Engineering Suspsense

Engineering Suspsense

I’m coming to terms with the fact that much of my fiction work has one foot planted in the thriller genre. The defining ingredient of a thriller is its suspense which has me thinking whether we could isolate and examine that which makes a scene, and the overarching plot itself, suspenseful. I’m hopeful.

Here’s what Hitchcock has to say on the subject:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

The most functional example of Suspense I can think of is the “Bad Dates” scene in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. A bad man who hangs out with bad monkeys poisons a bowl of dates before a little Belushi-child brings the dates to the table where Jones and Sallah are discussing boring-ass archaeologist bullshit. The audience knows that the dates are poisoned and feels a sense of dread as Jones carries the fruit around, pausing to reflect on the information dump Sallah is delivering. Jones pops the date in the air, the audience shits, Sallah sees the dead monkey (a traumatizing experience for every 90’s child) and catches the fruit before it hits Jones’s mouth. Bad Dates. It ends on a grim joke. This scene works to hide the exposition necessary for the plot– a kind of misdirection that engages the viewer while also cramming heavy plot points down their throats. Indiana Jones should be a boring movie (it’s about an archaeologist goofing off with Bible antiques for chrissakes) but it cleverly engages the audience with high-stakes suspense at every twist.

It’s all about information control. That scene wouldn’t have worked without showing the bad man adding the poison. Without it, there’s just a dead monkey and an asshole Sallah obstructing a tasty snack. But it also doesn’t work without a scene roughly ten minutes earlier when Indiana Jones offers Marion the fruit and tells her, “Hey babe, it’s dates, you eat ’em, what is you stupid?” By controlling that information and doling it out at the right time, the audience has been forced to ask the question, “What’s going to happen with those dates, bruh?”

Timing the information is key and where you position this information is going to force the audience to ask different questions. Let’s talk about Tarantino, as he has a flair for torquing suspense during long passages of dialogue.

The opening scene of Inglorious Basterds is a perfect example. You know it’s unsettling because of the historical subtext (uh, Nazis) and because of the direct subject matter of the conversation (Casual anti-semitism and the bureaucratic banality of  the Holocaust). You understand that there’s a power dynamic at play here, and certain elements are played comedically (the size of the pipes, par examplé), but essentially it’s just a friendly conversation between a German officer and a French farmer, the former asking the latter about his neighbors. And then the camera pans below the floorboards and the audience now understands what’s at stake and the tension skyrockets. Were you nervous when the Nazi’s arrived? Of course. But you weren’t afraid about the outcome of the conversation until the camera informed you that you had a reason to feel that way– and then the conversation continues and dangles the outcome on a taut wire.

Here’s a failure in suspense: The stadium scene of The Dark Knight Rises. The audience is told, via exposition, that Bane is laying explosive-laden concrete around Gotham and after some kid sings the national anthem, Bane detonates the lot and we cut around to the mayor dying, the stadium exploding, the tunnel exploding, and bridges collapsing. For so much destruction, the scene plays out fucking languid. We just learned that shit was about about to blow up and there was no countdown. It’s functional, I guess, to move the plot forward, but the destruction showed onscreen wasn’t necessarily in the viewer’s mind as a stake in the villain’s scheme. The audience was relatively uninformed and the result is a diminished legacy to what could have been a perfect Batman trilogy. It’s strange to think that this movie came from Christopher Nolan, given that his bread and butter is creating thrilling, unexpected filmic narratives, perhaps quintessentially achieved in Memento, which keeps asking the audience “How did we get here?” through a disciplined control of information sequencing through a believable, if not convenient, perspective.

So let’s talk about how perspective impacts the release of information to create suspense.

