Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What Works: Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha" (A New 'Meaty Mondays' Series)

A week-and-a-wittle ago, Sarf had a fantastic suggestion for my "Meaty Mondays" posts. He encouraged me to post story excerpts and discuss what works or doesn't work in a particular passage.

Now, I'm of the opinion there's far too much negativity in the world because negativity is easy. It's always harder to pin down what is magical and awesome than to spot what's wrong. Thus, this series of posts will feature an excerpt of writing, then discuss in detail one thing that passage does right.

We're all about positivity here! And also about figuring out what to do, rather than what not to do.

This week's Meaty Monday post (I postponed Monday) will discuss in detail an excerpt from Arthur Golden's book Memoirs of a Geisha.

Excerpt of Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
I didn't know it at the time, but after the closing of the lens factory where she'd worked, Pumpkin spent more than two years in Osaka as a prostitute. Her mouth seemed to have shrunken in size--perhaps because she held it taut, I don't know. And though she had the same broad face, her heavy cheeks had thinned, leaving her with a gaunt elegance that was astonishing to me. I don't mean to suggest Pumpkin had become a beauty to rival Hatsumomo or anything of the sort, but her face had a certain womanliness that had never been there before.

"I'm sure the years have been difficult, Pumpkin," I said to her, "but you look lovely."

Pumpkin didn't reply to this. She just inclined her head faintly to indicate she'd heard me. I congratulated her on her popularity and tried asking about her life since the war, but she remained so expressionless that I began to feel sorry I'd come.

Finally after an awkward silence, she spoke.

"Have you come here just to chat, Sayuri? Because I don't have anything to say that will interest you."

"The truth is," I said, "I saw Nobu Toshikazu recently, and...actually, Pumpkin, he'll be bringing a certain man to Gion from time to time. I thought perhaps you'd be kind enough to help us entertain him."

"But of course, you've changed your mind now that you've seen me."

"Why, no," I said. "I don't know why you say that. Nobu Toshikazu and the Chairman--Iwamura Ken, I mean...Chairman Iwamura--would appreciate your company greatly. It's as simple as that."

For a moment Pumpkin just knelt in silence, peering down at the mats. "I've stopped believing that anything in life is 'as simple as that,'" she said at last. "I know you think I'm stupid--"


"--but I think you probably have some other reason you're not going to tell me about."

Pumpkin gave a little bow, which I thought very enigmatic. Either it was an apology for what she'd just said, or perhaps she was about to excuse herself.

"I suppose I do have another reason," I said.

Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha is beautifully written and evocative, but the above passage is also a textbook-perfect example of how to structure a scene.

It's so classic, in fact, that I'll analyse it the way Robert McKee suggests in his screenwriting book Story.

In that book, Mr. McKee notes that your protagonist needs a goal and she should take action in hope of getting closer to her goal. However, each action she takes should be met with a reaction from the world that is not what the protagonist expected.

In some cases, 'the world' is in fact another character, and that character's reaction to your protagonist is what thwarts the protagonist's hopes. This is because the second character has a goal that conflicts with your protagonist's.

Mr. McKee goes further; he says each time your character is thwarted from getting to her goal, she should take another action to try to fix that. However, this second action must necessarily involve more risk to the character.

In other words, the character first tries to do the easy thing to reach her goal, and when that doesn't work, she must try something harder/riskier. When that also fails, she then has to risk herself even more, and so on with each subsequent failure to reach her goal.

Thus, in a scene with two characters in conflict with one another, such as in the example above, there is escalating tension. The two characters must slowly risk themselves to greater and greater extents as they try to bend the situation to their will.

This progresses up to the scene's turning point, where something happens that changes the situation irrevocably. This usually means the characters have pushed themselves to the limit and something has finally snapped--perhaps someone blurted out a damning fact, or took an unforgivable action, or maybe they simply made a firm decision that will propel both people in a new direction. I cut off the above scene right before the turning point.

So what are Sayuri and Pumpkin's goals? First, let me explain a bit of their backstory so you understand the stakes.

As teenagers, Sayuri and Pumpkin trained together to become geisha, but World War II split them. Now Sayuri has returned to being a geisha, and she was recently asked by a man she secretly loves (the Chairman) to entertain a business associate who happens to be a very crude and stupid man. Sayuri dreads this, and she wants Pumpkin--who she perceives to be more earthy than herself--to help her entertain the business associate.

However, Sayuri's success as a teenaged geisha came very starkly at the expense of Pumpkin's--a fact that Sayuri either doesn't fully recognize or optimistically hopes won't matter now. Pumpkin, however, is both aware and resentful of it.

Thus, in this scene, Sayuri's goal is to enlist Pumpkin's help, and Pumpkin's goal is to give Sayuri nothing and, in fact, to get rid of her.

