Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Stirrings on Storytelling

It used to be, not so long ago, that I lived a dull existence. I would read stories quite passively; I would watch TV and movies as a spectator. Not that it’s possible really to be anything other than a spectator while doing that, but I think it’s possible to sit on the forward portion of the seat a little, if you know what I mean.

In other words I was just along for the ride, never thinking ahead of the story in terms of plot. Now that I’ve had a little practice constructing such things myself, I find I take in stories differently, whether in print or on the screen. It’s not that the surprise and delight are both gone; far from it. It’s that I’m a more active and aware participant in the stories I digest. I can appreciate a good subplot.

I recently had two bits of feedback on my own writing that jumped out at me. One was for Airel, and it’s been a sort of ongoing criticism of that book for about a year; that it starts slowly. Aaron and I have always responded with the idea that, yeah, it starts slowly, it’s the beginning of a pretty big story and we needed to take our time setting it up a little. But I also recently heard back from a Twitter friend about K: [phantasmagoria] and that it, too, started slowly. I suppose I can see where he’s coming from on that score, because while chapter one in that book does have a bit of a shocker in it, it’s not as explosive as what happens, say, about a hundred pages later, on I-84, which was the original beginning of that book. I felt I needed more context when I was revising. What can I say.

But that brings up the subject of Explosive Beginnings, or the somewhat tired and a little well-worn Attention Getter at the front of our contemporary stories. I’m having trouble thinking of a single movie I’ve seen or book I’ve read lately that didn’t have something big and shouty at the beginning of it. While these are cool from a certain point of view, and they probably make for better sales and better reviews to boot, the artist in me resists. I don’t want to be required to write to a formula, and I think it could be true that the Big Bang Beginning we’re seeing in our storytelling of late is a passing fancy. Well. One can always hope.

Jane Austen didn’t seem to feel the need to write that way, and her stories are intensely satisfying to read. Sure, a guy could argue that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his Holmes adventures with some manner of an explosive attention getter at the off. Certainly Stoker’s Dracula starts off with a hair-raising first three chapters, so it’s not like grabbing the reader by the collar is a late phenomenon. But those stories have a certain kind of class to them. Most pop storytelling tends to follow a formula, and it’s so exciting that it’s boring. I’m not saying explosions up front are a bad thing. I’m saying that a slavish obedience to the Big Bang Beginning is, well, a little mindless, and I’d like to push both myself and my readers to something more.

So while it’s true that we authors have got to give the reader something to bite into right up front, I think it’s also true that we don’t need another end-of-the-world CGI tour de force kind of story. I’ve grown tired of that kind of thing. Much like the villain unseen is far scarier than the one described in exhaustive detail, the spare and trim beginning of a story, at least if well written, should entice the reader even more by the information it denies him. The trick is to make him want it. That, my friends, I’m still trying to figure out, and I can imagine I’ll still be trying to perfect it when I die.