“Sometimes there’s just no room. So I often don’t end a story as much as land it.”
I’ve been exchanging emails with a guy named Guy. Guy Biederman, and he’s been making me feel self-conscious about my sometimes floral writing style. Self-conscious in a good way, though, because I’ve been examining how I write, and I’ve been thinking about the difference between saying something in an artistic way just to luxuriate in the syllables, and saying something in an effective way that also happens to be lyrical. Not the same thing.
Guy says that he thinks like a gardener. “When I prune a story I take out the dead wood first by removing most if not all adverbs, adjectives and similes, before deciding on branch removal. Next come crossing branches. And finally, I have to decide which branches to prune to open up the center and allow in the light,” he told me. Which I love. It made me think of that line from that guy about how there’s a crack in everything that lets the light come in. It’s a school of thought that, like, the story needs to get out of its own way in order to be seen.
The style that Guy ascribes also tends to be respectful of the reader. One of the “branches” he says he always “prunes” is the “just-in-case-you-didn’t-get-it-explanations.” That makes complete sense to me. I often start writing something and then stop because I think, like…are these people dumb? Do I need to say this? Usually the answer is no, because usually you can get it, and I don’t need to explain.
For a few years now, I have felt like the best story I could ever tell would be one that you make up for me.
Sounds facetious, maybe.
Here’s the thing, and maybe this has happened to you, because it happens to me all the time: the least scary moment in a monster film to me is the big reveal.
The monster, who I have been dreading for the whole movie, finally jumps out of the shadows. This thing that, like, I’ve been feeling more and more squeamish seeing its handiwork suddenly passes that barrier between what’s imagined and what’s perceived. This should be the most frightening moment in the movie. I should be ready to go out of my mind.
Thing is, usually, I’m not. Thing is, usually, at that big reveal of the monster moment, I usually feel a sense of relief. I might be disgusted by the visuals or startled by the implications of the shape of that particular spike, I might be impressed by some good creature design.
Usually, though, I am less frightened after the big reveal than I was before the monster showed up. I feel a moment of relief now that I can see the thing that has been creating all the untidiness that had been implying so much discomfiture.
Nobody knows better what frightens me than I do. In all of those early scenes of the horror film, when I’ve been seeing the little clues that the monster leaves behind, I’ve been constructing a monster for myself. I know this is a horror film, so I know that the monster in it wants to leave me terrified, so I begin to imagine the worst monster I can for me. It’s a monster who knows my weaknesses, who’s invulnerable to my strengths. And it begins to make me sweat, because it’s my monster.
Then this squashy, tentacly thing jumps out, and my first thought is, “Hey, didn’t I see a fireman’s axe a second ago? I bet I could take a hatchet to that and run away. I think I’d do okay.” The monster immediately stops being the personalized horror I constructed and starts to be somebody else’s fantasy. It starts to be something tangible that I can respond to and start to make plans about, I can see how it might be vulnerable, maybe, and the illusions starts to break down.
All that stuff before the reveal, though. That stuff had me sweating bricks. That stuff turned into my nightmares. The dread accompaniment of my making discomfort makes dark alleyways terrifying. The suggestion that something wants to do me harm, and it watches from where I can’t see it. I am led to believe that I might not be safe, and my imagination starts to betray me.
Some schools of writing take a similar approach to all storytelling. I think it appears so much in scary stories and similar because this idea of letting an audience tell the story to themselves marries so beautifully with the creation of suspense. I think Hitchcock said something about how suspense is knowing what’s coming and dreading it. It just sort of works.
From a storyteller’s perspective, in a sense, scary is cheap. Humans are, fundamentally, prey animals, I think. We’re hard-coded to feel vulnerable. It’s a survival mechanism. So it’s kind of a cheap trick to frighten your audience.
My example describes a good lesson in a colorful way, anyway, because it provides an example of what anyone reading a story needs to do no matter what kind of story they have to read.