Let's now analyze the scene by outlining the actions and reactions of the characters, paying particular attention to the subtext of the situation. ("Text" is what the characters actually say; "subtext" is what they really mean.)

As we go through the dialogue, you'll note the characters do risk themselves to greater and greater degrees as the scene progresses. Specifically, they begin to tell the truth, and in doing so, they expose their real feelings. For individuals steeped in the social anxiety and stiflingly-polite culture of Japan, this is risky behaviour.


Sayuri: I'm sure the years have been difficult, Pumpkin, but you look lovely.
Subtext: I'll gloss over the awful events of the war and compliment you to rekindle our friendship.
Our meeting will go happily and you'll do me this favour.

Pumpkin: (nods)
Subtext: You don't really mean that compliment, and I don't really want you here.
You'll take the hint and stop intruding on my life.

Sayuri: (Congratulates her on her popularity, tries asking about her life since the war)
Subtext: The compliments don't seem to be enough... Alright, I'll still avoid the unpleasant war years, but I'll take more interest in your life.
You'll remember we used to be friends and soften toward me.

Pumpkin: Have you come here just to chat, Sayuri? Because I don't have anything to say that will interest you.
Subtext: You don't seem to be taking the hints, so I'll be a bit more obvious. I don't want to be your friend, and I can't believe you want to be my friend.
Expectation: You will back off.

Sayuri: The truth is, I saw Nobu Toshikazu recently, and...actually, Pumpkin, he'll be bringing a certain man to Gion from time to time. I thought perhaps you'd be kind enough to help us entertain him.
Subtext: Okay, I'll be honest--wait, no, maybe not completely. But I'll open up about the fact I'm here to ask a favour.
You'll be nice once you hear this very reasonable request from your old friend.

Pumpkin: But of course, you've changed your mind now that you've seen me.
Subtext: I've been a whore for two years. I disgust myself; I must disgust prissy little you. So how about I make it easy for you to wiggle out of this conversation? I certainly want you gone.
You'll be offended and embarrassed by my bluntness and make your exit.

Sayuri: Why, no. I don't know why you say that. Nobu Toshikazu and the Chairman--Iwamura Ken, I mean...Chairman Iwamura--would appreciate your company greatly. It's as simple as that.
Subtext: I'll chide you a little on your rudeness, but I'll also be a bit more honest about why this is important to me. However, I must keep my feelings for the Chairman secret.
You'll realize you're being unreasonable.

I've stopped believing that anything in life is 'as simple as that,'
Subtext: What a load of B.S. You are totally up to something.
Pumpkin: I know you think I'm stupid--
Subtext : I know the disdain you've always felt for me.
Expectation: I'm going to go on the offensive, and you will back off.

Sayuri: - Pumpkin!
Subtext: Why is this not working? Why would you think I'd think such a terrible thing about you?

Pumpkin: --but I think you probably have some other reason you're not going to tell me about. (Pumpkin bows, perhaps signaling she intends to leave.)
Subtext: So there. I'm smart enough to see through you and will never let you use me again.
Expectation: The truth in my rebuke is going to scare you off, but even if it doesn't, I'm ending this conversation now.
Note: This is an example of 'on the nose' dialogue, but it works well here because telling the truth is the riskiest behaviour in this situation/society. Pumpkin has pushed herself to the limit to get what she wants.

Sayuri: I suppose I do have another reason.
Subtext: OMG, she's leaving. I have to be honest now; nothing less is going to work.
Expectation: I can still win this if I try just a bit harder.
Note: And now Sayuri pushes herself to the limit too. The turning point of the scene comes right after this.

Notice how every step of the way, these characters are digging deeper into themselves to get what they want. They start out with a very superficial interaction, both of them anticipating an easy resolution, but by the end, they're--so to speak--going for the nuclear option: they're speaking the unvarnished truth.

Also note how much I wrote in the form of subtext compared to how much the characters actually say. Good writing implies volumes using very few words. These sentences have been pared down to say exactly what the author wanted to in as concise a way as possible. Each word is precise and carefully chosen with regard to nuance.

Another interesting point is that if you speak this dialogue aloud, the exchange wouldn't last much longer than 60 seconds. That's a pretty short conversation, isn't it? The fact is, dialogue isn't like real human speech. When done well, it is convincing as such, but people don't talk like this. The writer has a luxury of time to finesse his or her sentences into concise, eloquent perfection; real people just can't think that fast.

SUMMARY: What works best in this passage is the escalating tension caused by each of the characters trying ever-harder to get what she wants in the face of opposition.


Have you any comments to add to this? What else do you think works well in this passage? Is there anything you think doesn't work? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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