Saturday, January 9, 2010

A gottle of geer.

I had one of those great writing experiences the other day. Having reluctantly moved on from Effie's disrobing, I let Oliver leave the house and have a brief encounter with a minor character. I'd only decided the day before to write this short scene, so the character was a new invention and I had little idea what he was like. I needn't have worried -- he took over and told me.

Like ventriloquists and puppeteers, writers often have that dissociative experience, when their characters seem to speak to them from the page or the computer screen in their own independent voices, dictating their lines, deciding on their movements, and very often having their own ideas about the way a scene should go -- or not go. It can be eerie, but it's also deeply satisfying. And fast. You have to type fast to keep up.

I belong to a writers' group, and one of the principles that often comes up in reviewing each other's work is "don't tell me, show me." In other words, don't simply assert something in the narration -- for example, a personality trait of a character -- when you can discover that trait by seeing it in the character's words and behavior. It generally produces a more satisfying effect, with richer characterization and a stronger sense of the integrity of the story. (It's not a rule of course, just a tip.)

The way a character speaks, the words he or she chooses, are all indicative of personality, and so dialogue is often a key "show me" technique. (After all, it was all Shakespeare ever wrote.) So when I find Vic Flimsy, village peeping Tom and church-goer, explaining to Oliver -- and, vicariously, to me -- how he practices his voyeurism while maintaining an unassailable code of ethics, I get out of the way and simply transcribe the speech as it flows. (It surprised me when he revealed that he had a pet name for his trusty step-ladder -- I can't recall coming up with that idea.) Later I can go back and shove in the "he saids" and the actions that punctuate and round out the scene.

The same thing happened the next day, when the village policeman whom I'd assumed was a stereotypical buffoon, stepped onto the stage for the first time and assured me that you can't avoid work with his consummate slacker skill without having some degree of cunning.

So one day these people don't exist -- the next day they've each hijacked my novel, for their brief moments in the sun (Well, the moon -- they're nighttime scenes). Hmmm. Maybe I can get all the characters to do the book, and I can just be a typist.

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