A Session with KM Cholewa
What if you haven’t travelled the world or don’t have an interest in researching the kitchen implements or dress codes of another era? What if your novel takes place over a single dinner party and there are no flashbacks in time and no flashbacks of travel over land and sea? Under such circumstances, is a writer limited to crafting a book of narrow scope? Does it matter?
To the last question, the answer is no. A novel with a narrow scope can still consist of excellent writing and capture and communicate human dynamics, if not the entire human condition. There is nothing inherently wrong with a book of narrow scope. Nonetheless, a novel not spanning the continents and generations can still be a book of great scope though that scope is more likely to be measured by a journey within than a journey without.
So, if scope is not measured in time and space, what is the yardstick?
Though considered a bad word in some sectors, the answer is complexity. This does not mean the writing should be complex, or difficult, but likely a character, or the relationships among characters, must be.
In my novel, Shaking Out the Dead, a woman has sex with her husband who is addled by Alzheimer’s and doesn’t have a sense of what is going on. What if the sexes were reversed? Did she rape him? She was moved by affection so was what she did an act of love, or was it abuse?
A novel that challenges accepted ideas of morality and issues of right and wrong necessitates complexity of character or of a situation. The craft then lies in bringing readers into the ambiguity, making them willing to suspend, if not doubt, their usual prejudices and perhaps find compassion or understanding for what was previously unconsciously rejected outright.
Books of scope of this nature aren’t for everyone. Jeanette Winterson once wrote in an essay that she didn’t like the way the word “moving” was tossed about in reference to art. A “moving” story. A “moving” painting. To be “moved,” she said, entailed being different for having experienced the work. You were of one heart or mind. Now, you are not. If not different, you are cast out at sea, “moved” from the inner home you once inhabited.
Not every consumer of stories and art wants to be “moved.” Many want to be comforted in or distracted from their place in their inner or outer worlds. They are a market. There’s nothing wrong with them.
But there are those readers who look to books to broaden the scope of their own perception.
“Scope,” in this sense, might indeed be measurable in time and space, but the measure lies with the reader, not the text.
This experience of “scope” that lies outside the novel is the space the book inhabits in the reader’s mind after the cover is closed. Scope is the time the book lives on the reader’s shelf, not off to the used bookstore, sold at a garage sale, or scattered into digital dust, but instead kept, dog-eared and ragged, a bridge that took the reader somewhere he or she might need a map to, again.
Scope also can be about the rabbit holes and sudden trap doors through which our minds and souls drop, or the multi-dimensionality of experience as when something happens and that something is everything.
What is the “scope” of the following mini-tale?
It was strange vibes down at the strip mall. I hit the Target and the Macy’s and walked past the shops in between. A fat man and his family came out through the doors of the Famous Footwear. They knew I was outside my natural habitat, an alien. The fat man looked me in the eye as he held the door for his plump wife and children so I took my otherness a step further and shape-shifted into a bear, a grizzly at the strip mall. I looked right back at him. I was the beast and I went where I wanted to and looked at what I wanted to, just like the bear along the river that came to see what I was the month before and met my eyes from where he stood in the brush before jumping me and trapping me like a cat on a mouse.
In front of the Hallmark store, a girl scout pitched the bear her cookies that were set up on a table behind her, staffed by moms. I looked into the girl scout’s eyes and lied. I hadn’t already bought cookies somewhere else, but I knew people who had, and had eaten my fill.
I wouldn’t do that. Lie.
The bear did it. It was the bear.
The density of a moment is its scope, the banal plunging us into the murky murk where things that see in the dark live as darting silver lights. Scope is life and death at a strip mall, the need for a new computer case, and a fat man looking a grizzly in the eye and lying beneath its crushing weight as its teeth cut into the skull through the center of a cloud of hot, wet breath.
Scope is looking the grizzly in the eye, being the grizzly looking a fat man in the eye, and lying to a girl scout while looking right into her eyes.
But scope can break out from a center, too, like a firework or exploding star. In my novel, Shaking Out the Dead, I sometimes experienced the “scope” of one of its themes, love, as a beam hitting a crystal which scatters the ray, the separate rays the separate characters; or experienced “scope” as the spread of the novel over octaves, different storylines or characters serving as related harmonics, a low C and a high C, or a complicated chord, notes that together resonate.
The party hummed in the house behind them. From the sidewalk, they looked up past the streetlamp, telephone lines, and springtime trees with their half-opened leaves and up at the moon and the stars. She had heard five planets would be visible that night. She wasn’t sure which distant lights were which but could identify easily both dippers in the dark sky.
“I love it here,” she said, the words escaping her.
“I do, too,” he answered, and his hand at his side twitched and in a twinge of courage sought hers.
It was the first of many misunderstandings that held them together in the decades to come.
Looking up into the sky that night, when he had said he loved it here, he had meant the neighborhood, the bungalows, and cozy front porches. He thought it was what she had meant, too. But what she had meant as she looked up into the constellations was this planet, in this galaxy, moving at undetected velocity through the all that is, a speeding, gravity-bound spiral revolving through the Almighty everything.
Increase the scope in the following brief passage, or use a similar scene from one of your own works-in-progress.
Morgan stepped onto the porch. April snow was falling. It was disappointing, but it wouldn’t stick. However, it meant Avery might be late. Avery and being late; it was an issue.
First, increase the scope of the scene by adding complexity to one or more of the characters. Try not to add to the scene (i.e. leaving the porch, getting in the car, etc.) so much as adding to the weight of the scene due to the expansion of scope within the character(s).
For a greater challenge, try to expand the scene as little as possible while adding a dimension of moral complexity to the scene. Questions that might aid in approaching this:
- Should Morgan not even be on the porch?
- Does Avery know Morgan will be on the porch?
- Does the snow create a reference to something else that may have happened?
- Why is being late an issue, or is it? Is it an issue for Avery, for Morgan, or for both?