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Breaking the Fourth Wall

I recently saw a production of a modern one-act opera that I will not name, lest I put my own operatic career in jeopardy. One of the things I found very distasteful about it was that it frequently broke the Fourth Wall — the theater expression for addressing the audience directly, when an actor breaks the invisible line between performer and viewer and dispels the illusion that the viewer is buying into. The reason I found this very problematic in the opera is that it became a poor substitute for truly engaging the viewers in an organic way by drawing them into the interactions of the characters on stage. The characters did not act together much, but spoke at the audience, and therefore I was turned off. It felt like they were delivering lectures about their circumstances to the audience rather than letting us see for themselves. In other words, the classic literary cliché of they did not show, but tell.

This raises an important question: when is it helpful to break the Fourth Wall? When is it useful or engaging?

There are numerous examples of when it is successful. One rather nonsensical example, but an extremely strong one, is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Ferris frequently addresses the audience with his opinions, explanations for his schemes, and even ends the film by shooing us away. Why does it work? Because Ferris is filling us in with little details, backstory, or comments that we would not get otherwise. Since the film is set in real time, moving linearly into the future, with no flashbacks, we want to know a little bit more than what we see on the screen. Also, the film is about Ferris, and in his point of view, so he is our narrator and our guide. What happens between the characters confirms Ferris’s opinions; when he breaks the Fourth Wall, it is also placed very strategically. Contrast this with the breaking of the fourth wall in Ingmar Bergman’s stunning film “Autumn Sonata.” it is extremely distracting that Viktor has to narrate the story to us, it is overkill. The acting between Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman is so moving the film should simply speak for itself.

In literature, especially literature from earlier centuries, the narrator frequently addresses the reader. Who can forget the classic line “Reader, I married him” from Jane Eyre? This slightly self-conscious breaking of the Fourth Wall engages us because it analyzes our sympathies with Jane. She has confided in us and taken us on a journey with her lifelong struggle, and she wants to deliver her good news to us directly. It is slightly meta-fictive, calling attention to itself as metafiction does, though metafiction would not truly exist as a genre till a century later.

We do often indeed see an indirect sort of Fourth Wall-breaking in theater and opera, and there are numerous examples. Internal monologues are often delivered to the audience, as are arias, such as “Hai già vinta la causa” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The angry, cuckolded Count Almaviva is singing with no one else onstage, but we the audience are there to listen. Here, it works to break the Fourth Wall, for the Count is telling us how he feels and what he wants to do. We are his sole confidantes for his supposed vendetta. This information is secret, for he would not dare reveal his romantic/sexual humiliation to any others in the opera, for it would shatter his pride. Granted, it is ultimately the director’s choice as to whether the Count will address the audience directly, but it is a very good choice to do so. The same goes for Shakespeare. Hamlet can potentially address us audience members in “To be, or not to be…” Granted, in both situations, with this indirect breaking of the Fourth Wall, an equally impactful effect can be felt as the performer does not make direct eye contact with single members of the audience as would happen in a true breaking of the Fourth Wall.

Where we see the Fourth Wall broken the most in our modern performance arts is in standup comedy. Many comedians choose to engage members of the audience, heckling them, asking them questions, and drawing comedic fodder from them on the spot. But even so, the comedian must still maintain a continuity of the theatrical illusion that s/he is presenting; s/he must remain in charge. Finally, one of the funniest uses of breaking the Fourth Wall in comedy was on the television program “Three’s Company.” Certainly not highbrow, and undoubtedly formulaic, cartoony, but vastly entertaining and well done. We buy into the illusion of the hapless roommates and their romantic adventures, misunderstandings, and comedic crises. Anything to disturb this would call attention to itself and the artifice of such an absurd show. However, the screen presence of rubber-faced actor Norman Fell (as Stanley Roper) turning to the camera with a slightly lunatic grin after making wisecracks about his wife Helen is a hilarious use of breaking the Fourth Wall. It only heightens the humor and adds to the absurdity of the show, and gives and gives a roundedness to the cranky character whom we dislike as much as “the kids” upstairs.

When used properly, we love it when the Fourth Wall is broken because it makes us feel like we are conspiring with or allied with the character on stage to get us more involved in the story.

Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly digitized. Even our communication is much less interactive and personal than it was, due to the unfortunate preference for social media. If you couple that with the American mentality of excessive independence and secularism, it makes for a very disconnected society. I am not advocating that America lose its secular governance – especially with this administration, we do not have enough separation of church and state, and unfortunately in America, religion becomes conflated with the Religious Right and Christianity. But secular liberals have a hard time understanding anything that isn’t 110%, fair and square to the last drop equality and freedom. The idea of subjugating one’s personal desires to anything greater is simply unthinkable to them. And perhaps this is due to their having been raised in organized religion, and its heavy-handed requirements for personal behavior as well as its endless rituals and consumption of one’s time.

Despite all this, I still maintain that we need spirituality in this world. We need a sense of something sacred.

Two definitions under the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for the word sacred provide an adequate meaning for what I’m discussing here. One reads, “entitled to reverence and respect.” Another reads “highly valued and important.” In many cultures, certain daily rituals are considered sacred. For example, the tea ceremony, or even quotidian tasks such as how one slices tofu in the home, are considered sacred in Japan. The coffee ceremony in Ethiopia is equally revered. Ask any Italian worth his or her weight in semolina if there is a proper way to make pasta, and do not contradict him or her. But beyond food, there are other things that are considered sacred. Certain objects, such as heirlooms, need to be treated with respect, as they hold great significance to a deceased loved one. Color symbolism, such as red at Asian weddings, is important. Various poets or writers or artists of any genre are sacred to different cultures. Russians love Pushkin and Poles adore Chopin. Brazilians, a beautifully sentimental people, worship not only their gods, but also their musicians and their land of their country.

Part of our loss of the sense of something sacred in America stems from the fact that we have so few historical edifices or places and spaces that are important. Everything here is designed for efficiency and practicality, and in some parts of the country, like the Midwest, pragmatism is valued over anything else. We do not have many basilicas or mosques like the Istanbul “Blue Mosque” that take our breath away. We do not have ornate temples like in South India whose gopurams (towers) are sculpted impressively, if sometimes gaudily, by hand by artisans of astounding skill. We do not have, as a regular part of our culture, large plazas or public spaces that exist simply to allow people to congregate. There are no Macchu Picchus here, nor an Eiffel Tower. Other than the grand nature out west or in the mountains in the east, the looming skyscrapers of Manhattan and other big cities, and the over-the-topness of Las Vegas, most everything in America in public spaces is built to scale, for efficiency and not for aesthetics. If something is large, it is usually just to serve a function: a convention center, a corporate headquarters, a shopping mall.

We do have reverence in America, but it often becomes extremist, centered on a particular person, celebrity, or even religious leader or cult figure. It can be jingoistic, insular, and dangerous. What I am talking about is the quiet reverence and respect that comes from history, from a deep love, and from a sense of the aesthetic. A quiet hush. This sense of sacred is something that makes secular individuals lay down their guard that says everything has to be about them, and experience a sense of humility and surrender that all the great spiritual masters have taught us for millennia. Life in America should not just be all about us; to live this way is not only psychologically unhealthy, but it also robs us of a feeling of something beautiful that is beyond us. It disconnects us from our continuity with other beings that existed before us.

Take time to reflect on what is personally sacred to you, what is meaningful to you, something that you respect and revere.

Intuition as Omniscience

I am currently immersed in the study of narration and narrative distance in my MFA program. More specifically, in omniscient narration. This is the notable bugbear of many writers, to the point that they do not even attempt it in their writing, choosing to write in first- or third-person limited instead. Commonly known as the voice that is “playing God,” the omniscient narrator does not necessarily know everything or see everything, but has a greater ability to go into various characters’ heads than other narrators.

What is omniscience? The ability to know everything. Is this truly possible? Is it possible to know everything?

In this day and age of Google, social media, everything available on the Internet and in public domain, it certainly seems so. Everything is available with the click of a button, at our fingertips, anytime and anywhere. People from halfway around the world can take a course at an American university, online. Someone in a small town in the Midwest can purchase something online made in a place thousands of miles away. In this Information Age, anything seems possible. Even the advent of Bitcoin and payment services such as PayPal, Venmo, or Apple Pay render currency obsolete.

In Europe, privacy laws are stricter than in the US, something that is very admirable and enviable. One’s personal information should not be distributed so freely; credit card companies and Internet services and marketing organizations know too much about us to degree that is simply frightening.

What can we do?

