Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What works works... but what works?

Jennifer asked a good question:
Another submission-related question re: short stories.

Does the italicized prefatory bit in Brokeback Mountain (where Ennis is shown AFTER the events of the story) work there only because it's Annie Proulx? Or could an unknown author submitting to lit fiction journals get away with a similar device?

(Yes, I have a story with two similar paras--similar, in that the POV character is depicted after the events of the story. It's not traditional prologue in the sense of telling what came before.)

Jennifer, there are no rules, of course, except to be good. :) Also genre matters a lot. Proulx was writing in the literary fiction genre, AND short story. And of course she was already well-known, which does indeed mean she could get away with more... but it could mean she is well-known because she's good, and editors trust her to get it right.

But if it works, it works. I don't mean to be difficult. :) But that's it. We can list all sorts of things that don't work, and then some really good writer makes it work. (In fact, some really good writers, I think, deliberately CHOOSE what editors just said doesn't work... just for fun. "I heard you say that we should never start a book with the protagonist on an airplane thinking about where she's going. Ha, ha, I just did that, and it's so good!")

All we can say is usually these whatevers don't work, and we can even usually explain why. (Showing Ennis after the events would deprive the reader of the suspense, etc. Does the film start that way too? I forget.) But Proulx had a reason, I'm sure. Suspense wasn't her main aim with the opening. So does it work, do you think? What echo does it set off that is picked up in the end of the story?

I guess that it's a great idea to go with what is organic, what works with the story, but that takes a good author. We have encountered a lot of authors that choose something because it's trendy, because they've seen other books do it, because some bestseller did it-- but often it doesn't work for the story. (If it works, then I don't grumble as loud. :) There was an annoying trend of starting Ch 1 with a free-floating line of dialogue, and for a couple years, I saw ms after ms that started with a line of dialogue-- not because that was how this story should open, but just because it was trendy. And you don't have to see too many bad examples before you start thinking that starting with dialogue is generally ill-advised, and, uh, making ill-advised generalizations thereof. "Do NOT EVER EVER EVER start a book with dialogue! Ever! You hear me? I better stomp my foot too!"

But there'll be some story that really OUGHT to start with dialogue, or an author clever enough to play with that and make it work. And I hope I'd be able to recognize the rightness then. But that doesn't mean it was a good technique for all those other stories, or that it's as likely to produce a good opening as starting just before something happens, or starting with a pan-shot of the setting (both of which are more reliably successful opening gambits).

As usual... the truth is, what works works. But it will work because it's right for this story, and that takes more magic or skill or calculation than most authors are using, to tell you the truth. Avoid the generic is the best advice-- be ruthless with your own work and your own talent, analyze, figure out what works, and never settle for what worked (or especially, what didn't work!) for other stories. There are techniques that are commonly used because they often work (say, the hero taking form in an archetype role), but even those that usually work might not work in your story because it's different, because you have a different story logic, because you're aiming at a specific tone or pacing. And your job is to realize all this. :)

I know it doesn't help that so often editors and agents mention something cool or not so cool, something that readers of this sort of book like or don't like. However, these edicts can be helpful if you can just experiment, if you're flexible and also have a good grasp of your own story and characters. For example, I remember a couple years ago some editor mentioned that women readers really like "makeover scenes" where the ugly-duckling heroine gets the swan treatment (think of the reality shows this desire has generated :). Now personally I can't imagine much more tedious than a scene of the heroine getting her hair and nails done, but I do understand the underlying thematic purpose. It's not the mechanics of the scene that resonate for the reader-- that's just a way to make the process concrete. What is the underlying dynamic here? It's about transformation-- not so much "If I transform, he will love me," but "If he loves me, I will be transformed." Or maybe, "This surface transformation will give me the confidence to be myself, as long as I never forget that I am more than my surface."
(Or, in the "divorce-revenge" subgenre, it might be more like "Through transformation, I will find the link between my old uncool self and my new cool self, and boy, will he be sorry he discarded me!")

Once I thought through the underlying thematic purpose, I had a better sense of why some makeover scenes work and some just don't. It's not the makeover scene... but what is underneath. And if the manifesting scene doesn't actually reflect that underneath truth, the scene isn't going to work.

