Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Today's Mission: Fictional Diary

Good morning, minions. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write somebody else's diary. The diary is a long-standing exposition tool, for either narrating the main character's thoughts or providing back story or explaining the significance of key situations as understood by a character off-stage. If used well, the diary is a smooth way of injecting a little personal engagement into a story. Very few times are we writers allowed to talk directly to the audience without the filter of some scene and setting, although we often seem to want to let loose with wordsmithing and being all eloquent and that rot, judging from how often setting is buried in over-flowery prose oozing in hyper-edited goop that gets poetry teachers all hot and bothery. Blah. Give me setting I can sink into! When I read about a warm bath I want to be sort of supported and dozey, not hear about how freaking warm and bathy it all is and how it reminds you of your grandma, as nice as she might be. But I digress.

Occasionally, I too do like to cut loose and talk to you, my readers, directly. In prose fiction, my ideas are almost always held by the story, or hidden by the story, so that a character or setting or scene or action is giving you my vision in a way that is, hopefully, more gripping and evocative and, hopefully, not too direct. We like subtlety that looks and acts direct without actually punching anyone in the face, because that's offputting. To achieve gripping and evocatively subtle while being direct we have to give a presentation that guides and pretends to also follow the reader, so they're in it with us. Which is damned difficult to explain--I know because I've just done a mediocre-at-best job of it--and hella impossible to do with even remote efficiency. It gets tiring. Therefore it is sometimes pleasant to take a break and just say to the reader, "Think all these things, if you would be so kind." The diary is a way of doing this. Diaries of characters, that is. And their letters, journals, reports, etc.. With most filters removed, we writers write directly to you attending attendees. It's relaxing.

Yes, most filters removed. Not all. Just most. There's one left: the character who is writing the diary. We get to write the diary entry, and the diary entry is written to explain a particular point, and we're including the diary entry because the character wrote it for the same reason we're writing it: to explain a particular point. So we're allowed to state explicitly what, in the course of a scene, would almost invariably need to be hinted at, coaxed into meaning, never quite said and yet hopefully obvious. The diary entry is from the hand of a character, though, or it makes no sense to include it. The character doesn't have to be active in the book. Effective diary entries can be written by characters long dead, or in some other way unavailable. They must be extant in the world of the story, though. And, here's the mission, they must be someone who isn't the writer.

That presents the issue of writing like someone else. We always do that, in dialog and in colloquial prose and things, and we alter our style to sound like thoughts more like our perspective character and things. That's narration, though. Narration is really an interesting beasty because, weirdly, it's meant to be invisible. It's meant to be beautiful, poetic, catching, intoxicating...and yet not in the least distracting. Because prose--while it can be a major strength in a piece--is an aid to telling a story. People can write gorgeous prose, giving us paragraph after paragraph of gut-wrenchingly beautiful wordplay...but if we get to the end of the book and find we are not improved by the overall experience, and we can't identify with, or even name, the main character, then what's the point of all the fluff? Prose in narration is, above all else, an aid to storytelling. Prose is a forum, and even at its most decadent you still need to be able to see through it, as if the pages are windows, into the story. What that means, as far as I can see, is that prose needs to never sound like a person. Even at its most personable, at its most charming, at its most human, at its most readable, even when read aloud, prose must above anything sound like the story you're writing--as if a person didn't write the book, but rather the book arrived of its own accord in the world in precisely the shape it needs to be. Narration in a book is a story telling itself to a person.

That's different than a diary entry. A diary entry is a person essentially writing to their future self. It's a person writing to a person. A diary entry ought to sound like someone wrote it at some point. And, in the case of fictional diary entries included in stories, the entry ought to be written by someone other than you--usually, unless you're featuring yourself in the book. As I see it, what that means is writing diary entries by someone else, somehow, some way.

Today's mission: try to write some diary entries for someone else. Choose somebody, maybe real, maybe imaginary, maybe generic, and write about something in their life as them, using words they use and logic they like and catch phrases they would have heard on the TV they watch, with their grammatical errors and prefered idiom and the tone of their lives. Think in their accent. Sit like they sit. See what happens.

That's today's mission.

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