Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Heart Of The Matter

Writing inside-out
by Jay Stringer

I’ve been trying to crack a story lately. I’m working on a manuscript and, while I know I’ll manage to beat it into submission eventually, I’m still at the point where I haven’t quite cracked the heart of the story. But while I'm thinking about it, I’m realising a few things about my tastes.

I like writers that go inside-out.

What I mean is the emotion.Something Dave has touched on before. I need to get into the emotions before everything else falls into place. I’ve found a problem with all fiction, but one I notice more in crime, is that not enough writers really tackle issues like grief or loss.
Sure, loneliness and isolation get used, but often more as short hand for establishing a moody character. These are some of the key emotions that we all experience, and if a writer shies away from those, what do they have to build on when they want to tackle things like love or hope? In a genre that is built on dark deeds, marginalisation and death, the emotional fall-out of these things seems all to easy to overlook.

I’m generalising, of course. For every writer that I’ve just tarred with that brush, there are many more who deal with emotions. Reed Farrell Coleman built a whole PI series -the Moe Prager books- out of loss, grief and melancholy. Ken Bruen at his worst can do more with grief and guilt than I could do in a lifetime at my best. Our very own Russel D McLean’s The Good Son was a book that tackled these things head on, that actually managed to build a plot on top of emotion.

An example of what I mean is in my first book, currently being pitched by my ace agent. As I looked at where the story was headed on my last rewrite, I realised that I let the death of a teenager pass without any real sense of loss. So I stared at the screen until my forehead bled, trying to write a funeral. It wasn’t working. I’ve been to enough of them, I know what happens and when. But every time I started to write the scene, that’s all it became; a report of what happened and when.

Then, by chance, I wrote about the flowers on the coffin. I realised that some of those flowers would have been placed there by the boys’ mother, and bam….emotion. Writing the scene was easy from there; I had a way in. Once I had that one emotion on the page, the other followed, a broken heart and a bruised ego makes its way into the chapter. Anger bustles its way in. And just like that, a dull and lifeless scene became a chapter that managed to sum up each issue I was trying to get across in the book.

And thinking about all this recently has made me realise that this is what I look for in writers. All writers, be they films, novels, songs, comics, bleach bottle labels….

I often try and explain to friends that I need music to hit me in the heart and the gut before the head. I’m a lyrics man, no doubt, always have been. But they have to get me emotionally. If your song needs to be thought about before it can be felt, it’s not going to stick with me.
And that comes from an economy of words, I think. I real writer, for me, is one who can break your heart with the fewest words possible.

I’ve wasted many thousands of words online trying to explain what it is I love about Paul Westerberg. I mean, his lyrics are amazing, but to try and explain it that way is to make it sound wordy and complex. What really gets me? His lyrics get me into the heart of an emotion in a matter of seconds. He doesn’t need a whole song; he can do it with a flick of his lyrics;

“How do you say ‘I miss you’ to an answering machine? How do you say ‘Goodnight’ to an answering machine?”

Boom. Loneliness. Guilt. Love. Loss. Heartbreak. In two lines. THAT is writing.

“The bride groom drags you cross the room, you said ‘I do,"
But honey you were just a kid, your eyes say ‘I did.’ "

Again. Right into the heart of it, a whole story told straight away.

Springsteen, too, has become a master at it. His early albums, the ones where he sounded like a street poet with a record contract, were full of words. Free and easy, jangling guitars and rhyming dictionaries in flames. Then he seemed to get a little darker, a little older and he found focus the way some people find religion. He crafted his sentences, stripped away at them like a hardboiled writer until he became the most effective storyteller to ever pick up a telecaster.

“To the dead it don’t matter much, about who’s wrong or right.
You asked me that question, I didn’t get it right.”

Slipped into the middle of a rock song, hidden away amidst other songs that got scrutinised for any political meaning, was the simplest assessment of a foreign policy. And more than that, it was done through regret and a sense of loss, rather than anger or blame. Or how about one of the few moments in song that matches Folsom Prison Blues for getting to the heart of darkness;

“They wanted to know why I did what I did,
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world.”


Sometimes a total lack of emotion can be just as pure as any hatred or love. Here, a cold blooded killer looks you in the eye and tells you he killed innocent people for no real reason. Chilling. Terrifying.

How about our man Waits? Natural born storyteller. Look at this little turn of phrase and see how complete a story can be told with a throwaway line;

“It’s a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace, and a wound that will never heal.”

Okay, okay. Everybody writes about Westerberg, Springsteen and Waits. This is true. But some clichés are still important. It doesn’t stop with them, though. There’s a songwriter by the name of Ben Nichols, the front man of Lucero, who I think is well worthy of attention.

“When this world was made, it was never meant to save everyone in kind.
I don’t believe God much had me, had me much in mind.”

I’ll be returning to Ben in future to look at his album, The Last Pale Light In The West. But back to today, it seems somewhat counter intuitive to love such economy. I mean, if a story can be told with 12 words, why read a book that takes thousands? Well, different mediums have different strengths, but the principle holds true. There’s an old joke that a gentleman is someone who can play jazz guitar but doesn't. Along those lines, I think a great writer is someone who doesn’t put too many words into a sentence. And I'm sure that Weddle fella could turn this little article on its head by bringing his knowledge of poetry, another way of relating complex emotions through simple words.

All of the writers that really stay with me are the ones who can get me into the very heart of the story. As I've already said, going for the pure driving emotion of the scene and writing inside-out. Why? I don't know. I've written before about how comic books taught me to read, so maybe it comes from that. Maybe its because I'm dyslexic, and its a survival instinct -the fewer words there are, the more chance i have of getting the point. Maybe it's just because the sky is blue, i don't know.

How about you guys? Who does this for you?

4 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is a delicate issue. My first reader, my husband, likes to figure things out for himself. He wants only the most subtle hints of inner turmoil. So writing for him I am prone toward assumption that the reader gets it when he may not. I need a second reader that focuses on this to balance things. Someone to say-how does he/she feel about what's going on.

John McFetridge said...

It is a delicate balance.

There's a story that may be true about a scene in a Fistfull of Dollars - awoman and a young boy terrorized by bad guys. The Man With No Name arrives and shoots some of them. The woman, on her knees, looks up and says, "Why do you help us?"

The story goes that there was a long monologue explaining what happened earlier in the man's life that led him to get involved. Pages of dialogue telling the story.

What Clint Eastwood says in the movie is, "I knew a woman once, and there was no one there to help."

But you can never know what readers (or listeners or viewers or whatever) will bring with them. In this week's episode of Mad Men there's an accident with a riding lawn mower that results in a lot of blood. In some online discussions people are talking about how it foreshadows the Kennedy assasination - the blood on Joan's dress, the way it cuts down a promising career and on and on (some peole have waaaay too much time t spend online. Not me, of course, other people ;)

I was taught in school that for something to be a signifier it had to be identified as such.

But people will make things signifiers anyway.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Gosh, I hadn't thought about that, John. I saw it a warning against the perils of letting women drive and drinking on the job.

Scott Parker said...

Springsteen is a modern master at saying so much in so few words. Here's one of my favorite political statements in recent years:

That you know flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't.

And here's one of my favorite couplets about the self and what really hold us back:

You do some sad sad things baby
When it's your you 're tryin' to lose
You do some sad and hurtful things
I've seen living proof