Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Turn of the Screw: Why you sort of have to be an architect to write fiction

I've said in the past that writing fiction is a great deal like acting. As the author, you have to inhabit your characters, to look out at their world from inside their bodies, much as an actor does. Like it or not, you also are the director, set designer, and lighting designer. Also you have to produce the thing and sit alone in the box office 24/7, but never mind that part.

What I am getting at is the importance of blocking in fiction, which I see I've written about before. By blocking, I mean figuring out exactly where your characters are in space, at all times. A tall order? Yes, especially if you do not have a clear picture of that space in your mind.

Years ago I bought a book called The Writers Journal, which, not unexpectedly, showed actual pages from writers' journals. One of them (I can't remember who) had created elaborate floor plans for the house in which his characters lived. At the time, I thought that was just pure OCD. Some writers might enjoy that sort of thing, but that level of attention to detail wasn't for me. And as a result, I think my characters have done a fair amount of floating.

In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James's characters have no such problem. I've already talked about the architecture in the scene where the first "visitant" appears: the way the apparition places his hand on the crenelations as he moves along the roof specifically situates him in both space and time--which makes him all the more extremely creepy. This week, I'm more convinced than ever that James had a complete sketch somewhere of Bly and its grounds, including plans for all the floors. Whether he did them himself or enlisted a friend who was an architect, I don't know. It's possible he just used a real house with which he was extremely familiar. In any case, his detailed knowledge of the space enables him to create scenes that we, the readers, can feel ourselves inside of. And that is what makes them so scary.

In this scene, the governess observes one of her young charges, Flora, looking out from her bedroom window onto the lawn at night. She's obviously "engaged" with one of the "visitants" (I just love that word) the governess has been seeing inside and outside the house. The governess immediately wonders what's happening with Flora's brother, Miles, who seems to be of particular interest to the apparition of Peter Quint.

While I stood in the passage I had my eyes on her brother's door, which was but ten steps off and which, indescribably, produced in me a renewal of the strange impulse that I lately spoke of as my temptation. What if I should go straight in and march to HIS window?—what if, by risking to his boyish bewilderment a revelation of my motive, I should throw across the rest of the mystery the long halter of my boldness? This thought held me sufficiently to make me cross to his threshold and pause again.

I preternaturally listened; I figured to myself what might portentously be; I wondered if his bed were also empty and he too were secretly at watch. It was a deep, soundless minute, at the end of which my impulse failed. He was quiet; he might be innocent; the risk was hideous; I turned away. There was a figure in the grounds—a figure prowling for a sight, the visitor with whom Flora was engaged; but it was not the visitor most concerned with my boy. I hesitated afresh, but on other grounds and only for a few seconds; then I had made my choice. There were empty rooms at Bly, and it was only a question of choosing the right one. The right one suddenly presented itself to me as the lower one—though high above the gardens—in the solid corner of the house that I have spoken of as the old tower. This was a large, square chamber, arranged with some state as a bedroom, the extravagant size of which made it so inconvenient that it had not for years, though kept by Mrs. Grose in exemplary order, been occupied. I had often admired it and I knew my way about in it; I had only, after just faltering at the first chill gloom of its disuse, to pass across it and unbolt as quietly as I could one of the shutters. Achieving this transit, I uncovered the glass without a sound and, applying my face to the pane, was able, the darkness without being much less than within, to see that I commanded the right direction. Then I saw something more. The moon made the night extraordinarily penetrable and showed me on the lawn a person, diminished by distance, who stood there motionless and as if fascinated, looking up to where I had appeared—looking, that is, not so much straight at me as at something that was apparently above me. There was clearly another person above me—there was a person on the tower; but the presence on the lawn was not in the least what I had conceived and had confidently hurried to meet. The presence on the lawn—I felt sick as I made it out—was poor little Miles himself.

James not only knows the distance (ten paces) between Flora's room and Miles's, he has also located and envisioned this unused room down the hall, from which the governess can get an unimpeded view of who is looking at whom looking at whom.* Thanks to these spatial details, the reader sees what the governess sees, and feels what she feels. I admit, I got a little impatient as she conducted her "transit" (just tell us where Miles is!!). But the architectural passage (pun there) increases the suspense, and more than that, it reinforces all the characters (human and not) as specific physical presences in a specific space.

So I am going to suggest a writing exercise in which you actually sketch out the physical space in which your story or novel is going to unfold. You might not even have a story in mind yet--I think you might actually come up with a story from this exercise. It's OK to look at photos or drawings, but I think you have to make the space your own by redrawing and revising it. It seems like a lot of work up front, but down the road it will make your job easier because you won't have to wonder just where the hell your characters are. You will know. But you have to also remember to tell your reader.

*This kind of 3D visualization is a real weakness of mine; I still have chill-inducing memories of some kind of IQ test I had to take in, like, first grade. It included 2D drawings of 3D objects, and we had to rotate them in our minds, say, 45 degrees clockwise, and then pick the correct 2D representation that rotation would produce. I imagine I cried, and was thereafter discreetly funneled into a profession requiring orientation in two dimensions or fewer.

No comments: