Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Long Form: The Obligation of Transformation

Writing Wednesday

Have you ever walked out of a movie wishing you could get a refund not of the money you paid for the ticket but of the two hours of your life now lost forever?

When you produce a long-form project for an audience, you have an obligation to deliver something that is worth their time. The longer the form, the greater the obligation.

To be worth the time it takes to read, a novel must do more than merely distract. Modern audiences can find plenty to distract them, in the conceptual equivalent convenient, bit-sized pieces, on YouTube and its ilk. And the parade of dancing cats and groin shots doesn't demand any focus or commitment.

What do readers expect for their effort?

It's not enough that the story goes somewhere, it has to transform the reader in the process.

Transformation is an intimidating word because we tend to use it only in the context of sweeping change. But don't be put off: we're talking here of transformation with a small 't.' Changing lives isn't the purpose of the long form--though it can happen. Rather, the art of the long form is most truly expressed when your audience leaves enriched by the experience.

It is no accident, for example, that many narratives fit the pattern of the hero's journey. But at another level, the act of reading allows the reader to take their own hero's journey: the story takes the reader from the world they knew before picking up the book, into the abyss and the epiphanies of the unknown where they gain secret knowledge, and finally brings them back to the known, transformed by the journey.

That said, please don't get yourself worked up with worry that your manuscript isn't sufficiently mystical. The key here isn't mysticism, it's experience. Another way to get a handle on what the obligation of transformation means is to go back to the books you like to re-read. What is it about those books that keeps you coming back? Congratulations, you've just identified the transformative elements that, if you emulate, will help you meet the obligation in your own work.


Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net