How many of you out there were English or Literature majors? Are you up on the subtle uses of symbolism?
Tell me, please, how this rates on the symbolism front: I’m scheduled to give a eulogy for a dead friend of mine in a couple of days — a writer of great promise, as the pros used to say — at a communal memorial service, and I’ve been under substantial pressure from various people to…how shall I put this?…clean up the narrative of my late friend’s life a little. Or at least tell a version that might not offend the folks who didn’t happen to know him.
No, that’s not the symbolic part; that’s all backstory. Here’s the symbolism: my throat has been sore all week.
I have to say, if I saw a parallel that obvious in a novel I was editing, I would probably advise cutting it. “No need to hit the reader over the head with it,” I’d say.
Now, if my life were a short story written for a high school English class, this voice loss might pass for legitimate symbolism — or even irony, in a pinch. A bit heavy-handed, true, but certainly situationally appropriate: outsiders move to silence protagonist’s voice through censorship = protagonist’s sore throat.
Both New Age the-body-is-telling-you-something types and postmodern the-body-is-a-text theorists would undoubtedly be pleased.
But the fact is, in a novel, this cause-and-effect dynamic would seem forced. As I believe I may have mentioned, oh, four or five hundred times before in this very forum, just because something happens in real life doesn’t necessarily mean that it will make convincing fiction.
My sore throat is precisely the type of symbolism that comes across as ham-handed in a novel. It’s too immediate, for one thing, too quid pro quo. Dramatically, the situation should have taken time to build — over the years since my friend’s death, perhaps — so the reader could have felt clever for figuring out why the throat problem happened.
Maybe even anticipated it.
How much better would it have been, fictionally, if I had dealt with all the different input with aplomb, not coming down with strep throat until scant minutes before I was to speak? That way, in fine melodramatic style, I would have to croak my way through my speech, while my doctor stood by anxiously with antibiotics.
The possibilities make the novelist’s heart swoon.
Just think how long it would extend a funeral scene if a eulogizer were unable to speak more than a few emotion-charged words before her voice disappeared with a mouse-like squeak. Imagine the deceased’s secret admirer creeping closer and closer, to catch the muttered words.
Actually, just think of the dramatic impact of any high-stakes interpersonal battle where one of the arguers cannot speak above a whisper. Or the comic value of the persecuted protagonist’s being able to infect her tormenters with strep, so they, too, are speechless by the end of the story.
Great stuff, eh? Much, much better than protagonist feels silenced, protagonist IS silenced. It’s just so…literal.
Then, too, readers like to see a complex array of factors as causes for an event, and an equally complex array of effects. Perhaps if I had been not spoken about my friend since he passed away (which, in a sense, is quite true: I was unable to make it across the country for his memorial service), then I would be fictionally justified in developing speech-inhibiting throat problems now.
Or if he and I had shared deep, dark secrets I had sworn never to reveal (no comment), how telling a slight sore throat might be on the eve of spilling the proverbial beans, eh?
But a single event’s sparking a severe head cold? Dramatically unsatisfying. Makes the protagonist seem like a wimp.
Because, frankly, readers, like moviegoers, like to see protagonists take a few hits and bounce up again. Even better is when the protagonist is beaten to a bloody pulp, but comes back to win anyway.
As I mentioned the other day, one of the great truisms of the American novel is don’t let your protagonist feel sorry for himself for too long — at least, not if his problems rise to the level of requiring action to fix. Simply put, most readers would rather see a protagonist at least make an attempt to solve his problems than spend 50 pages resenting them.
I can feel authors of novels and memoirs where characters sit around and think about their troubles for chapters on end blanching, can’t I?
Frankly, you should, at least if you intend to write for the U.S. fiction market. Domestic agents and editors these days expect first-time author’s plot to move along at a pretty good clip — and few characteristics slow a plot down like a protagonist’s tendency to mull.
Especially in a first-person narrative, where by definition, the reader must stay within the worldview of the narrator.
