Duende55: Stories and Jumps
David Foster Wallace was a sucker for memoirs of sportsmen and women. His fascination revolves around a desire to reach an understanding of how they became a "genius" at what they do. He especially loved memoirs by tennis stars.
Explicitly or not, the memoirs make a promise—to let us penetrate the indefinable mystery of what makes some persons geniuses, semidivine, to share with us the secret and so both to reveal the difference between us and them and to erase it, a little, that difference...
What Foster Wallace is seeking is the answer between the effect and the mysterious cause.
All writing must attempt to bridge this gap. In most instances, we, as readers, are aware of many aspects of the story we are reading. If it is a memoir of a famous person, then we know the broad outline of their career. We certainly know how things end. We read to discover what secret ingredients allowed them such success.
With fiction, we come at the experience armed with some preloaded ideas. It is easy to pick out a Grisham novel, or a Stephen King novel, because their names take up most of the cover. And we know what we will get with both writers. We read them to go on the ride.
The same can be said for literary fiction, even though often the plot or narrative arc is secondary to the focus on the style of writing. There are expectations of the genre.
I like to think of this narrative arc and the need to "reveal" the secret to the reader as akin to water ski jumping.
As a kid, on a boring Easter weekend, I'd end up watching on Channel 7 the Moomba Festival. A key component was the ski jumping which took place on the Yarra River in Melbourne. It was one of those defining moments of the school holidays.
What fascinated me about the jumping wasn't the jumping, nor how far they could jump. It was the lead up to the jump itself.
Every skier did the same thing. When the camera cut to them, they'd be just a head sticking out of the water with the tips of their skis pointing skyward. Final adjustments would be made, then a quick nod, a rev of an engine, and then the rope would straighten.
And miraculously, they'd rise, just as the dead would in any nightmare. Straight in front of them was the jump. The speed boat would pass by with it on the left of centre. After a few moments, they'd steer themselves to the far right bank.
There, they'd wait. There is a white tower, not very big and most likely some marker for rowing races, but for the skiers it marked the place where they'd pull themselves across the boat's bow.
The longer they could wait, the higher their speed as they hit the jump. If they overshot it, they'd abandon the jump or risk crashing into the side.
Stories need to know there will be a jump. Good stories take the reader away from the desired end, unsure how the cause and effect will link up. Bad stories telegraph this way too early. Really bad stories fail to make the connection and pull a rabbit out of the hat without letting us know we were watching a magic show.
Make sure your reader knows how things will end, and then take them on the ride.