The revelation in Silence of the Lambs is Buffalo Bill is making lady suits. The audience probably understands this before Clarice does, but only after a slow drip of clues allows the viewer to stitch it together for themselves. The way information is controlled in that narrative makes the viewer hink on the question “What the fuck?” while Clarice asks “Why the fuck?” and fills in the plot for us. Onward, the viewer is always ahead of Clarice. We know that Jame Gumb is the killer. She gets wise (because of moths and shit) and then the movie puts the audience further ahead by assuming the night-envisioned perspective of Gumb watching her stumble through the dark. Suspense is achieved by making us understand that the hero is vulnerable. However, in Lector’s escape plotline, the viewer is given only the information that Lector is alone with two unconscious guards and the film suddenly follows the perspectives of the police officers attempting to find and subdue him. We know nearly as little as they do and, although our hairs are up, we’re still trying to piece together the how? The reveal is a faceless corpse springing into an elevator car and we go, “Ohhhh fuuuuuu–” while our brains catch up to speed with everything we’ve been shown, even before Lector sits up to pull the skin from his face.

And I think it’s in perspective that we find how to measure the release of information to keep our audience enraptured, and to figure out what kinds of dilemmas are suitable for the story you’re trying to keep, well, suspended. The Raiders example couldn’t work without an omniscient camera. Silence of the Lambs wouldn’t work without limited perspective. Proper tool for the proper job.

It’s generally understood that this level of tension is harder to accomplish in writing than it is in film. What an insert shot on an object or an actor’s expression can accomplish can easily set up a certain expectation to prime the viewer’s attention. That being said, written narrative has more access to the reader’s direct psychology than film and that can be exploited to create similar, if not greater, experiences of suspension.

The question of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest moves from “Can the Continental Op persuade an entire town’s kingpins to murder each other?” to “Did the Continental Op become so tainted from his involvement with murderers that he murdered Dinah Brand with an ice-pick when he blacked out from gin and laudanum?” That question drives the third act of the novel, after the initial goal was seemingly achieved. The reader, who has no doubt come to like the main character’s wiles, has to wrestle with this unknown, internal quantity. What’s more, the reader knows as little as the Continental Op, narrating his experience. Information control within perspective.

Starting your third act with the main character’s hand around an icepick stuck into a gamblin’ woman’s tit is one way of injecting suspense into a story (editorial: it’s a pretty cool one). There are others.

First person is particularly a hard nut to crack with this– you only have the character’s point of view to play with, making the “bomb beneath the floorboards” harder to establish. But you also have a tool that objective POV’s do not– a breadth of interiority. Take it for granted that the character’s reactions to certain stimuli will generally bleed into the reader’s mind. Now make the character obliviously acknowledge something obviously dangerous. Or began stacking idiosyncrasies from the character’s perspective to make a person or object dubious. Have the character run gut-checks. Make the reader ask the question, “Why is this the focus?” before revealing the payoff.

A favorite device of mine is to employ several first person narratives. Where one experience is incomplete, another fills in the gaps and gives the other narrative a more pronounced sense of danger and vice versa. It is not unlike a game of tennis.

With Third Person Omniscient, you can establish anything you want in any sequential order which, unfortunately, does not make this job easier. The trick, again, is to control the amount of information. If you place a scene which follows a man planting a bomb in a post-office box and in the next scene it explodes, then just like The Dark Knight Rises, you’ve squandered your moment. However, if you wrote the same sequence of events from a removed perspective, where all you saw was a man who deposited a package into the box and looked over his shoulders before he walked away, well, then we’re watching the mailbox now, aren’t we? Remove it further. Let’s say a hotdog vendor with a hearing-aid can’t get a certain beeping out of head. He complains all day. Our hero buys a hotdog, says something dismissive to the man’s complaint and walks away– only to witness an explosion a dozen yards away, and he’s covered in letters and postcards.

To instill suspense, one must make the audience understand danger. To make that understood, one must inform the audience of that danger one way, or another. When and how you do that is up to you but you do need to realize the questions you are proposing to your audience. If they’re asking “What is happening?” then you’re either a surrealist, a lazy surrealist, or a lazy writer. If they’re asking “Why is this happening?” you can rest more assuredly that you’ve provided enough information to have them ask, “What’s going to happen next?”

