Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Writer's Magic Word

I'm going to reveal it here, but it needs a moment of setup, so please bear with me.

George Plimpton once played with the New York Philharmonic; another of his many don't-try-this-at-home first-person insider activities.

He rehearsed with a triangle. Leonard Bernstein asked him to tap it. Again. Again. Then Bernstein said that each one of those was different, and asked Plimpton, "Which one did you mean?" He continued with, "Practice, practice, practice."

A triangle. You can mess it up? Apparently so.

Imagine a writer's dilemma, filling a page or screen with words, seemingly like a stream of... triangles?

What's a writer to do?

Fortunately, we have a magic word, to substitute for a musical instrument, but understanding it and practicing it is the writer's version of Bernstein's goal: Which one do we mean?

This is getting convoluted, so I'll get to the point.

The writer's magic word is "exposition".

What do we say? When do we say it? How do we say it? What do we mean?

Prose is music. Composed with the alphabet keyboard, not a musical instrument. The feel and style is exactly the same, however.

It's also been likened to a musical instrument similar to a triangle: a bell.

When do you ring the bell? How loud or soft? What tone do you mean to make? How often do you play it?

An entire work is like a composition of only bells. The writer constantly reveals information in an assortment of ways and amounts, ideally to say what they mean.

What may be more important with writing, however, is not so much the beauty and lilt of the prose, but the fact that, once you've rung the bell, you can't un-ring it.

One word, one twist of phrase, one hint, one shading delivered at the right time and with the right tone, can express a thought that will color and define everything that follows. The memory of that bell that has rung will continue, changing a viewpoint or impression of the rest of the piece, to the good or ill of the writer's intent. Mention a murderer's gun in the first line of a mystery and see how the story works from there.

It's also been likened to a country music star always wearing a cowboy hat onstage. That's so the message has rung, with clarity and purpose: This is not the New York Philharmonic you're listening to, son.

As for writing, you will ring that bell or wear that hat, and your exposition is--if played like a symphony musician--music to the reader's ears.