Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Art of the Subtext: Part 2

In his chapter, Inflection and the Breath of Life, Baxter defines inflection as the tone with which the wording is conveyed and can 'elevate fiction into sudden shocking life'. Writers often suggest how events and statements are to be inflected. I tend to avoid this in my writing - perhaps too much. It seems to me too much like telling. For instance when anyone says anything I like what they say to be enough in itself - the rest, the way in which they are said is something for the reader to invent, and Baxtoer does warn against overinflection - prose that has gone purple from hyperinflection - but obviously it is possible to err the other way too, and perhaps I do.

He suggests that inflection is particularly important for teenagers, outsiders and aliens, the dispossessed, the baffled, broken, downcast, the obsessed, the fantasists and the inarticulate - and those feeling contradictory emotions at the same time: the official emotion is expressed in the statement; the unofficial (the subtext) in the inflection.

The 'wrong' tone can be particularly powerful e.g. sad news said laughingly. It can become hysterically sincere. Unusual combinations e.g. intimate and menacing, can be effective.

Body language, hand movement and facial expression are important in depicting these undertones too. Sometimes 'conversations' stop not when the people finish speaking but when their body language does.

In contrast uninflectiveness suits trauma, however,he feels that this ironic withdrawal has been overdone in literature since the 1980s in every form of postmodern art.

Creating a Scene starts with the difficulty of creating a 'scene' because he says, 'If you were raised in the genteel tradition, as I was, you avoid scenes, even when people say they love you. This is not the best preparation in the world for writing stories.'

He says that because writing stories is a purposeless activity, we sometimes moralise in an attempt to give it a point. We then try to avoid in our own writing (and reading) what we may find troubling in our own lives. This, I think, is true. It always feels a risky business to me to have a character, certainly the main protagonist who is too demonic and therefore unsympathetic. But I should. It is these characters, the 'sparkplug' characters, the radically unpleasant types, according to Baxter, which act as focusing agents.

Baxter says he was brought up to be not only undramatic but also not to tell tales. In other words any sort of narrative was frowned upon in that household. Everything he had been taught about self-control stood against every instinct that he acknowledged as a writer. He recommends Dostoyevsky's work as an exemplar of great scene making and 'sparkplug' characters. He says that stories thrive upon bad behaviour, bad manners, confrontations and unpalatable characters.

I am half way through the last chapter, on faces, is making me think so much that I think it deserves a posting on its own.


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