 

Spatial Symbolism: The House

Spatial Symbolism: The House

Because I have friends and friends talk sometimes, it came to be that a friend and I were talking about laundromats. I like laundromats. I like the soothing, repetitive noises of clothing soup getting sloshed around in a centrifuge and the rhythmic metallic clinking of “poor ovens.”

A theory as to why we love laundromats so much comes from Shawn Coyne’s analysis of Silence of the Lambs (mentioned several times in the Story Grid podcast),  wherein he points out a scene right before Starling decides to go investigate the first victim’s house. The scene is simple and quiet. Starling does some laundry. Coyne’s point is that this is a “return to the womb” so that Starling can be reborn into her decision to defy her orders. Specifically, he points out that the rhythm of the machines and the sloshing of the water resembles a mother’s heartbeat and the rushing noise of amniotic fluid that we, as babies, attach to as sensory reminders of the safety we felt while in utero. It works as a solid symbol.

I tried to recreate a similar scenario in The Least of 99 Evils with a scene where the main character, Riley, takes a shower and changes clothes before adopting the most pivotal role in the novel. I was trying to suggest to the reader’s subconscious that a baptism of sorts had occurred. That changes have registered.  I think it works, but we have a much more sinister association with bathrooms that I had previously thought.

There’s this episode of Cracked.com’s “Looking the Part,” that examines what makes the bathroom so harrowing in pop culture and media (shower death scenes are plentiful after the quintessential Psycho, Vincent dies while leaving the bathroom in Pulp Fiction, that guy in the first season of The Sopranos gets shot in the tub, The Dude in The Big Lebowski is attacked while getting far-out in his bathtub, that scene in the X-Files when that leach falls out of that dude, medicine cabinet mirror jump scares… etc). Their suggestion is that because grooming habits have become a solitary activity for human beings since the middle ages, the bathroom is the one place where someone is the most vulnerable and that naturally creates an opportunity for a thrilling scene that will directly register with an audiences’ familiarity of being totally alone.

So I got to thinking that maybe there other broad symbols we associate with the anatomy of a house and by identifying what symbols we associate with what rooms, a writer could benefit from accurately setting certain scenes in these spaces.

The first one that leapt out to is the basement. The basement is where the secret is stored. A true crime example of this would be how John Wayne Gacy buried 33 bodies in his basement as a way of dissociating himself from his crimes, essentially keeping it separate from his primary personality. Likewise, the zombies are stored in the basement in Dead Alive, the shameful burial of the archaeologist’s wife occurs in the basement of Evil Dead II (with great payoff), and Breaking Bad‘s Walter White keeps his first drug-world rival and first murder victim in, wait for it, the basement. The Burbs even brings us into that space by the film’s culmination, justifying Tom Hanks’s paranoia by revealing hundreds of skeletons present in his neighbors’ furnace. Perhaps because we associate that space with darkness, we also attach fear. This is a common enough attachment– we fear what we can’t see, and we see this part of the house the least often– on top of it being, generally, poorly lit. Just to indulge another example: A B-plotline that registered with me as a kid was Home Alone‘s sequencing of getting over the fear of the basement furnace. It personified perfectly the fear a child experiences when encountering a space that they don’t know very well as well as machinery that they don’t understand.

If the basement is where you place scenes of fear and horror then what of the basement’s maligned sibling the attic? The attic’s symbolism revolves around the mind. You know that old phrase, “toys in the attic?” That’s a folksy way of saying that someone is insane. If the top of the cranium is where the brain resides, then so to must the “mind” of the house. Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea utilize this by restraining the crazy woman in the attic. So does The Yellow Wallpaper. Even if we’re not talking about mental unwellness, the attic serves as a venue for cerebral exploration. The entire plot of The Goonies starts by finding a map in the attic, but the better example here is The Never Ending Story– the entire thing is the imaginative exercise of a child reading a book in the attic. Goddamn Beetlejuice spends over half the movie in the attic, most of which is spent, not ghosting the shit out of the inhabitants, but rather, wrapping the characters’ heads around the concept that they are dead. It’s the mental space.

