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September 15, 2011

If you’ve been with us from the beginning of “How This Critter Crits,” you may skip this summary and deduct 11 seconds from the reading time.  If you are a newcomer, you might want to take a moment to familiarize yourself with what’s been covered so far:

A Bird’s Eye View

The preface and the first chapter laid the groundwork for why I felt it was important for me to explain my method of critiquing (critting) and why I chose to call myself a critter instead of a reviewer.

The next two chapters of this series revealed the process I use to get an overview of the selection I’ve chosen.  The process is largely intuitive and is developed from the “weight” and the “movement” of the piece.  It is best accomplished with the eyes slightly out-of-focus.  I call this process Macro-Critting.

The last chapter began the nuts and bolts of the process I call Micro-Critting.  In it we discussed “beginnings” and “endings,” and looking for the effectiveness of “hooks” in the openings of short works as well as in chapter endings of longer works.


Ask the first two hundred people you meet on a busy city street what the last story they read was about and you’ll discover something fascinating.  You’ll discover you’re lucky if twenty people answer you.  If you make careful mental notes, however, of the hundred and eighty who ignore or sneer or snarl at you, or call you a pervert — and especially if you note the nuances in how something is said or left unsaid — won’t you be feeding a rich diet to that unconscious birthing-bed of creativity in your mind?  Can’t we count that, at least, as a blessing?  Nothing wasted?  Nothing lost?

A bonus … but, alas! — not our focus today.

So, on to the titillating twenty:  As you patiently listen to each of their responses unfold, I’m betting that within the first full minute (probably with the initial sentence out of his or her mouth), you’ll find what you’re looking for.  Then, like a competent casting director you’ll be able to say, “Thank you … we’ll be in touch.”

What was it you were looking for, anyway, and so soon found?  Mouth open expectantly, fingers twitching and your right hand, flattened out and ready to fly up like the hand of a school crossing-guard so you can shout out, “Stop right there!” after you’ve heard words such as these: “… And so this old man catches this huge fish, but before he can bring it to shore, sharks eat it.”  Or, you hear about how, “a really big, but dumb, guy is killed, as an act of love, by his protector and best friend….”

So, what is it that, within the first minutes, you’re almost sure to hear about?  People!  People interacting with other people, or wrestling with unsettled or warring parts of themselves, or — almost always tragically — with their physical or social environments.  That first person was telling you about what happened to the old man in The Old Man and the Sea.  He wasn’t pointing out to you that this is one of the most cogent examples of man persevering against all odds, fighting unrelenting nature and his own frailty — but, then neither does the flyleaf of the novel.  No, as important as theme is, it isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when asked what the book is about.  And, the publisher will be the first to tell you that theme does not sell books.

Study the faraway look in the second person’s face as she revisits in her mind the emotion of that final scene when Lennie takes the bullet in the back of his head after his best friend, George, has tricked him into gazing out across the water and fantasizing, aloud, their lifelong dream together.  With Of Mice and Men the reader experiences, only with afterthought, an example of what may be one of the most moving tributes to the depth of friendship and the flimsiness of dreams.

The point is, before the reader can ever get to the layers of meaning, lofty symbolism or the themes that will provide intellectual fodder for generations of readers, he needs — no he craves, his interest demands — the more elemental mind/heart connectivity with real, breath-filled people.

The opening scene of a story may be a snowy hillside the day after a blizzard.  The writer has seen such a scene many times.  Even if he had never actually been there, though, and was reared, say, in Santa Barbara, California,  he’s researched the geography of the place thoroughly (albeit from a leather chair in the city library).  What’s important is, he wants the reader to experience the beauty of that snowy hillside the day after a blizzard.  He’s got the plot to his story inside his head, but first he wants the reader to get the intimate feel of the place.  He wants him to feel the ache of the cold in his bones.  He rhapsodizes with his reader the eye-achy whiteness of the surrounding hillside, how the brittle knuckle-joints of the branches pop and break and shatter like glass when the wind brushes them against each other.  Oh … and then there’s the cottontail that hops by almost undetected against the white.  A cardinal dips and flutters by and looks like an artist’s splash of crimson against the white canvas of the snow bank.  The writer could go on and on, page after page of what he sees and hears and what he wants the reader to see and hear.

