Saturday, September 18, 2010

True Grit

I was thinking today, I'd write of grit. By that I mean the ability some works to show a particular harshness of the world that is undeniably true. Grit is raw emotion; the skin has been rubbed away so the weeping flesh underneath is exposed. It is vulnerable. It is weak. It is painful. A gentle touch induces screams.

Grit is more easily shown on television and in movies, where actors are there to react. You can see how it affects "real" people, which makes it easier to feel. What of books? Can they be gritty as well?

Of course! But in my opinion, it is more difficult thing to achieve. You have to bring the reader into your world and show them an often unpleasant reality, and then invoke the feelings of shock, despair, regret, whatever the affected character is going through. But you can't tell them what it is. It must be crafted from sights and sounds and smells and most importantly, reactions. You build it and if it's sound, they will enter on their own.

But grit has to be believable (in the context of the story and in the context of people's lives) to be real. But to be believable, something does not need to be gritty. Only realistic. This leads to the question of why there should be grit in the first place.

Many stories might not need grit to be good. In fact, some stories would suffer from a violent/disturbing/generally unpleasant scene. But in many cases, you need a harsh view of reality to explain why a character is/acts a certain way or what catalyzed them to change/go on a journey/take the sword from the stone (yes, it's backslash day, apparently).

Imagine this: a happy, sociable and well-balanced middle aged man insists upon removing all closet doors, even the ones in his childrens' bedrooms. Because he is a tad on the claustrophobic side, his wife doesn't think much of it until the day they get trapped in an elevator and he freaks out. Later at the hospital, he has no explanation other than "I don't like enclosed spaces." She can tell he's telling the truth, so she drops it. But buried deep within his mind, is some trauma relating to his phobia, one he's suppressed so much he doesn't even remember that he's forgotten. A gritty scene of the man as a child, four years old and wondering through the nettles in his backyard. His mother heard there was a boarded up well, but doesn't know where it is or if it even exists. She keeps a close eye on him anyway, but no parent can watch their child every second. He stumbles on the exact wrong place and falls down to the bottom, dislodging a rock in his scrabble at the side that breaks his leg and firmly wedges it into the mud. The eight hours he spent trying to push it off as he called for help not only explains things, but will make the reader feel what he does when he's in a tight spot, trapped back in that day where he hurts, develops a cough, just wants his mother to pick him up and keep him warm.

A powerful scene will emotionally resonate with people for years. Maybe the next time they go out for a walk, they'll make sure that old well they heard about really was filled in and isn't waiting to swallow them up.

There it is. Grit. Emotion. Use it wisely.

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