The bedroom is usually reserved for sex. In adult-themed media. You rarely get a glimpse of what an adult’s bedroom actually looks like. It’s the punctuation of sexual achievement– a dude carries a lady into a bedroom. Cut to pillow-talk followed by a source of unnecessary conflict. Right? Except in more juvenile-aged marketed media where the bedroom is a refuge. You think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Three Ninjas, Gleaming the Cube… the prepubescent bedroom becomes a space of personal expression and safety. Which makes sense in the human experience– that’s the only place where a teenager has any control over their own lives, even if that control is over which posters go up on the walls. But whether it’s for sex or personal rejuvenation (and general character building), the bedroom is almost never used as a primary stage for for plot. Exceptions to this are, of course, Toy Story (wherein the bedroom is represented as a town of sorts, and doesn’t really count) and Nightmare on Elm Street (wherein the bedroom, a vulnerable time, becomes a door for a broader stage. Johnny Depp getting absolutely eviscerated, though, remains one of my favorite film moments).

The staircase has stood reliably as an opportunity for one character to spy upon another character. And this is consistent from H.P. Lovecraft to J.K. Rowling: when a piece of information needs to be discussed and then overheard by the protagonist, the protagonist will linger on the staircase. That might divide the house into two distinct levels of trustworthiness to match its literal stories– the lower level is untrustworthy, whereas the hero always sneaks down from the upper stories. While it serves as a bridge in its architectural purpose, it’s not redundant to point out that it serves as a metaphorical bridge between two parties and the vehicle conveyed between them is generally unintentional information.

Kitchens are an interesting beast. The idea is always to portray family in a day in the life. How that family is portrayed with the kitchen is up to the author. In The Godfather Part II, a family is shown falling away from the uninterested Michael Corleone around a dinner table. Likewise, you have family comedies like The Simpsons or Malcom in the Middle where, despite the chaotics antics of the individual characters, they still come together for meals and create the status quo of the familial unit. From those two examples, we always come back to the status quo of dysfunctional, quirky families that support each other in dysfunctional, quirky ways. The status quo of the family in American Beauty is established with a similar scene, although any semblance of casual or warm acknowledgement is replaced with cold, forced and even scripted dialogue. Harkening back to Home Alone, the initial kitchen scene is one of immense chaos with a broad range of characters. Which sets up the essential conflict of the film and justifies it with a few, short scenes– there’s a lot of kids. One of them could get overlooked. (There’s also my favourite line, “You’re what the French call ‘les incompetent’.”)

Living rooms are for Christmas and people getting murdered. I’ve literally got nothing else on that.

The End of the World as We Nevermind

The End of the World as We Nevermind

A joke I’ve seen circulating social media quite often is this: “Stop writing dystopian fiction, you’re only giving the government ideas.”

The joke, I guess, is that because dystopias are often written to underline specific and problematic societal and political norms by satirically torquing those values to their ridiculous breaking point, that it eventually and unintentionally normalizes the extreme examples that the author used to point out the absurdities of modern living.

Ha. Ha.

