Sunday, April 24, 2011

In Medias Res -- what then?

Another Creative Writing I exercise. Again, these are students just beginning to learn something about the craft.

 Christine sat on the tacky pleather couch, her vision blurred by her heavily matted black makeup. It took her a minute realize what was happening when her friends began lowering their heads to the table. This was her first time in a nightclub; it was a night of a lot of firsts. Earlier that evening she slipped on a skin-tight sequin dress and dug her feet into a pair of much too high heels. All borrowed from Janessa. Christine knew any moment that the offer would come her way. She felt the sweaty hand of a stranger on her bare thigh and couldn’t help but picture her mother. Home in bed for hours now, no doubt. She imagined her mother was dreaming of her “perfect daughter” at her prestigious college, studying or finding a cure for some nefarious disease. Christine quickly brushed the thought from her mind. Her heart thumped heavily in time with the bass of the loud music as the stranger leaned in and whispered in her ear. And without another thought she took the rolled up dollar bill and followed suit.

This is from an exercise -- write a scene that uses action to develop or illuminate character. It might be the beginning of a story, it might not. But in either case, the paragraph plunges us into a situation.

One of the books I use in a beginning Creative Writing class is Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, by Barnaby Conrad, a novelist who also worked as secretary to Sinclair Lewis. Conrad has some good, workmanlike advice about the craft of fiction, particularly in a chapter on opening paragraphs. He presents, with examples, twelve different ways of starting a story. One of them is in medias res, "Rather than setting the scene or describing the situation in detail beforehand, the writer plunges the reader directly "into the middle of things."*

This student has started with in medias res, and here's what I said to her.

The in media res opening to a story, or a scene, can be very effective, but it has its pitfalls. What do you do next, after you've thrown your character -- and more importantly, your reader -- into the middle of the action?

This paragraph, unfortunately, is what you don't do. You can't then back up to the beginning and fill the reader in on everything. That kinda negates the whole point of in media res, which is to hit the ground running and let the reader know that she/he is going to have to run too, to catch up. It creates momentum, a sense of breathless excitement.

What if you just leave the exposition out?

Christine sat on the tacky pleather couch, her vision blurred by her heavily matted black makeup.  She felt the sweaty hand of a stranger on her bare thigh and couldn’t help but picture her mother. Home in bed for hours now, no doubt, dreaming of her perfect daughter finding a cure for some nefarious disease. Christine's heart thumped heavily in time with the bass of the loud music as the stranger leaned in and whispered in her ear. And without another thought she took the rolled up dollar bill and followed suit.

What do you think? How does it work for you now? It's all action, except for the imagined vision of her mother. And with all the exposition cut out, you have room for more action, more description, more development of that scene. You can maybe put the sequined dress back in -- I guess slit up the side, or a mini, to expose the thigh. I like slit up the side better, but that's just me. In any event, you can put her in the dress, and describe it, but describe it there -- don't take us back to earlier in the evening.

Remember the point of both of these exercises -- a scene with description of concrete detail, a scene with action -- is to use description and action to reveal and develop character. Is that happening here? With the exposition cleared out of the way, it's starting to.

What do you want to show in this scene? Christine's desire to go beyond her limits, some sense of what those limits are, some idea of her motivation, how she deals with the unknown becoming the actual? Probably something like that. But once you sort of know that, forget it. Get into the scene. What's happening? What is she doing? What are other people doing around her?

At first reading -- too much makeup, the hand on the thigh, the whisper in the air, the exchange of money -- I thought she was turning a trick for the first time. But then I realized no, she wouldn't be doing that for a dollar. She's doing a line. But still, the hand, the whisper -- there's dangerous sex lurking around the edges of this scene. Is she doing the line to enhance the experience? Or -- perhaps more interesting, because it's emotions in conflict -- because this is what she came for, but now she's not so sure it's what she wants, and she's using the cocaine as a way of putting it off? How would the action of the scene -- just this scene -- be different if it were the one or the other?

But, reiterating my point -- once you've got her in the room, with a strange hand on her thigh, it's too late to go back to exposition. You're in the scene, and you need to be there.


* I  discovered, checking Amazon, that Conrad has expanded this into a whole book -- 101 Best Beginnings Ever Written: A Romp Through Literary Openings for Writers and Readers. Looks good. Still, my favorite book on this subject is First Paragraphs: Inspired Openings for Writers and Readers, by Donald Newlove.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Trust the story

I'm going to be posting a few scenes from student writers. These are from Creative Writing 1 students, so they're a little raw, but they all have some value, and they all illustrate some points about writing.

Gillespie was half way down the street when he heard Gracie calling for him. “You are still going after Edwin, after what I had told you?”
“The stars can’t always be right, they couldn’t even give you the correct time of my arrival!” Gillespie triumphantly proclaimed. “That’s not the point you fool! Look at everything around you, nature and all its beauty. Are you willing to risk never being able to appreciate this?” Gracie asked as she held her arms open and had her palms pointing up towards the sky. In that moment, Gillespie’s focus was caught by a butterfly, floating towards shrubberies with hummingbirds suspended at their blossoms. All the colors -- red, pink, blue, turquoise, orange -- overwhelmed him as he felt a lump in his throat approaching. A family of deer were grazing peacefully on the foliage in the background under the shade of the deciduous forest that Gillespie was on the outskirts of. In that same instance, Gracie and Gillespie caught sight of a pack of wolves stalking the deer under the cover of the forest, waiting for the right time to strike. Like a bolt of lightning, the wolves pounced on their prey, ambushing from every direction, tearing the deer limb from limb. With admiration for the grotesque carnage, Gillespie regained focus and remembered Edwin’s favorite place to hang out. A little bar by the docks called The Lone Wolf. He felt even more ready as the only thing on his mind was taking back what Edwin had stole from him: his dignity.
“See Gracie, in order to truly appreciate nature in all its beauty, you also must bear witness some of nature’s atrocities.” Gillespie said as he walked off, in search of his culprit. “Yes, but are you the witnessing an atrocity or are you the atrocity?” Gracie said to herself as Gillespie walked.

The point here -- trust the story. As much as you can, let it tell itself -- don't feel that you constantly have to step in and explain it. For instance:

You don't need to tell us that "Gracie and Gillespie caught sight of" -- we know they're there, and we know we're seeing what they're seeing. We don't need to be told that it's grotesque carnage, we can see it. And we don't need to be told Gillespie admires it -- we get that from the dialog. We don't need to be told Gillespie regains focus -- we see him regaining it.

Also "triumphantly proclaimed" and "In that moment" -- just keep remembering you don't have to give the reader all those signposts -- the story will do it.

You have all the good stuff here -- you just need to trust it.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Thoughts on writing

·  David Mamet states that human beings do not "communicate our wishes to each other, but we communicate to achieve our wishes from each other. We do not speak the desire but speak that which is most likely to bring about the desire."
People may or may not say what they mean... but they always say something designed to get what they want.
·  Italo Calvino: "Both in art and in literature, the function of the frame is fundamental. It is the frame that marks the boundary between the picture and what is outside. It allows the picture to exist, isolating it from the rest; but at the same time, it recalls--and somehow stands for--everything that remains out of the picture. I might venture a definition: we consider poetic a production in which each individual experience acquires prominence through its detachment from the general continuum, while it retains a kind of glint of that unlimited vastness."

·  Howard Hawks, on what makes a great movie: “Three great scenes. No bad scenes.”
·  F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Start with a person in mind and you can create a character, but start with a character (stereotype) in mind and you create nothing.”

· Raymond Chandler:  “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

·  Kurt Vonnegut:
Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.