work, a essential part of the art of storytelling. To recount literal chronological time, including biographies and histories, settings, actions, changes, decisions — all of the facts and details involved in the story’s past and present — would not only take lots of page space (time), it also likely would be overwhelming, exhausting, and, ultimately, snooze-inducing. In fact, a writer has very little time, both in the sense of space (page/film length) and in keeping readers/viewers’ attention, to convey a story.

Instead, great movement in a story depends on selection and a balance of expansion and compression (scenes and summary). The trick — ah, the tricky trick — is knowing what to select and what to expand and compress to create what I like to the think of as the story of now.

To reach that point of decision, the writer’s first work is — ta da! — to discover as much about the characters and worlds and events as possible. But not all of that information, or even much of it, makes it to the page. That’s Hemingway’s famed “iceberg theory” from his interview with George Plimpton in The Paris Review: “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.”

Here’s a great example of selection and balance, from the Alfonso Cuaron film Children of Men (adapted from the P.D. James novel):

That opening scene is doing tremendous work: With those newscasters’ voices against the black screen, viewers immediately hush and listen. When the image arises, showing us a crowd of viewers, all riveted and anguished, we are thrust into tension/crisis, as we learn along with those in the story that the youngest person on planet has died. Simultaneously (simultaneity: one of the writer’s greatest tools), we learn the basic facts about the time, place, and strangeness of the world. Then in walks Clive Owen’s character, pushing through crowd (who the heck is this, and why is he unphased?) We follow him out the door as we listen, puzzling: where are we? Outside, it’s London – recognizable but in the future (we are given, perhaps unnecessarily, a non-diegetic date to affirm what we already know). We see and hear the noise of streets, the grittiness: We follow Owen’s character, who takes out a flask to doctor his coffee, an immensely characterizing action. And then: boom. Conflict/tension, action, characterization, setting, exposition, immediacy, suspense, tone/atmosphere: and all in 2 minutes and 27 seconds.

Imagine if this film had started with everything that had happened to get us to a time when there were no young people on the planet: a narrative “info dump” (aka lots of exposition), the actual “beginning” that led us to the present. That is a choice, but probably a sluggish one, even though the writer certainly knows every in and out of how we got here. Instead, we are dropped into a day of crisis spawned by those other many events. We start with the story of now.

A major question, always, for the writer is where to begin. Another question, which I believe I originally encountered from Margot Livesey, can be useful in solving that conundrum: What is the occasion for the story? Or, Why now? Why today? In this story’s case, the occasion is that the youngest person on the planet has died. BUT: that isn’t what the story is about. Not exactly. We don’t know yet what will come, but since we are plunged into an immediate world of tension and suspense, we are willing to find out.

(A side note: the book from which the film is adapted is told as a diary. The first entry starts with the same event, along with many other details about the diary writer/narrator: http://www.amazon.com/The-Children-Men-P-D-James/dp/0307275434#reader_0307275434. That form — a written form — would be nearly impossible to translate to the screen, but choices for adaptation are another post, I suppose. Still, James knew where to start her story. Not a diary from childhood, but one whose genesis is tied to the occasion. After that, though, the story on the page unfolds with a lot of exposition. Technically, James’ premise of the diary allows for this sort of reflection, but as a reader I’m always leery/overwhelmed/worn out when I’m asked to take in so much exposition at once. Others may have different responses.)

Okay, I believe I have unspooled my rambly thoughts enough for one day. I’ll stop before I latch onto another phrase looping in my brain: Now is the winter of our discontent. (But, seriously, Winter: Can you give it a rest now?)

 

These aren’t the droids: The feint of fiction

Confession: I recently re-watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back — or as I call them, Princess Leia Buns and Princess Leia Braids. Much to TW’s chagrin, I now have been walking around the house imitating Obi-Wan’s Jedi mind trick, complete with that awesome hand sweep: These aren’t the chips you’re looking for. These aren’t the ice cream sandwiches you’re looking for. I also asked him, “Don’t you have a Boba Fett doll?” He stared at me. “It’s not a doll.” I think he’s regretting his decision to invite me to that particular viewing party.

Aside from making me remember that I rode my Gold Fever Huffy (hello, handlebar tassles!) down to the one movie theater in my small Arizona town to stand in line to see it, that droid scene has made me think about fiction-writing and all of its myriad trickeries.

I really should just post Tim O’Brien’s wondrous essay “The Magic Show” here and be done with it. Seriously. Here’s one passage: “For a writer, and for a reader, the process of imaginative knowing does not depend upon the scientific method. Fictional characters are not constructed of flesh and blood, but rather of words, and those words serve as explicit incantations that invite us into and guide us through the universe of the imagination. Language is the apparatus—the magic dust—by which a writer performs his miracles. Words are uttered: ‘By and by,’ Huck says, and we hear him. Words are uttered: ‘We went tip-toeing along a path amongst the trees,’ and we see it. Beyond anything, I think, a writer is someone entranced by the power of language to create a magic show of the imagination, to make the dead sit up and talk, to shine light into the darkness of the great human mysteries.”

Seriously.

O’Brien also emphasizes the mystery that lies at the heart of this writing trickery, and I think that is what appeals to me about my jimmy-rigged Star Wars-fiction-writing analogy: Obi-Wan makes Luke (and us, the audience) believe because his trick is mysterious. We see the reality before our eyes: They are the droids! They are! Nonetheless, they are utterly fooled, and we blink in amazement. We see the trick performed, but we don’t understand it — and not understanding, counter-intuitively, is at the very core of why we believe.

Yet, the trick is no easy sleight of hand. Finding that exact language, as powerful and mesmerizing as it might be, gets complicated by each story that we set out to tell. I am thinking now about my current project, in which one of the characters is a young woman living in the mid-to-late 19th century American South. (I have written some about my imperfect process, including here.) As I (re)imagine her world, the choice of language suddenly becomes alien — because it is not my present language. She does not speak in this time or place. My trick is to make the reader believe that she is absolutely of that time and place. At the same time, she must be a fully fleshed-out character, with desires and longings and peculiarities and flaws, who speaks in her own specific voice.

In other words, to poorly mix a metaphor, I have a lot of Jedi mind tricks to pull out my little writing hat. Which means another kind of belief: in myself. And that’s the trickiest one of all.