Monday, November 19, 2012

More reasons for this action at our more leisure shall I render you.

Somewhere in the Poetics, Aristotle reminds us that action is character. It's through watching fictional people moving through the world that the reader experiences who these fictional people are. Curiously enough, however, the specific actions taken by fictional characters within fictional narratives might not be all that important, as long as we're shown how the characters react to/interact with the world. The small acts, maybe, tell us more about someone than the grand actions occuring at major plot points where the story structure hinges. I think I'm rambling. Let's try again.

I'm closing in on the final section of my work-in-progress, Mona in the Desert. One of the conceits of this particular narrative is that certain specific actions/events are going to recur throughout the length of the narrative, in different times and places with different characters. These actions/events will have different dramatic purpose and meaning in each instance, and the characters will reveal themselves in different ways in each instance. For example, the narrator, the title character and at least two other characters will come unexpectedly upon clearings in forests, or similar settings. The two main sister characters of the story will repeat each other's speeches, separated by decades. And so on.

My intention had been to make sure I used these repeated images/actions/events in each chapter, but I seem, in the last couple of chapters, to have concentrated on just two of these motifs and I've forgotten what most of my repetitive images were supposed to be. What I'm going to do over the next couple of days is go through the first ten chapters and make a list of scenes I want to reprise during the last couple of chapters of the book. I really had no structure in mind when I began writing this thing, and so the narrative shape is a lot like balls being juggled, with some balls in the air more often than others. To my surprise a single story line has emerged as the central plot and I've been serving that story line while letting the others come and go in bits and bobs and that's not quite what I thought I'd be doing. So I'm putting the brakes on for a moment while I make something of a plan, or at least a list, of things I want to include in the narrative's last 20,000 or so words.

It might seem odd that I'm not creating the action first, or really giving much thought to how the actions will tie into the plots, but I have realized that what the actions taken by characters are is far less important than why they take those actions. This is easy in a book like Mona in the Desert, because I'm not talking about big plot-point actions like slaying a dragon or filing for a divorce or leaving home forever. I'm talking about things like stumbling across a clearing in a wood, or walking as a family across a neighborhood, or going on a field trip or the like. The more of these shared actions in this book, the better, because I want the reader to suspect that the narrator is unsure who did these things and is likewise unsure about the meaning of these anecdotes he tells. So whenever the reader says, "Hey, didn't so-and-so do this in 1963? this can't be right," I've done my job correctly. Is that a spoiler? Pretend I never said that.

Anyway, all of this seems to be a continuation of the project I began in my very first novel, way back 20 years ago, where I started playing with the idea that character actions in and of themselves are meaningless, and it's context that provides meaning. So over the years I've had lines of dialogue pass back and forth between speakers with the meaning changed depending on who speaks it, and I've had symbols appear at different times in narratives with the meaning changed depending on placement of the symbol (oh, that's just a classical use of irony, you see), and I've been doing it with character actions for a few books now, too. The actions, the plots, belong to everybody in the narrative, but the meanings belong to individual characters. Sort of. Is that another spoiler? Maybe. But you can't really spoil postmodern literature. And by the time this little book of mine sees the light of day, we'll all have forgotten about this post. Which is maybe why I'm writing it.


  1. Which is why you're writing what?

    This all sounds really cool, Scott. When you describe it, I think a little bit of Murakami, but what you're doing sounds significantly different than Murakami. I think I'm making the connection because both of you are making your own logic, and that's interesting to me.

  2. I just realized that it's just Shakespeare again, the way he used images over and over in a play but applied the image to different characters so the audience would see ideas from a variety of angles. Like in "Hamlet," you have multiple sets of fathers and sons, and you have many dead fathers, and you have Hamlet pretending madness because of his father's death but you also have Ophelia's genuine madness because of her father's death, and you have three instances of poisoning, and all sorts of other parallel images going on, each appearance of the image having a different meaning. Really, I never seem to get far from Shakepseare.

    Also, I'm trying to create a structure out of all this, because I worry that the narrative has no real shape.

  3. And I still have no idea what Murakami's doing in his books. He baffles me.

  4. Don't you love how a book just does whatever the hell it wants? Somewhere along the line I stop feeling like the driver and more like the passenger. I'm totally writing down your spoilers and keeping them handy for when I read the book ... ;)

    As far as themes and motifs, I have to read my books about 15 times so I can make sure I get it all even and flowing through to the end. Making a list never seems to work.

  5. You start out as a writer not knowing what you're doing and then you start working deliberately, thinking about every aspect of the craft until you reach a point where the lessons about craft have been absorbed so well that it's all intuitive. And then it feels, once again, like you have no idea what you're doing.