Friday, May 23, 2014

7. Be consistent. Or don’t.

For readers to feel they know a character, some details need to be consistent.  If a man is allergic to peanuts in Chapter One, he had better be allergic to peanuts in Chapter Four.  But that doesn’t mean he can’t deliberately eat a peanut butter sandwich in Chapter Five.   
     Ralph Waldo Emerson is often cited observing that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as if any continuity of thought reduces a speaker’s intelligence, but the context and even the full quote are usually lost.  The line from his 1841 essay, “Self-Reliance,” follows the idea that “the other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency” – that is, the anger of other people at our nonconformity plus the desire to remain consistent with our own previous opinions prevent new independent thought.
     Emerson’s full sentence is, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”  The line descries a foolish consistency, held for the sake of other people’s opinions, and implies a contrast to a sensible consistency, held for better reasons.  
     The same applies to writing characters.  Some things needs to be held consistent, including the rules of the world you have created.  A rancher who’s never picked up a gun shouldn’t shoot like a gunfighter unless the genre is so loosely related to reality that anything can happen.  In a magical world things can change magically, but the rules of magical change must be observed.
     We recognize human beings by our contradictions as well.  A big man with a deep voice is hardly memorable, but a big man with a squeaky voice is Mike Tyson.  Two instances of frugality – say, one comment and one action – will convince a reader that a character is cheap.  But the same character can act with extraordinary generosity if something overcomes her frugality, and a reader will guess at the cause of that change.
     So what about our peanut-allergic character in Chapter Five?  The details of the context make the difference.  Perhaps he doesn’t know he’s eating peanut butter and is being poisoned.  Perhaps he is forced to eat peanut butter or starve.  Perhaps he deliberately chooses to put himself into anaphylactic shock, to escape a prison cell.  In all three cases, if a writer consistently establishes the allergy, each becomes a moment of dramatic tension.

Monday, September 16, 2013

6. Write to please yourself.

Pleasing yourself is always fun, and there’s no point in writing something that doesn’t please you, but if you write just to please yourself you might find you’re the only one interested in what you’ve done.  Even Walt Whitman in his great work of self-expression, “Song of Myself,” wastes no time in pointing out he’s writing for more than himself,  since, “what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” 
                In Leaves of Grass Whitman has expressed a personal statement that resonates as the collective American imagination and experience.  That’s why we continue reading him.  For the rest of us, with humbler aspirations, the question becomes, How do we write so that the incidents and observations of our work belong to other readers as well as ourselves?
                “Craft” is the word we use to refer to all the techniques and strategies employed to provoke our reader’s interest and elicit a response.  The desire for self-expression can be gratified with a rude outburst over a stubbed toe.  Engaging readers in an emotional experience requires planning, imagination, and a sincere desire to please someone else.
                In this respect, some theorists have been more helpful to writers than others.  The New Critics viewed literary works as little machines making meaning that could be explicated for less adroit readers.   This elevated the significance of literary work but left its interpretation in the hands of the subtle few. Poststructuralists read for the gaps that revealed the absence of inherent meaning in a text; readers rather than writers produced the experiences they enjoyed.  Rhetorical theorists such as Kenneth Burke (and the Structuralist linguist Roman Jakobson) thought of communication of all kinds as transactional acts, designed by a writer to be interpreted by a reader, a planned collaborative expression and reconstruction of experience.   Not a bad way to think about the words you put on paper.
                Writing for yourself -- to vent emotion or to force yourself to observe the world carefully -- can be a rewarding experience, as pleasurable as a truly vindictive diary entry.  But if you aspire to forge in the smithy of your soul the uncreated conscience of your race (as James Joyce’s young artist Stephen Dedalus declares), you’d better start planning to please somebody else.

5. Never split an infinitive.

 Nothing is always forbidden in writing.  Infinitives are not atoms or hairs or follicle ends.  But you ought to know the general rule, so you can decide when to violate it.
                An infinitive is the to-plus-action form of a verb, such as to be or not to be, to sing or to dance.   In formal prose, a writer should avoid inserting a word between the to and the be, or the to and the dance.   The idea was carried over from Latin, where they can’t be split.  Simple enough – you write Alice hoped to win quickly, but not Alice hoped to quickly win. 
                The problem is that adverbs are not very particular as to where they fall in a sentence.  They can bounce freely around the syntax.  You can add the adverb sometimes to the sentence, Max likes to sleep, almost anywhere you like. 
So which of the two rules carries the day?
 In speech, the freedom of the adverb wins, especially if there’s any doubt about which verb in a sentence it’s modifying.  A speaker might say Mary planned to silently murder John, rather than Mary planned silently to murder John, if a listener couldn’t be sure whether the adverb silently refers to the first verb planned or the second one to murder.  Is she planning silently or planning to make the murder silent? Better would probably be either Silently Mary planned to murder John, or Mary planned to murder John silently, depending on how she did what she did.
                In formal prose the preference for the united infinitive can create awkward sentences, with the adverb placed awkwardly beforehand to modify a verb that is followed by an embedded sentence, like this one.  Break them up to find another way around.
                Modern stories rarely require formal prose.  We don’t see a lot of colons or semi-colons -- instead, dashes connect independent clauses.  In dialogue or interior monologue commas link complete thoughts, suggesting the speed with which words jumble together and thought follows thought. 
In a similar way, splitting an infinitive is always a choice when you want to evoke the sound of a voice or maintain the rhythm of a line.  Gene Roddenberry did pretty well with the lines, “to seek out new life and new civilizations … to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
                Anybody mind that boldly?