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The Mysteries of Character

An agent recently told me during a face-to-face, and concerning a manuscript of mine he was looking at, "You're telling too much at the beginning. It's an information dump. Spread out the back ground stuff, maybe over something like the first fifty pages."

You always give the agent the benefit of the doubt, right? He or she knows more than you about how to structure a saleable story, right? I recently read another article in The Writer's Chronicle that made me think long and hard about that. As a result, I came to the conclusion that this well-intentioned agent was wrong, or at the very least, his comments were irrelevant.

He was treating my story (from the first 30 or so pages  he saw) as if it were a puzzle to be solved, as one might in a conventional mystery, or as what's often done in some suspense novels. Where he was right was in cases where plot prevails over character. That is, each bit of external information doled out gives the reader a clue to anticipating the plot's next big surprise.

Images

image via writersbreak.com 

But my story is one of character clothed in a suspense plot. Meaning, these external bits of data are essentially a "cloud" about the characters, nothing more than pin pricks to stir the characters to interact. It's the story of two old friends caught up in a terroristic plot, the two seeming on opposite sides of the law. But that's not really the case; as far as these two are concerned, the terror plot simply complicates their friendship. There's ideology involved, sure, but it's way second banana to their trying to manage a difficult friendship. 

And that's what Steven Schwartz is driving at in the article I mentioned, "The Absence of Their Presence." Whether you choose a first- or a third-person narrator to spin your yarn - and Schwartz gives examples from the works of authors ranging from Joseph Conrad to Tim O'Brien that - and I'm quoting O'Brien - "The object is not to 'solve' a character - to expose some hidden secret - but instead to deepen and enlarge the riddle itself." In my case, and in the case of virtually all character-driven works, the riddle is the characters and their relationship.

Have you ever had a somewhat difficult friendship - or a marriage - in which some rising action resulted in a crisis moment in which the relationship was resolved - forever and a day? No? Didn't think so.

In my story's case, I could, as the agent suggested, dole out informative background bits over a greater number of pages, but as long as I don't let the "info dump" bog down the flow of action or lead it into a digression, I'm probably okay. In other words, after four hundred words of text, it wouldn't've mattered how I sprayed background over my characters (yes, given that the action gently rises to a climax, and briefly falls after that), because the project is to portray characters in all their inconsistency, their mystery.

It's a postmodern chestnut to leave a story with an incomplete, muddy ending, allowing the reader to participate. But in real life, that's the way it always is with characters. Your job as a writer - and yours, too, dear reader - is to note the depth and range of the characters' personalities, some of that spelled out in the story, but much, much more left in the literary cloud of unknowing, but appreciated nonetheless.

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Information dump

Hooking a reader into reading your fiction is a delicate process.

Although you, as a writer, have to know a great deal about the background of your story, every fact that does not appear to be incidental to your story slows down the story itself. 

Every time you slow down your story, you slow down your reader.

Every time you slow down your reader, you run the risk of losing your reader. 

Keeping the story moving, and clarity, are tremendously important, no?

 

 

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Info dump

Yep to all that.

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Faulkner's Influence

You've obviously too thoroughly "absorbed" (perhaps unconsciously) Faulkner's style, right?  Wasn't he the master  info dumper and digresser?

More seriously, your blog is a nugget of what to do and not to do in narrative writing.  You've accomplished in several paragraphs what takes some writing gurus a whole volume to do. 

Best wishes for the New Year.

 

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Faulkner, Mood and Tone

Mind if I quote you on that?

Seriously, you're right about Faulkner, at least to a point. At first blush, he did seem to digress a lot, and his narratives aren't particularly smooth, what with his collapsing back in time as much as he did. I think he did what he did to leave a "feeling" with the reader, a mood that was part story, part character, and partly in the telling itself. 

I think what G. Kasten (above) is driving at has more to do with structure than with mood. G's comments are mostly to do with keeping the reader in mind. Structure can be one of the tools a writer uses to create mood (certainly Faulkner does). As such, think about this: first of all, a reader must be willing to enter the writer's world. How long (# pages) is the reader going to give the writer to do that? Again, that's a moving target, based mostly on the reader's mood and/or her familiarity with the writer. 

