Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What's in the Middle

Our Miss Eleanor Rigby on a bench like so many others. Where was she
before she got there? Where was she going? Was this her regular spot?
I wanted to know. Image attribution.

I love music. Music influences me when I'm writing, it can help me reach The Zone very quickly and allow me to stay there. Sometimes the themes of the individual pieces creep into the work. As I'm editing The Cold Distance I can tell you in a couple of spots exactly what I was listening to as I wrote a particular passage. There's a rhythm to the words that came through, too.

What usually speaks to me in music are the mid-range notes, the ones that are usually associated with rhythm. Cellos, French horns, rhythm guitars. Coupled with bombastic percussion and drumming, these are the instruments that grab my attention and keep it. The melody usually comes in there somewhere, but for me to like an individual song it has to have a solid middle sound.

Which is probably why I struggle so much with beginnings and endings in my stories. Coming up with the concept is relatively easy and throwing around some complications for the characters to have to overcome is only marginally harder. That's middle stuff.

Beginnings and endings are also easy. First scene, last scene, even knowing why they happen in most cases. Relatively easy.

It's connecting the parts that's the hangup. 

I need a cello.

That instrument that bridges the rhythm section with the melody. The sound that holds it all together. What's the literary equivalent of that though? What does that in the great stories?

Sub-plots.

Digressing for a moment, the first time I heard The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, I was mesmerized. The plaintive sound of the cellos underneath the lyrics telling stories of two terribly lonely people who shouldn't be lonely in the first place hit me dead center in the heart. A brilliant collaboration between Paul McCartney and George Martin (with a small contribution from John Lennon) is what came out. A complete story in about two and a half minutes. A sort of flash fiction, if you will.

But there are sub-plots in there. At least, they're hinted at. The chorus/opening is the best indicator:

Ah, look at all the lonely people

But we only investigate two lonely people in the song: Eleanor and Father McKenzie. Why was Eleanor alone? Why didn't the good Father go to her? They were both waiting for someone or something, but that's all they did. Why? What were they afraid of? Who are all the other lonely people and how do they connect to Eleanor and the Father?

The song is a terrific bit of storytelling, dropping us in as late as possible and getting out as quickly as we can. There's obviously some history that goes on before the first notes, and there's likely some fallout upon the death of Eleanor if that history comes to light. 

So what this song is, while it's a complete story and self-contained, is really the middle of a much larger tale. What makes it work, what makes it timeless, is that the listener is left to imagine all the things that happened before and what should come after. We are allowed to interpret based on our own experiences. This song had such an impact on me that I developed my own theories about what happened before and what came after. I may tell that story someday, but I'm not a good enough storyteller to do it yet.

Typically the middle is where stories sag because they're the 'boring' parts. Next time you think that, listen to Eleanor Rigby and remind yourself what the middle should be.