Thursday, August 25, 2011

May I Have Some Wine To Go With That Cheese?

First and foremost, I would not mind a glass of sweet Riesling after a full day back at school.  Summers are beautiful and evil devices that trick teachers into forgetting the regimented working world waiting for us from September through June.  But that's not really what this post is about.  Feel free, though, to grab a glass of wine before you continue reading.  

Instead let's talk about the super fine line between deep, pithy moments wrought with emotion and those horrid, Danielle Steel-like lines that leave most readers and writers rolling their eyes for mercy or a vomit bag.  How do we, as authors, peer down into the emotional chasm and craft the keystone scenes of our works without plummeting into the world of cheese and cliche (and men with thick flowing hair who just long to be, well, longing?)  

Romantic relationship drama always creeps into my stories.  And the relationships never quite fit.  Someone is a few degrees out of tune with the other, and often that minor slip ends in a declaration of how unlivable the relationship has become.  I arrive at those scenes, those statements, and I wonder how much do I need to tell the reader without becoming preachy or predictable?  Should the hero, or often in my case heroine, stand at the door of her apartment flushed and screaming from the top of her lungs 'I'm free of you, scumbag?  And yeah, never date me or my sister again!'  

Or is that too much?  Um, yeah.  Probably.

And if the reader was playing close enough attention to what had preceded the moment of heartbreak, shouldn't he or she have already gotten what was going on internally? Instead is it enough for her to slam the door and sigh, head against the door frame, the air in the room taking on a pleasant chill while the stairs groan under the weight of scumbag's self and baggage dragging to the exit?  (As I'm writing, I realize that this blog is far more question than opinion, but that's ok.)

In fact to be more precise, this isn't really about overly cheesy scenes but instead overly overt scenes.  How much do we spell out for the reader of the emotional inner workings of our characters so that he or she gets it?  One of my favorite books (and authors - shout out to Maeve Binchy) Circle of Friends finds a way to express all of the stress, misery, love, and friendship a group of girls offer to one another without long stretches of sappy dialogue.  Or hugs and embraces every other page.  By no means is it a high literary romp, but the book's heartfelt and warm.  And never once did I shake my head and think, wow, that didn't really need to be said.

In my own works I try very hard to leave the payoff sentence to the last paragraph.  Perhaps that placement in and of itself is cliched and doesn't need to always be at the end, but I don't like dialogue or statements of summation for the reader during the core of the story.  I want the readers to figure it out from the quiet, tiny moments.  My characters don't reveal their feelings often in dialogue or grand sweeping motions.  And that's great, right?  Show, don't tell?

Well...not always.

Think about Poe and other drama mavens brave enough to make those overly emotional, brooding statements.  It works for those authors.  It sets a mood and tone the resonate with readers and linger well past when the cover of the book shuts.  As with most of the writing issues I approach, studying the masters will help.  And studying the non-examples, the awful Twilights of the world (ha, got in my digs for the blog) will help, too.  

I wish there was a simple test.  A stick I could insert into each sentence that would emerge with a clear label to let me know if I've gone too far or not nearly far enough.  I tell my high students daily to avoid drama at all costs, but maybe going too far to avoid drama in a story sterilizes it from the gritty goodness of a good brawl and a few nasty names screamed in the heat of the moment.  

My goal this evening?  Start a story for the Good Housekeeping Fiction Contest with pure drama.  A full paragraph of over-the-top-ness that ends in a scumbag and at least something being thrown.  Not a glass vase, though.  Now that would be just too cheesy.

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