Harry Crews is reputed to have said something along the lines of this: the first sentence of a novel should tell the story in miniature. Unconsciously, the reader recognizes this, and accepts or rejects purchasing the book based on this (a very rudimentary psychoanalysis of the reader).

Look at the first sentence of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying - - "Jewel and I came up from the field, following the path in single file." Does he abide by Crews' advice, as I clumsily cited it? Not really. It's more a case of setting the scene. But it's also the first inkling of mood.

Now, from one of Faulkner's more accessible works, Sanctuary: "From beyond the screen of bushes which surrounded the spring, Popeye watched the man drinking." Here, he's pretty much with Crews. Mood is here, of course, but its sublimated to story.

Then look at the first sentence of Absalom, Absalom! I won't quote it; it goes on for twelve lines in my copy of the book. But here he's in sync with Crews - via a massive info dump - but one that firmly establishes both mood and tone. G. would be the first to agree, though, that Absalom is one of Faulkner's least accessible works, but I'm not sure that's because of the first page or so, which are relatively coherent. 

In each of these cases, Faulkner has left the door to his created world ajar for the reader in different ways.

My stuff? I think the issue with the mss in question is more one of tone than of mood. A good bit less subtle than with the master of Southern fiction.

Mood and tone...hmmm...anyone want to jump on those terms here? If not, it might make a good 2012 blog post.

Thanks for the generous comments, Brenden, and best of 2012 wishes back atcha.

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With your permission, after

With your permission, after reading your earlier blog on Faulkner and your blog and reply here,  I'm recording on my Red Room transcript at least one credit in Faulkner graduate studies and one credit in narrative writing!   Be well. 

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With your permission, after

With your permission, after reading your earlier blog on Faulkner and your blog and  reply here,  I'm recording on my Red Room transcript at least one credit in Faulkner graduate studies and one credit in narrative writing.  Be well. 

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Awww!

:-)

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detail, it's all in the detail

'It's a postmodern chestnut to leave a story with an incomplete, muddy ending, allowing the reader to participate. But in real life, that's the way it always is with characters. Your job as a writer - and yours, too, dear reader - is to note the depth and range of the characters' personalities, some of that spelled out in the story, but much, much more left in the literary cloud of unknowing, but appreciated nonetheless.'

Seems not to be the case in American manuscripts.  An Aussie friend who has 8 or 9 novels published in multiple languages is forced by her American publisher to change the endings on her books...so as not to leave any 'cloud of unknowing'.  American movies tend also in this direction.

I know your initial post was on 'beginnings' not 'endings' but the same seems to be true there. 

What ever happened to 'discovery' - Ondaatje's The English Patient is a fav. First line —'She stands up in the garden where she's been working and looks into the distance.' I suppose the reader looks with her and that may be the point.  Of course, being an poet of considerable talent Ondaatje may well have simply been pointing us to the last sentence of the book that I would offer here if I had a copy of same.

I concur that your blog post is valuable and succinct..wishes for a prosperous new year.

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Where I Leave It

Thanks for the comment, Annielaurel, and you're right about the U.S. pub biz. What the agent I talked to was trying to do was have me conform to the American, plot-driven formula and, while I was willing to make some changes to the story's beginning, I resisted the character-subject-to-plot issue. That's what readers of popular, max-selling fiction want here, of course. Even so, some writers, like Dennie Lehane and Tim O'Brien, can write character-driven novels that are also big on plot (what I endeavor to do), but they already have a big following, so they get away with it.

I don't really think agents and editors give readers enough credit; I've had readers of my stuff say, "You're setting up a sequel, aren't you?" I think about that for a moment, and tell them, no, I just want the story to end where I left it. Eventually, they're okay with that. So they're more open to literary ambiguity - they're just not able to find much of it in popular fiction.

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