Sunday, January 2, 2011

Revealing the Clues

Films, books, music, and other time-based art are metaphorically also tapestries, woven works. Unifying threads run throughout. Part of the skill in creating the work is knowing when to reveal new information, when to reveal the clues for the reader/viewer and in what order.

In the 2001 film Enigma, there is one scene that perfectly demonstrates this idea when Thomas Jericho enters his former girlfriend's cottage illicitly. We see a shot of him searching through her dresser drawers; we see a screwdriver, possibly a brush, and many perfume bottles. As he walks away from the bureau it occurs to him that the floorboards don't squeak anymore. After pulling up the rug he discovers a board that is now screwed down. He remembers the screwdriver that was in the drawer, and is able to use it. It is such a small detail, but I liked that I had already seen the screwdriver, that it didn't just appear coincidentally later after Thomas needed it.

This kind of set-up is something I learned about in Bob Glück's class: put everything on the table in the beginning. The idea is that if the writer knows what is going on, the viewer/reader should be let in on the secret. It's fine if the creator doesn't know as s/he is making the work—sometimes it works for the viewer/reader to discover something as the maker does. But if you, as the maker, do know, put it out there so you can earn the reader's trust.

Certain kinds of clues can be used in artist's books that are different from films or musical pieces. You can use words, pictures, materials, and/or the binding as pieces of the story or puzzle to give clues from the beginning and weave them in along the way. Some simple examples might be: a picture of a glove before the story says it is a mystery or before a snowstorm; a dried and pressed leaf when talking about a winter tree now bare; burlap used as covering material for a book about poverty or silk or velvet to indicate luxury. Each of these examples adds new information.

If all the parts relate to the narrative or intended meaning, the reader will trust that s/he knows what the book is about. In a good mystery, all the pieces are hidden in plain sight, like the screwdriver; we turn the pages or keep watching the film to see not what they are, but how they will be used, and how they might be twisted.

A twist at the end is different from a punchline. The punchline, while using the pieces that are revealed bit by bit (a duck walks into a bar…put it on my bill), goes straight for the laughs or one sudden emotional response (which could also be shock). The twist is more complex, containing many layers of response from the reader/viewer. The response is possibly conflicted, like happiness tinged with loss (a popular one).

How you show the story, how you use the materials and the binding will influence the reading. The reader, by continuing to hold your book is trusting that you will not manipulate her, but that you will guide her toward a satisfying conclusion.

Crows at Home, 2008

1 comment:

Bren said...

just learned about your book coming out and looked you up, very glad I did. Looking forward to exploring your blog and reading your book once it comes out. Congrats!