Tuesday, January 22, 2013

How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Avoid The Big Moment

Most writers want to say something that's going to have a strong and lasting impact. To deliver a message to your readers, it’s tempting to go for The Big Moment. The Big Moment is a point when the author reveals The Truth. Suddenly the plot and characters and metaphors and images fall away, and the author bares the real meaning of the work, and maybe even what the writer feels is the real meaning of life.
Is this sort of direct message a good idea for a writer? What are the consequences of reaching for The Big Moment?
Here’s an example of a Big Moment. In Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, the architect Howard Roark, loosely based on Frank Lloyd Wright, has to stand trial for dynamiting the façade of a building he himself designed. Roark destroys the front of his own building because his design was altered, and the new version violates both his vision and the agreement he had with the developer about artistic control.
When Roark goes on trial, he elects to defend himself, and speaks to the jury for eight solid pages. Yes, eight uninterrupted pages! At least it only takes 710 pages to get to his harangue. Here’s a sample of what he says:
“The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption.… This country was not based on selfless service, sacrifice, renunciation or any precept of altruism. It was based on a man’s right to the pursuit of happiness. His own happiness. Not anyone else’s. A private, personal, selfish motive.”
[Copyright © Ayn Rand, 1968]

In this endless lecture to the jury, Howard Roark is only a megaphone for Ayn Rand. He's not a character with a personality, only a vehicle for an idea, and not a very well-thought out or humane idea. It’s a Big Moment.
Poets are not immune from The Big Moment, either. The temptation to wave the moral like a flag is just too great at times. At the opposite end of the political spectrum from Ayn Rand is the French poet Louis Aragon, one of the founding members of the surrealist group and an avowed communist.

                          Louis Aragon, photographed by Man Ray

Aragon published the poem “The Red Front” in 1931 in Moscow, a poem that speaks of the time when the supporters of communism will triumph under the banner of the proletariat (referred to as "it" at this point in the poem):

It’s just waiting for the day the hour
the minute the second
when that lethal gunshot hits home
and the bullet’s aim is so true that all the social fascist doctors
leaning over the corpse of its victim
try in vain to run their eager fingers under that lace shirt
to listen with their stethoscopes to its heart already rotting
no they won’t find the usual cure
and they fall into the hands of rioters who line them up against the wall

(translation © 2013 by Zack Rogow)

“Social fascist” is a term that doctrinaire Marxists use to designate progressives and liberals. Not a lot of subtlety in that Big Moment! Aragon lays bare his political agenda for everyone to see. Communism galumphs to victory, capitalism and its apologists bite the dust. At least he extends the metaphor of the rotting corpse of capitalism! Though it’s quite a cliché.
I’ve picked extreme political philosophies to illustrate my point that The Big Moment rarely works. I could have picked statements I agree with, though. The Big Moment is usually a flawed artistic strategy no matter what the message. The reality is that few generalized moral judgments directed as a speech to the reader still surprise, provoke, or inspire us any more. They simply produce a yawn in the reader. Not only that, the reader is likely to recoil from the overbearing tone of a Big Moment. The Big Moment generally creates the exact opposite effect from what the author desired, which is to persuade the reader.
In my next blog, I’ll talk about why whether it’s still important, desirable, or possible to make a persuasive point or to deliver a message in a work of poetry, fiction, or nonfiction

Other recent posts about writing topics:
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

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