Tabula Rasa

Tabula Rasa – blank slate

Every writer is confronted with the challenge of how to fill the space in a meaningful way. Every story presents an opportunity to begin anew – even in the continuation of a series. Every reader is given a chance to experience what the writer’s creativity unveils.

Many stories are inexorably woven with themes of discovery. This is, after all, one of the things that keep readers reading. It’s also a reason why the use of a main character suffering from amnesia has always been popular (cliche or not). The character her/himself is a tabula rasa around which a story can be made.

Despite the fact that this approach (character with amnesia) is so often over-used or ill-used, it tends to fall broadly into two results:

  • Where the “reveal” is intended to be the main focus, acting as a “gotcha”
  • Where the story that came before outweighs the reveal, and the reveal only lends nuance as well as often a choice for the character, or else a chance for the reader to reflect on implications

The difference between these is simply the importance placed by the author on “who the main character was” versus a focus on “who the main character has become.”

For the latter, I can think of a variety of stories that played with this concept in interesting ways, and not necessarily only in literature. Amnesiac/tabula rasa main character is even more popular in television/movies as well as videogames than in literature.

One of the most successful implementations I’ve seen was in the computer RPG Planescape: Torment, where the main character spends the entirety of the story gaining companions who are each flawed with their own inner torments, all the while unlocking clues of who the main character had once been, and why he made a certain choice long before. It is never revealed exactly *what* the main character did to trigger his remorse, but only that it was something very, very bad with tremendous consequences. The story’s theme centers around the question: “What can change the nature of a man?” And the most popular answer (although a player may select among many answers) is regret. Regret tends to shape us in ways we never anticipated, making us aware of new perspectives and the consequences of our choices and actions.

Films like Memento and even the 1990 Total Recall have also played around with the notion of an amnesiac main character, the former by delving into an examination of consequences and the latter more of a simple exploration of what it means to discover who you are, and then discover you were once something quite at variance with the way you’ve now defined yourself, presenting a choice. (this is all without going into any artistic merits or the quality of either of these two films, which are certainly open to a variety of debate).

Still, all main characters are a tabula rasa for a reader at the beginning – unless these characters are being re-introduced from an existing series. Given that, a writer has to face the same question as the surrounding story: How can I fill them out?  How can I make them interesting?

A blank slate allows an endless ability to create. As some have noted, any novel in modern English is simply a unique arrangement of the same 26 characters of the English alphabet.

The writer’s job is to populate a story and characters that draw the reader in. And the real challenge is to make even the mundane seem interesting.

A good storyteller can bring out the right blending of details, enhancing some while tossing others completely away, and add flavor and nuance to the result. For example, consider telling one’s parents (or co-workers or friends) that one was arrested for petty larceny for stealing traffic cones while drunk. Doesn’t sound terribly interesting and probably would elicit groans of sympathy or “what an idiot” reproaches.

Take that same account from Stephen King’s own life and perspective and you get this, which he wrote in the “Afterword” to his story collection Skeleton Crew:

In the spring of 1970, while creeping home in my white Ford station wagon from the University Motor Inn at 12:30 in the morning, I ran over a number of traffic cones which were guarding a crosswalk that had been painted that day. The paint had dried, but no one had bothered to take the cones in when it got dark. One of them bounced up and knocked my muffler loose from the rotted remains of my tailpipe. I was immediately suffused with the sort of towering, righteous rage which only drunk undergraduates can feel. I decided to circle the town of Orono, picking up traffic cones. I would leave them all in front of the police station the next morning, with a note saying that I had saved numerous mufflers and exhaust systems from extinction, and ought to get a medal.

I got about a hundred and fifty before blue lights started to swirl around in the rearview mirror.

I will never forget the Orono cop turning to me after a long, long look into the back of my station wagon and asking, “Son, are those traffic cones yours?

A good storyteller throws away the mundane, and instead makes you laugh, or squirm, or remain rooted in place to find out what happens next.

Readers approach a story with a desire for discovery, and the writer’s job is not to disappoint. From either perspective – reader or writer – it all begins as a tabula rasa. Hopefully both the reader and the writer will be pleased and surprised by what fills the pages. Being surprised is one reason I’m not firmly in the camp of outlining stories. There are excellent outliners who can still maintain levels of unexpectedness – just the right levels where a reader is surprised, but isn’t too surprised. That’s a delicate balance in itself, giving readers the opportunity to guess ahead while ensuring they’re not entirely correct – but will also not be entirely flummoxed by what actually does happen.

Those who write organically (often affectionately called “pantsers”) may have less of this problem, as their style of writing lends itself more to surprise. When a writer is surprised, chances are the reader will be as well. And again, it’s up to the writer’s talent to ensure that the surprise makes sense, at least does so in hindsight. Of course, the challenge of organic writing is to maintain structure, pacing, and flow.

Outlined stories have the potential to feel rote, with a sense that the story is carefully being parceled out in dribs and drabs. Organically written stories have the potential to feel adrift, with no sure sense where they’re really heading. Either of these extremes of impression should be avoided. Readers want discovery, after all. It’s up to the writer to deliver to the reader, rather than change the reader’s focus from the story to how the story is being told.

A good story will remain ahead of a reader’s expectations, anticipating and staying on course, to deliver a full and satisfying experience. And at the same time, it will also deliver the same kind of satisfaction and surprises to the writer.

3 thoughts on “Tabula Rasa

  1. Hi Matthew,

    Another well-written and thought provoking post. The Stephen King quote is a great illustration of what separates a good writer from a mediocre one – as you say – the ability to squeeze out the juicy bits from the dramatic, and the flavourful from the everyday.

    The tabula rasa character, the amnesiac, works well for the writer because of the creative possibilities, but I agree it has been done so very many times that it is difficult not to bore a reader unless the amnesia is just one thread in the story. The I-must-re-discover-who-I-am plot almost needs a twist or new approach to make it fresh, and I’m glad you found an effective one to use in Glowstar.

  2. Hi Matt,
    Solid and thought provoking as ever. I love the pieces that you use to back up your point especially the Stephen King story. Thanks for this and its also helped me with a piece I’m writing about making sure that the short story has some serious back up as well as payoff within.

    • Thanks, Gareth. I confess I prefer King’s writing best from his early, hungry days. But he has always been a fantastic storyteller, and we see so few with the flair for turning mundane into magic.

      Good luck with your story!

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