I would suggest that this problem creates a spiritual void that needs to be filled by our own understanding of something greater than us – call it the divine, God, energy, what you will. It requires that we go within, be aware of our breath, our inner landscape, and most importantly, our intuition. So much emphasis is given to facts and cerebral knowledge that our body’s wisdom is discarded. So much emphasis is given to ascertaining and reassuring that we forget to get in touch with our souls, and a knowledge that is beyond the scientific method. To be sure, I am a very pro-science writer; science is extremely important, and not used enough by our politicians and many people in making important and informed decisions. But there is a place for it, and when it affects our personal lives at a deep level, we have to step back and ask ourselves if there isn’t some greater way of knowing and understanding the world. Even the greatest scientists have emphasized the importance of intuition in their discoveries, and even neuroscience is slowly investigating intuition. This is not to say they espouse sloppy work or lower their standards of rigor. There is too much pseudo-science in the world, and it is equally as dangerous as excessive scientific rationalism. Rather, once they have done all the necessary work, there is something beyond the rational that kicks in, something they can’t explain but they know leads them to the right answers.

Mindfulness and meditation remind us to go within and listen to our intuition. All the great spiritual traditions of the world teach us to sit still in silence. While this may not be an easy thing to do in our modern world, it is imperative. We may not be able to “play God,” but we may be able to “hear God,” to hear something that is beyond our daily practice of rationality and scientific routine. To quote Albert Einstein, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

 

Oscars 2018

These are some notes on the Oscar-nominated films I have seen so far. “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” are the two big hitters that I still need to see. Please be aware of spoiler alerts in my discussion below.

-“The Darkest Hour”: Gary Oldman’s performance is really quite wonderful in this heavily character-driven film. For me, it was Kristin Scott Thomas who stole the scenes every time she briefly appeared. Her patrician beauty and elegance render Clementine Churchill as a true heroine who was behind her husband’s success. I found the film to be too detailed, however; it seemed to be more interested in giving us a military history lesson than in telling us a good story. Certainly, this film would hold more significance to British people, especially people of an earlier generation who knew the history and lived through it. But for even diehard Anglophiles like me, there was a certain “technicality” feeling that made it boring. It is not a cradle-to-grave biopic. This is something viewers should be aware of. But I felt like I wanted to know more about the man other than just the brief time in which he saved the country. Perhaps my expectations were off upon going to see this film.

-“Get Out”: (SPOILER ALERT) The social commentary about race is very well done. It touches on issues that are uncomfortable, is bold with its subject matter, and features good acting. However, I wanted to like this film more than I did. There was something about the tone that just did not come across clearly. Was it supposed to be a satirical social comedy? Horror film in the vein of a psychological, it-could-happen-here thriller like “The Stepford Wives?” Sure, there were very evident moments of humor, but I am not sure this film knew what it wanted to be. The setup was strong, building tension about something menacing going to happen to the black lead male, and discovering who the villains(s) are. But once Chris discovers that Rose and her family are leaders of a cult, the film really seems to weaken and get downright silly. It loses momentum, and doesn’t make use of all the threads it has been building up. It feels like a letdown.

-“Lady Bird”: I have long been a Greta Gerwig fan, and this directorial debut only highlights her prodigious talents. This film is warm, relatable (for many of us), specific, detailed, and very heartfelt. The emotions are very true. Nothing is sugarcoated in this coming-of-age film; the heroine (played perfectly by the talented Saoirse Ronan) is probably one of the most realistic portrayals of teenagers on film. It is also refreshingly original in that the heroine’s quest is for her education, not for a boy, money, or simplistic independence from her parents. This is the heroine who thinks and feels, wants to better her life, get to know higher culture and the big city. Laurie Metcalf is also excellent as the multi-faceted mother who is stretched too thin and trying to keep her family together. She is goodhearted, as she clearly has a social conscience (her first child is evidently adopted from Asia — kudos to Greta Gerwig for racially diverse casting), works as a nurse, and is the breadwinner in her family headed by a depressed husband. The dialogue is natural and the scenarios are real. Gerwig avoids clichés, showing us that the nuns who teach at her school are human and have a sense of humor too. This is an intimate portrait of a family with its ups and downs, which is refreshing to see on the big screen. To use the inevitable cliché, race, class, and gender intertwine beautifully and naturally in this film.

-“Phantom Thread”: (SPOILER ALERT) To my mind, this was the least enjoyable film, and ultimately, film is all about enjoyment and entertainment. I have learned a valuable lesson – beware of films that critics love, but not the audience. Despite the high reviews, I found the film to be very poorly done. Extreme closeups are aimed to create intimacy, but this is a poor substitute for good direction and dialogue. The motives of the characters are glossed over; there is not adequate time for these to develop. One cannot truly feel what drew Alma to Reynolds Woodcock. The movie plods along with a dull, cold tone. Interesting themes are raised: the death of Reynolds’s mother and her ghost, his manipulation of women, death, jealousy between sisters-in-law, the “phantom thread” and the struggles of an artist. But these are not adequately developed or connected. Excessively long scenes feel very uncomfortable, as though we are privy to watching people in real time go through their dysfunctions. These long scenes of dysfunction do not serve the story in a significant way, and feel gratuitous. We squirm when we watch them. Excellent actors are squandered in this film, and what a sad farewell for the legendary Daniel Day Lewis. Vicky Krieps gives a wonderful performance that feels fresh and new. One can hardly wonder why she would stay with him in the end. This is a prime example of a filmmaker trying to be too deep and profound and failing miserably. The main redeeming virtue of the film is that it is beautiful to look at. This has got to be the most boring movie about one of the most interesting subjects around – fashion.

-“The Post”: A disappointment from Spielberg. It is in the same vein as “Lincoln,” a film that I found rather boring because it focuses only on a specific event and the hours leading up to it. It immerses you in the action without giving you any backstory, or rather, a minimum of backstory. The film re-creates lots of specific details of the events that happened, but simply reproducing history does not a good film make. Tom Hanks is refreshingly different in his role, and the ever-excellent Meryl Streep is underutilized. The supporting cast is also top-notch. But there is something rather un-dramatic about this film, which is very odd coming from Spielberg. One might be tempted to say that serious or small events cannot make for an enjoyable film; however, this is incorrect, as a good script and director can dramatize a walk around the block. “Seinfeld” was “the show about nothing,” and “The Cosby Show” focused on domestic minutiae. But no one would ever say these shows were anything less than highly entertaining.

-“I, Tonya”: As enjoyable and over-the-top as you would want it to be. A well-crafted, well-scripted, well-acted, and well-executed film on numerous fronts. Margot Robbie gives a strong, highly visceral and physical performance as the notorious Tonya Harding. Robbie’s physicality as an actor is especially visible here, not just in her skating, but also in her use of her whole body to create the character. The film does a good job between portraying the trajectory of the heroine, which is full of humor, and incidents of dark, dark tragedy and violence. All of the cast is superb, and Allison Janney deserves her Oscar nomination along with Margot Robbie. The interview, confessional style works very well here, though the occasional moments of breaking the fourth wall during scenes are distracting and silly. Tonya is the ultimate anti-heroine, and yet we are engaged right from the beginning with her struggle. The emotions are heightened but real. This film is an excellent example about how to portray a hero’s quest, full of singular drive.

-“All the Money in the World”: (SPOILER ALERT) Kudos to Christopher Plummer for saving the day once Kevin Spacey was cut out of the film. It is hard to imagine anybody else other than Plummer playing the roleof J. Paul Getty, for he commands such presence on the screen, with tremendous charisma and gravitas. This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that hooks you in from the beginning – will John Paul Getty III be rescued from the kidnappers? Christopher Plummer captures the greedy grandfather with such nuance and warmth that it makes his cruelty all the more appealing. The talented Michelle Williams, always an actress who truly knows her craft, is not at her best here, for she does not seem urgent enough in her pursuit to find her son. Though she masters an upper class East Coast accent, her face sometimes lacks expression. French actor Romain Duris gives an excellent performance as a kidnapper with a human side; were he not French, he could be nominated as a Best Supporting Actor. Watching Plummer’s character arc move from unyielding, dogmatic billionaire to conceding grandfather who will pay the ransom is truly a pleasure. This is altogether an enjoyable film, and a good example of how to dramatize historical events to make a good viewing experience.

Oscar snubs that were wrong: (SPOILER ALERTS)
-“The Disaster Artist”: James Franco’s recent accusations of sexual harassment probably had something to do with it). “The Disaster Artist” was good old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment. Literally Hollywood, for it draws on the most fundamental of movie themes, being a star. It is rare to find a movie these days that is high quality and made well, but also simply pure pleasure to watch. It is based on a true story, about the life of Tommy Wiseau, a larger-than-life character a writer could not invent! The disparity between the artist’s sense of self and his peers’ awareness of reality is what creates a palpable tension that is also hilarious. It is also a true underdog story, for Wiseau has attained cult status. James Franco brings them to life in a most entertaining way, and his brother Dave is excellent as the straight man without whom this film would not work well.

-“The Big Sick”: Though nominated for “Best Screenplay,” it should have been nominated for the strong acting and direction as well. Not only the leads, but also the supporting actors of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents, were noteworthy. It is a warm, personal film that feels real and not manipulative. Emily’s illness does not come across as melodrama, but rather, a life tragedy that anyone can encounter. The only general fault of the movie is its two-dimensional portrayal of the Pakistani women who are offered to Kumail as potential brides. Numerous articles have been written on this subject, and I do agree with the assertion that this is a pattern of South Asian men fetishizing white women. However, this is indeed a true story, and one with a happy ending. It is also very exciting to see a South Asian being nominated for an Oscar!

-“Victoria and Abdul”: Nominated only for costume design, this film featured strong acting, and a lovely story based on history. A platonic love story feels original in this day and age of everything being graphic. We also get to see the human side of the formidable Queen Victoria, and this film covers what was truly a taboo.

-“The Viceroy’s House”: Sadly this film was not nominated, and it is a shame. Perhaps some of it has to do with America’s lack of knowledge of Indian history and India’s independence from Britain as well as the partition. Gloriously epic in its scope and scale, the movie illustrates historical events both through the political and the personal. Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha draws upon her own family history in this film which was sadly overlooked.

Sometimes the whole Oscars process feels like a high school popularity contest; so many wonderful films don’t even get nominated, and it’s often the big-named, big-budgeted ones that sweep the awards. Certain films don’t make the cut, and I don’t understand why.

This is where we should also talk about diversity. There is no question we need more racial diversity, but we also need more diversity in terms of subject matter. That is why it is very heartwarming to see films like “Lady Bird” and “The Big Sick” being considered, because they are unique and specific. And those are two qualities that make for excellent art.

Me Too: It’s Not Just Sexual Harassment

I am very delighted that the Me Too movement has brought sexual harassment out into the public sphere. I am glad that women no longer have to feel isolated and ashamed of what has happened to them. While this doesn’t minimize or eliminate the suffering of what women have endured, there is a comfort in feeling solidarity with other women, and knowing that bringing this issue out into the open is the first step in healing. And it’s not just women – there are men who have been sexually harassed too, as we have seen with the Kevin Spacey situation, and men we know in our daily lives. The Catholic Church has had a horrifying number of incidents conducted against men as well. Nobody’s body should be violated, and those who have suffered – such as the victims of Larry Nassar – have also suffered at the hands by those who enabled him as well as those who did not believe the victims. Thankfully, Lou Ann Simon chose to resign from MSU.

But I would like to address harassment against women in a more subtle manner that perhaps even affects us all, and more pervasively. And it is the issue of emotional harassment. This psychological form of mistreatment can run from microaggressions or a single hurtful comment all the way to actual abuse. At its extreme, we can see its effects in the form of manipulation by narcissists. (Think: Commander-in-Chief.) Single women endure this in the form of men they date who ghost, stonewall, blow hot and cold, and play games. Married or partnered women in serious relationships can feel stuck and in negative patterns with a mate who refuses to grow or listen. At the workplace or in professional settings, women’s ideas and contributions are sometimes ignored, or women are interrupted and not allowed to speak first. They are not taken seriously.

What do we do?

Culture is changing for young girls, thankfully. Disney has picked up on the empowerment of women, and their heroines are now better role models. There has been much done in terms of awareness and opportunities for girls and young women in STEM fields, though certainly more needs to be done. Colleges implement – and constantly have to revise – policy related to sexual behavior and the treatment of women. All of these things are extremely positive and necessary.

I would like to argue that more needs to be done in terms of mental health and cultural shifts in attitudes toward the behavior between men and women. This was a failure of the feminist revolution in my opinion, for it focused heavily on sexual activity and individual rights, rather than addressing and improving the relations between genders. Men got off the hook. Men got lazy. And worst of all – some of them even got disempowered.

This is not the fault of women; rather, it was a failure on the part of our culture to create a wider dialogue. When men saw women becoming stronger, they didn’t step up and talk about how they could be a part of the solution. They didn’t talk about what their reactions were, both positive and negative. And to be fair, some women did not allow men into the dialogue, given the painful history of mistreatment. Some of them became excessively faultfinding and created the belief that man was the enemy. The angry feminist stereotype exists for a reason, and sadly, it is what often still persists.

Some of this male resentment, I believe, has found its way out and this may be why men act out and sexually or emotionally harass women. Unfortunately, the Internet has become a great tool for angry men who are trolls. Men are not given the tools to address their feelings. Granted, men cannot, do not, and (for biological reasons) probably should not express their emotions in the same manner as women. But when we live in a culture that does not value mental health, for any gender, men are going to be even less likely to deal with their emotions in a constructive manner. When our country does not support measures for reproductive health, reproductive rights, maternity AND paternity leave, children’s health, and just overall health and well-being, how can we expect things to be healthy between men and women?

We need to develop mindfulness in our culture. Many great teachers and mental health professionals, Buddhist and otherwise, have made great strides in educating the public. When we are not at peace with ourselves, this will reflect in our relations with others, regardless of their gender. Our culture focuses so heavily on the external that it leaves very little room for internal reflection. This is probably the most toxic aspect of American culture.

Getting people to unplug from their devices, get off social media, and communicate directly with people is a first step. Allowing time for activities that encourage inner reflection and awareness is the next step. Developing a daily practice of mindfulness is, then, what must naturally follow, to integrate that into one’s life. This has to include people becoming aware of others’ negative behavior and not enabling it, and speaking up against it, or protecting people from it. Working on the reduction of guns and firearms is an external element that is a must, for it is a deadly combination to have an angry person who is not mindful and a weapon. We also need public funds for mental health.

And ultimately, I think we need to remind ourselves of that fundamental, natural human joy of men and women interacting with each other. Our culture has lost that very basic pleasure where man likes a woman because she is a woman, and a woman likes a man because he is a man. There is something very beautiful about it at the bottom of it all, it’s the oldest story in human nature, and we mustn’t forget that. That love has been the basis of so much art and culture for millennia, and will continue to be so.

What Makes for Good Writing (Part II)

As promised last time, the subject requires further consideration, so here is another post with more thoughts on elements of good or interesting writing.

-A story within a story. Sometimes these may be structured as a frame story, where the true heart of the novel or story lies inside an outer story that “frames” it. But sometimes this is not the case, and regardless of the structure, this stylistic device can be very fascinating. Most often, the inner story supports the larger narrative, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. An interesting backstory about a particular character, for example, draws the reader in.

-Letters. This does not have to denote the novel as an epistolary novel. But a letter within a novel makes the reader feel privy to some sort of secret information, gives us a story within a story sometimes, and fills in some information we might not be able to get otherwise.

-Multiple angles from which to read it. This point will appeal more to the literary scholars and lit crit people, but great works of literature can be analyzed in many different ways. Dracula, for instance, could be read from Darwinian, Gothic novel, historical, Freudian, etc. etc. perspectives. Anna Karenina could be read as feminist, pre-Marxist, historical, Christian, and more. Same for Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle. In other words, what this means is that there is a complexity and layering of ideas in these novels that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

-Pacing. A good novel or story will unfold its mysteries with timing that hooks the reader enough, without giving away all the information. It draws us in because we want to know what the next event is, the next revelation of information, how the character got to be the way they are, etc. This is an extremely difficult thing to do. In novels, there is more time, and the author can take her time getting to her point. In stories, however, the urgency must be felt upfront; things have to be resolved in a short span of time. But with both genres, the reader must be engaged from the beginning so that she can be emotionally invested in the narrative.

-Subtext. Charles Baxter is one of the leading experts on this craft issue, as one can read in The Art of Subtext. There is the level of what is being said, and the level of what is not being said. Are these at odds with each other? Do they support each other? Do we get enough of a sense of where the author is going with his/her message and themes? This is employed to greater or lesser degree by various authors, and some people might argue that some writers do not use this at all. Dialogue is one area in which subtext can really be evident.

And finally,

-Simply telling a good story. When I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015, there was an elderly participant named Norton who was, literally, just a year short of 100. Hoping to benefit his wisdom, I asked him what his best advice was on writing. “Just tell a good story,” he waved my question away, saying that people get too caught up in technique and craft, etc. And I think this is really fabulous advice. One thing many literary agents will mention is that they want to keep reading past the first page. How often do we think of someone asking us to recommend A Good Book? A good book draws us in with a compelling story, makes us want to keep reading.