So, I was thinking today…
“A dangerous pastime, I know.”— LeFou and Gaston
What makes me enjoy a story? Like, for instance, today I was reflecting on my experience reading The Yellow Dwarf. That story is, in my opinion, horrible. It’s like a salted train wreck (a combo-phrase of “like watching a train wreck” and “pouring salt on the wound”), as my dear sister Catie would put it. But I not only enjoyed laughing at how bad it is, I honestly enjoyed reading it. Why?
My favourite scene in the whole story is…
…With hasty strides the wrathful king followed [the Yellow Dwarf]. Hardly were they face to face, and the whole court on the balconies, than the sun growing suddenly red as if stained with blood, darkness came on so that they could scarcely distinguish each other. Thunder and lightning seemed bent on the destruction of the world; and the two turkey cocks looked by the side of the wicked dwarf like two giants, taller than the mountains, casting forth fire from their mouths and eyes in such quantities that you might have taken them for a fiery furnace. All these things would not have terrified the brave heart of the young monarch. The boldness of his look and actions reassured all who were anxious for his preservation, and even, perhaps, somewhat troubled the yellow dwarf. But his courage was not equal to seeing the condition to which his beloved princess was reduced. The Fairy of the Desert, like Tisiphone her head covered with long snakes, was mounted on a winged griffin and armed With a spear, with which she struck the princess such cruel blows that she fell into the queen’s arms bathed in blood…— The Yellow Dwarf
Isn’t that terrible? Why on earth would I enjoy a scene like that? Many of you know I’m not a big fan of senseless violence. But here’s the kicker. The whole reason I read this story is because of this illustration:
I wanted to know who that crazy lady with the turkeys is. Because I have pet turkeys. I found out the illustration is by Walter Crane, depicting a scene from a faerie tale called The Yellow Dwarf. A quick wikipedia search on the story told me nothing about the turkeys or why there was a red witch in a story about a Yellow Dwarf.
I had to go deeper. I had to go to the source and read the whole salted train wreck myself. And that is how I came across my favourite scene. I enjoyed, by far, more what was unsaid than that which was.
To recap briefly, the princess, Toutebelle, and her mother on separate occasions had been coerced into promising the princess’ hand in marriage to the Yellow Dwarf. Both had been seeking the Faerie of the Desert for advice. Neither made it to her. Both were accosted by the threat of lions eating them up, but the merciful Yellow Dwarf arrives in the nick of time to save them from the lions which no one ever saw in exchange for the princess’ hand that he did not want. It was a “charity” that he should take her, apparently. But, anyway, when Toutebelle and mother try to pretend the agreement never happened and marry her off to a handsome young king, the Faerie herself finally shows up. Apparently she and the Yellow Dwarf are good chums. They go way back. And she’s pretty annoyed that the princess isn’t sticking to the agreement. She threatens to burn her own crutch if the princess does not marry the Yellow Dwarf immediately. Now, I’m not sure what kind of a threat that was, but our hapless princess takes it right to heart and, seeing her predicament most keenly, is moved to tears. But lo and behold! Her precious king will not stand for this!
The King of the Gold Mines, angry at what was going on and because the wicked old woman had come in the way of his happiness, approached her, sword in hand, pointing it at her throat. “Wretched woman,” he said, “depart from this place for ever, or your life shall pay for your wicked ness.”— The Yellow Dwarf
And that is the last of the dialogue the Faerie is afforded for several paragraphs, because then the Yellow Dwarf gets all uppity about his best friend being treated like so, when all she came to do was to see that a perfectly legal and binding agreement was not trespassed upon. Then there was a little bit of a contest between the dwarf and the king to see which of them was more macho, and it might have all culminated in a dashing sword duel for the princess’ hand had not the Faerie reasserted herself into the picture with my favourite scene.
And here’s what I liked about it all. The Faerie came in the first place to see to it that her buddy gets his princess, right? Well then the king defends Toutebelle all gallant-like, and the Faerie saw instead something that she liked. And she took it. She dashes the princess and took the king.
The story changes gears and we follow the kidnapped king. The rollercoaster ride continues. But I laughed. I could just see the complete change of expression on the Faerie’s face when the king threatens her. This goes from “oh I’m mad but this is just business to help out a friend” to suddenly a lot more interesting. And while the Yellow Dwarf and the king go on about this and that and the other and which of them is more manly and deserving, she’s just thinking about how pretty the king is. How she came to the conclusion that the best thing to do is stab the princess and fly off with the king, I’ll never know. Maybe the princess was too much of a threat to her recently discovered king-dreams.
It was just so delightfully mind-blowingly random and weird. That’s what I liked. And I have enjoyed the absurdity of it ever since. The Faerie is the most interesting character in the whole story. I like characters that leave me wondering at their motives and the way their mind works. Those characters seem much more alive to me than any that are following a script. But, more than that, I think on account of the turkeys and my whole reason for reading the story to begin with, my mind was predisposed to look for something to relate to in the Faerie of the Desert. Which is why my mind came up with something I liked when nothing really was said to point me in that direction.
Which brings me to the reason I wrote this post. It occurred to me: the reason we like stories is because we can relate to something or someone in them. As writers, we paint a picture using words, memories, and experiences that are already inside the reader. Just look at the word “memory”, for example. It probably has very specific connotations for me that are different from those it stirs in you. The trick of writing is to use the experiences of someone you have never met to portray a story that only you can see… ah ha, but that is taking too much control, isn’t it? While it is the visual artist’s goal to show someone something they have never seen before, it is the storyteller’s craft to merely set the readers on a journey, guided here and there by the words we use, that is their own.
The trick of being a good writer is to let go of the ability to control another’s thoughts, and trust them to use their own imaginations, merely guided by my words. They don’t need to see exactly what I see when I wrote the scene. They will not even enjoy it if they do. (Though frankly, it’s perfectly impossible for them to see exactly what I see, having very different life experiences and memories to draw upon than my own). I find the more specific a writer is on an action scene, the less I like it. Whereas if they are vague, but use the right action words to get my imagination going, I picture it vivid and alive. I was thrilled by the action scenes in Moribito by Nahoko Uehashi, for example. But when I went back to read those scenes for inspiration, to find out how the author/translators were able to portray those scenes in my head, I was more surprised by how very little was actually said. Readers need to have the freedom to see what they see. They will come to “own” the scene, and if they own it, it will be personal and enjoyable to them.
I understand the concept… now, can I pull it off in my writing?