“A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.”
William Stafford

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

Day 11: When Characters Say More Than They Say They're Saying
Thu 2010-11-11 22:58:36 (in context)
  • 19,864 words (if poetry, lines) long

So. One possibly interesting insight from writing class, coming right up. It's sort of a third-hand anecdote, so the details of exactly how it transpired may be off. Bear with me; the insight comes at the end.

One of the group members who wasn't actually there yesterday had been trying to work on a short story that had been commissioned from an anthology and was now significantly past deadline. He told us about this last month. He was just having a terrible time trying to figure out how to make the story work when its action comprised a single conversation.

One of the group members who was there yesterday had gotten to talking with him after class that night, and suggested that the conversation in the story be crafted to do double-duty. While it was ostensibly about one thing, its real meaning should be something else. Say one character is ostensibly talking about his emotional state; in describing it he's actually obliquely relating a crime he committed and how he feels about that.

Apparently this piece of advice sent the first group member home in a hurry, inspired to get to work on the story. It also enchanted those of us present last night, and Melanie suggested we use it as our "homework" prompt for next class.

So I'm thinking of three basic ways a conversation can do that kind of double-duty. Actually, they're more like points on a spectrum of character awareness, where at one end the character is aware of their words' double-meaning and intends it to be so, and at the other end only the author and the readers are aware of the double meaning. There are in-between possibilities as well.

Example: It's Thanksgiving dinner, and one character is telling the family about a movie she just saw. But the way she recaps the plot and her emotional reaction to it actually relates to a traumatic memory of how she got bullied by one of the people here now at a Thanksgiving dinner 20 years ago. Moving from the one extreme to the other, here are ways that might come about...

Aware & Deliberate: She is being intentionally passive aggressive, attempting to jog the culprit's memory of bullying incident with the way she talks about the movie.

Aware & Accidental: As she recaps the movie, she realizes the words coming out of her mouth could just as well apply to the bullying incident. She wonders if the culprit picked up on it too.

Unconscious: She doesn't realize consciously how the movie plot relates to her childhood trauma, but the connection influences how she talks about the movie. Maybe the rest of the family pick up on it, maybe they don't, but the connection is definitely present in the text.

Literary Metaphor: Here the connection is only present in the subtext. The character is simply recapping the movie, but the words the author puts in her mouth are meant to make the reader aware of the character's painful past.

And how does this relate to my own novel? Ooh, glad you asked! Well, today's scene was mostly taken up with Lia and Jet arguing. Because I didn't really know what they were supposed to do next. I hate that crap. The only thing I can do is follow the boring, talking-headsy argument until one of the characters spits out something revealing.

The character doesn't know they're being revealing. And my eventual readers (should this get published) won't know it, either, because most of the argument will be edited out of existence. But I'll know, and I'll go, "Whew! Finally! We can get on with it now," and I'll write the next scene.

I suppose that's even further toward the "unconscious" extreme. "Literary Metaphor" is where the author and the reader are aware of the double meaning, but the characters cannot be. We should call this fifth critter "Author's Note To Self," because it serves no purpose beyond giving the author a gosh-darned clue.

Anyway. I'm not sure I got to the clue yet. But I would like, once I know more about this story, to come back and revise the argument so that it performs a double-duty that the reader can appreciate. Perhaps by the time class meets next I'll be able to do that, so I can bring this scene in and share it with my classmates.

Lia stared at Jet, trying to force a brain abruptly awakened to early in the morning to accept this information. "They what? But why would they--" She couldn't seem to form a coherent response. "And how would you know?"

"Because I dreamt about it and received some information that made that clear."

"Oh, come on." This bit of nonsense on top of all of last night's nonsense, pleasant though the circumstances had been, was just too much nonsense to take. Lia wished that, instead of telling Jet to tell her everything, she'd restricted herself to asking very specific questions. That way maybe Jet wouldn't be throwing the incomprehensible at her every time she opened her mouth. It felt like being told that the sky was velvet, breakfast was desperately igneous, and, by the way, godzilla is on the agenda at yesterday's pumpkin secession. "No, no, no, this is ridiculous--"

"We don't have time for this, Lia, not if the Swifts are coming for you."

"How can you know that just from a dream?"

"Look, I dreamt that you were the assassin who killed Tresco! Then you were insisting that I take a closer look at the stone. OK? Clear? Satisfied?"

"No!" Lia covered her face, scrubbed at her eyes, and let loose a mock-scream of exasperation. A baby began to wail from the apartment on the other side of her bedroom wall. Lia sighed. "Look. Listen. I just dreamt that my mother and I were riding a horse, and I fell off, and she kept going without me. I am capable of waking up and going about my day without an urge to call her up and doublecheck that she hasn't just, I dunno, drawn up a new version of her will and left me out of it or something like that--"

"Why not?" Jet seemed genuinely surprised. Or else she was determined to be contrary. "It seems like a real possibility."

"Because I'm already out of her goddamned will, and besides, dreams are stupid! They're not psychic, they psychological, and half the time they aren't even that!"

The infuriating tolerance of Jet's smile made Lia want to dream agian. "That, while probably true for you, isn't the case with me. When I dream, I--bilocate, I guess you could say. Part of my awareness returns to reality, making more information about my assignment available to me. Usually I remember it in the form of a dream, with all its symbolism and metaphor. My colleagues and I get very good at dream interpretation." Jet's smile went from condescending to simply wry, a change that changed Jet from someone Lia wanted to punch into someone Lia wanted to kiss. And then punch, just to make clear she wasn't forgiven.

Lia began, "Look, assuming that I--" then cut herself off. She'd been going to say, assuming that I believe your stupid story about being from another world, which I don't, because I don't accept that my life is just your dream-- But that seemed to violate some sort of agreement they'd come to between the lines last night. And while she was trying to figure out how to rescue that sentence, her morning alarm went off.

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