Monday, March 15, 2010

Fictitious Implications of "The 6 Tenants of Non-Fiction"

Richard Holmes visited NYPL last week and, of course, I sat with rapt attention as he spoke about his fantastic and amazing book, "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science."

I first picked up the book after I read a review in Time Magazine last summer. It's some seriously fantastic storytelling -- not to mention, pretty revelatory.  Purchase yourself a copy, asap.

(Great cover, right?)

Listening to Holmes speak was very much like reading his writing-- you become infected with his enthusiasm, not only for the subject, but for the way he describes it. He is one of those rare, fascinating creatures who is able to make even the malfunctioning of a microphone seem epic and philosophical.

But the golden gems of his talk were "6 Tenants of Non-Fiction Writing," which he sprinkled throughout the hour and a half with characteristic storytelling prowess-- foreshadowing the principals and then demonstrating with lovely anecdotes from his books and experiences. And, yes-- the ideas make his non-fiction absolutely dynamic-- but I also found that they stimulated my own thinking about my fiction writing.

See... I've been having a really rough time writing a short film. Usually, I can just put stuff down on paper. It's not always good, but I can put it down. However-- this short.. has some heavy implications.
And I was stuck. On page 3:

And I just, couldn't move forward. But then I sat down in this talk, and my mind started racing.

Holmes outlined 6 points:
1) Vertical Footnotes
2) Starting in the middle
3) Creating a relay race
4) The "Titanic Principle"
5) Big Window/Small Room
6) The significant anecdote

I'm going to take a stab and describing #1 because this is the one that I found most useful. (Mr. Holmes: If I massacre this, I significantly apologize.)

The concept of verticle footnotes is based on the idea that you engage your audience in a story written (basically) in chronological order. However, in "Age of Wonder" Holmes is dealing with ideas that benefit from historical and contemporary context. So, in order not to break the reader's engagement with the primary story-- he uses a footnote to jump vertically through time to provide contextualization. Essentially he makes his ideas timeless by using the footnote to add the wisdom of the ages-- while allowing his story to continue progressing in its own time-governed world in the body text. Literary Time Travel.  

I found this device particularly useful because it provides you with opportunities to add significance to your story by juxtaposing it with the knowledge of time. It reminded me of why the first season of Lost was so good: the flash backs let you gradually understand characters' actions while they were isolated on the island by contextualizing people with their own past. You come to really see that, even though these events are happening vacuum, characters are informed by previous experience. And-- the previous experience also gains significance- because it becomes a defining event. Both stories gain more importance because you are watching one person--analogous to the scientific concepts in Holmes' vertical footnotes-- at different stages of knowledge and experience. So the gap between current and past becomes the story.

(so sue me, I might have a secret thing for Jack) 

Long story short (not really if you watched the clip...) is that it got me thinking about how to tell a really good short story that focuses on communication of experience as opposed to a traditional "story arc..." yet still matters for the audience. Using that idea of the "gap" being profound may, in fact, be the "Why" that I've been looking for... I think.

My story is about an older couple, on the day that their last child leaves for college, dealing with the fact that they are now alone with each other. By juxtaposing that with a couple, perhaps the same couple, when they getting to know each other for the first time seems like it will add some heft that I, previously, couldn't muster.

Then again... perhaps I'm trying to make a career out of adding profundity to things that don't need it...


Picture one from The Guardian Online. 

1 comment:

  1. Mysterious FriendMarch 28, 2010 at 4:22 PM

    ah i need to buy this book.