Tonight is the Oscars. S and I are going to an Oscar party, though that’s mainly just for the fun of going to a party. As far as the nominees are concerned, as my dad always likes to say, you can’t begin to plumb the depths of my indifference. I was just looking at the official site, and in pretty much every category, it’s just movie after movie that I’ve never seen. We got A Man Called Ove from the library. And we watched about the first half-hour or so of Captain Fantastic. And I saw Zootopia on Netflix. But other than that, I’ve seen nothing.
The truth is that S and I spend a lot more time reading and watching TV anymore than we do watching movies. Especially movies in the theater. It’s been a very long time since we’ve gone out for a movie, in fact. But that’s okay, because there’s so much good TV and so many good books.
Speaking of which, we just got the DVDs of Victoria with Jenna Coleman from the library, and we stayed up a bit later than we should have last night watching the first five episodes. That took us from Victoria’s accession to her marriage to Albert. It’s very good, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we finish it today.
At the same time, we’re reading Ethan Frome for S’s classic lit book club. I’ve read it before, years ago, but S hasn’t. Thanks to a technical glitch in the Google Books version that she’s been reading, she ended up accidentally skipping the introduction. (For those of you who have read the book, that’s the frame story, where the narrator meets Ethan Frome and ends up having to stay at his house in a snowstorm.) So we dug out her tablet and I read it to her while she drove. And of course it changes the story quite a bit when you start out knowing, even from Ethan’s first appearance in the book, that something awful is going to happen to him. The question becomes, “How did this happen?”
That’s the same issue faced with historical fiction, like Victoria. No one with even the slightest knowledge of history has any doubt how things are going to work out between Victoria and Albert. The facts are well known, and there’s not really any way to create suspense there.
The trick, in both cases, seems to be a focus on the characters. Both Edith Wharton and the writers of Victoria seem to be concentrating not on trying to create false suspense where suspense is impossible, but rather giving us marvelous and telling little bits of character development. In other words, rather than focusing on the outcome (What will happen to Ethan Frome? Who will Victoria marry?), we focus on the internal qualities of the characters—the flaws and strengths that will lead them to this outcome that we already know.
Here, for example, is the third paragraph of the main narrative of Ethan Frome:
The night was perfectly still, and the air so dry and pure that it gave little sensation of cold. The effect produced on Frome was rather of a complete absence of atmosphere, as though nothing less tenuous than ether intervened between the white earth under his feet and the metallic dome overhead. “It’s like being in an exhausted receiver,” he thought. Four or five years earlier he had taken a year’s course at a technological college at Worcester, and dabbled in the laboratory with a friendly professor of physics; and the images supplied by that experience still cropped up, at unexpected moments, through the totally different associations of thought in which he had since been living. His father’s death, and the misfortunes following it, had put a premature end to Ethan’s studies; but though they had not gone far enough to be of much practical use they had fed his fancy and made him aware of huge cloudy meanings behind the daily face of things.
Even before we know why this much younger, healthier Ethan has walked into Starkfield, we know something vitally important about him—he’s a frustrated scholar unhappy with his lot in life. Similarly, there’s a fantastic scene in episode 5 of Victoria, where Albert’s libertine older brother, Ernest, takes him to a brothel to “educate” him before his marriage. Albert goes off with one of the prostitutes, but rather than sleep with her, he just talks to her and takes notes on what he should do on his wedding night. It really explains a lot about the character, and about the kind of relationship we (as viewers who know our history) know we’ll be seeing later on between the queen and her beloved prince consort.
As a writer, I suppose the lesson here is to remember that “how” and “why” are sometimes more important than “what” happened. If you create interest in your characters, you can make the reader want to keep reading, even when there’s no suspense as to how things are going to end up.