Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Magnifying glass and scalpel

Here's an exercise I use to keep myself from writing a story about the story, instead of just the story itself. First I get out the magnifying glass.

Our character, call him Fred, sits on a dock feeling homesick. When I peer through the magnifying glass I start to see things: the color of the water, the grain in the wooden planks, maybe Fred's chewed fingernails. Maybe the way he's sitting is stretching his shirt against his sunburn but he doesn't care because he's committed to feeling sorry for himself so he doesn't fix it.

Deeper. Why are all his fingernails chewed short except that one? Can his legs reach the water? Is it cold? What does the chill make him think of? Are there mosquitoes?

Deeper. Why did he go out to the end of the dock. Can it symbolize an end-of-the-line decision point, where he must metaphorically leap into the river or return home?

Now the other senses. What does the air smell like? What does the mud smell like? What does it make him think of? Can he hear mosquitoes? Are they biting him? Are bats fluttering black against the sky? Are these noises strange or familiar to him? Is there a taste in his mouth? Blood? Peanut butter? Sawdust? Stinky nap breath? Is the dock rough on the back of his thighs? Is it cold?

Closer and closer and closer.

And then deeper. What does this all mean? I touched on this above, but can some of these images link, implicitly or explicitly, to metaphors? The end of the line, or swatting at little annoyances, or embracing the discomfort of sitting on a dock because after all his life is already miserable.

Deeper. Can his reactions to any of these things demonstrate who he is? After all, what we do reveals who we are. Does he splash his feet? Is he too glum even to brush away mosquitoes? Does he smile a secret smile as he remembers his sunburn or his chewed nails or how the water feels on his feet?

Deeper. Motivations, reflection, symbolism.

And then I get out the scalpel. What we're after here is probably not more than a few sentences, so everything that doesn't advance the story or (more important in this scene, at least) our understanding of the character must be cut away ... keeping in mind that multiple layers of meaning are the last things to go.

For example, if I can show that he has sunburn, he's been outside all day, he's not happy about it, and he's stubborn enough not even to shift his position so his shirt doesn't hurt the burn, then there's a deep glimpse into Fred and his story just from one or two sentences.

At the end of C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, the rallying cry was, "Further in and higher up!" That's how I think of this level of editing, except I'm going in deeper and closer. Further in.

With discretion. That's where the scalpel comes in.


Peter S said...

Cool! I guess the trick is to keep revealing details that add to the story. I don't care if his pants are purple, unless it shows he is flamboyant. This technique is good for figuring out what your story is about, which might be the hardest part. The setting, dialogue, description, exposition, and backstory are all slaves to the story. So why do I usually forget this when I write?

S R Wood said...

I think story is the hardest to describe, certainly nearly impossible (for me) to isolate ... yet the one thing that will make or break the book. No story = no fun, regardless of plot or characters or snappy dialog. All hail the story! Everything serves the story!