Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The dead page

I was reading a pretty decent mystery the other night when I came upon a completely dead page. In the book, a retired cop was being provisionally brought back onto the force to help solve a crime very similar to one that happened back when he was active. Up to this point, the book was all mood and character, but at this point it changed--it turned into a book about logistics. The scene in question consisted of the cop's former colleague reintroducing him to the rest of the investigation division, and explaining what he'd be doing. It was all information we already knew. But it would have been odd not to have a scene like this, and to merely summarize the scene in a few lines would have thrown off the rhythm of the book.

So what was the real solution to this problem? Answer: there wasn't one. The scene actually ruined the book for me, and I didn't finish it. It was absorbing enough, but the writer had taken a turn for the conventional and mundane, and there was no turning back.

Is it possible to write a mystery novel without scenes like this? Yes, it is. It's possible to write any kind of novel without scenes like this. But it's a challenge. I've faced this very dilemma many times--I come to a point where I have to impart vital information, and there's no way to do it that doesn't bore me. In the past, I used to just slog on when I came to these junctures, figuring there was nothing else I could do.

But increasingly I have been trying another tack--going back and finding where I went wrong. The path that led me to the dead page usually forked off from the main path just a few pages back. But sometimes it's a few chapters back. At least once it was eight months back, when I got the idea for the novel, and framed it in my mind in a certain flawed way. I was never able to get past page 50 or so of that one. Yet another novel with a flawed conception never even made it to the first sentence. I only wasted half a year of cogitation and note-taking.

You can write a book that's packed with logistics--thriller writers do it all the time. But the skills required to make such a book interesting are highly specialized, and I don't have them. For me, the dead page is most easily avoided by basing the structure of the book on character, voice, and mood. This expands my choices, and defines the narrative by something other than logistics. The problem with this, of course, is staying interesting to the reader. But the books I write, by definition, have a more limited readship than a mystery or thriller might. I have to find readers who are willing to go along with my plans.

The dead page, more broadly speaking, is the result of a lack of confidence, and a lack of engagement with the imagination. This is something all of us have to endure at some point or other. But during those times when obsessive attention to one's strangest desires is possible, dead pages are few and far between.

Who in the hell has time to pay obsessive attention to their strangest desires, though? This is why there are fewer writers than we'd like, and fewer books than we'd like from the writers we have.


bigscarygiraffe said...

Warning! Non sequitur comment to follow.

This month’s short story by J.G. Ballard in the New Yorker was strange. It could have been an interesting retell of Glavinic’s Nightwork, surprise! it wasn’t.

It’s the story of a dude (just a dude, not too much in the way of character exposition) who wakes up in London and everyone and everything is gone…except, inexplicably, the birds. He neatly and quietly collects provisions for the winter and settles down into his new life (too neatly, too quietly). It all happens in a page. Wha?? I’m all for short-shorts, but I like them to have a punch. Knock the breath out of me kind of stories. Character sketches are great, but there wasn’t any of that here. Did I miss the larger allegory, the more perfect moral?

jon said...

Re: The Dead Page. Remember The Iliad?
it's the catalogue of ships problem. I guess it comes down to genre. In some books you would have plowed ahead, despite the dead page. But in a mystery, it was a cold shower. The guy violated the up-front terms of the narrative.
I'm not sure, as a writer, what I do about the dead page. Sometimes it still seems necessary, and its death grip can only be blunted, or eased, by going back in the narrative and tweaking.
And then there is the question of judgment. In one book i wrote a chapter i was sure was dead exposition, and was very depressed about it, yet a lot of readers liked the character of the dead page, and his page of death. Sometimes as a writer I can be afraid of the reader's boredom and deny him detail that she might want.
In the case of information the reader has already gotten, and a necessary scene of repetition, I suppose the solution lies in character. The way the character distorts the retelling, the slight differences between scenes, might suggest strange desires, unknown motives, disconnections that would intrigue or disturb the reader.

Anonymous said...

Let's say, perhaps, that the perfect novel--from a writer's perspecive--is a novel which, in its creation, never once presents the writers with a dead page situation.

Let us also say that it can't exist. Probably.

rmellis said...

Okay, man, I'm going to disagree with your experience. I don't think it was that page that turned you off the book -- I think it was that page that made you realize the book you were reading wasn't the book you *thought* you were reading.

It's like when you have a friend who is a sociopath. For a long time you ignore the little signs, because there are things you like about her -- interesting things! But then one day she goes off on how much she enjoys embezzling from her job, and you think --- wait, who is this?

In other words, I don't think the problem you experience in reading as the same as the one in writing. I would bet money that the author of the book you were reading would not recognize that as a dead page. For him, it's probably just a pause before he ramps up the book for the ending. For you, it's when you realize you don't want to go there.

My own (limited) experience has lead me to believe that what I find dead in my own work is more or less invisible to the reader, and what they find dead is not so to me.

jon said...

The novel seems to be one of those things that resembles a person. We hate perfect people. The perfect person is the person who is a perfect sum of all his or her imperfections.

Anonymous said...

jon, that little equation is awesome.

And Rhian, I think you are quite right...

Louis said...

ernesto suggests "the magician's pretty assistant" for times like these. Boring sentences with something weird thrown in throughout.

Matt said...

Your last paragraph is *very* quotable. Now you just have to get famous and then we'll see it on those sites dedicated to profound quotations.