Trouble is, the author who knows her heroine enough to know that, for instance, the makeover MUST be interrupted and left incomplete... that's a different sort of author than the one who thinks, "Makeover scenes are trendy, so I'm going to put one in." The first author, the author who has the makeover scene develop a certain way because that's what's needed for this character, is an author who is going to impress editors.

The second type of author, the one who inserts a makeover scene because it's trendy, is the author that will make us groan and say, "I never ever want to see another makeover scene!"

So it's not the technique or scene or tactic that is right or wrong. It's the author's connection with her own story and characters.



jaz said...


This is so helpful. Because in wondering if it would work, I've been looking at it more in terms of what would an editor do with it--if she saw a couple of prefatory paragraphs, would that be a "red flag" and make her move on before seeing if it works.

But your response reminds me to focus on whether it works in this particular short story, and specifically has me thinking about suspense--which events require suspense to work well, and whether there are some events that perhaps require less supsense to work well.

You also have me thinking about why Proulx framed BBM that way! I didn't see the movie. But I am thinking that maintaining suspense about Jack Twist dying was not critical to the story. (Although I'm not sure from the preface that we know he died.) But it's like that line from Shadowlands--something about part of the pleasure now is the pain later--maybe we read the moments Jack and Ennis have together as more weighty or critical because we already have a good idea they don't last forever. It seems to give us a particular prism from which to view the story. It's not just a love story, the preface says. Slow down. Remember this.

Your response also reminds me to watch out for being derivative for the sake of being derivative.

So again I thank you for your really incredibly generous response.


Riley Murphy said...

The idea of : ‘But if it works, it works.’ sounds like such a simple concept, that I almost skimmed right over this, when I read it. Recognizing the urge, I purposely paused and thought about what this statement really meant to me. As a reader, I guess it means that the writer has succeeded in drawing me in - commanded my attention - has made me care about what’s taking place - without me ever knowing it. We can all (most often), spot things that don’t work in certain stories - but, when you get that one story that works? Despite the fact that it may have the ‘usual whatevers’ (that shouldn’t work, but do-in every chapter), do you consciously recognize this and say to yourself - ‘Wow, even with all those ‘whatevers’ I can’t believe how well this works?’ Or are you drawn into the magic of the story - too busy reading, to examine why it works?...I don’t know about anyone else but, I find that when I read a story that does work - I devour it, arrive at the end too soon and then pull out the box of chocolates and lament over why I hadn’t thought of doing a story like this, myself. I mean, it was so simple...nothing to it, right? Man, that ‘making it look easy’ - pulls me in every time - but then, isn’t this the writer’s job? And when you say,‘it's not the technique or scene or tactic that is right or wrong. It's the author's connection with her own story and characters.’ I thought: Yup,there it is! When you, as an author, have a firm grasp on where you are going, how you are going to get there and who will be leading the way – the reader feels it - trusts it and is able to sit back and enjoy the ride. Of course this isn't always easy to do. No, clearly, with my latest work - I have put Helen Keller in the driver’s seat - cause, no one seems ready to make me offer...back to the proverbial drawing board with that one, I guess...

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, I was just thinking about two 19th C books-- Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre-- as proto-romances, and what elements they used which are still useful today in romance-- the seemingly remote hero, the "everywoman" heroine, the mansion setting, the failure of other marriages, the money issue, among many others-- and why are those not "formula" and "derivative" when I see them in, say, Laura Kinsale's works now? (In fact, many elements of P&P, including hero's name, were transferred into Bridget Jones's Diary.)

Of course, they CAN lead to formula, but often they don't. Why? I think because there really are storytelling elements that define and deepen a genre, and that's why after centuries they're still used and appreciated. However, they work -because they work--. I mean, there's some deep reason why a remote hero works in a romance. (Maybe because the heroine has to show how tough she is to win him over? Maybe because the hero is actually standing in for an aspect of the usually female reader, her "masculine" side, or her id, or her superego, I don't know.)

The writer who intuitively or analytically understands this reason is going to be more likely to use the element well than someone who just uses the element because "all romances do."

I should post something about deep meanings of elements, because that does interest me. :)
Alicia (nuts about any book where a character has amnesia, and I don't know why)