Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tantalizing

So this week we're learning to get more out of our moments.  Four steps will help you pull out the feeling of "being there" or "seeing it from a different perspective."  Simply, those steps are:
  1. Write down what is actually happening. 
  2. Describe the physical effect of that action on the character/surrounding (i.e., "Show.  Don't tell.").
  3. Describe the emotional effect of that action on the character.  In addition to emotion, this can also encompass the intelligences the character as we discussed earlier.
  4. Refer concretely to other stories in the past that make that incident more significant.
As we have discussed before each of these steps has smaller steps to help you achieve your goal.

I am going to give you an example of how to do this, and I am using the process I followed to write the piece, "Cotton Candy."

Before you can write down what is actually happening moment-by-moment, you need to know what story you're telling so that you have chosen to reveal the best moments possible.  So when you actually begin writing, the first step is to tell, not show:
  • Because I wanted my own bag of cotton candy every year that I went to Kennywood, I bought a bag for each of my sons and nephew when I took them to Kennywood this year.
Then I decide how I'm going to tell this story.  More specifically, which story arc do I want to use?
  • I decide I am going to write this story of longing as a romance.  In other words, I am going to use the primary plot points (1. Boy meets girl. 2. Boy and girl let their characters shine. 3. Boy and girl overcome obstacles which stand in the way of their relationship. 4. Ever after.) to evoke a desirable response from the audience.  In this case, the desirable response is that the audience should share the longing I felt and therefore understand my impulse purchase of three bags of cotton candy.
Now that I have an idea where I'm going, I can actually prepare to add the showing, I need to pull out my plot points.  You don't actually need to do all of this on paper--most of it we actually do in our head.  But for the sake of helping you see it all done, I am putting it down:
  • Boy meets girl: when I encounter the cotton candy.
  • Boy and girl let their characters shine: description of cotton candy through my eyes shows both the character of the cotton candy as well as my own.
  • Boy and girl overcome obstacles which stand in the way of their relationship: I get cotton candy in spite of the resistance of my parents--and I also give it to my family in spite of my mother.
  • Ever after: Mom was right.  We had too much cotton candy.
Now that I have outlined the points, now I move to step 2 and start to show the details.  I begin with the actions--walking past the cart on the way out.  Note that when you describe the actions, you also describe the relevant details of setting.  I spend a great deal of time on the cart.  I don't tell you about the rides I pass, the condition of the sidewalk, or the other people around; those details are unimportant.  Remember that we want to focus on the areas noted in the plot point:
  • encountering the cotton candy and its description 

    The glistening red cotton candy caboose stands immediately before the exit tunnel of Kennywood Park.  With the sunlight of the dying day painting the clean shiny windows of the caboose brilliant shades of orange and gold, the wind tosses the sugary scent from the mouth of the cotton candy drum, out the open front and onto the breezes where its slightly cloying candy fragrance assaults most adult nostrils and nauseates many grown up stomachs.  But to the still snub-noses of those four feet and under, the sweet sensation that even in the air sticks to the back of our throats tantalizes, and like a Pied Piper of Perfume, it beckons us from the four corners of the park.
  • overcoming the resistance of my parents
    • referencing the problem:

      No matter which path your father took or how sneaky your mother thought she was, you had to pass it on your way out.
    • Showing the problem:

      Instead, I propelled my parents toward the exit and that beautiful caboose.... It didn’t really matter which parent I pushed, though, because at the end of the day, Mom was immune to whining, and Dad was aggressive toward anything standing between him and the car....“One.”  That was my mother’s final word.  Just one bag of cotton candy, rationed very carefully to three small children once they were safely in the backseat of the car.... Every year, my mother carefully handed two puffs of the fluffy stuff to us over the back of the seat.  Two meager mouthfuls apiece... “Later,” she would say.  “You can have some more tomorrow.”  ... The morning after Kennywood, the crystalized strips cotton candy would be on the floor, stuck to the linoleum in front of the counter.
    • Overcoming the problem:

      With the very last money I had, and just to spite my mother who never once bought me my own bag of cotton candy, I paid for three bags—one each for my two sons and their cousin who went to the car with Daddy.  They went home with sticky chins and sugar shivers, but they were happy.
  • Mom was right

    In spite of my spite, though, I discovered Mom was right.  Ten days later, I still have bags of cotton candy (and no poodles to feed it to).
Notice that I do occasionally tell ("I discovered Mom was right"), but I also back it up here with show ("Ten days later, I still have bags of cotton candy (and no poodles to feed it to").  You notice then that my actions are fairly limited (check out the underlining in the passage above where I have highlighted my actions).  Such may be the case in many of your childhood memories with your parents as well.  We are obeying, which often leaves little to say that we did.

But this is where you come into the feelings--and also why I chose "romance" and not "adventure" for my story-arc here.  The emphasis here is on feelings and longing, not action. When I say that we want to know how you felt, I don't mean "I wanted cotton candy so badly I thought I would die."  I mean is"But to the still snub-noses of those four feet and under, the sweet sensation that even in the air sticks to the back of our throats tantalizes, and like a Pied Piper of Perfume, it beckons us from the four corners of the park."  This selection isn't explicitly how I felt, but it does refer to the pull of the candy on children of which I am one.

