After a week of thinking about boys and books, I'm honored that Tami asked me to come on back and talk briefly, if that's possible, to combine our topics with a giant exclamation point.
Early this week, Tami talked about books that let the reader infer. Let's be honest: whether our books are for girls or boys, they better do this. Good books trust the reader. There is nothing that makes me put a book down like an overabundance of self awareness, whining, and telling. Sometimes, when I'm reading, I think, "PLEASE, DON'T TELL ME EVERYTHING." I'm not sure about this, but I suspect that one big difference between books identified as "boy books" versus "girl books" have a lot to do with interior monologue. Feelings. And letting them all hang out.
I think readers today want to SEE. They are used to seeing. We have the tools to do this. We can think like a director and give our readers a world they can imagine.
This is one of the great tools of writing. We can get into a person's head and see what they see. We can take the camera and turn it on the world in the unique voice of our protagonists. No two people witness the same event the same way. Your protagonist must narrate his or her story in a unique voice. I hope this was clear during my posts last week. In light of Andy's comments, isn't that crucial for writers who want to reach boys? If boys want to conquer the world, we need to see that world and the obstacles in front of him. David Klass's FIRESTORM offers a great example. It is action packed. The world is familiar and new. In fact, I couldn't help noticing how often Klass uses sentence fragments that begin with action words. There is very little looking within.
And to go back to the boyless CLEMENTINE, we know she's spunky because she is told with broad visual strokes. We can see her. It does not surprise me at all that this book is loved by girls and boys.
Last, I'd like to offer a twist to this debate: Walter Dean Myers's MONSTER. It has a boy protagonist. I believe it fits the criteria of BOY BOOK. Now, check out what he does using screenplay and narrative. It is really quite extraordinary.
In Monster, Steven Harmon, the protagonist, is on trial for murder. He is accused of being the look-out man in a burglary/homicide. During the trial scenes, Steve turns a virtual camera on himself. He scripts his trial, like a screenplay, complete with director’s cues. Examine how Steve, the narrator, uses cinematic techniques in the following excerpt:
CUT TO: GUARDS, who hurriedly finish breakfast. STENOGRAPHER takes machine into COURTROOM. They unshackle STEVE and take him toward door.
CUT TO: STEVE is made to sit down at one table. At another table we see KING and two attorneys. STEVE sits alone. A guard stands behind him. There are one or two spectators in the court. Then four more enter.
CLOSE UP (CU) of STEVE HARMON. The fear is evident in his face.
MS: People are getting ready for the trial to begin. KATHY O’BRIEN sits next to STEVE.
How are you doing?
Good; you should be. Anyway, just remember what we’ve been talking about. The judge is going to rule on a motion that King’s lawyer made to suppress Cruz’s testimony, and a few other things. Steve, let me tell you what my job is here. My job is to make sure the law works for you as well as against you, and to make you a human being in the eyes of the jury. Your job is to help me. Any questions you have, write them down and I’ll try to answer them. What are you doing there?
I’m writing this whole thing down as a movie. (15-6)
In this scene, Myers demonstrates not simply what a director adds to a screenplay but also what a writer adds to a cinematic suspense novel. Steve shifts the camera, pulls it in and out to show the reader both people and physical objects and details. He cuts the film to strategically create and enhance the tension. He films close ups of all the actors, including himself. He relays the dialogue and the action as he sees it through the camera. When he closes in on a witness or detail, the reader sees what the camera sees without explanation, not what Steve necessarily wants the reader to interpret.
But by using a camera instead of subjective narration, Myers also avoids showing us the scene. He tells us what the director should do, but the reader is kept at a great distance. In spite of the format, Myers’s text avoids showing us the very details that make movies visual.
When asked why he structured the novel this way, Myers answered, “In interviewing inmates I noticed a tendency for the inmates to attempt to separate their self-portrayals from their crimes. In Monster I have Steve speak of himself in the first person in his diary, but when he gets to the trial and the crime he distances himself through the use of the screenplay.”
But Monster is more than just a gimmick. Pull back from Steve, the filmmaker, to Walter Dean Myers, the real director. In Monster, he juxtaposes Steve’s journal entries and innermost thoughts with the screenplay of the trial. He gives us a little bit of interior monologue. We see him. We hear him.
Or do we????
In Monster, Myers abandons the “omnisensual dream” for the screenwriter’s tools. By inserting cinematic commands like “close up” and “cut” instead of describing what Steve sees, the screenplay is oddly distancing. It tells, even as it claims its intention to show. The text offers a format, not the full picture.
At the novel’s conclusion, when Steve is found not guilty, the camera catches him turning to his lawyer to embrace her. She stiffens and turns away. Steve stands awkwardly.
The novel ends with one last journal entry, which concludes:
That is why I take the films of myself. I want to know who I am. I want to know the road to panic that I took. I want to look at myself a thousand times to look for one true image. When Miss O’Brien looked at me, after we had won the case, what did she see that caused her to turn away?
What did she see? (281)
What did O’Brien see? The camera does not show, and the journal does not say. The reader leaves Monster no longer entirely sure of Steve. Will his friends and family always look at him with doubts? Will his self image change? Is Steve in danger of fulfilling society’s prophecies? In the final entry of the novel, Steve tells the reader that he speaks daily into the camera. His mother doesn’t understand him; his father was “thankful that he did not have to go to jail” (280). But he looks at his son differently. With doubts. And questions.
Steve wants to use the camera to see the truth. He wants to see what he looks like. For Steve, the visual image is the authority. He trusts the camera. But Myers never answers these questions. Steve does not see the truth in his films; even at the end of the novel, the camera does not reveal exactly what O’Brien saw.
If Monster were indeed a film, the viewer would be able to see O’Brien’s expression. If Myers had chosen to write the novel in descriptive prose, he might have described the moment. But instead Myers lets the reader imagine the glance. He does not show his readers the images a camera would reveal.
Myers's intention--not to show us his face--not to sew up the ending--works for me. It plagues me. I think about this kid and kids like him. And I bet a lot of boys and girls feel the same way.
I'll be back after CARRIE JONES to talk about SEX!
If there are issues you absolutely want to talk about--if you have questions for the experts--email me at saraharonson at verizon dot net.