And to that point I’ll challenge the notion that George Orwell was some kind of prophet. 1984 stands as the quintessential dystopian novel, portraying a harrowing world of an omni-present yet ambiguous authority and panopticonical surveillance. And one leaps to think that Orwell is describing the future that we now live in, given how many things line up with our modern experiences with totalitarianism and the invasive practices of the NSA. I don’t want to diminish the modern relevance of the work. It’s currently significant, but what I want to make clear is that it was as significant when Orwell wrote it. He wasn’t a prophet so much as he was a scholar of how fascism operates through the arms of bureaucracy. Nazis rewarded those who provided information about their Jewish neighbors; spy networks have almost always been a tactic of every militarily-minded society; population surveillance has been the wet dream of dictatorships everywhere (it used to look like intercepting written letters, now it’s tapping into Smart TVs and that goddamn Alexa as well as examining piles of metadata); fascists have a tendency to make their face ubiquitous with pithy catchphrases underneath; populations, as a whole, have a tendency to react to things emotionally instead of rationally (compare the 2 Minute Hate to Tweet Storms about anything). I could go on, but the point I’m making here is this: George Orwell wasn’t trying to depict the future, he was describing his present using allegorical science fiction.

Let’s back up. All the way up. We wouldn’t have dystopias without utopias. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, a fictional travelogue that came out in the early 1500’s, describes an outsider’s perspective of an ethical, puritanical island that operates under a strict set of benevolent rules that serves everybody’s best interests.

Everybody’s best guess is that Utopia is a satire, aping medieval Europe’s more liberal tendencies. It is, in fact, it’s own dystopia. If it was considered satire by More’s contemporaries, modern thought would look at it as a fucked up 4th world country. Slavery, pre-marital bonin’ punished by a lifetime of celibacy, women strictly relegated to the role of home-making, etcetera. Utopias don’t purely exist in fiction (and don’t give me Paradiso as an example, that shit is boring as… well, not hell, because Inferno was ultimately more satisfying to read.) because there is no under-riding conflict. If that sound familiar, then GOOD. That means you read my dumb musings on conflict months ago. Have a chocolate.

And so we’re back to dystopias. How come we love them so much? And does that reason vary from culture to culture?

The most recent episode of Wizard and the Bruiser brought up an excellent point about Akira: that a dystopic representation of Tokyo (re-imagined as Neo-Tokyo, 30 years after the Akira fallout, written in the 1980’s, 30ish some years after the Atomic fallout) where parentless gangs run the streets at night while the military tries to maintain order, is reminiscent of 1950’s Japan when the country was recovering from a devastating war and the victim of two Atomic bombs dropped on two of their civilian cities. In the same way that Gojira served to sublimate the horrors of the bomb in a way audiences could emotionally process, Akira is a digestion of the chaos the country experienced while rebuilding.

In America, I believe the shared fascination with dystopias digs at two things.

The first we are often hesitant to address– this country has been devastated. The genocide of Native Americans has been traditionally shoehorned into Cowboy vs. Indians John Wayne narratives, wherein the natives are either savage murderers or aides for Manifest Destiny. There’s a collective guilt there that’s been pushed down for centuries now but no matter how many times America tries to push a traditional western through, it sings the same old story. Dystopias, if you haven’t noticed, tend to put the atrocities mankind is capable of front and center. And there’s a reason why most post-apocalyptic fiction sets back technology and infrastructure  back to a familiar, nearly western setting. Various reasons, probably, but the one I’m poking at is the coping mechanism for the blood spilled on the frontier.

The second thing to address, is the culminate fear of where society is heading. A lot of that is moralistic hand-wringing, to be sure, but many of those fears are not unprecedented. Nuclear holocaust is an anxiety we currently bear day-to-day, and have since the bomb’s inception. Again, here we have a means to digest that fear in narrative form that ultimately cherishes optimism. The Road ends on an optimistic note, despite all of the horrific and tragic build-up. The Mad Max series, while exploring survivalistic depravities, tends to end its chapters on a victory. You see the gore, you still get a (hard earned) happy(ish) ending and piece by piece, a little bit of that fear of the future is smoothed out just enough so you can get out of bed in the morning.

