Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Janus Effect

Somewhere along the way to delivering a finished story, a writer must go through what I call the Janus Effect. Janus, you will remember, was the Greek god generally depicted as a head looking both ways; the god of beginnings, and by extension, of endings, the god of doors.

When a writer begins a new story there are several things that should be accomplished. First, of course, is deciding what the story is about; the plot line. How will your story begin, what will happen to advance it, and how will it end? It is possible to begin backwards and determine the end of the story before deciding how to begin it, or even how to tell it. Regardless of where the writer begins, the story eventually must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Pretty basic, isn’t it?

Hard on the decision to write a story comes the fleshing out: deciding who is in the story, why they are in it, what they will contribute. The writer must also give time and thought to what the characters look like, how they speak, their movements both physically and within their place in the storyline.

Location is another fundamental of any story. The where can be as important as the why and the what and the who and when. But these are all matters every writer understands, I think. The five W’s are among the first rules of writing and are not negotiable. Without answering those questions at least indirectly, no story can really be a story. But that still leaves you with the Janus Effect: looking at your story from two directions, if you will.

The first face is writing the basic story in your head, following the plot line from the opening to the end of the line: getting it down, putting it on paper, making sense out of what you want to say. I think in another essay about writing non-theatrical films, I’ve described reaching the point at which the client asks how the script is coming, and the answer I would give: "Finished. I just have to put it on paper." That wasn’t a dismissive response, but rather, a true one. Writing, the physical part, is really the end of the job for a writer. The work begins in one’s mind, is developed and fleshed out long before it all comes together on paper. When I sit down to write a story or a script, I do it when I can see and hear it in my mind. To do otherwise is a struggle, trying to control and contain rapid fire thoughts that are created like sparks from a piece of metal dragging along under the car: bright and noisy but too scattered to be useful. When the words are ready, they pour out and fill the pages. And that’s the first aspect of Janus.

Looking the other way doesn’t mean ignoring what is in front of you. It is looking at the story from the reader’s or viewer’s place. The thrill of writing sometimes causes us to ignore what the reader knows or doesn’t know, perhaps doesn’t even understand. So when you read from the reader’s perspective or position or knowledge node, you should discover what you left out, what you need to expand or what means nothing in the overall story and can be deleted. You get to the end, but perhaps it isn’t the end you had in mind, or expected or even wanted. And now the work begins.

Writing, you see, is fun, can be challenging, is sometimes hard. It’s part of the package, though: telling a story isn’t just saying what’s in your head. It is forming the parts into a model others can see and understand. First, of course, you must have a story to tell. Second, you need an audience to hear the story. First you write to satisfy your own desires and demands. Then you write for your readers.

That’s the Janus Effect.

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