Tuesday 26 April 2011

Deconstructing a flash

By Nina Matthews Photography
I had a pretty good response to my most recent Friday Flash, Blind Date, and I thought I'd take a moment to explain why I chose to focus on the character that I did. The intended misdirection won't work if you read this post first, so go take a look at the story and then come back.

*sits and whistles a spot of Tyketto while she waits*

Back? Good! I hope you enjoyed that, because I certainly enjoyed writing it. Well, once I figured out how to do it. My original story contained a lot more dialogue, but the first version made it too obvious who Christopher's blind date was before the final reveal. It was also too long, so I scrapped it. Nor did the story work in third person. I needed to switch it into first person in order to let Christopher explain why he'd willing let himself be picked up by a strange woman on behalf of someone else. In the first version, Christopher was an unwitting victim, led astray by simple curiosity, but I decided to make him a slimy con artist who gets his just desserts.

Why? Well, mostly because I love the character of Medusa, and I didn't want to portray her as a monster. I realised that classic mythology does exactly that, but I've always felt somewhat sorry for Medusa. She was originally a very beautiful woman, turned into a monster by the goddess Athena. She has several "origins stories" - in one, she descrates Athena's temple by sleeping with Poseidon, leading to Athena turning Medusa into a monster in a fit of pique. This particular legend also sees Medusa killed by Perseus, and her dead body gives birth to Pegasus (Medusa and Poseidon's son). In another legend, Medusa is not the femme fatale, but rather a beautiful mortal seduced by Poseidon in Athena's temple. Again, Athena loses her temper and turns Medusa into a monster, but she also grants her the power of turning people into stone. There is yet another legend in which Medusa is simply born hideous, and the shock of seeing her turns people to stone. At some point, her power was changed to only affect men.

So I got to thinking. What if Perseus hadn't killed her? What if she was still living in her cave somewhere, paralysed by the knowledge that she must stay hidden or risk turning people to stone? Wouldn't she get awfully lonely? I've chosen the legend in which her power only works on men, which in turn raises questions about the destructive female gaze (in cinema in particular, the destructive gaze is usually characterised as male - look at the opening scene of Halloween, or ANY of Peeping Tom). Medusa can be seen to represent the potential "threat" of female sexuality toward the established male hierarchy. For me personally, she represents the suppressed woman, or the tragic figure punished for the crimes of another (in this case, Poseidon). She's granted destructive power as well as monstrosity, although I did like the fact that in 2010's Clash of the Titans, she was still depicted as being beautiful as well as monstrous.

So there was my construction of Medusa - beautiful but lonely woman hampered by an extreme disability, and unable to find a companion. In a way, her entire being has been destroyed by Poseidon's selfish act, and now Medusa has to live with the consequences. I added an extra layer of symbolism by naming her faithful servant Daphne - in Greek mythology, Daphne was a beautiful nymph pursued by Apollo. Determined to preserve her virginity and not predisposed to enjoy the attentions of a god, she prays to the river for help, and she is transformed into a laurel tree. Both Daphne and Medusa are punished for being attractive to men.

Enter sleazy Christopher, and the stage is set. I suppose it helps that one of my favourite songs is Heart's If Looks Could Kill, a revenge song from a woman to her unfaithful boyfriend. Medusa's last line of dialogue came from her as I was writing, although it's entirely possible that it's from the part of my consciousness that is crippled by self-esteem issues. However, I chose to keep Medusa hidden until the end as I wanted the first section to be very much from Christopher's point of view. We have no knowledge of the identity of his date until he does - although we escape being turned into stone and get to see Medusa's sad reaction. Sure, I could be accused of denying Medusa a voice or a point of view but that's not the point of this flash.

So there you have it! That's how I constructed the flash. Any questions?


Anonymous said...

It was a wonderful flash. Medusa came across as disappointed, but not really surprised when Christopher couldn't control himself. As you say, I didn't feel sorry for him!

I couldn't place the name Daphne, although I knew I'd read it somewhere in the mythologies - thanks for the deconstruction :)

Chuck Allen said...

Thanks for walking us through that, Icy. As someone trying to learn the craft I really enjoy hearing the thought process behind an author's story. And this was a great story!

I like the way you built sympathy and connection for the main character even though you barely mention her until the reveal at the end. (At least for me, Medusa seemed to be the main character even though the POV was from Christopher.)

Anonymous said...

This is a great insight into how you construct your stories and the depth of research you bring to your narrative. Love seeing "behind the curtain" so to speak and gleaning new snippets of information.
Adam B @revhappiness

PJ said...

That was very interesting, Icy. I've been really considering POV lately and I think I have a tendency to write in first person. I'm trying to force myself to write in 3rd person although there are certain narratives, like yours, where the POV and inner motivation is so critical it lends itself to 1st person. My flash from last week was originally in 1st person but I rewrote in 3rd and I think it came out better. Interesting to experiment with it, tho.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Anne-Mhairi - Thank you! I think character names can be really useful clues to symbolism - as long as it makes sense within the narrative.

Chuck - I think I might do a few more of these to show my process, and demonstrate how I get from A to B. There's usually some kind of story behind the flash!

Adam - I see writing very much like any other structural endeavour - you need to have some kind of solid frame or skeleton on which to hang the narrative. A tiny but key detail can be the thing that holds it all together.

PJ - I think point of view is something that we sometimes instinctively use, but it's one of those tools we often forget about when we're trying to work out how to improve a story. My Western started off in third person but works better in first person, but my stories with my Cavalier ghost only work in third person. It's definitely worth fiddling with.

Mari said...

I too found very interesting how you used POV as a tool in this story. Now that you explained, I can see how the final result was improved by the first person point of view.

In my case, it comes instinctively as you mentioned to PJ, but it's cool to be reminded that a different perspective can achieve better results. Awesome post!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the deconstruction. I always love seeing writing dissected. It is probably the number one way I learn.

I <3 Process

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the 'backstage' tour Icy; great idea to use first person for your MC. It makes him a much more vivid character, with motivation especially. You could write a 'How to..' book I believe.
Would love to know if any of Medusa'a visitors make it out alive.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Mari - Very often the first POV that you start with is the right one but sometimes if a story won't work, that's when I start tinkering.

Michael - I'm considering doing a series of these so it's good to know it's helpful!

Justin - Who knows? Maybe I will, if I ever get good enough myself...

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