Here are some explicit examples of adding feelings (or feeling-like additions) to the same story-arc:

  • encountering the cotton candy and its description 

    Fascination:  I can clearly remember how the aching in my feet evaporated once that smell hit my nostrils on those summer nights as my parents literally dragged us from the park. 

    Longing/Magnetism:  Somewhere around the Jackrabbit, I would catch the scent and no more pulling was necessary.

    Desire: Even now, my mouth waters at just the thought of that ubiquitous aroma, like a fog of fluff blanketing the area.

    Desire:  His eyes filled with longing. The sweetness was so stuck in his throat he couldn’t even make words.

    Excitement: revived by the prospect of sugar. 
  • overcoming the resistance of my parents (Note:  The story actually shows this section three times--initially we overcome Dad's resistance, then Mom's, then my kids overcome mine.  Your story will likely have more than one obstacle as well.)
    • referencing the problem:

      Parent doesn't care:  Mom was immune to whining,

      Other parent is hostile:  and Dad was aggressive toward anything standing between him and the car.
    • Showing the problem:

      Longing/Begging:  “Please!  Please!” I cried. (This is the show.)

      Frustration:  I was never very good at grabbing the sympathies of my parents, (This is a tell, and I will get to this later.)

      More frustration: Every time I heard that word, my watery mouth went dry and my heart, which had been in my throat with anticipation, plunged into my stomach where it attempted to fill the area that would never get enough cotton candy.
    • Overcoming the problem:

      Sympathy: No one ever refused my sister. (tell) Without ado, my sister turned her big brown eyes on my father.  (show) Her eyes are the spitting image of his mother’s and his sister’s eyes, and my father could never tell one of them, “no,” either. (show and tell--we can see the mother and sister but I don't actually describe my father's response much.)

      Sorrow/Mourning (not overcoming my problem): Two meager mouthfuls apiece.

      Triumph:  there was a gleam of satisfaction in Suzy’s eyes.  She was not sorry.

      Spite:  With the very last money I had, and just to spite my mother who never once bought me my own bag of cotton candy, I paid for three bags

      Satisfaction:  They went home with sticky chins and sugar shivers, but they were happy.
  • Mom was right

    Resignation/Frustration: In spite of my spite
Notice that I actually have used very few "feeling" words, but you note the feeling from reactions, implications, and actions which are further supplemented by description (for example, the "revived by the prospect of sugar" modifies "'Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!' shrieked the little one".  Therefore the concrete which could be taken a variety of ways is given an emotional meaning with the tag "revived by the prospect of sugar." 
 Aside:  Some writers would argue this point and would leave off the tag.  I would tender that those writers (1) don't write romance (the ones that I know who actually endorse leaving off emotion write literary fiction); and (2) they trust their reader (although they don't spend too much time with the average reader).  I, who have spent a good deal of time tutoring, working cross cultures, listening to a variety of close readings, and hanging out with readers of all kinds of stuff (not just high literary works), submit that many readers don't get the writer's point.  And I don't mean that in a bad way.  In fact, the ones who miss the point with the most atrociousness are sometimes academics (not all, just some) who are so invested in their interpretation, not only miss the point but try to invalidate everyone else's interpretation.  Other interpretations, though, can be enormously helpful.  As a writer, I love that literary works have the ability to survive their times and affect those of other languages, countries, and periods.  Other interpretations are no less valid or useful to life.
Based on the aside, though, I suggest that if you have a point that you don't want your reader to miss, state it a little forcefully or provide enough hints that it's much harder to miss.  If it's not important, let it go and don't overstate.

Now, I want to take a quick look at the second part of step 3.  Not all of our reactions are emotional.  Sometimes we are dealing with other ways that we process our world, and that also reveals our inner character.  These will become especially important when we come to talking about mystery, so I want to really point them out here:
  • Whoever designed the park must have had children in mind.  It was absolutely unavoidable.  No matter which path your father took or how sneaky your mother thought she was, you had to pass it on your way out.
    • Personal intelligence:  understanding the thoughts of children
    • Kinesthetic/Spatial-Visual: understanding how people had to move through the park
  • Mom was immune to whining, and Dad was aggressive toward anything standing between him and the car.
    • Personal intelligence: understanding motivation
  • I was never very good at grabbing the sympathies of my parents, but I could alert my sister to begin begging.  No one ever refused my sister. ... Her eyes are the spitting image of his mother’s and his sister’s eyes, and my father could never tell one of them, “no,” either.
    • Personal intelligence: understanding my own lack of communication and my sister's expertise. Understanding my father's motivation.
    • Logical-mathematical: developing a plan to get what I (we) want using my sister's abilities
  • I think she hoped we would fall asleep in the car if she limited our sugar.  You would think that the fact that I never fell asleep in the car even once after the age of six months would have cured her of that hope (and maybe even convinced her that she could avoid whining with more cotton candy), but she never gave up.   
    • Logical-mathematical: my logic about why Mom should give up.
    • Personal intelligence: understanding Mom will never give up.
  • Without fail, our dogs would get it.  Suzy, our small standard black poodle would greet my mother at the door and follow her every move until she put down that cotton candy.  My parents locked that dog in a cage every night, yet she managed to unlatch the top and jump out, squeeze through the bottom corner, or exact some other form of escape. 
    • Logical-mathematical: Suzy's trailing of what she wants
    • Kinesthetic: Suzy's ability to escape
  • Again, you would think Mom would give up.  But she didn’t.
    • Personal intelligence: understanding Mom never gives up
    • Logical-mathematical: "You would think..." Appeals to the logic of the reader.
Some of these could be expanded if you wanted, but I don't think it is necessary.  Moreover, I do think that having the background is helpful, and I think that its inclusion is one aspect that separates written work from movies.  This is not a movie, and your appeal to thought-processing adds an additional layer of humanity.

