Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thoughts From the Slushpile: Withholding vs. Unfolding

...or Are You Writing a Christmas Present or a Game of Pinochle?

Hopefully you're NOT writing a Christmas present.

'Huh?' you say. 'But I like opening Christmas presents.'

Who doesn't?

But a Christmas present withholds information until the moment you open it to find out what it is. Writers should NEVER withhold information that is important to the development of the story. An artfully constructed story is not JUST about the present. But once you've opened a present all the carefully folded wrapping paper, the artfully tied bows, the layers of bubble wrap are all tossed in the trash, forgotten for the sake of the gift itself.

A writer doesn't want to have those things forgotten. He wants them to be just as memorable and important as the resulting present.

An example: I recently slushed a story in which the author withheld all the important information about the storyline and the main character until, literally, the last 2 paragraphs. I'm sure he intended it to be clever and surprising. Instead it was disappointing and misleading, and when you mislead your readers you betray their confidence in you, the writer. Sure, the ending was memorable, but the story showed itself to be just a bunch of cheap paper and curl ribbon.

So really, a well-constructed story should not be like a Christmas present, regardless of how wonderful presents are.

A well-constructed story SHOULD be like a game of Pinochle.

I've been playing Pinochle for coming up on thirty years. It's an intricate game of luck and strategy.

The game of Pinochle begins with the entire 48 card deck being dealt to the four players. At the beginning of each hand I hold 1/4th of the available cards. That's a considerable amount of information to begin a game with. From those 12 cards, a seasoned player can tell a great deal about how the game may play out. As the hand continues, I receive more bits of information gleaned from the bids of the other players, the suit called as trump, the exchange of cards, the melding of certain cards for points, all followed by the meticulous playing of tricks that ends the hand.

The game is never boring, often surprising, but instead of having information withheld from me, the information UNFOLDS at the precise moment when it is crucial to the game.

For example, if I take the bid and am able to construct myself a sizeable number of points, I still must remove the power cards from the hands of my opponents and win tricks in order to keep those points. While I know which cards I'm missing, I don't know for certain who has them. In some instances the very outcome of the game depends on the distribution of those cards, and the resulting play, whether for good or bad, is always a surprise and a delight, even though I've made good, educated guesses at the potential outcomes beforehand.

The interesting part of the game is not in KNOWING how the game will play out, nor is it in being COMPLETELY CLUELESS as to how the game will play out, it's in being fascinated with how the game--despite or because of my clues, information, and guesses--ACTUALLY plays out. The same is true of good story construction.

Unfolding. A story, like a game of Pinochle, should unfold.

In order for that to happen, a writer must be open about a few things, and open about them in the first few lines (paragraphs for longer stories or novels) of the story.

Some absolute basics:
*Too many writers withhold the very name of their main character. Why? I scratch my head over this one. When you give your character a name, especially in the first line of your story, you give your read a familiar arm on which to enter the party. It seems overly simplistic--like looking at the serpent on the staff. Unlike the disbelieving Israelites, JUST DO IT.

*Establish time frame and setting immediately. Don't take your guest into the party blindfolded.

*Establish a conflict early. Giving your main character a problem provides the reader with a 'talking point' at the party. He immediately becomes concerned with the main character and wants to see the problem solved (translate: he CARES).

*Open the story with action, rather than inaction. Don't take your guest into the party before it begins, or after all the exciting events have already taken place. Things HAPPEN at a party, your story should be about things happening, not about things that will eventually happen or have already happened.

These principles are like the deal at the beginning of a Pinochle game. You have your hand. Now let the story unfold.

Another important principle related to UNFOLDING a story has to do with Point of View. If you do not have a clear grasp on the mechanics and importance of Point of View to a story, you need to stop now, buy a copy of Orson Scott Card's Character and Viewpoint, and read it cover to cover three times.

Too many beginning writers fail to understand that your reader sees what's happening through your POV character's eyes, therefore, what the POV character knows, the reader should know. What the POV character discovers should be discovered by the reader at the exact same moment.

Lets say our POV character, Paul, walks into a room and sees a beautiful woman. Through his eyes, the reader is given a description of this woman--the kind of description that a man would give if he saw a stunningly beautiful woman and wished he had the courage to ask her for a date. He takes a deep breath, walks across the room, and says, "Hi, honey," she turns and kisses him and says to the people around her, "This is my husband, Paul." In this example a crucial piece of information that the POV character KNOWS is withheld--that the woman is his wife.

It's confusing, it's demeaning to your reader, it's withholding, and I see it far too often.

That scene should look like this:

Paul shook the rain from his hair as he entered the gallery. He saw Grace near the Gaugin, talking with a group of people he didn't know. She seemed to know them all, laughing with them like they were old friends, one of the men--an Armani-suited blonde jock-type--stood close enough anyone might have guessed HE was her husband.

A waiter came by with a tray of champagne flutes. Paul took one, sipped at it, stood there watching her. He liked watching her, to see her smile, to see her laugh, to know she would leave the gallery with him tonight, not the jock with the expensive suit.

Finally, like he knew she would, she turned to look for him, her neck craning, her lips parting, her head twisting this way and that, causing her hair to sway just so. When her eyes found his he smiled and waved, then worked his way through the crowd to put his arm around her, kiss her lightly on the cheek, and see her eyes light up when he whispered "I put your purse in the trunk" in her ear as if it were something sensual.

Grace turned to the jock. "Eddy, this is my husband, Paul."

Paul shook the man's hand.

"Paul," she went on, "my cousin, Eddy."

Before you tell me that last line is withholding, let me tell you you're wrong. Grace isn't the POV character. Paul is. Paul doesn't know Eddy, never met him. He knows (or guesses) only that Grace knows him, therefore that's what the reader knows. If this scene had been written in Grace or Eddy's POV, and that information had been withheld until that last sentence, then it definitely WOULD be withholding.

The following article [link below] addresses story development through conflict, and while it's geared towards literary fiction writers, it's precepts are applicable to all fiction writers. Pay special attention to section 2: Be Dramatic in Storytelling.

Conflict in Literary Fiction

1 comment:

Dan C. in NM said...

Thank you for this insight! I wrote a short story for a class several years ago. I polished it and had it perfect, or so I thought. It was drawn, quartered, burned, and thrown out to smolder during the peer evaluation process. I was upset and confused at the response from my critics but now I am learning.
Among the many problems within my story was hiding crucial information that my main character knew as well as making it clear that this character did not know certain things that were happening in his environment and within his own mind. The peer review was a disaster because the readers felt demeaned, insulted, and confused as to why they were not given these bits of information.
I think that story is still somewhere out there, still smoldering.