Monday, May 25, 2015

Emblematic Scenes: Your story in miniature

Books and movies have scenes and sequences that live forever in our memories. Some of these are climaxes. Great beginnings, especially those that vividly introduce characters, can also stay with us. And, occasionally, a grand level of spectacle can have that kind of an impact.

But, there are also I scenes I hold onto that are none of these. I call them “emblematic” scenes, I’m still exploring what these are, how they are put together and what they mean to me, so I may say more in the future.

An emblematic scene consists of four elements:

  • The protagonist (or a stand-in)
  • The antagonist (made substantial in some way)
  • An expression of the story question (often demonstrating both the external and internal conflicts)
  • Failure

It is the whole story in miniature, with a clear example of what happens if the protagonist fails.

For instance, Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, because he defies tradition and convention, saves a man who is left behind in the desert. This shocks everyone and hints at the catalytic power he has to transform the Arab people. He just needs to follow his own understanding of reality and get others to follow his lead. But the saved man falls directly into a habit of stealing from a rival tribe and law says he must be executed. If he is executed by someone from the aggrieved tribe, the fighting force will split before they achieve their objective, so Lawrence puts himself into the tradition and does the conventional thing – he execute the man himself. It’s a clever, pragmatic solution that highlights how damaging clever, pragmatic solutions (from the British and French) are and how vulnerable the Arabs are to manipulation because they are locked into tradition.

Can Lawrence overcome tradition to forge an Arab nation and create a place for himself (an outcast in the West, based on his illegitimate status). Lawrence (protagonist) faces tradition, grapples with it head on with success, only to have it reemerge and vanquish him. His role as executioner only works because he is an outsider/outcast. He keeps the tribes together for an eventual victory, but he strengthens tradition and exposes his outsider status, frustrating his need to belong.

I love it.

There are lots of examples like this in the novels and films I reference in my life and in my writing. (As an example of a stand-in, in An Officer and a Gentleman, Zack Mayo’s reflection, Sid, proposes marriage to his girl, is turned down, and kills himself. Again, this is the story in miniature, with a tragic ending.)

Emblematic scenes add power to a story. They highlight the main elements, create concern for the audience/reader, and express the theme.

There are three things I’ve noticed that get in the way of what could be emblematic scenes, and I’m looking for them in my own writing now.

First, an element might be missing or unclear. If you look at all of the ones that work, it is easy to discover the elements – there is no ambiguity.

Second, these scenes and sequences are spare. There is nothing extra. There are no distractions. Everything is trimmed away except what’s necessary.

Third, they do not hold back. In the two examples, characters die and it is extraordinarily painful for the protagonists. The hero is put through hell itself, not a near equivalent. Failure is much more than unpleasant or inconvenient. It almost brings the journey to an abrupt end.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Lost in the Story 2 – Creating immersive experiences in fiction

Last time, working from the thesis that getting totally engaged in the story is a huge part of success in fiction, I began an exploration of how writers can achieve this. Four elements – a good foundation (meaning avoiding mistakes that can distract), sensory details (in the right measure), emotion (especially concern for the protagonist), and verisimilitude -- were important, if not essential. 

This doesn’t mean you can't cheat a little. A screenwriter once told me that even great movies often have one or two major plot holes. But he cautioned that these usually came after the viewers were committed to the story, and going beyond the allowed two probably would have been fatal to the story.
Commitment for readers, viewers, and writers can come from a number of sources, and that’s what I’ll look at this time.
Hooks, cliffhangers, and surprises—When readers want to know what happens next, they keep reading. The classic way to achieve this at the end of a scene or a chapter is by putting a character in jeopardy. This can be a character we like whom we do not want to come to harm or a character we hate whom we want to get his/her comeuppance.
A hook, on the other hand, is usually at the beginning and relies more on raising questions. (A hook may show up at the end of the first paragraph, in the first sentence, or in the title.) Usually, the question comes from an intriguing situation, like an old boyfriend showing up or the discovery of a treasure map. But it can also come from an odd juxtaposition, like a nine-year-old in a class of law students. Dead bodies make good hooks.
Surprises are one of the delights of fiction. The “I didn’t see that coming” experience can keep a reader turning pages if it is justified. A key reason is that, as we read, we define the story world and project it into the future. We expect something else and a forced into reevaluating the story when we are surprised. Of course, if the surprise isn’t properly set up or is less interesting than what was imagined, you’ve started an argument with your reader. By presenting something that is unfair or disappointing, you’ve created the opposite of an immersive experience. That’s when readers put the story down.
We find the best hooks, cliffhangers, and surprises memorable, and they often occur at turning points in a story. But don’t discount raising smaller questions or defying expectations in less crucial ways. Engaging the curiosity of readers is a powerful way to keep readers involved with the story. In fact, many of the discussions people have about popular novels and movies can end up being about (dramatically minor) unanswered questions. Yes, writers do fail to tie up some loose ends intentionally, but often items deemed unimportant become fodder for fans. The point is, people get involved in questions throughout a story. And the questions do not need to be momentous.
Of course, the story question has to be big enough to carry the reader (or viewer) through the whole work. In fact, Resolution, which is one of the essential ingredients of a good ending, depends on answering the story questions. As I wrote in an earlier blog entry, “People want to know if the protagonist succeeded, partially, succeeded, or failed. Most satisfying endings answer this question.
On another level, the story could have a moral question that grows out of the theme. On a basic level, readers want justice to triumph. And they will hang in there to see if it does.
Momentum and investment—The screenwriter mentioned that holes can appear late. This is because the audience has already put time, emotional energy, and attention into the story. Despite head-spinning flaws, they want to see how things turn out. Sheer momentum will carry readers and viewer through to the end in many cases, but writers need to be very cautious with this. The more that last act puts the audience under duress, the more the writer depends on their generosity, the bigger the ending needs to be. The payoff needs to be exceptional, or the writer will not be forgiven.
Charm—I was reminded of this as I read a contest entry this week. It had no story question in the first three chapters. The characters were nothing special. And, while there were no fatal mechanical mistakes (misspellings, grammatical errors, factual problems), neither were their points of real jeopardy or wondrous sensory experiences. But I couldn’t stop reading. It all came down to the voice, which was confident, sure, and… charming.
Obviously, on a page, charm does not emerge from physical presence. Good looks and pheromones don’t figure in. The face-to-face techniques of charm (like showing interest in you, with questions and body language) aren’t available. Why was I entranced?
A few things come to mind. The confidence I mentioned was important. I never got the idea that the writer was struggling for the right word, forcing a situation, or fumbling as she balanced the elements of prose. Through the work, I felt the writer and I had common values, concerns, and interest – lending a familiarity to the work. And the tone was respectful. I never felt like the writer was showing off or talking down to me.  
But this doesn’t seem to capture all of what charm on the page is. I don’t really understand it. It’s an area that is ripe for research on my part. But I present it despite my ignorance because, if you can turn on the charm, you have a powerful tool for keeping audiences engaged.