Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Missing Scenes

Over the weekend, I wrote a scene between two characters, a revelation scene, that I intended to be the centerpiece of the second-to-last chapter of the secret project. As I'm nearing the end, I feel the need to tell all the secrets I've been keeping for ten chapters, hence these revelations.

I was dissatisfied with what I'd written. In an intense but vague way. It was like indigestion - an unease in the gut, something not sitting right as it works its way through your plumbing.

I compared the scene with an earlier dialogue scene with which I'm far more satisfied. The differences were myriad: ages of the characters, positions of power held by each, what was at stake for each, relation between them, content of the discussion, I could go on and on. The scenes had very little in common. Mostly, though, one was good and one was not. I kept poking at them with sticks until I figured out why.

These are notes Virginia Woolf wrote and drew for her novel To the Lighthouse.

I got this from the fascinating website Woolf Online, which has a huge cache of archival materials about To the Lighthouse - original notebooks that have been both scanned and transcribed, page proofs corrected by Woolf, letters written to and from her about the novel, etc. Check it out.
If you can't read the above, it says "All character - not a view of the world. Two blocks joined by a corridor."

The novel is divided into three sections. The first and third take place over short periods of time, a day or so, but explore in enormous depth what is going on inside and between the characters. Each of these days is of no special consequence to any of the characters - not the day everything changed for them, not the day they learned what it is to be a woman, etc. Just a fairly regular day. The middle section, "Time Passes," takes place over a much longer period of time, 10 or 15 years, I think, but it's only 17 pages long in my edition, and that's because Woolf doesn't go very deep on anything during that time. She instead summarizes with remarkable brevity the major events that occur over that span: births, deaths, marriages, World War I. In between she describes the gradual decay of a summer house et al.

She's up to a lot of different things in "Time Passes," a lot, but I think I figured out one of the reasons she structured the book this way. As readers, we learn a lot more about the characters, and are ironically a great deal less bored, by the little stuff, the days of no consequence that pass in a family life, than we are by the big turning-point moments that matter so much to a character's makeup.

Reading scenes of large, important emotional events is not terribly interesting at this point in literary history. Most people react to a revelation with surprise. They react to loss with grief. They react to danger with fear, and potentially with bravery or cowardice. These reactions do not take imagination to write, nor do the scenes themselves. Twenty-first century audiences have seen and read these scenes everywhere, in old books and movies and in bad TV. Contemporary literature does not need me to write a scene where a woman tells a girl that she has to sacrifice herself to save her best friend; in itself, this situation may not be cliched, but the things that the woman and the girl say to each other during this scene absolutely are. I was bored writing it, which means people will be very bored reading it.

This scene is a key point of drama for certain of the characters in my book, so it has to exist. But the question I began to ask myself as I was thinking about To the Lighthouse, the $64,000 question that may lead to much, much, much better writing: does it have to exist in the book?

Infinite Jest had missing scenes like this, moments the characters kept thinking about or referring to but which were not included in full scene form in the novel. Some of them I kept waiting to read, because I presumed all things of import would be included in an 1,100-page novel, but they never appeared. And I think it's because those scenes were fairly easy for the reader to imagine for herself and would have been uninteresting for Wallace to write.

Woolf, too, decided to dispense with the big stuff in mere phrases and parentheses, and stuck with the little stuff for the main body of the novel. She knew what we already knew about the world, and she knew what she could show us afresh.

What is included and what is not included - but not left out. Discretion that jazz musicians must understand before they can really play. Choices that true craftsmen of short stories comprehend. Judgment that I suspect can be the codex for making a novel that's a work of art, rather than a novel that's merely good to read.

Events in fiction don't have to happen more than once to be what a professor of mine terms "repeated events", which "occur once, but are narrated multiple times throughout the story." Hamlet refers to his father's murder over and over and over and OVER again. Stephen Dedalus's mother's death haunts several chapters of Ulysses (usually with the very same sentences). It's the same little scratch on the roof of your mouth that your tongue keeps returning to, unbidden, but it has a different sensation on day one than it has on day four. The same death, but different reactions, depending on Stephen's surrounding company and the strength of Hamlet's metaphorical sword arm.

So even though this revelatory conversation has to occur, has to keep being considered by the characters, I don't necessarily have to write the conversation into the book. The characters know it exists, and readers of the characters therefore cannot miss its existence. What exact words passed between the characters in that room on that day is not of much importance, because the reader can imagine them and possibly a great deal more than I could put in her head directly.

How useful this is! What I can put in place of these scenes are scenes that have not been read and seen hundreds of times by a postmillennial audience. Matt said this sounded like an interesting challenge, alluding to a crucial moment well enough for the reader to imagine it rather than just writing it, and I agree. But, for once, such a challenge fills me with happy anticipation instead of terror. Even though it will be hard, I'm not stuck writing boring scenes I don't want to write. And it's all hard, anyway. No writer gets a pass on hard.

No comments: