Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Big and Small

Once upon a time there was a furry blue monster with oddly thin arms named Grover. In one memorable scene, Grover leans close in to the camera, nearly filling the frame.

"Near," he says, and then huffs and puffs back, back, back until he's just a far blue dot.

"And ... far!"

That's the image that occurs to me as I work through the ideas of big and small. Big concepts and small examples. Big stories and little characters. I mean the elastic springiness that any good story must have to deal with large, universal themes on the one hand, and the characters through which those themes are explored, on the other.

It's easy -- well, as "easy" as writing can ever be -- to write a sweeping epic, full of noise and battle and ... shallow characters. Conversely you could also write a very tight, focused story dealing with nothing but character development. Both are good, and everything in between.

(As an aside, this is one of the many things I love about books: nothing is off-limits. Everything is possible, from cell phone novels to novels in verse to nine-word stories. Everything.)

What I want to do is take some of those universal human themes -- courage, guilt, betrayal, defiance -- and bring them to the reader through the characters, to the extent that it's possible. When I can show a twelve-year old character grappling with guilt, or making the right but hard decision, or struggling to understand a world -- and a story -- beyond his understanding and which doesn't patronize him, when I can do all this I'll be pleased.

I've been thinking some more about D. M. Cornish's Foundling and this is one of the things I loved about it. The main character, Rossamund Bookchild (how can any writer not love that name? we are all children of the book) finds himself in a rich, vibrant, and very dangerous world that does not make things easy for him. Neither the antagonists nor Cornish himself patronize Rossamund ... which means as readers we also are not patronized. Plus the illustrations are incredible!

It's difficult to explore these larger themes yet still make the characters and the story approachable. As a reader I want to see this, as a writer I want to build it. In close where the characters think; then swoop far, far out to issues that resonate beyond the characters and even the book itself.

Otherwise we'd just watch trash TV.


woodwriter said...

Journalists, on the other hand, are collectors and displayers of Found Objects. Sometimes we have lots of the "in-close" details and no unifying theme. Think of trying to pick up a dozen pingpong balls without a net bag to hold them. Other times, the big themes are obvious -- we've come across one somewhere, stored it away, and yanked it out to examine -- but lack the small but telling detail. Sometimes we stumble across those details and it all snaps into place. Then we praise the Gods of Journalism and sing of the elegant simplicty of Archibald MacLeish: "For all the history of grief/ an empty doorway and a maple leaf."

S R Wood said...

Journalism as archaeology? Archaeologists try to reconstruct culture from artifacts; do writers hope to build a story from details? This is an interesting thought.

In fiction we can just invent things, of course, but -- and this is critical -- only if they are true to the story. Sometimes that hurts.