Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Medium Is the Message

I was recently teaching a class in voice in fiction, which is one of the amorphous topics that even I doubt can be taught. But something I meant to say and forgot is (quoting McLuhan): The medium is the message. He meant, most likely (I skipped that class :), that the technology and/or the genre embeds meaning into whatever is being broadcast, so that a story will have a different message when it's told on Dateline NBC as a sort of docudrama than it would in a novel, that the mode of broadcast will in itself become the message (the Dateline message might be, We want you to believe this, even though we pretty much made it up; while the novel might say, I made this up, but it's got a truth truer than fact, for example). This becomes even more important now when we have so many forms of media, and "truth" depends a lot on the medium and much less on the intrinsic originating "message".

Okay, that's what he meant. That's not what I mean. I mean that the mode of expression, the voice, if you will, is the message, or at least should be the message, or by complicating or denying the perceived message becomes an alternate message. That is, how you choose to present the information is part of what the reader will absorb in accepting (or creating) the meaning of something you present.

Don't worry. I'll keep writing until this makes some sense!

1. Well, first I think that if we have little to say about this whatever, we tend to choose vapid or empty ways to say it, and the reader senses our lack of engagement. It will show in our lazy presentation, in our simplistic sentences, in the cliches we use to express what we haven't actually examined deeply. We are alienated from our own meaning, and that's the message the reader will get, that this isn't worth any effort. So a lack of "medium," that is, a prose passage that shows a writer just settling for ease of delivery, will result in a lack of message, for not a lot of importance is likely to be expressed without originality.

Interestingly, I see this often in scene openings, and I think what has happened is that the writer is trying to just get into the scene, trusting that at some point it will catch fire, that he will channel this character (talk about the medium :) or find the voice or realize what this is all about... and maybe at some point, the writer does achieve that union of medium and message, and the passage really gets going.

But if that's so, the writer should go back and rewrite the damned opening. And no one lecture me about voice and how whatever pearls flow from your fingers onto the keyboard are "natural". Sometimes "natural" prose is bored and uninspired. And that's bad at any point in the scene, but it's particularly bad at the beginning, when the reader needs more meaning to understand what is to come-- not necessarily more information, but more something. Take a boring passage, a vapid delivery, cliches, unimaginative sentences as a sign that you haven't challenged yourself enough to find the true medium or voice here. Think about what you want to convey. Consider who this character is. Think about what this situation is.

2. Sometimes the passage is workable deep point of view, faithfully replicating the POV character's thoughts. But characters can have boring thoughts! Characters can sit down on the couch and think about what they had at dinner and feel their stomachs protest and think in commercials: "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." Characters can notice that it's raining and think, "Rain, rain go away. Come again some other day." There's nothing particularly magical about deep POV; if the POV character is being boring, the passage will probably be boring.

The solution there is to make something happen. You never have to narrate every blasted moment. Skip over the moments where nothing is happening and go to the moment when something is going to happen. Or make something happen. He's gotten up groaning from the dinner table and is about to open his mouth to say something boring, and his wife breaks a glass and cuts her hand. Or he opens his mouth to say something boring and belches-- in front of his son's elegant prospective in-laws.

Another solution is to change the setting or situation to force more conflict. Yes, it's dinner, but it's at a restaurant far fancier than he's used to. Or it's the first dinner he has made for a new girlfriend, and he realizes as he gets up that she didn't eat anything and probably didn't like it.

3. What's thought can usually be said. And anything said aloud can be heard, and cause reaction and change. This is particularly important in relationship books, where the relationship changes because of the character interaction. Intemperate speech, threats, ultimatums, provocation, casual revelations, inadvertent utterances-- anything that can cause trouble will cause trouble. But it has to be spoken so it can't be taken back. Put the conflict out there, on the page. If the character is careful and never says anything without thinking, well, put him in a situation where he speaks out without restraint. You're in charge, don't forget. You can set it up that even the most close-mouthed character can be led to speak.

4. Okay, so there's conflict in the scene! Good! Go for it! But remember that HOW you express is as important as what you express. The medium is part of that message. So experiment. If you're in deep POV, think about how this person might mentally express this. An example is in Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, where one character uses legalisms to explain why she cheated on her husband, as if she's making a case in a court of law.

A character who is into "accounting," both the professional and the personal kind, might add up all the evidence and arrive at "the bottom line". Another character might list the pros and cons of a decision-- and yes, you can even express this as a chart the character jots down, with pro on one side and con on the other. Experiment, for goodness sake. It's not like you have much to lose.

Challenge yourself to express this in a vigorous, vivid way. Yes, most of the story will (should) probably be pretty standard narrative. But whenever you find that you've got a boring passage,
when your medium has no message, think about enlivening it by finding the conflict, or forcing the conflict, or creating some conflict, and then by using the situation or character to express this in an intriguing way.

Don't listen to those people who say, "Plot is all that matters." No. SCENE matters, and that involves more than some eventual event-- it involves interaction and action and presentation and conflict. Challenge yourself to go beyond your first draft. Rethink. Reinvent. Experiment. Put it on the page.


1 comment:

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Love this post! Added to Favorites.

Voice is such a vague concept, I'm always grateful when someone can tie it to something I understand. Thanks!