The Choreography of Perception
By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes
“…the eye altering alters all.”
(William Blake, “The Mental Traveller,” line 62)
It’s a bit of a wonder that we can follow it at all—the chase fiction leads us on in patterning events! Chronological sequence falls early victim to late starts and backtracking, to sudden leaps ahead; is treated with indifference as plot-lines are set aside, as stories get “shingled” one atop another, as maddening gaps open up beneath our feet.
… And all of this is achieved as the narrative unspools, its sentences, its paragraphs, its delineated incidents following in succession—fiction being necessarily a linear art-form, sequential in its unfolding. Though a story, once read, becomes holistic for us too, its parts locked in place to form a wide panorama in our retrospective minds. It was Henry James who said that a story in unfolding should be unpredictable for us, and yet, considered afterwards, should appear to have been inevitable, now that we can see how “everything worked out.”
But as it unfolds, as its patterns are unfurling, it’s much as it is in high-level dance—no step to be left entirely to hazard but must be choreographed! And just as in dance, the “moves” at our disposal are dazzling in their inventiveness and unending variety.
We thrive best as writers when we bring to our craft a special acuity about the dynamics of perception—the mechanisms enabling us to “take in” the world, reflexively and unthinkingly, the way we do. Perception can trip us up at almost every turn, in ways both unusual and predictable enough.
Let’s begin with some principles that are worth bearing in mind as we grow more microscopic in subsequent craft notes:
The Selectivity of Narrative
We of course choose, as writers, what we allow into a work and what, in turn, we elect to leave out. We may refer to these options as comprising, on the one hand, strategies of inclusion and, on the other, strategies of exclusion (or strategies of omission). We must then distinguish between full and partial inclusion while understanding, at the same time, that there are no gradations in the case of full exclusion—something fully excluded or omitted from fiction is simply not there, and may be likened to “negative space” in drawing—suggestive in its absence, a ghostly non-presence, perhaps implying much. But for all that, not there.
We can break out detailed inclusion as distinct from partial inclusion in the following chart:
These alternatives, so stated, represent the opposing ends of a very wide spectrum of possibilities for the writer—detailed inclusion ranging from massively textured passages of the sort one finds in Proust to the somewhat leaner ones we might find in Willa Cather; sketchy inclusion ranging from the tightly wrought transitions of, say, a George Eliot to the brisk, quick synopsizing we see in Grace Paley. (See invocation and evocation in an earlier craft note, “Metaphors as Affording us ‘Magnified Sight’ and Related Considerations,” WTP, September 17, 2021.) Much remains to be said about these distinctions in the craft notes to come.
Anticipation: the Two Essential Types
Or suspense, if you will—because to be “in anticipation” is to be, in effect, in a state of suspense.
We have two essential means of inducing the reader to await what’s to come. It’s tempting to label these primitive suspense and sophisticated suspense because the first of the two would seem to harken back to the dawn of storytelling: the linear unfolding of “what happened next” as the rapt audience hung on the storyteller’s words to learn how the tale was going to turn out, its dénouement being in no way foreordained—and, perhaps, indeed, not even hinted at.
It’s the outcome of such stories that furnishes the reader with the capping satisfaction: “Ah, so that’s what all of these events were leading up to!” And the outcome might confirm the reader’s suspicions, or come as a total, unlooked-for surprise, as when a writer deliberately “wrongfoots” the reader as Hemingway does in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” when the plane finally comes to fetch the ailing Harry—the trip away by plane being Harry’s dying fantasy, as we learn with a jolt. A like surprise awaits us (though not through wrongfooting) in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” when the itinerant Bible salesman is finally revealed—to the reader and his victim—as a fetishist intent on depriving the impaired of their artificial body parts. (Poor unsuspecting Hulga!)
In contrast to the first type, sophisticated suspense, as I’m calling it here, involves the prompt or early disclosure of what will transpire, with a consequent shift in the reader’s anticipation from what is going to happen to how it will come about. Less “destination-driven,”* aware beforehand of the outcome, the reader is left to dwell on the manner in which that outcome will be reached. Robin Black’s recent novel, Life Drawing, begins, “In the days leading up to my husband Owen’s death…,” a foretelling of the novel’s pivotal event and an invitation to focus on “those days” with care. We’re but a short way into Heller’s Catch-22 when we’re told that Snowden had been killed over Avignon, and that Dobbs had gone crazy and seized the controls from Huple. This celebrated episode, so central to the novel, is carefully choreographed in spaced-out increments, spliced intermittently into the novel’s larger story. We await each in turn.
But “sophisticated” as a label for this type of suspense, beyond its convenience, is more than a misnomer—it’s downright anachronistic! Since the very earliest days, great “stories” have been told—by Homer, the Greek tragedians—whose outcomes were foreknown, their audience intent on how the story was retold by this particular author, in this particular context! How will Aeschylus, for example, depict Iphigenia’s sacrifice to secure the winds needed for the fleet to sail to Troy? One critic of the drama has labeled this pattern the irony of history: our finding “suspenseful” events we know already as they’re being retold.
The important thing here, then, is to make the distinction: between those stories focusing on what will happen as apart from those focusing on how things will happen. And there’s even a “middle zone” between the two worth noting: the story whose ultimate outcome is uncertain, but that begins with a “teaser” strongly portending the possible outcome. Again we turn to Flannery O’Connor: the family in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is aware from the opening paragraph that traveling to Florida could be hazardous for them, lest they run into The Misfit, on the loose from prison. Will they encounter him, or not?!
