On Getting Stuck

I’m stuck in a place in my script. I have all my players in a place. I have cause for each of them and tension between many. Despite all this, I find myself unable to write the conflict that feels natural and earned. The powers involved in this conflict are magical and, perhaps, divine, though that depends on who you ask.

The issue I’m running into is that, with 5 distinct characters in this scene/conflict, it is difficult to give them all enough page space to feel invaluable to the conflict. The question I keep coming back to, as I write and rewrite the scene in different ways, is this: why does this character (each character) need to be in this specific scene? How is their participation in this conflict essential to how the conflict concludes?

Like so often happens when I find myself in this situation, I turn to a technique that is both painful and, at times, feels futile: I try to write my way through it. This means I write and rewrite the scene every day until something just feels right. How do I know when I’ve got it? I’m not sure, but I know I do. This has happened with short stories before. I dealt with by writing the scene over and over again. At first, I’d write the same scene, changing nothing but the words I used–all the character actions were the same. But slowly, with the passing of the days and the rewriting of the scene, it would slowly start to change. The characters would do something just a little different. Their motivations would become more clear. Their essential natures to the scene would find their way to me.

Doing this same thing with a script, picturing the visual medium, is quite different. I can’t dive within the characters thoughts in the same way prose can. This, I find, is the constraint of the comic form. Prose has its own constraint.

But here I go again. Maybe today is the day I find clarity in this scene. Come one, characters! I created you. Now tell me where we go from her.

A Look At The First 3 Chapters of Murakami’s New Novel, Killing Commendatore

Last Friday, after work, I met my wife at a bar for a drink and cheese. Out of nowhere, she told me she had bought me a book. The new Haruki Murakami novel, though she didn’t know what it was called. She really bought it because it was the only way for her to get a tote bag that she liked which depicts a black cat (like our own black cat) reading a copy of the new book, Killing Commendatore. First, I was thrilled to have the book, and second, my wife loves totes. She probably has about fifteen of them of them. It drives me crazy. “…they’re in my tote,” she tells me when I’m looking for her keys so I can take the car and make a milk run.

My eyebrows raise. “Which tote?”

Things have disappeared. Things have materialized in those totes. Trust me.

See the source imageAnyway, I eagerly sat down with Murakami’s new book and started to read. At first, I was a little put-off. Many of the themes and ideas in this new book are similar to those found in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and while that is one of my favorite books ever, I want to see one of my favorite authors do something new. He did.

I’ve only read the first three chapters (as well as the prologue) because I couldn’t quite tell what Murakami was doing with the chronology of his piece. He has a collection of themes he introduces all of which take place in a different time frame, all in the past, but some more so and some less. I was wondering if there was any kind of rhyme or reason to it. It was clear to me that the narration was leapfrogging through time, then taking a step back, then leapfrogging again. If that sounds confusing, it is. I read chapter 3 last night and then sat down and made a graphic organizer so I could understand what Murakami was doing with time. Here’s a simplified version of what I thought was going on.

Leap frog_ Killing Commendatore

That probably seems confusing. It is, and furthermore, I don’t it’s this systematic. But what I’m trying to get to is that each scene is pushing the story forward, then picking up somewhere in the past, i.e. in between scenes or ideas that you’ve already heard about. Sometimes the narrator even repeats the scene and ideas and some of the same words as the first time you’ve read it.

Below is a table I made to organize my understanding of this book–or at least the first 3 chapters of it, I didn’t even take the prologue into account. I likely will at some point.

COLOR CODED KEY:

Green = Concerning anything the narrator did once he first got to the mountain house.

Brown = Anything about his wife wanting to separate.

Yellow = Anything to do with teaching painting and sleeping with married women.

Light Blue = Anything that came before the immediate story, i.e. flashbacks.

Dark Blue = Anything to do with the narrator trying to escape his own situation.

Red = Anything to do with the narrator leaving his past behind.
Killing CommendatoreAs you can see, the top table is the way this information is presented in the book, the bottom table is the chronology of when and what happens. You may notice that ideas are touched on twice. For instance, the wife tells the narrator she wants a divorce twice, not literally twice, but the narrator tells us twice in vastly different spots in the book. Four sections separate that once instance told twice. More extreme is the fact that he brings up sleeping with two married women who he taught art to in the fourth section, but also in the fifteenth section.

the lack of chronology in this piece makes me think the time isn’t of much import to the narrator, though to the author it was obviously of much importance, as he took a lot of time to mix the timeline up so much.

I’m thinking I will continue this timeline and color-coded method throughout the book. I’m expecting to see a pattern of some kind, but I’ll just have to read on and see.

On Narration

Yesterday I had a long Twitter conversation with Ann Leckie, author of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. This was a privilege in and of itself, and I am amazed she took so much time out of her day to have such a discussion. The discussion was on omniscient narration, both the pitfalls and the perks of the construct.

In this discussion we touched on the aspect of tension in fiction, and more importantly, in F&SF. I mention that I thought a lot of tension comes from the concealment of knowledge from the writer. Leckie, on the other hand shot this idea down. She said that tension comes from caring.

 

But then–that brings up how caring about a desired outcome works at all. If you’re told the story is a happy story from the very beginning and that everything ends up alright–how can you care about the actions in between the beginning and the end of the story.

This is the difficulty in writing with an omni narrator. It is more difficult to discern the information that the reader needs, from what they want, to the effect it has. I’m not saying writer’s shouldn’t use it, I’m saying it needs to be done with extreme care.

I think this is especially true for F&SF genres, that the “what happens next?” question is so important that if it’s given away by, lets say, an omniscient narrator, it dispels all tension. I can only relate it to watching a soccer game I already know the results of. It’s a total snoozefest and I’ll turn it off, or put down the book.

Of course, this is omniscient narration at its worst. There are ways to preserve tension with it. It’s just difficult to do.

Of course omniscient narrators don’t always ruin the plot for readers. Tolkien wrote LoTR with an omniscient narrator and it works great. But the largest issue I find in omni narration is the distance it builds between the characters and the reader. As soon as the narrator describes something that the protagonist(s) don’t know or couldn’t see–it removes me, as a reader, from the experience, and instead I feel like an observer, not so much within the story. And this can remind me that I’m sitting on my couch instead of actually living through the adventure. Like Leckie I think tension comes from an investment in characters, and if I don’t feel intrinsically connected to those characters because I’m being taken on a journey away from them to see events unfold that they can’t know about it’s easy for me to feel as though the actions of those characters are stupid because, with the information I have, I’d do something else. But since the characters don’t have that information we can’t experience the same thing, and so I’m not as connected as I want to be or should be. And this is why omni narration is so, so difficult to pull off.