first published on salesses.tumblr.com
Let the crazy out.
If the crazy works symbolically, too.
Disclaimer 1: I’m going to try to put this into words here, but I’m still working it out.
Disclaimer 2: I’m talking Hunger Games, the movies. I haven’t read the books.
I am working on something that needs to be let loose. I can feel how hungry it is to go weird, but I realized lately that I’ve been containing it. I’ve been containing it because of some false impression I have of my tastes, and I have been containing it because of how it opens, its quiet and “normal” voice, and I have been containing it mostly out of fear that letting it loose all at once will make it unreadable—that my audience will be surprised to find the book they were reading is something other than what they thought and will stop trusting me.
You need a reader’s trust.
I think there is a tendency to go back in revision and drop little hints that something weird could happen later, as a solution. But that won’t fix your problem. It will only make the problem seem less unexpected.
The problem, or the difficulty, at least, is in getting the reader to trust that the crazy is “right.” It’s not that the story doesn’t want to go crazy, and it’s not that readers don’t want crazy, it’s that the crazy has to be meaningful, has to provide more meaning, and right meaning, to the book.
And that the author needs to not be afraid to let it loose.
In the Hunger Games movies, man, the crazy is everywhere. There’s no holding back. As I watched (and enjoyed the hell out of) these movies, I often found myself thinking: She wrote these books for teens? I would have been afraid of going so violent, of killing off so many people, of letting the plot go so wild, of letting the characters change so quickly or stay stuck in flatter portrayals. People die left and right, huge leaps of emotion happen very suddenly. Part of this, of course, is the conceit. But it’s not interesting that because of the conceit, these games where kids kill each other off to one survivor, we allow for the deaths. It’s more interesting to me to wonder why we trust the conceit and how that trust is confirmed by the actions.
In Jane Eyre (okay, I tried to stay away from spoilers for HG, but oh well now), there is a crazy murderous wife in the attic, there is a psychic connection between the love interests, there are so many points where the novel, which starts out almost on the foundation of your associating with the very real emotions and characterizations of Jane, the very realness of this hard life, goes crazy and is just absolutely enjoyable. Sure, Bronte drops plenty of hints about the wife, but it was still a surprise to me. (I actually thought I remembered a mother in the attic.) I didn’t remember the psychic thing at all, and it wasn’t set up to happen at all, but it was great, so much greater than if the novel had veered away from the crazy and stayed with the (still very engaging) life of an oppressed young normal woman. Why do we buy these things when they happen? How does an author get away with them?
It seems to me that it’s a matter, maybe, of symbolic action. The craziness, in these stories, is symbolically sound, is adding to the greater meaning of the story. The Hunger Games wants to say something about society and so the system of battle royales and the reckless deaths of youths and the over-the-top characters and their over-the-top actions all work on that level, the level of symbolism. They all fit into the symbolic organization of the book. In the movie (spoiler alert now), there is a young girl who attaches herself to the protagonist for no reason and then saves the protagonist’s life, and then dies in the protagonist’s place, causing the protagonist to make her first kill, which is necessary to the plot. We buy all of this because it has to happen and it works symbolically: the protagonist has gone into the Hunger Games in the place of her little sister, and this other character steps in on the symbolic level. It’s actually a little heavy-handed here for me, but there are other instances that are less heavy-handed. What I want to say is that this happens abruptly and without much reasoning other than that it is the right thing to happen for the protagonist, and the movie, though we don’t exactly see why it’s right for the character herself. We’re just happy the protagonist has finally gotten on with the killing (or I am).
In Jane Eyre, the wife in the attic is a representation of the sinfulness Mr. Rochester is carrying around from his past. Jane and he can’t be together so easily. When they finally can, it’s because his past (I mean, his wife) burns the house down and kills itself and leaves Rochester blind and with one hand and in need. This is amazing when it happens, but there’s no real reason it should happen then and not any of the times before. There’s no real reason except the symbolic reason—Jane leaving has killed off Rochester’s past and made him even more right for him, but also cut off a part of him, which the book seems to suggest makes them even more right for each other. Jane has run off and is about to marry her cousin and make a terrible mistake with her life for a man with too strong a will. (There’s some weird old fashioned gender relations here.) That’s when the psychic thing happens—they need each other. Crazy.
Crazy and great. I mean, you could read the first half of this book and think nothing like this is ever going to happen—there’s very little strangeness of this kind—and then when it happens, it’s awesome.
So I’ve decided I need to let the crazy out. But if a monster comes down from the hills and eats someone, suddenly, that monster better be the monster in the protagonist’s heart.
Matthew's upcoming 6-week online workshop, The Elements of Fiction, starts Tuesday, March 24. To sign up, please click here.