Sunday, October 6, 2013

Snippet of the Week: My Notes on the Narration of "A Long, Dry Summer"

Notes on the Narration of "A Long, Dry Summer"

What use is a frame tale? In Ocean at the End of the Lane, the point of the frame tale is to set the character in the real world before launching into the past. In Ocean it is also to make emphatically clear that the character is recalling these events as a child would. And that many of the things the child narrator memory is recalling may in fact not have been truths at all. That the narrator is unfaithful, or at the very least, untrustworthy.

What does having the frame tale of Rodney in the barn do?
It allows me to give Rodeny's POV only. It allows the perspective that exclude other perspectives. It allows that there are things happening that Rodney has no clue about, which builds tension. It allows the audience to know more than the character, at times.  It allows the telling to be part of the tale. It brings the teller into the story and makes the story closer to home. It gives the narrator more voice and personality and allows that to be expressed in a much closer telling. The drawbacks to such a present narrator is the sacrifice in the style. It is not nearly as smooth or as quick, but much more personable. Which is one of the keys to successful humor. Part of it comes from the teller being a participant in the story and the humour.

So there's a lot to be said for first person frame tales looking back. But what about switching POV in the second chapter and last chapter? It makes for a much more impact ending. We pull out of Rodney at the end. We see him from the outside. We are no longer privy to his thoughts. It is a slow exhalation from the prose. Which if that is the case means there is not as sudden of a break from the story. There is a greater sense of completion. It does make for a bit of an awkward beginning. Unless the beginning starts with descriptions of what the character is seeing, and then slides into using the first person pronoun. If done right it will be a minor bump and adjustment. If done improperly it will be too vague (the reader will not get that perspectives have switched) or too sudden (it will throw readers out who will have to reacclimatize to the story). So a careful balance must be taken at the turning over.

So maybe having description, which matches descriptions up until now. And then maybe having a reference (very quick-- eg, "but this was all year before I would end up in this barn telling this story"-- just a quick reminder to readers that what they are about to read is in fact being told to them by the guy currently sitting in front of the  horse in the barn) and then moving on. And then later, maybe a chapter or two later, referencing it one more time. Just to drive the point home in case someone missed it. And then move on. Don't dwell too long.

How does humour play into this? Well, if Rodney is telling the story he can make small asides that are funny (eg. "--even though all we ever saw of madame le roux's patients was that they were all men and would come up for quick fifteen minute psychic sessions and would leave with wide smiles on their faces-- what she did up there was truly a mystery.") but also in making the character be purposefully slow (eg "I was a simpler man back then and if there was one thing I knew it was that if you two people went naked into a room together, eventually a baby would come out with them"). Both theses attempts at humour fail miserably. But its the core concept. Its not taking the narrator seriously. Its about letting Rodney be ridiculous. Letting him comment on ridiculous things but also letting his commentary be ridiculous. Its about letting him interact with equally ridiculous people.

Where does the line between the grotesque and the ridiculous come in? This is very important. Because the line is so faint. It is the same way there is a line between detail and gratuitous blood and gore. Or where the faint line exists between tasteful sexualization and fantastic erotica. The line is faint and everyone will draw it differently. (meaning some people will see the ridicule as mockery and vice versa. Some people will not catch the humour or the jokes.)

To minimize missing it, and minimize seeming mean spirited, it becomes imperative to make sure there is an equal amount of ridicule spread around. Everyone has something ridiculous about them. Everyone says stupid things. Does stupid things. The stupid things however, should be endearing. And then there can be comedy of errors. Physical comedy. Dark humour- meaning specifically that something grotesque happens that makes us smile-- eg, someone dies overtly graphically-- e.g. splattering on the ground after being thrown off a balcony, followed by the person asking for another helping of casserole while the room reacts accordingly.

So it means keeping a light mood. Whenever the mood gets too serious there should be inserted a physical joke. Or a situational irony. Something to make the reader smile.

Rodney's perspective of himself. This is important. Rodney needs to view himself very seriously. But his words and actions should not be serious. Meaning--- "Mondays have been universally declared to be the worst days of the week. I always thought that wasn't very fair. It wasn't Monday's fault for chosing to be the start of the work week. And being the horrible person I was, I found a secret joy in the torment of the rest of humanity in trying to cope with Mondays. I will admit, on occasion, I would take wicked pleasure in making other people's Mondays as miserable as possible. Like I said, I am not the nicest person."

There is slight humour in this. But only slight. The problem comes from the fact that Rodeny's being self depricating. But maybe this could be played off as him being conscious of his self deprication. So purhaps if it were clear that Rodney wants the readers to feel sorry for him, then it could force enough distance between him and the readers that his attempts become funny and pointless instead.

There is another intresting thought. Is Rodney trying to make us feel sorry for him? Does he want us to take his side? Everyone feels sorry for themselves. Rodney is a manipulator. We have to see it, not outright, but sideways, in the ways he interacts with people. Maybe have him have a mantra that expresses this when added to his other actions. This would be difficult to do, because it demands that readers think about whether they can trust Rodney's tale. But this level of reading would make it deep. This level of reading would be the deeper element on top of just the funny story about a serial killer in the making.

