1.26.2016

Merely Strange

A good author knows that the outer limits, both of personality and of society, must be probed in order to make a novel original. Some writers come to this voyage of discovery more naturally, because that is where their own lives are spent. They may live in the world of the arts, where the unusual is expected, or conversely, on the midnight shift, where the losers in ordinary life can be found.

Accounts about freaks make for good storytelling, and such an author may grin as he writes down an outlandish feat. Because a novel is a roomy abode, it can accommodate a panoply of misfit delights. The page count rises to the size of an actual book, and the writer can be forgiven for thinking that the end is in sight. Rollicking good yarns, all of them. Mix them up, making sure each major character appears in a regular rotation, and the only question left is: who wants to publish this?

The problem with a collection of anecdotes, even exotic ones, is that the reading experience remains flat. That may accord with certain modern literary theories, but it can also be an excuse for a writer who has not yet learned how to write with true depth. In a hodgepodge, the only thread a reader follows is often chronology. Yet twenty years narrated at a distance may be less satisfying than a single day narrated intensely.

Depth in writing requires winners and losers in the ranking of characters. Certain players appear more often, have a more complete life change. We’ll posit that the novel depicts a collection of roadies for a rock band. If Clarisse the sound mixer is a favorite of the author’s, she cannot be treated the same—i.e., given the same number of pages of coverage—as Chris the personal guitar tuner. Are Clarisse’s problems with her boyfriend, then husband, then estranged partner, more important than Chris’s heroin dabbling or not?

The odd and kooky tales become differentiated according to how important they are to the main characters. You don’t have to leave them out, but they cannot all be narrated with equal dramatic weight. If I don’t care about the character at the heart of the tale, his behavior will be merely bizarre. Maybe funny too, but the point is, his impact on the reader is less if he is only one among a collection of weirdos.

Exercise: When you are sorting through your war stories, divorce the real life models from the content. A story may have really happened to Elle, but if you want to feature Sarah more, it should be given to her. Life, in other words, is used in the employment of art. You may find, as a result, that Sarah’s reactions to what happens in that anecdote add texture to her character.

“One must be a little crazy to write a good novel.”
—John Gardner

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine





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