Monday, April 8, 2013

Building a house of cards, part two: Images and the construction of story

Reflections of Undertakers of Rain

I love small tableaux. I love the notion of a snapshot too. Small constructions of scene, whether or not they are embedded into a larger work of theater or film are wonderful things to me. For instance, and this stretches back some time, in the film Barton Fink the Barton Fink character and the Charlie character are sitting in Barton's hotel room. The scene is a very quick conversation between the two characters and then they're off in different directions. But in that one instant, the composition is stunning. It's at least very stunning to me. The tableau is two men so close to one another that they could probably smell one another's breath, but they cannot communicate. If this example is too esoteric, forgive me.

I was mired in the yet to be named novel, Sand and Asbestos when one night I had a strange dream. It was the summer of 2009, I think. Already, and this post is yet to come, I had developed a method of novel writing that was in full swing by the time I began Undertakers of Rain. I had completed three manuscripts that spring and summer. The story that would become Sand and Asbestos was a strange thing I worked on between other projects. But the morning of the strange dream, I put down everything else to write one single image.

The dream, as with most dreams, made very little sense. It will make even less sense should I try to explain it now. The important piece of the dream was this: it was wartime, I was in a small town where everyone was a spy and I hid under a stairwell with a woman. The image was this: she had a pile of jewels (probably stolen) and she had to protect them until the end of the war. In the dream, I vowed to help her. The two of us were cramped under a stairwell, a space smaller than a closet and we were to be there indefinitely.

How the hell do you write a scene like that? Two strangers, wartime, stolen jewels? I struggled with the image. I kept trying to write a vignette using these two characters and this situation. Believe it or not, it got stupider and stupider as I continued with it.

Finally, I came up with something. I thought it was good. Ultimately, the scene did not make it into the novel. Rather, the image, and all the hassle of trying to make it work became nothing more than the springboard for the project.

Undertakers of Rain is the product of a disjointed dream and a poorly conceived idea of an image. But, perhaps that's what it's all about, this game of writing is the process between the initial spark and the final, readable product.

I think all writers have the initial spark that leads them to something. But like the image I've shared with you, that initial spark is just what it is, a spark. It takes more than an interesting image, or an interesting tableau to get a reader into a story. Next time you watch Barton Fink I wonder if you'll even notice the scene that is so etched into my mind.

Next time: The process of construction

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