Promise and Perspective

Promise and Perspective and Puzzle Box Tops

My file of writing notes to myself starts with a list I call, for lack of imagination, "The 10 P's." For a reason I can't remember, each bullet starts with a "P," so there you go. I never said I was sophisticated. The list is a checklist of sorts to keep myself in line when writing. I'll no doubt address it several times in future columns, but here it is, with the P's in no particular order: Plot, People, Place, Prose, Presence, Promise, Perspective, Pace, Point, Poetic Truth.

I'm going to look at the middle two: Promise and Perspective. I know it sounds like a Jane Austen novel, but the reader's perspective of the story arises from the promise the author makes in the beginning. They're linked.

A few years ago I saw the movie "Magnolia." The final scene has all the characters listening to the same radio station at the same time and hearing a lovely Amy Mann song. It was the movie's most powerful moment, and while I didn't really enjoy the movie, it did end on a strong note and will have me thinking about how that scene pulled the rest of the movie together. The scene faded to black and silence.

And then faded back in and the story kept going.

It turned out that we weren't even halfway through the film yet. Why then did I, and several others in the audience, assume it was the end? Because the film did not give its viewers a sense of perspective – a sense of the scope the film encompassed. What was it trying to achieve? Where was it going?

In the beginning of a story, you make your reader a promise. You are telling the reader that you have something worth telling them, and asking them to give you their time. You are promising them a reward of a certain sort. Let's take Star Wars as an example, since it's nice and formulaic and everybody's seen it.

We start off with ships shooting at each other. This says to us viewers [war, struggle]. Next, we've got mean-looking guys shooting nicer-looking guys [the bad guys are stronger]. We have a princess sending a desperate message for help in a 'droid [we need you to win].

That's it. The promise has been made. We know who's side we're identifying with, and what the number one conflict is, and what is needed for "our" side to win this struggle. It's about as simple a promise as you can make. And note, none of it has anything to do with Luke Skywalker, who ends up being the hero of the story. Doesn't matter. Even before the opening scene has ended, we have a perspective on what the entire movie is about. We have a strong sense of what we'd like to see in this movie and a strong belief that the movie is going to deliver it for us. As the story moves along, we can see how each scene and everyone's actions play into this overall perspective. It's like working a puzzle – if you've got the box-top picture, you know where each piece you're handed goes. If you don't have the picture, you're handed these pieces and have no idea what you're supposed to make of them.

Now, one of my pet peeves is reading a story in which I can tell the author also didn't have the box top.

Many authors write by starting with an interesting scene or situation and watching as the idea and characters develop. I've done it. Everybody does it. There's nothing wrong with writing that way. But when the author starts without a sense of perspective – without the fore-knowledge of where the story is going and what it's going to do for the reader – the author is wandering around. That's not a problem, as long as when the author figures out where they want to go and rewrites the appropriate promise into the story.

But, too often authors don't.

Too often I can spot exactly where the original idea lost steam for the author and the author figured out he had to put an end on the story. How often have you read a story that started out with a really interesting premise, developed it well, and then seemed to come to a weak and unsatisfying end? Part of that problem is that the author set up a promise in the beginning that he didn't pull off in the end. Especially in science fiction, an idea can seem to have incredible opportunities and it's exciting to read along and see how the characters deal with that idea, but promising that you have a unique insight into a new idea, and delivering it, are two very different things.

I read a story about a young woman who essentially gets a personality transplant. She and her parents struggled with the issues raised by a new personality in an otherwise familiar body. The idea was engrossing and the story was very well told. How would it be resolved? The girl wanted to be recognized for her newness. Her parents wanted her to be their old daughter. Society seemed not to know what to do with her. I thought the writing was extremely well done, and the idea quite fresh.

But, as one reader said, I was ready to pencil it in for a Nebula nomination, but by the end of the story I put my pencil down. Why? Because I could see the exact moment when the author was confronted with the promise he'd made the reader, and he realized he couldn't deliver.

The story ended without resolution. Sure, that's more like real life. Since when do all loose ends get tied up in real life? But this isn't real life; it's fiction. That doesn't mean anybody has to "win," but that the conflict has to be addressed and resolved (note, I did not say "overcome." Characters can win, lose, or even change the rules to nullify the conflict, but don't let them all but dismiss it).

(I should note that despite all this, I really enjoyed the story.)

I said I do this same kind of writing as often as not. So how do I deal with it? I write what I call a proto-draft. It's not even a first draft. It's not worthy of being called a first draft because it's still too exploratory. As I write along, exploring the topic and the characters, I reach that same moment when I realize how I want the story to end. At that point, I stop, essentially chuck the proto-draft, and then begin again. This time, in the real first draft, I know from the first word what the last one will be. I now have the puzzle-box picture in my mind. I know what I can promise the reader because I know what I'm going to deliver at the end.

Deliver what you promise. Promise only what you can deliver. Give the reader the perspective, the box top, and then give them the story one dazzling puzzle piece at a time.