Some of you blanching souls have your hands raised, I see. “But Anne,” these pale folks exclaim, “you’ve been talking for a month now about the desirability of conflict on the page. Well, most of my protagonist’s conflict is internal — she can’t make up her mind where to turn. Surely,” the pallor deepens, “a professional reader wouldn’t dismiss this kind of thinking as whining, right?”
Um…that’s a good question, blanchers, and one that fully deserves an answer. The short one is that it all depends on how long the equivocation goes on, how repetitive the mulling ends up being — and whether the protagonist (or the plot, for that matter) is doing anything ELSE whilst the wheels in her brain churn.
The long answer, of course, is that in order to formulate a really good answer to that particular question, you would need to go out and read a hefty proportion of the tomes released in your book category within the last couple of years.
Not EVERY book, mind you: those by first-time authors, because the already-established have to impress fewer people to get a new book into print. In recent years, most fiction categories have moved pretty firmly toward the action end of the continuum.
As opposed to, say, virtually any novel written in English prior to 1900, most of which hugged the other, pages-of-mulling end of the continuum.
This preference isn’t limited to the literary realm, either — we often this philosophy in movies, too. Don’t believe me? Okay, think about any domestic film with where an accident confines the protagonist to a wheelchair.
Not springing to mind? Okay, how about if the protagonist is the victim of gratuitous discrimination, or even just simple bad luck?
I’m talking about serious drawbacks here, not just everyday annoyances, of course. For some reason, whining about trivial problems — “But I don’t have the right shoes to wear with a mauve bridesmaid’s dress!” — seems to be tolerated better by most readers, provided that the whine-producer doesn’t bring the plot to a screeching halt until she finds those shoes.
Got a film firmly in mind? Now tell me: doesn’t the film include one or more of the following scenes:
(a) some hale and hearty soul urging the mangled/unemployed/otherwise unhappy protagonist to stop feeling sorry for himself,
(b) a vibrantly healthy physical therapist (job counselor/friend) telling the protagonist that the REAL reason he can’t move as well as he once did is not the casts on his legs/total paralysis/missing chunks of torso/total lack of resources/loss of the love of his life, but his lousy ATTITUDE, and/or
(c) the protagonist’s lecturing someone else on his/her need to stop feeling sorry for himself and move on with his/her life?
In fact, don’t filmmakers — yes, and writers, too — routinely EXPECT their characters to become better people as the result of undergoing life-shattering trauma?
Now, we all know that this is seldom true in real life, right? Generally speaking, pain does not make people better human beings; it makes them small and scared and peevish. That sudden, crisis-evoked burst of adrenaline that enables 110-pound mothers to move Volkswagens off their trapped toddlers aside, few of us are valiantly heroic in the face of more than a minute or two of living with a heart attack or third-degree burns.
Heck, even the average head cold — with or without a concomitant voice loss — tends to make most of us pretty cranky.
Yet dramatically, we as readers accept that the little irritations of life might seem like a big deal at the time, even in fiction, because these seemingly trivial incidents may be Fraught with Significance.
Which often yields the odd result, in books and movies, of protagonists who bear the loss of a limb, spouse, or job with admirable stoicism, but fly into uncontrollable spasms of self-pity at the first missed bus connection or hot dog that comes without onions WHEN I ORDERED ONIONS.
Why oh why does God let things like this happen to good people?
One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon comes in that silly American remake of the charming Japanese film, SHALL WE DANCE? After someone spills a sauce-laden foodstuff on the Jennifer Lopez character’s suede jacket, she not only sulks for TWO FULL SCENES about it, but is seen to be crying so hard over the stain later that the protagonist feels constrained to offer her his handkerchief. Meanwhile, the death of her dancing career, the loss of her life partner, and a depression so debilitating that she barely lifts her head for the first half of the movie receive only a few seconds’ worth of exposition.
Why? Because dwelling on the ruin of her dreams would be wallowing; dwelling on minor annoyances is Symbolic of Deeper Feelings.
Edith Wharton remarked in her excellent autobiography (which details, among other things, how terribly embarrassed everybody her social circle was when she and Theodore Roosevelt achieved national recognition for their achievements, rather than for their respective standings in the NYC social register. How trying.) that the American public wants tragedies with happy endings. It still seems to be true.
