Monday, September 17, 2007

Cleverness and Fright

Q: What effects do cleverness have upon your reader, when your reader reads the things you wrote?

A: Ask someone more studied than I.

Here, however, are my thoughts.

The story is: rundown carnival. Chain saw weilding demonic clown wants to kill everything.

Cleverness is personable. If your characters, your narrative, is clever, funny, flippant, quippant, and all around hee-hee to read, your audience has something human with which to associate. Make them feel that what they are reading is about and by real people, who like to laugh, and they have an immediate excuse for why the scary things are not real. If they see that, at the drop of a banana skin, everyone--bad guy, good guy, narrator and all--will dissolve into chuckles, which the reader is sharing in, then your reader is able to step back and say, "Hey, this isn't real. The demonic clown with the chain saw is fake, and will not come and get me, because he is, in fact, a good natured comedian, just play-acting at being loony scary. Tra-la-la."

Remove cleverness: Reader becomes afraid of the dark. Without occassional laughs, for no reason but a turn a phrase, without that personable quality, there is no escape. There is less humanity, and the reader sits when the tale is done, and they know that clown is just waiting inside Santa Claus, or their Dad, or in their closet.

The narrative voice knows everything. Cleverness is a sign that the narrative voice knows everything is going to turn out alright in the end, that the story is about the ride and the reader can relax because it has a happy ending. Without cleverness, with a narrator who is frightened, who cannot be clever because he knows the end is messy, your reader doesn't know what will happen, but knows to be afraid.

Yep. Cleverness and fright.


Debbie said...

But don't you sometimes want the reader to just be frightened? Or to just laugh? Or to just cry?

Then there's Chuck Palahniuk, who uses lots of 'clever' but his work is still creepifying as all get-out. I still think about Haunted and get the shivers.

And clever can be overdone. I remember someone who belonged to the Sunday group several years ago. He was a very clever writer, but he overdid it so much that it pulled the reader out of the story.

Ali said...

Cleverness is like anything else and can be overdone. Also, it's something that does not work equally well (or well at all) in all writing or for all writers.

Luckily, you can do clever pretty well. It works for you like spare language worked for Hemingway.

Ali said...

Ok, let me amend. There are many kinds of cleverness (and degrees to which the writer makes his or her cleverness known).

Mostly, I think you're talking about cleverness in terms of suspension of disbelief. In which case, I totally agree - cleverness is absolutely necessary.

-John said...

Trying to be clever and actually being clever are two different things. The act of being clever must not be apparent to the reader until it is far too late. If it is transparent, then the reader will do the tra-la-la dance, and go watch their reality tv. This is tough to do, and because it is, it is priceless once achieved.

Whittaker Luckless said...

No, what you're describing isn't cleverness. It's something grander and more big and impressive than cleverness. More transient like. Like genius, or something.

-John said...

Always think big, Mr. Luckless, that's the only way you'll know what you're made of.

Whittaker Luckless said...


Jeez, this Grey's Anatomy book is a huge waste of space, then.