But whether the social consciousness feels regret about the past, or anxiety about the future, the sharpest gear in the mechanics of dystopias is set in the human brain’s inability to process reality. The world’s got some beautiful shit. The rest is kind of just… shit? And it’s not hard to understand why people willingly ignore the evil in the world. We get nauseated at the sight of blood. And yet, reality persists. For mental health reasons, everyone gives the news a break and doubles down on what is truly important to them because a day feels like a year if you keep up with everything. And that’s fine. To paraphrase Camus, you can’t live in the desert your entire life, otherwise you’ll go insane. Or, to quote A Tribe Called Quest, “VH1 has a show that you can waste your time with. Guilty pleasures take the edge off reality and for a salary I’d probably do that shit sporadically.” [punctuation mine]

Reality is hard to swallow. There’s a limit of what a person can emotionally process before they turn off and numb out. While directly reporting the distressing information about how the world turns is a necessary journalistic imperative, fiction isn’t bound to the same precedent while still remaining just as relevant. Dystopian fiction offers a method of telegraphing modern and relevant social pain and institutional betrayals within the world using the element of just enough fantastical devices to keep it distant enough to process with an indirect emotional stake. Example given: as someone who studied genocide for a semester in college, more people are comfortable discussing how despicable Death Eaters are than the brutal actions of the Khmer Rouge. Dystopias sublimate the horror of reality into an easily digestible parable.

And really, where the fuck else are you going to have the delicious opportunity to have a bedraggled Ronald Reagan fight a woman in football shoulder-pads, brandishing a sword made out of knee-caps or some bullshit?

That shit doesn’t happen in westerns.

 

Pierre’s most recent dystopian odyssey is available on Amazon. It’s called The Least of 99 Evils and you aren’t ready. 

Scene Anatomy: Turning on Conflict

Scene Anatomy: Turning on Conflict

Here’s a joke a drunk woman who claimed to be an assassin told me in the back of my favorite café the other day:

“A gorilla walks into a bar and orders a banana-tini. The bartender thinks it’s really strange that a gorilla is ordering a drink, much less speaking English to him. He begins to shake up the order when he wakes up. He realizes that he’s been dreaming and he turns to his wife to explain this absurd experience. His wife isn’t there because his marriage is falling apart.”

This joke seems lazy at first but it works.  It works because it turns well. It turns twice, in fact.

Let’s talk about scenes in narrative fiction. Without really looking anything up, I’d define a scene as a largely non-exposition, action driven piece of writing involving at least one character. The scene itself has a beginning, a middle, and an end and needs to resolve itself cleanly, while also furthering the broader story.

Real quick though, let’s talk about scene length. According to Shawn Coyne‘s analysis of The Silence of the Lambs, the perfect scene length is 1,500 – 2,000 words. That’s the “potato chip” size that’s long enough to accommodate the needs of the story without losing the reader’s interest. The goal here, kind of operating on the same psychological weakness that drugs, alcohol and app developers exploit, is to satisfy the reader with minimal effort such that they will be willing to do “just one more.”

This is dark magic we’re fucking with here.

But that 1,500 word chapter would be just a meaningless number if it doesn’t turn. Scenes need to exist on a hinge, otherwise they become useless exposition. Maybe useless exposition is your style. Maybe you’re making a point. That’s cool. But you’re pretty likely to piss off the readers you want to support you so why don’t you put down your pipe and take off your graduation robes. It’s goddamn July, you high-fallutin-nobody-understands-my-art chunk of ass-granite. You can be subtle and experimental but we’re talking about being accessible here.

Here’s what I’ve learned about turning a scene: you want to use that first 50 words to re-engage the reader with of what is happening– if you did your job right with the last chapter, this shouldn’t be too hard. It’s important to contextualize (but no need to go overboard) because people read books at different speeds. I chew through them like Skittles because I’ve really got nothing better to do. Still, others will read maybe three pages at a time and put it down. They’ll give up if they pick the book back up again and can’t figure out what’s happening. So give them a little help. You’ll notice that in TV shows, the plot of the episode is summarily explained in two pieces of dialogue at the beginning of the third act so that insufferable channel surfers have something to latch onto:

Joey: “No, I didn’t do it because I think you’re ugly, I stabbed your sexdoll because you slept with my sister!”

