Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Lest We Forget

If you think about all the stuff that goes on around us, it's little wonder that our brain only registers a small percentage of it all. And then it's pretty darned selective when it comes to slotting this decanted stuff into our memory. I have thoughts on resonance and space to come shortly.

In the meantime, I've been wondering about this for ages:
"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."
Yes, you'll recognise it for sure: it's Chekhov's gun.
First of all, it's a rather one-sided argument. We're familiar with the importance of the MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is a gun that isn't fired. Agent Cox showed me the benefits of the MacGuffin (Torak's fever for example!). Murakami is the MacGuffin king. He lays down plot device after plot device and seldom takes them to any sort of resolution. And yet, on mentioning this to Murakami fans, they're always surprised. They never notice.
Because it's startling how quickly we forget stuff. That woman who phones the protag in chapter one of Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is quickly forgotten, and then pops back once or twice more in the novel to no further avail. She is eaten up by whatever thread immediately takes her place. Our focus is diverted. But, when she was there, she certainly had me turning the page.
A lecturer once explained to us art students that most people will take in the first few minutes of a lecture and then start to flag. It's ironic that I can't remember how many minutes. I think it was about seven.
The part of Chekhov's Gun that has been baffling me is this bit:
...in the following one...
Really? If I introduce a gun in one act, I should have it fired in the next act (MacGuffins aside)?
Why the next act? Why not the next chapter or the last chapter?
My problem has been compounded by the variations of the quote across the internet. You can find quotes without any regard for the timing aspect, and quotes that refer to 'earlier' and 'later', or the 'first act' and 'the third act'. Indeed, we all see the world very differently. So I'll have to defer to wikipedia. :-)
So can we really be anything like specific?
Speaking of focus, have you noticed how you'll happen upon a certain word - one that you perhaps haven't heard for a good long while - and then it'll keep popping up throughout the week?
All that stuff happening about us and we're conditioned to notice only a fraction of it.
Which ties in with my recent thoughts on first-person narrator dictating style. Here's an example:
This is the view from my bus-stop. I see this scene every week day morning.

What do you see?

My brain likes words. Here's what it sees. Within the word assuRANCE (on the Pearl Assurance House) are the letters that make the word NACRE which is another word for mother-of-pearl. Coincidence eh! But look over there at that cANCER Research shop. The word NACRE is in there too! Oh, and just to the right of the Cancer Research Shop is a dry ClEANeRS. NACRE again.

Would my protag see this?

Doubtful. His mother died of cancer. It's constantly on his mind. He'd see the Cancer Research shop. And he has a thing for umbrellas, so he'd see that woman with the umbrella.

So perhaps it's not so curious that, whilst watching Seven this evening, I noticed that Detective David Mills spoke very briefly of his wife twice before setting off on that final fateful journey. Because the viewer's brain needed to be set up for the next scene. (And note how her mention is dubiously crowbarred in!)

More curious is the fact that, on finishing Seven, I switched over to ITV to see a reconstruction of some murder in which a woman's head was discovered in a box.

All I'll dare to conclude for now is that, very soon before you present that reveal, you'll need to prepare the reader for it, at least on a subconscious level (or prime them if you prefer). You can separate the introduction to that gun from the firing of that gun by as many words as you so please, provided that the reader is primed and expectant just before it goes off. And often this requires an amount of repetition.

Writing is a temporal art: like music, it moves through time. But what is in the reader's head at any given moment? How the blazes should I lead him from one thread to the next, and/or how long can/should I hold out on him?

There will be more thoughts soon, when I'm not so tired. I'm going to bed. G'night.

No comments: