Saturday, May 7, 2011
Guest blog with Jeffrey Pierce author of The Awakening
Today's post is brought to us by Jeffrey Pierce author of Escaping Destiny and the soon to be released The Awakening.
When a reader opens a novel and begins to immerse themselves in the story, they enter into an implied pact with author. The very definition of fiction implies that is something other than the actual truth. Each novel asks the reader to let go of reality and embrace a world created by the author's imagination. Part of this journey requires the reader to willingly suspend their disbelief. It is up to the author to create a world that consistently functions within established rules. Any step outside of this framework runs the risk of jarring the reader out of the story.
In my second novel, The Awakening, portions of the story are set in Heaven and Hell. Many people have strongly held beliefs about the afterlife and I knew going in that I would face unique challenges in presenting both locations to the reader.
Getting a Little Psycho
I was in first grade when I discovered the films of Alfred Hitchcock. The Birds was one of my favorite horror movies. For years after watching it I would jar myself awake as I ducked dive-bombing crows and seagulls in my nightmares. I discovered the brilliance of Jimmy Stewart when I watched Rear Window and I doubt I blinked even once during the climax of Vertigo.
However, it was the famous shower scene from Psycho that left me with chills.
Upon repeated viewings I realized that nearly the entire scene was implied rather than shown. We never see the woman in the shower completely naked. We never see the knife enter her body. We never see her fatal wounds.
But we believe that we do.
When approaching a scene where a single misstep can eject the reader from the story, the safest approach is to not give them anywhere to step. Rather than offering detailed descriptions that could trigger agreement or dissent, I chose to paint the scene with wide brush strokes, allowing the reader's own imagination to fill in the blanks.
Upon reaching the afterlife, one of the characters approaches a city that he sees in the distance.
A city sprawled between high walls, its towering buildings reaching for the sky, the architecture so awe-inspiring, so incredibly massive, that the buildings almost squared the cityscape, the metropolis as high as it was wide. [The character] knew nothing of architecture, but realized that the construction was an amalgam of countless human eras, that the greatest human achievements had been woven seamlessly together.
That's it. That single passage is the entire description of the city. The blanks are filled in, not with details, but with the character's reaction to the place they find themselves in - their sense of wonder, their thoughts when they discover something new, and their reactions to the scale (large or small) of various landmarks that they encounter.
What this does is allow the reader to draw from their own beliefs, rather than confronting those beliefs with description. This approach lets the reader use that single sentence above as a canvas. When the character reacts to a new discovery, the reader paints the scene with images that would cause them to react in the same way. As one of my proofreaders replied when I pointed this out to them, "Really? But I have such a detailed image of what the city looks like."
No Dog(ma)s Allowed
Much of my adult life has been spent exploring the world's religions. One of my goals when writing The Awakening was to present the end of the world from a perspective that embraced beliefs ranging from those held by major religions to the stories of indigenous peoples. Considering the amount of disagreement that can occur between major denominations of Christianity, finding common ground that encompasses atheists and believers, ancient religions and new thought, would seem to be an impossible task.
To further complicate matters, I chose to make all of the events scientifically viable within certain parameters. For instance, rather than disregard the laws of physics, everything in the novel had to conform to the Law of Conservation of Energy.
"The end of the world," she whispered to herself, staring at the exposed beams of the ceiling. "What would it be like? What would I think happened if I survived it? Would I even know that the world had changed?"
She began to imagine countless scenarios. A war, even on the scale of the biblical Armageddon would be simply that; a war. How would the experience of surviving a final battle be any different from that of someone who had survived the First World War? Or the Second? And a natural disaster, even one on a global scale, would be something from which the human race would simply strive to recover. They would never recognize it as the end. She imagined the news reports, the body counts and dollar figures that tried to summarize the damage that had been done. "But that's all it would be," she realized. "Just news. We'd never even know." Jenny stared, unblinking, letting the thoughts drift through her mind, not realizing that she waited for the second phrase to reappear.
It was from her chemistry class. "Matter can never be destroyed, only changed from form to form." The two sentences revolved around each other in her thoughts, like reluctant dancers appraising a partner.
When the realization struck, it left her so shocked that she stopped breathing, that the only sound that filled her ears was the slow rhythm of her own heart. The pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place, assembling themselves in her mind.
Once again, the solution was found in rejecting details in favor of themes. Many of the world's religions embrace and promote similar concepts. When writing The Awakening, I relied on these commonalities and, in order to include science in the mix, I exposed each theme to the light of logic. The divine is the embodiment of love - but love can take many forms. Life can be described as two opposing poles (good/evil, yin/yang) yet reality is never black and white but endless shades of gray. Each theme has an exception to the rule, replacing dogma with a balanced blend of emotion, intuition, and logic. This created a rich landscape of beliefs without limiting any of them by assigning them labels.
When I write, I try to remember that I'm not merely an author, but I am also a reader. The books that I love make me think, they set my imagination free, and they leave me wondering, "What happens next?" long after the novel has drawn to a close. While my first novel, Escaping Destiny, relied on detailed descriptions to paint the landscape, I wanted to take a different approach with The Awakening. When we think about spirituality and the afterlife, we all believe something - even if that belief is simply, "I don't know." It was my goal to tell a story in such a way that the characters carried the tale while the reader made the world their own.