Finally, step 4 is telling, but an important kind of telling.  You are going to support your story with back story that helps reveal information regarding character and situation that would take far more time to show than tell--time that would detract from your point (and this time constraint is key.  If you can show without detracting, then show.  But if your impact is lacking and you need more, then look for ways to tell "telling" details or stories to bolster your point).  This kind of telling can actually be a kind of showing if you do it right. 

Usually, two types of telling are in play here:
  1. Allusion to stories and events in the cultural memory
  2. Brief synopses of stories in the characters' pasts
Each has advantages and disadvantages. 

Allusion
  1. Advantages
    1. You can very quickly evoke emotions and morals associated with complex stories.
    2. You can place your story in a genre, align a character with a protagonist or antagonist, or hint at an outcome in just a few seconds.
  2. Disadvantages
    1. When you are referring to the emotions surrounding an event in the cultural memory, you need to remember that there is a "lifetime" to those feelings.  V-J day has a completely different connotation in the US now (fear--of the power unleashed by the atomic bomb, guilt--at the wide-scale murder of innocents, faux-triumph--at the upcoming problems with Russia, the rebuilding of Europe, the establishment of Israel, and the problem of releasing all the colonies of Europe around the world as independent nations and incoprorating them in international organizations) than it did at the time it happened (joy, relief, triumph, hope).
    2. The allusion is only as inclusive as the cultural group that shares it.  Common limiters are ethnicity, class, gender, and age.
Examples of allusion in the sample:
  • Pied Piper:
    • Advantage:  it immediately calls to mind the helplessness of the children lured by the piper as well as the strength and desirability of that lure
    •  Disadvantage: it limits my audience.  Most likely, my non-European-heritaged friends may not recognize that story as it's not popular enough to learn in school and it was not a story told them by their parents.
  • Visit to Kennywood Park:
    • Advantage:  For those who grew up in Pittsburgh going to the park, the place names will clearly indicate exact distances and the experiences will likely invoke similar experiences of their own.
    • Disadvantage:  It severely limits my audience to those who have visited Kennywood Park, namely those who have had geographic and economic opportunity to visit the park.
 Story Synopses:
  1. Advantages
    1. You quickly give a concrete illustration of a specific character trait.
    2. Like spicing a soup, these back story pieces allow you to introduce wildly different flavors in a very short space.
  2. Disadvantages
    1. It's very hard to maintain a balance between showing and telling and very easy to resort to full telling rather than showing within a short space. 
    2. These bits can be a distraction that can detract from your point if you don't use them well or if they get too long.
Examples of synopsis in this sample:
  •  It didn’t really matter which parent I pushed, though, because at the end of the day, Mom was immune to whining, and Dad was aggressive toward anything standing between him and the car.
  • I was never very good at grabbing the sympathies of my parents
  • No one ever refused my sister.
  • Her eyes are the spitting image of his mother’s and his sister’s eyes, and my father could never tell one of them, “no,” either.
  • You would think that the fact that I never fell asleep in the car even once after the age of six months would have cured her of that hope
  • My parents locked that dog in a cage every night, yet she managed to unlatch the top and jump out, squeeze through the bottom corner, or exact some other form of escape.
  • as if he had forgotten that I had just given him a piggyback ride from the Log Jammer to the arcade where he was so tired that someone had to wiggle the butt of his motorcycle while he raced it, 
All of these stories share one advantage and a couple of disadvantages.  The advantage is that I was able to very quickly reveal something about the history/character of our family that explained motivation in this story that would otherwise not have been possible.  The disadvantages are that these synopses often disrupt the rhythm of the action, slowing the story, and distract from the main point.  I might be able to eliminate some of them, and that's something that I can revisit when I revise it, if I choose to do so.

One final advantage to adding these synopses though is not one related to the story itself but to your future stories.  Often, these synopses reveal crucial aspects of your history or your family's history that would be worthwhile expanding in a story of their own, which is something to consider as you proceed.

Happy writing!

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