Friday, February 22, 2013

Showing the Story

Last week, I shared my qualified disappointment in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior because it is a heavy-handed polemic. Artificial scenes staged for the purpose of informing the reader do not foster felicitous expression, and nothing happens except that two characters talk back and forth, one delivering encyclopedic paragraphs while the other listens and occasionally comments or asks a question to give the former character an excuse to lecture on.

Stephen Colbert, echoing E. M. Forster, said (and I'm paraphrasing!):

•    Information equals facts; e.g., The King Dies. The Queen Dies.
•    A story, on the other hand, includes motive and emotion; e.g., The King Dies. The Queen Dies. The Queen dies of grief.  (P. D. James cites E.M. Forster, using the examples given in these bullets.P. D. James cites E. M. Forster.)

What redeems Flight Behavior when characters are not busy imparting information is guilt, lust, grief, ambition, fear, betrayal, longing, oppression, and friendship, the emotions that drive us to err, flee, fight, lie, laugh, love, and yield. The story thrives with these human emotions and behaviors when not bogged down in an analysis of climate change and biological imperatives.

So it must be in your work. You must tell of the human experience in order to tell stories. Story-tellers of old, including Grimm’s retelling of older tales from the oral tradition, used short-hand such as “And they lived happily every after,” a sentence used to communicate bliss and fulfillment; it leaves happiness to the imaginations of hearers while the teller remains on the safer side of decency.

Other writers, in more recent days, describe how a couple shows their happiness in each other, often using a kiss. In doing so, these authors convey the same bliss and fulfillment, but vividly, precisely, specifically. They show rather than tell.

Of course, such descriptions are more difficult. After all, how does one capture the abstract in concrete actions and language? Here’s how Margaret Mitchell accomplished it in Gone with the Wind, one of the top ten kisses in literaturetop ten kisses in literature:

“’Scarlett O’Hara, you’re a fool!’

Before she could withdraw her mind from its far places, his arms were around her, as sure and hard as on the dark road to Tara, so long ago. She felt again the rush of helplessness, the sinking yielding, the surging tide of warmth that left her limp. And the quiet face of Ashley Wilkes was blurred and drowned to nothingness. He bent back her head across his arm and kissed her, softly at first, and then with a swift gradation of intensity that made her cling to him as the only solid thing in a dizzy swaying world. His insistent mouth was parting her shaking lips, sending wild tremors along her nerves, evoking from her sensations she had never known she was capable of feeling. And before a swimming giddiness spun her round and round, she knew that she was kissing him back.

‘Stop–please, I’m faint!’ she whispered, trying to turn her head weakly from him. He pressed her head back hard against his shoulder and she had a dizzy glimpse of his face. His eyes were wide and blazing queerly and the tremor in his arms frightened her.

‘I want to make you faint. I will make you faint. You’ve had this coming to you for years.’”

Rhett, at least, believes that his kiss completes Scarlett, the narrator also suggests that Scarlett feels some level of bliss, and Mitchell titillates readers. These are all ends to which stories go. They speak to us of the human experience, and their effect is powerful, painful, exhilarating, bittersweet, and tragic. As a result, we celebrate our universal human natures, sometimes in song, as Faith Hill did in “This KissThis Kiss:”

…But you got me like a rocket

Shooting straight across the sky

It' s the way you love me

It's a feeling like this

It's centrifugal motion

It's perpetual bliss

It's that pivotal moment

It's, ah, impossible

This kiss, this kiss


This kiss, this kiss….

Unlike Mitchell, Hill relies upon a series of metaphors comparing love, especially felt in his kiss, to centrifugal motion, perpetual bliss, a pivotal moment upon which her heart and soul turn. With these, we understand as fully as we did after reading Mitchell’s description that the kiss spins us in space until we are light-headed and light-hearted, and that, dear Readers, is the heart and soul of quality writing.

Reading Challenge:

If you’ve settled for Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the 1939 spectacle, Gone with the Wind, pick up a copy of Margaret Mitchell’s book of the same name and spend the last weeks of winter with a good book.

Writing Challenge:

Describe your first kiss. Be patient with yourself. It’s not easy. Here’s one more professional example, this one by Rita Dove.


In water-heavy nights behind grandmother's porch

We knelt in the tickling grasses and whispered:

Linda's face hung before us, pale as a pecan,

And it grew wise as she said:

        "A boy's lips are soft,

        As soft as baby's skin.
The air closed over her words.
A firefly whirred near my ear, and in the distance

I could hear streetlamps ping

Into miniature suns

Against a feathery sky.