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Friday, 17 January 2014


Notes on Spring Session themes

This is, of course, optional, but I thought it would be useful to look at two things, one thematic and one compositional. Both could be thought of as 'meetings'.   Hopefully, you might be able to use some of the ideas in what you're already doing.

Meetings in stories or elsewhere are interesting in themselves and also are places where you have to convey the main 'impact' of a person as soon by another person and/or the narrator.   It's often a good idea to convey 'who they are' they through how they stand, walk, joke, gesture here and now in the story, rather than explain through backstory.   In other words make the depiction of them in itself a kind of backstory.

Meetings usually involve dialogue, how one person comes on to another, how shy or brash they are, how educated their vocabulary is,  how feral it is.   How a person talks, and how they gesture and move with it, can often tell us as much as what they actually say.

Often, of course, it's what is not said, that speaks loudest.   Often, also, what strikes us about a character at the first meeting may not be what it seems, or may be the particular response of the narrator/character.

We meet people,  dream people,  babies when they come out,  places,  difficulties, strangers, relatives, friends, lovers,  pets,  towns, bosses, teachers, and so on - but only part of them.  They are partly visible.  We didn't know about their work for MI6 at the weekend,   their terrible vice, their childhood trauma.  When and if we ever do there's a sense in which we meet them again.

I'm thinking of a particular kind of 'meeting'  or perhaps 'juxtaposition' here, where the writer makes a film like cut just where something important is about to happen, and then we are shifted without explication, to another setting where the thing that's happened is being reviewed, now in the character's past.    A stranger is pointing a gun at the child in his sandpit, and then CUT to child struggling to explain what happened to his Dad, or the police.

This method of dealing with climactic events useful if there's a danger of the actual event becoming over prominent,  or being the less climactic for NOT being left to the reader's imagination.   Or, of course, the narrator might want to leave something in dispute.   Did the boy really tell the gunman where all the matchboxes of shiny stones were.   We have the possibility of disputed versions of what happened.

Disputed realities is a theme which can be dealt with in all sorts of other ways, of course.   I'm finding this in my first reading of Alice Munro.  Sometimes we don't realise that the narrator or the viewpoint of a character is deluded,  or that perfectly sensible 'ordinary' people can make assumptions of a common sense type which are erroneous.  Sometimes what seems straightforward isn't straightforward at all.  Some characters we live in a world in which their confidence allows everything to seem a potential job for the bar.   Her descriptions are sometimes quite lengthy, and yet as they go on, are not in fact just carelessly or wordily written.  She's looking further and further INTO the ordinary sitting room or garden setting, so that it becomes less and less ordinary.

When we  meet something, somewhere, someone for the first time we tend to make assumptions even though we know that any judgement made on meeting something, somewhere, someone must be provisional (Well there are know-alls you think they can suss it all out in one know-all glance).
But the meeting is always, in a sense, a set of questions waiting to be confirm, modified, denied. That's what makes the opening of a story 'hook' us in.  

The passage below has a man at his wife's funeral.   It's a draft.  Obviously, depending on how the story is to go, there can be significant details.    But the bare bones, as given here, have him wanting to get away, being waylaid and meeting a stranger who seems to know him, and gives him disturbing news.    That's the thematic meeting.

Then we have the compositional cut, where we make that brief setting and moment 'meet' the next one, in his house now, in a bad state because of what the stranger had said.   The dialogue shows that he's already told Vi what was said, but we still don't know.  We'll hear it as he recalls it, as he responds to and as he discusses it, eventually, with someone he trusts.

This is  OF COURSE by no means the only way to start such a story.  But if you have a go with the method you may find that it helps you to see INTO what's going on better than if you'd taken a more straightforward approach.    We always have to remember that the techniques we use are only partly to 'communicate';   they are just as much to make is think.


He came  back across the churchyard.  Slip away.  Get home.  Be alone.   But somebody was waving and calling to him by the fence.

“I’m Emily.”

She was in front of him now.   He took her gloved hand,  waited, looked away towards the gate,  then the  hill.

“You don’t know me.”

He moved to get round her.

“I know you.”

She had shifted in front of him again.

The organ was still playing nondescript chords in the background.  The sun suddenly flashed in a coloured window.   People standing in groups with their black jackets and black dresses were like cutouts.

He tried to get away from her again.


Then he did look at her.   All red lipstick behind black veil.

“Look, perhaps we could talk some other time. I’m really not  . . . “

But then she said something that made screw up his face.

*                   *                     *                      *                      *                      *

Staring out the front room window his eyes were glittering and motionless.  

His sister Vi, said,

“What on earth did she have to gain from. . .  ?  Anyway Tom, it’s not true!”

“Thanks for coming,”  

“Drink your tea.”

 Another coughing sob jerked his back.

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