Friday, April 13, 2007

Case of the Lost Clue

by Clovis Delacourt, Chatillon-sur-Seine,
late 19th-early 20th c.,
ivory on a marble base.
The Walters Art Gallery.

They say that if there's a gun on the mantle in the first act, then, begod, it better be fired in the third.

I always thought a mantle was a peculiar place to put a pistol - considering how crowded many mantles are - but that's a stage set for you.

In writing, this sort of stage setting is the opposite of Aliens Arriving in Chapter Twelve.

I find there is a great temptation to lovingly describe some item - and fail to refer to it ever again.

It may be an ornate letter knife, an unusual chest or lamp in a bedroom; or, in some cases, a detailed emotional reaction to a person or situation, even a minor character.

But, if you draw the reader's eyes to it, give it special significance by centering it out of the ordinary catelogue of description, then the statuary, the wardrobe, whatever, should play a later part in your story.

I nearly did this recently. I so wanted to stick a carving of Shadow Woman on Lillie's mantle. No providence, no utility. Just because it fitted in some nebulous way.


Atmosphere, ambience, isn't enough, unless a motif is repeated in various subtle ways. Unless the object is used to brain someone at some later date, for example, it doesn't belong there.

False clues, lost clues of this sort are sometimes simply the result of writer vanity. You like it, so you put it in.
Avoid making a big thing over nothing.


Sam said...

You might tie it in later. Sometimes as we weave our stories, threads appear (and disappear) that we didn't notice before. Subliminal ideas creep in, and a shadow might turn into something important later on.
You can put it in, knowing it can always be snipped.

Ric said...

PUt it in, like Sam says, then, if you don't use it, pull it out - it's surprising how those little bits end up playing a huge part later on - a thread you didn't know you put there.

Bernita said...

True, Sam, but I prefer to make a note, and hope free association might eventually produce a tie-in.
I've been frustrated as a reader by this syndrome, because the writer became so familiar with an item they forgot to snip, and I have this little WTF in a bubble cloud over my head.

Bernita said...

Seems I have a prejudice against loose ends, Ric.
And there's the alternate danger of warping the story just to fit and justify the inclusion.

Anonymous said...

That's a great advanced-storytelling point! The cognoscenti (e.g., agents and editors) will definitely criticize you for throwing in a red herring. Thanks Bernita. :)

Bernita said...

I'm sure you always avoid this particular writer's pit, Jason!

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I like to foreshadow with odd things that tie in later, but several times I have found things that I forgot to tie in, and no matter how pretty the prose, have had to cut them out!

Bernita said...

Yup, Bonnie,I like reading foreshadow stuff, but I could see myself forced to do that in this case.
Sometimes, what's worse than a fangling thread is an oops-artficial connection made later to stick out like a sore thumb.

raine said...

And it's so hard, especially if it's something you feel compelled to insert, even if it's due to writer's vanity.
Have done it before, with an object that was absolutely dear to me, and positively ADORED the prose. Then found myself struggling to justify it later, which only made the story ring false, so wound up cutting it (sob).
Good post, Bernita (and lovely sculpture).

Anonymous said...

Trial and error is not a way to go, but it is easier to take out than to add. Or so I've discovered.

kmfrontain said...

Then again, weird stuff on the mantle is a form of character background and has a use in that alone. What does it say about a character who keeps a gun on his mantle, or an ugly photo on the wall, or an oddball music choice playing on the stereo?

Bernita said...

You know precisely what I mean, Raine! Fortunately, those vignettes may find a home elsewhere.

With me it's the opposite, Steve. I find it easier to build a layer than to strip out bits that end in an empty elevator shaft.

Think that may be a different thing, Karen. Usually those significant details are noted or acknowledged, perhaps interpreted, by another character in such a way so the reader is able to conclude something about the character which is born out by his subsequent actions.

Nicole Kelly said...

Sadly, I have to agree. I love to go into unbelievable detail about the setting. I rarely let a piece of art go by in a scene without some adoration given via the prose. But when I go through the scene again, I always think the same thing; if I was the reader, I would totally skim this. If they would skim it, it gets pared down. *sob*

Bernita said...

Nicole, I know!
I have to slap my hands regularly.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, maybe I think in terms of Ibsen's / Thomas Mann's symbolism and leitmotiv, but I never have problems to tie crane shaped brooches, special daggers and other fun bits in.

I was amused by an analysis in todays symposium that made me wonder how much is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to symbolism. I can now see it in my own work, and I didn't put it there deliberately. ;)

Bernita said...

I am very fond of symbolism, Gabriele.
I just don't care for it to have a flashing light on top.

Bernita said...

...that turns out to be a false alarm.

Bernita said...

But it's neat you should mention Mann - opened my thesis on symbolism/imagery with a reference to him.