Storytelling: Using Pieces in Combination

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

There’s a scene in Searching for Bobby Fischer, about chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, where a street hustler watches Josh playing briefly and exults to Josh’s mother (as she’s dragging him away) that “Your boy used pieces in combination to attack”.

It’s a nice little nugget on sophistication and craft in any creative form. Anyone can throw themselves at a winning attempt in sports or art or whatever, but on a different plane there’s building something (in this case, a coordinated offense) to fulfill a creative end.

In writing, for example, there’s a huge difference between simply writing about your subject with one single-minded thread (attacking directly) and using many of the different elements available to you to realize your subject (using pieces in combination).

Example: a direct attack, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

Out on the roads the pilgrims sank down and fell over and died and the bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.

There’s one line of thought and description in this passage: the Earth is a barren place. Everything here is simply a restatement of that barrenness — pilgrims falling over and dying, the “shrouded” earth, tracklessness, namelessness, “the ancient dark beyond”. “Variations on a theme” would be too generous. McCarthy’s just re-emphasizing the same notion with homogenous bits of portent. If you’ve read it, you know that the whole of The Road uses one line of description. It’s a crude attack.

Here’s a multi-pronged attack, from John Updike’s short story “A&P” (which I’ve quoted on this blog before):

The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.

I see two threads here: 1) the crudeness of the narrator’s ogling (“chunky kid”, “good tan”, “soft-looking can”) and 2) the little bit of delicacy that shows his eyes aren’t going to the typical places, when his eye notes the paleness at the top of her thighs, “where the sun never seems to hit”. When Updike invokes the shadow of the sun, it’s a great playful accent.

These two threads interplay — the narrator’s ogling is of a piece with his observing, and this combination, this balance, perfectly establishes the particular kind of richness in the narrative voice and the point of view, or state of mind, of the piece.

Counting the threads in a bit of a description is, in my experience, a nice little rule of thumb for knowing whether a story’s got any tricks up its sleeve and is worth reading past the beginning. It almost literally makes the difference between one-dimensional and multi-dimensional writing.

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