Joeghy: “Bro!”

(Dan Harmon writing table, here I come.)

In that contextualization, there should already be a conflict present as a continuation of the previous scene. By giving context to what’s happened prior, you’ll ensure that this scene can stand on its own. The remaining 450 words should explore the scene. Are your characters stuck in a tree? What’s that like? This is the best opportunity to flesh out characters and scenery because while you can and should certainly have this later in the scene, it might feel a little sluggish. Think of the introduction to every scene as a reintroduction to the book, because (ifyoudidyourjobrightlasttime) the book has changed since the last chapter.

From the Mother conflict, emerges another, or rather, a complication of the initial conflict, by the characters attempting to solve the previous problem (or from the “exploration” you took earlier). They can solve their immediate situation, but that only lands them into hotter waters. That’s how the next 500 words are used: the bartender wakes up which resolves his cognitive dissonance about serving booze to an ape and he sets himself up for the punchline.

Which blends into the final 500 that should definitively resolve the initial conflict and then maintain the emergent conflict for the next scene. I’m saying conflict a lot. Think of the joke: It’s been resolved that the gorilla ordering a drink was just a dream. The punchline is the grim realization that the bartender is alone and forgets that fact for a brief moment of sleepy vulnerability. HILARIOUS. If the joke existed in a chaptered novel, that would set us up pretty well for the next scene (does he try to date, do we see what his actual workplace is like, does he call his ex-wife to try and explain the dream? the possibilities are endless).

Here’s how I write a complete scene these days: I don’t think in terms of threes, because, if I do it right, that’ll happen naturally. I think in terms of twos. A night’s assignment looks like 750 words the first night, taking the previous chapter into mind, recontextuliazing it to progress along the character’s path and once the character’s figure out what immediate problem plagues them,  I stop and go to bed. The next day I brush my teeth, go to work, think about the shitty situation I’ve left to these poor defenseless characters, laugh (because I’m a sadist), and when I get home, I know exactly how to begin because all I have to do is respond to the conflict set up for them.

That’s really the point here: Conflict is the narrative drive of story. To make a scene interesting, it needs to turn on conflict. Problems make the world go round because problems get solved.

And writing, if nothing else, is just solving a bunch of problems that you’ve made for yourself.

Because you have a problem.

 

Exploring the Novel

Exploring the Novel

I hear it all the time: “Pierre, you’re such an interesting-looking creature, why don’t you pursue an acting career as a bent-faced, chain-smoking gambler in the upcoming Gun Shooty Bang Robot Boom reboot?”

And I always say, “Naw, babe. I love novels too much.”

And I do. A lot of people do. You ask people who don’t even read what their favorite book is and they’ll still tell you a couple of novels that have stuck with them over the years. So let’s talk about novels. More importantly why novels are, specifically, so important to the human experience? Maybe how.

By and large, people will read a novel once and only once. There are exceptions to the rule, but it’s different from, say, re-watching your favorite films or rediscovering an album from high school that friggin’ Jocelyn burned for you. Songs and scenes might get stuck in your head but it’s hard to capture in any directly relatable way what exactly got you with your favorite book, isn’t it? It’s less about the isolated moments that are so easily defined in music and film and more about the experience itself. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

What sets novels apart from anything else is the participation of the audience to help create what’s being seen, said, smelled… it’s a sensory illusion that the reader, on some level, hypnotizes themselves to believe is a felt, interior reality– if the writer did their job right. It’s a collusion between the two to create the suspension of disbelief. And unlike other art forms, it requires active participation.

(Which isn’t to say that film and music are solely passive experiences– it’s just that reading cannot be so.)