I have heard many, many agents and editors complain in recent years about too-simple protagonists with too-easily-resolved problems. In conference presentation after conference presentation, they’ve been advising that writers should give their protagonists more quirks — it’s an excellent way to make your characters memorable. Give ‘em backstory, and if you want to make them sympathetic, a hard childhood, dead parent, or unsympathetic boss is a great tool for encouraging empathy.
Provided, of course, that none of these hardships actually prevent the protagonist from achieving his or her ultimate goal.
In other words, feel free to heap your protagonist (and love interest, and villain) with knotty, real-life problems; just make sure that the protagonist fights the good fight with as much vim and resources as someone who did NOT have those problems.
Again, this is not the way we typically notice people with severe problems acting in real life, but we’re talking fiction here. We’re talking drama.
We’re talking, to put it bluntly, about moving a protagonist through a story in a compelling way, and as such, as readers and viewers, we have been trained to regard the well-meaning soul who criticizes the recently-bereaved protagonist by saying, “Gee, Erica, I don’t think you’ve gotten over your father’s death yet,” as a caring, loving friend, rather than as a callous monster incapable of reading a calendar with sufficient accuracy to note that Erica buried her beloved father only a couple of weeks before.
While a sympathetic soul might reasonably ask, “Um, why SHOULD she have gotten over it already, if she’s not completely heartless?”, strategically, even the deepest mourning should not cause the plot to stop moving altogether.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that professional readers who resent characters who linger in their grief are inherently unsympathetic human beings; they just see far, far too much wallowing in submission.
Why is that a problem, you ask? Well, in a short story or novel or screenplay, people who feel sorry for themselves (or who even possess the rational skills to think at length over the practical ramifications of obstacles in their paths) tend to be passive, from the reader’s POV. They don’t do much, and while they’re not doing much, the plot grinds to a screaming halt. Yawn.
Or to express it in the parlance of agents and editors: next!
This is a very, very common manuscript megaproblem, one about which agents and editors complain loudly and often: the protagonist who stops the plot in order to think things over, rather than taking swift action.
Or — and this should sound familiar by now — stops to talk the problem over with another character, rehashing the background information that the reader already knows.
When you see these pondering scenes in your own work, even if the project in question is the most character-driven literary fiction imaginable, pause and consider: could the piece work without the pondering scene?
Often, it can, and brilliantly.
A more subtle form of this megaproblem is the protagonist who waits patiently for all of the pieces of the mystery to fall into to place before taking action. Why, the reader wonders, did the protagonist NEED to know the entire historical background of the problem before doing something about it?
Because the author thought the background was interesting, that’s why.
Longtime readers of this blog, chant with me now: “because the plot requires it” should NEVER be the only reason something happens in a story. Wouldn’t it be more interesting, and substantially more active, if the protagonist acted on PARTIAL information, and then learned from the results of what she had done that she needed to learn more?
In the midst of manuscripts where 2/3rds of the book is spent hunting down every last detail before the protagonist acts, I often find myself wondering: is it really such a good thing that HAMLET is so widely taught in high schools?
Yes, many of the speeches are mind-bogglingly lovely, but here is a protagonist who more or less sits around feeling sorry for himself and not acting until the final act of a very, very long play — is this really the best exemplar of how to construct a plot? Yes, it’s beautifully written, but honestly, by the middle of Act III, don’t you just want to leap onto the stage, shake Hamlet, and tell him to DO SOMETHING, already?
Oh, yeah, right, as if I’m the only one who’s had THAT impulse…
There endeth today’s attempt to derive something from my ambient reality that will help at least some of you in your writing efforts. Okay, so it wasn’t a particularly subtle connection — but hey, I still have a sore throat. Cut me some slack for a minor annoyance.
Don’t panic, please, if in the dead of night you suddenly find yourself thinking, “Hey, Anne raised a whole lot of troubling points today — but what about strategies for dealing with them?” You may sleep peacefully, knowing that next week is going to be devoted to precisely that.
Today was just to whet your appetite. Keep up the good work!
(P.S.: today’s lovely choo-choo appears courtesy of the fine folks at FreeFoto.com.)