Friday, 20 March 2009

Planting seeds in the reader's mind

Stories are organic, but they're not single organisms like a tree, say. A story is more like a garden. You plant seeds and then as you walk through the garden those seeds are sprouting and growing and flowering at (you hope) just the right moment.

One of the most obvious kinds of story seed is when you embed the germ of an idea (sometimes thematic, sometimes a plot idea) early on so that the reader is prepped for it later.

A seed can be planted to carry the burden of complex discussion of a theme which would interrupt the story if put later. Ever seen a movie where they get bogged down in exposition in the last fifteen minutes? The writer should've planted seeds earlier.

For example, in "Crush" (episode 5:14) of
Buffy, very early on we hear Willow explaining to Buffy and Tara that Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame wasn’t really a hero because his decisions were not taken as part of a moral compass – “he did good things for love of Esmerelda, but that doesn’t make a hero”. Later in the story, Buffy is arguing with Dawn about hanging out with a dangerous vampire like Spike. Dawn says “You used to date Angel,” and Buffy says that’s different, Angel had a soul, to which Dawn replies: “And Spike has a chip. Same difference.” So much later, at the climax, we’ve already covered the theme of what makes a hero: just doing good things, or doing them for a moral reason?

There are two levels of seeds. The first is at the basic level of craft, the screws and washers that hold your story together. The second is a more subtle foreshadowing of things to come.

The two types are used well by Edna O’Brien in her BBC adaptation of her own short story
Mrs Reinhart. The main character, who is staying at a French rural hotel, has a valuable emerald necklace that she wears most of the time. She meets an American who we suspect of stealing the necklace. However, at the end we learn that it was not the American who took it, but one of the hotel maids. There are two scenes that show the basic level of seed-planting: one where Mrs Reinhart is delightedly swinging a pillow in her bedroom, letting off steam because she thinks she's alone, when the maid comes in with breakfast and surprises her. Later, Mrs Reinhart enters the kitchen to find the maid and the other serving staff fooling around until the chef brings them to order.

So those two scenes do the basic craftwork: they tell us that the maid has a key and could enter the room at any time, and also that the maid may act very serious and deferential when on duty but she is an individual who in private is frivolous and playful like any young girl. But that's not all. In the second scene, O’Brien goes further and plants the higher level of seed. As the maid is going past her out of the kitchen, Mrs Reinhart points at a plate of fruit and says, “May I?” and the maid says, “Of course, madame; they’re all hanging out there in the garden to be picked.” So that introduces, very subtly and in retrospect, the notion that the maid might regard things that are lying around as there for the taking.

I'm not convinced of the value of this kind of analysis. Storytelling has to get into the bones, to the point that you do this kind of thing without thinking. You only notice it after you've done it. This leads to the inevitable Garth Marenghi moments: "I often re-read my books to learn from them." Funny but true.

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