Because everyone who reads needs, to varying degrees, to retell the story to themselves. That’s just the nature of language. It doesn’t matter how thorough or even how good a writer you are. You could describe a scene with such detail that it would, hypothetically, be possible for a life drawing class to use your scene description as a model, you know, and everyone in the class would more or less be able to draw the same image.
But, speaking as a writer, even if I do describe an image in utter completeness, I know that anyone who reads what I have written will still need to interpret it to themselves. A lot of philosophy and hot air has been written about this idea of individual perception, and people have argued for literally thousands of years about whether two people even perceive the same thing if they both stand in the same place at the same time and look at it. People have written about what perception even means, and how it relates to interpretation, and all that. I’m not that interested in going into all that. Suffice it to say that if you took some prose, maybe from an Ann Rice book or from someone else notorious for describing in exhausting detail, and you had two artists capable of drawing photorealistic images draw the images from the book without talking to each other first, I can almost guarantee that those two artists will interpret the scenes differently.
The human mind is a complete quagmire of missed connections and mistaken definitions and personal memories and random observations and rumors and different pronunciations of “been.” And I’m only talking about me, here. I’m sure your mind is much tidier.
The human mind is a swamp in a tornado and we barely know how to navigate there. To even propose to introduce anything new into it is to propose to allow that new thing to be churned up and misused from the first moment of contact.
That’s what a writer has to deal with. Trying to talk to a device that, even when it’s working at its best, still, you know, completely loses its thread if someone wearing its ex’s favorite fragrance walks past.
To me, it doesn’t make sense to try to get too worried about attempting too much forced direction. Not if what I would really like to do is cause some emotional enlivening in another person’s mind.
Even at my most perceptive, I don’t know what triggers other people. I don’t know what will make them feel concern or attraction or pride, or whatever. Not completely. The best I can do, probably, is imagine what I might find affecting and write that, and hope someone else has similar triggers.
Some schools of thought take a step further than that.
Guy’s school of writing, “strives to evoke rather than explain, with simple, sinewy prose that creates images which trigger emotion and association. Anything hinted at, or suggested, or visualized, when done just right, allows the reader to have their own bingo moment.”
You don’t try to belabor a story into the reader’s head. You let the reader tell the story to themselves. You let the reader create the emotional reality. After all, they know their history better than you do.
It’s a cut-back, direct approach to storytelling, that, I think, creates a relationship where the reader can build up a sound relationship in a brief time with the narrator of the story. By this trimmed and pruned style, the narrator makes it clear that they want to go with the reader on this adventure. They don’t want to comment on it, or hold the reader’s hand, or try to force any kind of conclusion. They have no interest in telling the reader what to do.
“It could be said,” Guy told me, “that I have issues with authority, but I’m pretty sure most people I know don’t like to be told what they should think or feel. So I take those out, as a writer, and try and leave intact those ‘ah-hah’ moments which can be magical and which tend to stick. My own definition of a good story is one that I remember.”
I believe that it’s the prose writer’s job to get out of the way of the story as much as they can. Once the story has been written and people have it in their hands, it passes out of the control of the writer anyway. The writer can have pride in what it does at that point, maybe, but I don’t think a lot of value can come of trying to invest pride in how people receive the story. The relationship has stopped being a relationship of a writer to a story, and it has become a relationship between a story and a reader. The story has its own life at that point, and the writer can’t do much about it. I believe, therefore, that it makes most sense for a writer to recognize that from the beginning and do what they can to, just, get out of the way.
And Guy agrees with me. Which makes me feel clever. Although he says it better, which is good, because it keeps my ego intact. He says, “I do feel that most good writing disappears and allows the story, the experience, to remain.”
Guy teaches on his approach to writing and calls it “Low Fat Fiction.” All lean and sinewy and ready to run a marathon, I guess. After talking to him, I feel like he’s like a much friendlier Ernest Hemingway. We’re fortunate enough to have some of his writing floating around the daCunha library.
So that’s cool.
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