Ray Bradburry's "A Farewell Summer" is all about transformation-- about resisting transfromation, about forcing transformation, and about the inevitability of transformation. It happens to all of us. The penis leaves the old man and goes inhabit the boy instead, transforming him into a man. This idea about the inevitability of transformation is the key I am taking away from "A Farewell Summer".

The idea is that "A Long, Dry Summer" is meant to take the concept of the inevitablity of transformation and apply it to a darker scenario. When the current of transformation changes towards the darker side of things, such as a serial killer in the making, can we still fight it. Or, like in A Farewell Summer, is it inevitable once we get onto the road. Is it fair to judge someone who has been forced onto the path by no choice of their own, and must now follow it to its end? Should we still only judge them by the sum total of their deeds? Or should we include the intent of their act, even if we can only gain their intent from them.

This is why the level in which we believe Rodney is important. If we feel he wants us to be sorry for him, then the intent element has been compromised. Rodney wants us to feel sorry for him because he is actual guilty but trying to make excuses by arguing intent.

The other reason the first person is so important to the story is because all the excuses Rodney makes for serial killing is his own then. It won't be reflected back on me, as the author. I mean, a lot of people will still, because they cannot separate fiction from reality. But if I make it explicitly clear, maybe towards the end. Maybe when he murders the girl and he's justifying himself. Or apologizing to the reader. Or something similar. Basically he pushed the reader out of the story for a second. Makes them remember that he is himself, and I am not him. And that this story is really his own defense. This protects me as the author, and forces us to ask questions about how much of a serial killer's defense regarding intent we can believe.

So having a first person narrative for this story is important for several reasons. One, it makes the story's narrator more personable. We have to like Rodney at first. He has to be quirky, but likeable. He has to do things which makes us smile.  Then, it allows more humour through the way the narrator tells things, through asides as well as through limited knowledge. After that, it allows us to be more invested in Rodney, and when it doesn't take himself so seriously, it allows us to step back enough to not take any of the story too seriously (since it's all coming through him-- who doesn't take himself seriously) which allows for a lot of the dark things to come across as dark comedy instead. Finally, it allows us to step back from Rodney at the end when he defends himself, to ask ourselves if we believe his version of events. And to also ask ourselves how we can truly ever know intent. So that when we leave Rodney's head and we can only observe, no longer know for certain, it closes very solidly while leaving lingering questions in the reader's mind. So it makes the book haunting.

A list of things Rodney's voice must achieve:
            -In first few chapters, establish that he is telling this in the barn (eg all is memory)
            -In first third of book, make him loveable (endearing, we smile even if he's wrong
            -In middle of book, his voice has to be self deprecating
            -In end of book, he has to become defensive, making us more alert as reader
            -Througout book he should never take himself too seriously

How to make list happen:

1. In First Few Chapter Establish He Is Telling This Presently, looking back

            -Have the break in POV
            -Have him reference that he is currently telling (midway chp 2)
            -Have him reference that he is in barn right now (midway chp 3)

2. In First 1/3 of book make him loveable/endearing

What makes a character lovable? When they have certain mannerism which could be annoying (Hermoine's bookishness, Ron's dread of schoolwork). They have to be identifiable. They have to have a common human experience and a common human reaction to the experience that makes people connect with them on a deep and personal level. Common human experiences: being awkward in social situations (needs to be more specific), getting lost and trying to find your way, maybe having to ask for directions without finding anyone to help (better), being approached by someone very attractive and acting like a fool, being confused for a worker/employee of some sort and acting along to avoid embarrassment, etc. Being overtaken or frustrated and being despondent about it. Makes us sympathize with them because we've been there.

            What happens during first third of book?
            -The first two murders-- The accident and the sloppy???
            -The cast is introduced-- Maybe Rodney moves into the Belmont
            -Setting is being established

--Incorporating the elements of loving/endearing with the elements of first 1/3:
            -Rodney moved into building, mistaken for bellboy, social akward sit
            -Rodney meets attractive people, unsure of how to act, bumbles
            -Rodney gets lost on way to place, has to ask for directions
            -Rodney gets pooped on by a bird on a Monday

3. In Middle of Book, voice becomes self depricating (eg, doesn't take himself too serious
            -Comments made aside ("There I went again, opening my big mouth")
            -Tone shifts slightly (I was having a bad day--> So I went to wallow in self pity till I felt better)

4. End of book becomes more defensive.
            -Makes excuses ("She forced me to, I had no choice)
            -Calls readers attention (I know what you must be thinking of me)
            -Attempts justification (I'm not a bad person)
            -Tries to make personable but fails (what would you do if you were me?)

5. Throughout book Rodney cannot take himself too seriously
            --When he has deep profound moments a bird poops on him, or it starts to rain hard, or a cat catches a mouse in front of him and rips it to pieces during tender moments
            -- Rodney can interrupt his own scenes, to remind readers that he is going to do something stupid, a la Emperor's New Groove
            --Rodney can encounter something that we, as audience of the future, knows about, but that he dismisses, a la Monty Python
            --Rodney can encounter something that everyone else accepts as normative, eg, eating something unsanitary, or gross, and have a gross out moment similar to what the audience would have, again a la Emperor's New Groove
            -- Rodney can have dramatic exits and then has to slink back when he remembers he forgot something-- a la everything ever written for comedy

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