The question, though, is whether the reader will go on and on.  Sheer beauty and majesty aside, how long before the reader’s inner voice shouts louder than the words on the page: “Show me the people!”?

The reader craves drama.

First Entrance of a Character:  Story is about conflict and relationship and how relationships change or even how they stay the same because of the conflict.  In other words, it’s about people doing things to other people.  It’s about the effects of what is done to one character, or both, or all.

Above all, story is not the writer telling the reader what people are doing to other people, though he/she is careful, even scrupulous, in telling the reader what that conflict is and what effect it has on one character or both or all.  Drama!  That’s what the reader wants.  And, he’ll settle for nothing less.

As a critter, my antenna is up from the outset for the first entrance of a character who’s right in the middle of doing something.  The Greeks (I want to confidently assert “Aristotle,” but then one of you Fanstorians will just as confidently assert, “You’re all wet, Jay!”) introduced a concept: in medius rex, which translates to start “in the middle of things.”  Chances are I’ll see it in that opening paragraph (which, you’ll remember, was touted as being so important in the last segment of Microcritting).  The hook is generally set firmly in the jaw of conflict, or perhaps the mere suggestion of conflict, within one person or between two or more people — and it’s often right there in the first few paragraphs.

But, you’re a patient critter.  If you’re not introduced to a person, or people, agonizing about something in the opening, you’ll read on about all that beautiful snow; you’ll even let the cold creep into your joints, just as the writer wants; oh, you’ll frolic in your imagination with the snow bunny and dodge once or twice those bloody cardinal’s wings … but, if you’re like me, before too awfully long you’d better be witness to someone trudging through that beautiful snow.  Preferably his face will be distorted by a look of sheer terror — but, it might be a knowing smile, instead, a smile you find yourself craving to know about.  That just may suffice for the moment.

Sooner or later, though, now that the writer has your attention, you’re going to want to know (and if the writer is savvy at his craft, he’s going to intuit precisely when that need to know is most intense, and is, at that precise moment, going to lay out for you on the page), just what is holding the other in such a thrall of terror — or what that incongruous smile is concealing.

You’ve been a patient critter already.  May I ask you to be patient once more?  Please forgive me an aside (and some of you are saying in one voice: “That’s all it’s been so far ….”)  It came about because I read back to myself the parenthetical palaver in the preceding paragraph and noticed something that seems worthy of note:  I noticed, and I’m hoping you have as well, that there can be an almost alchemical interaction between the writer and his reader.  Further, I think this interaction occurs in everything one reads, differing only in degree.  And it has to do with timing.  In fact, in the final analysis, timing may be the single most important element in the writer/reader embrace.  Don’t expect any profound explanation — not from me.  I can only tell you by way of example that with parts of some of Robert Frost’s poetry, I have felt our brief embrace — no more than a polite guy-hug, really.  With Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas In Wales,” — whew! there is an intensity in Dylan’s and my embrace, from beginning to end, that edges right up to the, well, inappropriate.  In fact, if I’m foolish enough to try to write anything just after a reading of “A Child’s Christmas In Wales,” my words will come out with a Welsh accent.  I fully believe, being admittedly ignorant as I am of the process, that without some degree of this alchemical phenomenon at work when I read, it would be impossible for me to crit — at least without being guilty of duplicity and fakery.

Now, back to the subject of people and drama that I was introducing before I so rudely interrupted myself and you:

Character one + Character two = Sex or Physical Conflict or Dialogue:  Few Stories are going to sustain themselves long without a visit by what is to the left of the equation.  The reader’s attention and his patience are going to wear thin with too much of even the most gorgeous description.  What is “too much” will vary with the reader, and the writer may prolong the moment by introducing breathing things to the environment.  But to continue with the bunny or the cardinal much longer, the writer had better start inventing names for them.  That might buy him perhaps a page.  Afterwards, he’d better have another rabbit or bird, or two or three, stage right.  And, at that point they really need to meet each other … and quickly (The writer, and the reader, feel it — it’s a “timing thing”.)  So what are the options?