(*On “destination-driven” reading, see “The Journey of Reading and the Function of Suspense,” WTP, October 21, 2021.)
From Experience to Depiction: Preliminary Views, and What follows After
Mutating perspectives form a fundamental element in the development of stories. Point of view, of course, determines much of this, the alterations presented through the prevailing authorial voice—third or first-person, more often than not—or depicted through the eyes of a character or characters. (We’ll be taking special note of some interesting features of the first-person voice.)
But over and above who is doing the perceiving loom matters of perception that transcend point of view and have to do generally with first and subsequent “takes”—the patterns by which we experience new things and “revisit” them beyond our first encounters. This becomes especially pertinent when we depict social encounters, which by nature are “inefficient”—repetitive, unscripted, often messy, awkward—and all too often rushed by journeyman writers, who lack the patience to go one step at a time.
Take this as an instance: how often it happens, when we’re meeting someone new—especially if we’re being introduced to the new person—we fail to catch the person’s name and need to have it repeated. Why is this so?
It isn’t that we haven’t heard the new person’s name, it’s that we haven’t heeded it, and fixed it in mind. In such introductions, we get entangled, it would seem, in what we might call the “issues of the self”—concerns about how we are being perceived and judged; doubts as to whether we’re making a good first impression, or are handling ourselves well. It’s a split-focus problem, in part sociological, in part psychological.
But it’s more than that, too, since we don’t really undertake a systematic survey when we first encounter people, much less catch their names. They register on us an overall impression, one in which some few details will stand out: eyes and voice; height and girth; the person’s hair, very likely; whether they’re smiling. The out-of-the-ordinary, too—an unusual physical feature, a peculiar form of dress. Aside from such details, our perceptions will be, on a purely visual level, diffuse and recessive. We “get” some people intuitively while we aren’t quite sure what to make of others.
Our meeting new people, then, is a significant subset of a broader phenomenon, one having to do with our first “takes” on anything—not just of other people, but of landscapes, interiors, unfamiliar social contexts, all those new things we view external to the self. They yield, by and large, only generalized judgments that afford us “gross” perceptions—gross in the sense of being fairly undetailed, as in the phrase, grosso modo. There will be necessarily, however muted or subtle, an element of “startle” in our view of new things, the visual equivalent of our need to “listen up” and pay fresh attention to what lies before us.
It will be on second and subsequent “takes” that we begin to get past our initial assessments and refine our perceptions. Ah, that person we met yesterday—and now encounter in the street! Hadn’t noticed on first meeting that mole on the cheek! Wears glasses! Hadn’t noticed! Or that room, upon reentering, for all that we’d observed a fair number of details—we detect, as not before, a rather subtle odor, faint but discernible… All our “subsequent takes” building on, modifying, perhaps reinforcing our first views of things.
As we proceed in this series, we’ll see more fully how this set of dynamics, of first and subsequent “takes,” will inform such things as character development and changes in setting—perceptions, indeed, of many different sorts.
Telling Details vs. Incidental Details
Telling details are of course the ones that “give away” something crucial, providing a gestalt that solidifies and clarifies our comprehension of something. The staging of such details in relation to incidental ones will determine very largely the revelatory quality that all such details will have when taken together. To be “incidental” is not to be inconsequential. Less conspicuous details will be as crucial and necessary to “choreographing” a scene as telling details will be.
How they work in concert to create a powerful effect we can see in a poignant scene from Josephine Humphreys’ Rich in Love. Lucille, the teen narrator and chief protagonist of the novel, hungers for confirmation that her mother cares about her—her mother who has earlier abandoned her family, and has been located after a great deal of searching. Her mother professes at a delicate moment to be attuned to Lucille:
“Something else is bothering you. Tell me what it is.” She sat me down on her cot and put her arm around me, and I wanted to tell her. For a moment I considered it; her arm was tight, she held me as if she wanted to know. I looked her in the eye and opened my mouth—and then briefly, but not so briefly that I didn’t notice, her eyes wandered away, the way a person’s eyes wander when they’re not seriously listening to you. Her eyes left my face and went, for a split second, to her yellow curtains.
I caught myself just in time.
Lucille herself indicates the telling detail here: her mother’s momentary lapse of attention. It’s a heartbreaking moment—one revealing to Lucille everything she’s wished to know, and yet not wished to know, about her mother, whose abdication from the family has been intended to show just how “carefree” she’s become, when what she really is, is a deeply careless person.
It’s in the choreographing and orchestrating of “crescendos” of this sort, all the incidental details building up to the “aha!” moment, that we see at work the careful ordering of elements, a principle that will be among the themes we pursue.
We next explore a strategy for choreographing details that borrows its name from the visual arts. Scanning and fixating, a concept articulated by Jackson Pollock, induces the viewer to “read” an abstract painting by browsing its surface in search of arresting “nodes” where the eye can “fixate,” and help organize the viewer’s perception of the painting. By analogy, we’ll see how this strategy functions in the brilliant opening pages of Tobias Wolff’s story, “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs.” Beyond this strategy, we’ll begin to consider the ways in which our eye misdirects us—that “altering eye” of Blake’s that “alters all”—together with the benefits we can harvest as writers from the eye’s unsteady gaze.