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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Supersize Me! (or: Whatever Happened to 'Less is More?')

There was a tradition in Greek Theatre that violence almost always took place offstage. If a character was murdered, he or she left the stage, the act took place as the audience listened to the screams of the victim, and then a messenger character returned with a gory mask (actors all wore masks) and the hair-raising tale of the character's demise.

Some scholars believe this tradition rose due to the limitations of the time. There were a limited number of actors, thus, it didn't make sense to kill off an actor when he was needed for another role. (I find this unconvincing, since indeed, all actors wore masks.) Another explanation is that they lacked the technical skills and special effects to pull off a really good scene of violence. Again, that really doesn't hold water with me. Its more likely that the Greek playwrights were fully aware that a well-crafted story and the suggestion of horror was more effective than the graphic, in-your-face violence and sex of later Roman theatre.

Like the Romans, today's western audience wants it bigger, badder, and more realistic. Thankfully, we haven't yet resorted to carrying out executions on screen for the edification of the movie-goer. We seem to want to see the pins gouging out the eyes, the woman raped with nightmarish brutality, or the splatter of blood drifting toward the camera in graceful slow motion. Like your favorite meal at a fast food restaurant, if a little is good, a lot must be better.

Unfortunately, I've seen this trend in romantic fiction as well. Tortured heroes are...tortured. Literally. Characters with backgrounds of abuse are forced to play out the horror of their past in loving detail over and over again. Authors seem to want to throw in the blood, anguish and outrage by the shovelful, which eventually loses its ability to move the reader emotionally. As children, characters are raped, molested, maimed and otherwise abused. Their bodies and minds are scarred, which gives foundation to later conflict in the story. Emotional threads in stories are reduced to the lowest common denominator. That's ok, but do we really have to watch?

Greek drama strove to produce an emotional catharsis in the viewer. A well crafted novel or play has the ability to drag the reader along, inspiring fear, dread and grief for the characters without the use of cheap tricks and excessive gore. The audience could only watch helplessly as Oedipus moves relentlessly toward his tragic fate, or as Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to summon the winds to Troy. Read the Grapes of Wrath, and write down how you feel upon finishing the book. Watch Steven Chow's HK comedy King of Beggers. You'll find yourself laughing, and then crying, and then laughing again.

In Blacque/Bleu, Oliver Bleu has a truly horrific past. He was a soldier in the trenches of WWI and I could honestly have dedicated chapters to his suffering. In his present, he's dying and is unable to prevent that slow degenerative process. He can only watch with grim acceptance as his body breaks down. He boils the process down to a single line of poetry by Yeats: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." As an author, I decided to let his scars tell the story of his pain. When he shares the story of his past, he does so briefly. We hear of the phrase, 'show, don't tell.' I was trying to show Bleu's suffering rather than tell the story of it.

In some ways, Bleu was modeled off my own grandfather, who was of that generation. When he told the story of a horrifying fall on a dam construction accident, he simply said, "I slipped off a ladder and busted my leg." He'd show his scarred leg, and my stomach would twist in sympathy. His understatement was much more effective than a blow-by-blow recounting of the event. Grandpa's family contracted the flu during the 1918 pandemic. His brother was brain damaged by the fever, another brother didn't survive. When grandpa recalled his illness, he'd smile, run his hand over his balding head and say, "Yeah, I think the fever caused my hair to fall out." He was a man of few words, yet his words had impact.

As a writer, that's what I'm striving for. In college, when I was working on a history paper, I often found myself padding my sentences, stretching the paragraph to increase the word count. Now I look at a manuscript and search for what needs to go. Take the angst, boil it down to its essence. Temper the tragedy with comedy. Let the character show the story through her actions and words. A single well-crafted sentence can sometimes say more than pages of overwrought chest-beating.

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