Character one + Character two = Sex:  Sex?  Whether bunny sex, cardinal (of the bird variety) sex, or human sex, when it is exclusively undertaken, it is written, or photographed or filmed to be enjoyed in the smoky back room, at one of those special bookstores that is usually picketed once a year (or, figuratively speaking, entertained in that naughty basement room of our imagination).  By itself — and again, exclusively undertaken – it is not story.

Character one + Character two = Physical Conflict:  I suppose a good writer can sustain physical conflict with warring bunnies and birds a while longer when it is undertaken exclusively — but not on the human level.  There is the win/lose drama inherent in physical conflict in the lower animal kingdom with whom the reader may personally identify.  It may be a territorial domination.  Or a to-the-death struggle over the rites of breeding.

We’ve all watched documentaries on Discovery, the Learning Channel, or National Geographic Channel, which explore with the viewer the first two equations above, with everything from termites to chimpanzees.  Would we watch an hour of such programming, though, if it weren’t for the narrator?  Perhaps he might fill us in on what is vital to our understanding of what is transpiring, but more often than not he is alluding subtly, and not too subtly, to a human corollary in the perused animal behavior.  Ultimately, these narrators point out the existential urgency in animals, mammals, birds and insects, to communicate.  How many studies have there been on the language of species as varied as chimps and whales?  Whether the “language” code will ever be cracked, notwithstanding, it is important that these creatures seem to need to speak to and understand each other.  They have an urgency to communicate.  There is a need for dialogue in the lower animal kingdom.

How much more so, then, in Man?

Character one + Character two = dialogue:  It is only with the addition of this yeasty ingredient, dialogue, to the story-muffin that the reader’s interest can really start to rise.  At this point I want to include as dialogue, introspection (self-talking) as well as verbal exchange between two or more characters.

It might be fun, if not instructive, just for a moment, to take a little different slant on what dialogue is.  When the reader reads dialogue is he not eavesdropping?  He is listening in on stuff that’s really none of his business.  It’s an argument between a husband and wife.  It’s none of his damned business.  If he were in the conversation it would be his business.  But he’s not.  His nose is pressed in a book.  He might as well be sitting on a park bench and listening.  Or maybe peeking around the corner.  Also, whatever he is seeing, like the spittle flying out of the husband’s mouth as he thrusts himself in his wife’s face — none of his damned business!  He is eavesdropping.

This is an important distinction.  There is a distance between the reader and the written word.  The bridge between the two is the imagination, the writer’s and the reader’s individual ability to visualize and agree together as to what those letters that are strung together in various lengths and separated by strange marks and spaces, mean, and not only what they mean but what image they splash up in some theatre a little above and behind our eyes.

Still and all, we’re just eavesdropping on what the writer wants us to see and hear.  It is the responsibility of the writer and his craft to involve the reader so much that he does not realize he is eavesdropping.  He wants nothing less than to render the reader oblivious to the fact that he is reading.  A tough challenge, at best.  He has no control over the distractions in the reader’s environment.  What he can do — what he must do — is make certain that his offering is not one more of those distractions.

I hope you’ll come back for a visit next time when we take a look at some of those unfortunate writer-controlled distractions.  We will explore reality crashers, which I define as “anything that crashes through the illusion of reality the writer labors so hard to create, causing the reader to realize he is eavesdropping.  We’ll focus on the reality crashers inherent in well-intentioned but poorly crafted, or ill-conceived, dialogue.

Join me, won’t you?

Pssst!  You made it this far so why not pop over to the right-hand side bar and subscribe to my FREE newsletter?  Until I get other people to voluntarily rave about it, I’m gonna have to be the first one you’ll read as saying: “Jay’s newsletter’s a hoot!” and “Chock-full of writing tips, it’s information rich, while entertaining and funny!” and “You’re gonna wanna jump aboard before Jay discovers how great it truly is and starts charging a huge subscription fee!”

  1. Whew! It’s been a little while since I’ve been able to get back. Excellent points about character and conflict. 😀

  2. Thanks for dropping by, Sonia. And don’t feel badly. I haven’t been out visiting blogsites either. I’ve been frenetically editing my new mystery thriller novel “Death in the Winter Solstice” to get it published before year-end. I’ll stop by yours soon. Blessings, Jay

  3. No apology needed, Sonia. I don’t know of a creative person more active in the creative process as you. And that equates to being super busy. I’m just so happy you stopped by.

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