Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Questions: the end. by Bill Kirton

This is the last segment of this simplified look at the usefulness of questions for a writer. Previously, we considered the value of who and where,  then what and how in developing characters, situations and exploiting the interactions that necessarily arise from them. In fact, it seemed that just the four of them generated so many sub-questions that plots were already thick enough. However, when you add 'when' and, perhaps the most important of the lot, 'why', you uncover possibilities and variations which can take narratives in some unexpected directions.

When?
Yes, but it'll be a lot clearer when I get a marker pen.
On the surface, ‘when’ is relatively easy. Your choice of epoch can suit your strengths and/or overcome your weaknesses. If your grasp of quantum mechanics is a bit sketchy, put your characters in a space ship launched by a civilisation so advanced that all its machines, including the computers that drive them, run on minimal amounts of sewage and litter, produce zero emissions and aren't needed anyway because the few remaining humans have developed the capacity to merely think of something for it to materialise.

You’ll still get readers who complain that such a scenario is farcical but a couple of paragraphs about how history showed Einstein to be a fraud and that E=mc2 was nonsense because when mass-energy equivalence and the universal proportionality factor integrate singularities with the relativistic symmetries of space and time, the measurable mass defect is demonstrably unstable. Hence sewage.

Or if the beautifully intricate plot of your mystery might be shattered by the discovery of some DNA, shift it all back to a time when knowledge wasn’t a few thumb presses away and detectives wore gabardine macs and trilbies.

You see how, by taking away some of the staple features of contemporary reality, the complexities we’ve already created can be woven into truly alien textures.

‘When’ also provides ready-made comic setups. Comedy relies on leading the reader along one reality, only to subvert or replace it at the critical moment by another. So, if you take a peculiarly modern problem, conflict or phenomenon and move it to a different era, the two realities are ready-made. Imagine the meeting of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure at the Casterbridge disco, just after the fight had broken out between Michael and Susan Henchard over her desire to work at a McDonald’s Drive-thru. And what if Pope Julius II had only wanted a coat of magnolia emulsion on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling but was then stuck with a huge bill from Michelangelo for … well, basically, graffiti.

But that's all a bit glib. 'When' opens up the whole field of temporality, tries to fix moments in a continuum, stems or redirects the flow of time. It simultaneously identifies the notion of duration and the impossibility of experiencing it. It's a precious tool. It recreates cultures, habits, reminds us of legitimate alternatives to our confident suppositions about what constitutes reality and behavioural norms. It summons up a timeless instant.

Why?
One of the constant attributes (or curses) of writers is their insatiable curiosity.
And that’s the reason that ‘why’ is the most precious question of all. It’s easy to let (or make) your character do anything, from the simple act of putting on a jacket to wandering naked in the snow in order to place a peach on a gatepost and sing ‘Chitty-chitty-bang-bang’ to the gerbil she has on a lead. The hard part is when you have to explain why they did the things they did. ‘Why’ makes your narrative make sense.

Mysteries rely on it, of course. ‘Why’ reveals motives, gives explanations, unravels conundrums. Best of all, though, is the fact that ‘why’ sometimes refuses to provide an answer. You’re left with something inexplicable – but you’re a writer; readers expect you to tell (or, to satisfy the creative writing specialists, show) them everything. That’s where your creativity gets stretched. Life doesn’t have meanings and yet we live as if it does; we impose our own meanings, which may conflict with those of others, but which are all legitimate to those who proclaim them. That old favourite response of parents when faced with an angry child demanding 'Why?' is still 'Because'. And that's the essence of 'why' - it's the frustration of realising that we'll never ever know the answer.

I wrote a previous blog on ‘why’. It featured a sheep tick called Ixy and I concluded it by saying:

‘The question that always strikes me when I read of the wonders of nature and the processes of evolution is – Why? And, of course, simply by asking that question, I’m back with my old mate Sisyphus and his rock. What on earth is the point of it all? Maybe evolution is making the hill smaller with each ‘advance’, but why? What’s it for? I don’t suppose Ixy is much of a thinker but if he is I bet he’s cursing God for making him a sheep tick when he could have been something with more apparent purpose like an Aardvark or a merchant banker. Imagine his thought processes as he dangles there on his bit of grass, feeling hungry and just waiting. He doesn’t even have the comfort expressed by Estragon in Waiting for Godot : ‘We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?’

And that is the end of Writing 101. Next term, Quantum Mechanics for Dummies.


13 comments:

julia jones said...

Wise and funny as ever - loved it, thanks Bill

Wendy Jones said...

Really interesting Reb. Thank you. I shall look forward to the next course

Wendy Jones said...

Sorry Biil, Imof course, meant you. How could I get that wrong

Jan Needle said...

Why does my brain hurt? it's monday morning, Bill, for god's sake give us a break. and as for your key question, well, surely the answer's self evident, nessiepah?

..... the simple act of putting on a jacket to wandering naked in the snow in order to place a peach on a gatepost and sing ‘Chitty-chitty-bang-bang’ to the gerbil she has on a lead. The hard part is when you have to explain why...

no-brainer.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks Julia.

Wendy, a fascinating Freudian slip. I'll leave it to Reb to interpret it.

Jan, it may be self-evident to you but the fact that it's a female gerbil induces angst in us less sophisticated oiks.

Mari Biella said...

I thought nothing could get a smile out of me this morning, Bill, but you have proved me wrong - thank you!

Bill Kirton said...

I'm sorry if that means you're feeling low, Mari, but hope the grin persists.

Lydia Bennet said...

ah the great questions of life... great fun post Bill!

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks, Lydia.

Dennis Hamley said...

Bill, what a great post. Simplicity meets profundity and makes me scream with laughter. Synchronicity is the writer's friend.

Reb MacRath said...

Thanks for slipping my name in there, Wendy. Your check is in the mail. :) Bill, I repeat my suggestion that you assemble your question posts into a little book.

Bill Kirton said...

Thanks Dennis. Once I've looked up synchronicity, I'm sure I'll be even more flattered by your comment, too.

Thanks Reb, but it would be a very small book.

Reb MacRath said...

A very small book...like the original version of The Elements of style?