That intermingling of minds has always fascinated me. There’s a strange intimacy there between the author and reader that isn’t experienced elsewhere. Films have a lot of hands that touch the project– and while that is a remarkable thing of itself, that a collaboration of people came together to create something potentially beautiful– it only takes a producer’s (or an actor’s, or a budget’s) soiled fingers to spoil the whole pot of soup. When it’s a singular vision (editors notwithstanding) conveyed directly to the reader, the experience becomes thinking with another person’s brain. This is likely why reading novels makes you a more empathetic person.

That author-reader relationship is only possible through the design of the novel. It’s strange to think about novels as technology, but in the historical context of formatting of stories, novels are sleeker and more easily digestible in its modern form than epic poems or the travelogues that birthed them. There’s no baby fat of repetition for repetition’s sake (like you see in fairy tales) or the loose skin of extraneous oration that bogs down Greek narratives.

While the rule of threes has been commonplace for centuries, the novel perfected the three act structure by shaving it down to its base components. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the novel was developed concurrently with the re-popularization of the triptych in western culture during the 1500’s. The Japanese invented the novel at least a good 300 years prior— and, not coincidentally, had been enjoying cohesive scroll ink paintings for at least a 100 years before that. Classical painting is emotionally and intellectually stimulating but is still more sensed through the lens of the viewer. Even with the triptych’s cohesive storytelling ability, a direct means of story remains elusive. That’s where the novel comes in as a continuation of that tradition– able to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and then able to explain the painting.

Speaking of the 1500’s, it’s also not a coincidence that the novel technology is also concurrent with the spread of literacy. Once a privilege held only by clergy and bards, the ability to read leaked out from the clouds above and pissed on all us sinners in a baptism of critical thinking. Without an interpreter, individuals were given the means of direct processing of written content. The result, of course, was an explosion of experimental writing (aaaand institutional upheaval), as well as a certain power regained by the common person: the ability to read and write your own stories. As much as the newborn readers found a sense of individualism with this new privilege, so did the authors– and it’s on that mental platform on which this medium was able to speak from the perspective of an individual and reach people on a personally affecting level, despite that thousands of people were reading the exact same content.

Now you might think I’ve forgotten about poetry. So what about poetry? Didn’t it have the same bloom along with the democratization of literacy? Sure did. I’m not talking shit. It’s just a different, more ancient, technology. My understanding is that poetry is the perfect distillation of emotion and moments into words. If the poet has done their job right. Poetry can be wonderful. But to me it often feels voyeuristic into the mind of the poet and the poet alone. The audience didn’t get there themselves. A journey’s missing. The crystalized truth within the poem often feels like an ill-gotten treasure.

So why obscure the feeling with arcane logic when you could just tell the reader what’s actually happening?

Some of the most powerful fiction I’ve ever read has been a short story. Still, I struggle to engage with a lot of it. Ideally, a short story identifies the moment before a life-changing event in a character’s life, not the moment itself. One of my all-time favorites is Jodi Angel’s A Good Deuce (Tin House Summer Reading 2011, issue #48) which takes place after the narrator’s mother has died from an overdose and ends right before the narrator has sex with an older woman in a car in an overtly oedipal exorcism of the tragedy. This is damn near as perfect of a short story as you can get– but it might’ve been untenable as a part of a full novel. The whole story has already been implied and would feel lopsided in the frame of a different story.

But more often, there’s the opposite problem. Short stories have the general policy of “you get what you get,” and often have the shortcoming of ending just a little too soon. In “Trouble Is My Business,” by Raymond Chandler, everything gets wrapped up just as the characters are beginning to flesh out. I didn’t feel cheated, necessarily, as I felt like the payoff was rushed and, as a reader, that I didn’t earn it. (It’s not unlike that Rick and Morty true crime spoof.)

Like a good (or bad) psychedelic experience, the books you read change you. Feel free to disagree, but I’ll forever maintain that novels are the most effective devices for changing you for the better.