Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Approach

In response to Clair's article last week about searching for a feasible suman story idea, I posted the following:

A good start might involve determining exactly what part you want suman to play in the final product. Do you want it as background filler, for example? Do you want the main characters to mull over a plate of it? Do you want the suman to be the main character itself?

From there, you just ask yourself “Why?” and then come up with a reason. Why would two men meet in a darkened restaurant with a plate of suman between the two of them? Why would suman be banned during a specific barrio fiesta? Why would an uncle bring a basket of suman to a small family gathering?

Once you have the initial scene and setting firmly in place, you can then ask yourself “What happens?”, and finally kick the story into gear…

About two-and-a-half hours later, my comment elicited the following response from Raichu:

if that were the case, the suman becomes nothing more than a stage prop. if that’s what you really wanted, go for it.

Yes, he's right. A little blunt, yes, but I believe he's right.

I am aware that there's a danger of relegating the suman element to nothing more than a prop. However, I feel that it is also possible to emphasize the suman element in a story to a degree that it becomes much more than a prop. That's how suman stories come into being, after all.

In these situations, I tend to subscribe to a "Why?" approach because it forces me to answer a lot of questions regarding character, scenery and background. Asking oneself the "Why?" question, I think, forces the mind to work by conjuring a logical setup for the given scene. Whether or not suman figures prominently into the setup is a matter left to the author herself.

It all depends on the approach, and I figure that it might be best if I clarified that here.

Let's take that first scene posted above: Two men meet in a darkened restaurant with a plate of suman between them. There are a lot of questions that can be asked, given that scenario alone.

The more obvious ones:
- Why are they in a restaurant?
- Why is the restaurant dark?
- Why are they sharing a plate of suman?

The less obvious ones:
- Who are these two men?
- What are they talking about?
- What's the name of the restaurant?
- Where is the restaurant located?
- When does their meeting take place?

The really less obvious ones:
- What do the men do for a living?
- What relationship do the two men have to each other?
- Do they even know each other?
- What are they wearing?
- Are they both male?
- Are they human?
- Did they order the suman from the restaurant?
- Do they want to eat the suman?
- Is the restaurant operational?
- Are they waiting for anyone?
- Is it night?
- Is this all just a dream?

There are a lot of questions to answer, yes. And any one of them can trigger a story.

Let's take one at random, then: Where is the restaurant located?

Strangely, the first thing that comes to my mind here is "Berlin":

"And you zay," Gerhardt said, "that zis is a food in your country?"

"Yeah," Benedict answered. "We usually have it in December."

"Because it's cold zere?"

Benedict scratched his head. "No... we don't have winter in the Philippines. I don't know why we have it a lot every Christmas, actually. We just always have."

"Ja, ja," Gerhardt said, turning to explain something to the couple seated across from them. After a short conversation, he raised one hand and pointed at the tiny piece of suman.

"Rice... and, ah... coconut zauce?" Gerhardt said, finding the word unfamiliar.

One might as well answer any one of the questions in this way.

Is it night? No -- maybe it's daytime, and the open-air restaurant is dark because generations of air pollution have finally blotted out the sun's light. The two men are Philippine scientists discussing their proposal to reverse the process. They're digging into a plate of suman, a rarity in their time because most of the world's crops are already in the process of dying out.

Do they want to eat the suman? No -- the suman is laced with a deadly poison. The two men, who are government investigators, are just there to inspect the product, which was provided to them by one of their toxicologist partners. Two days earlier, an entire shipment of the same suman was responsible for over a hundred cases of severe food poisoning in what was termed the largest product-tampering case in the Philippines. The two men must locate the source of the poisoned suman before the perpetrators strike again.

Now, then: Which of the above three scenarios best exemplifies a suman story?

The first one -- Suman in Berlin -- looks reasonable. We find a character named Benedict, after all, in the middle of explaining the concept of suman to Gerhardt, his German acquaintance. If Benedict and Gerhardt manage to hold on to their topic for an entire narrative, then I'll argue that that would constitute a suman story. If they eventually move on to other things -- Benedict's tenure in Berlin, Gerhardt's love for horticulture, the nuances of German-Filipino translation -- then the suman becomes nothing more than a minor background element.

The second one -- The Lost Sun -- doesn't feel like a suman story at first glance. After all, it appears to focus more on the struggle to regain the sun's light through technological means, as well as the human factor involved. But we haven't heard (or told) the whole story yet. For all we know, the plate of suman in front of them becomes a factor. Maybe suman becomes essential to the scientists' proposal in some way. Maybe the suman becomes an important piece of symbolism for the story itself. We can't necessarily dismiss the fact that their suman automatically becomes a mere stage prop here.

And now, I believe we can see that the third one -- Poisoned Suman -- can probably go both ways. The investigators could follow a trail of suman poisonings all the way to a criminal who has an unhealthy fixation with the glutinous rice snack. Or the suman could just as well be an incidental -- the perpetrator has a lot of other foods at his disposal, after all.

It all depends on the approach.

There are many questions you can ask, based on a given scene. If you want to write a story where your little piece of suman won't be nothing more than a stage prop, then you just have to look at the right questions. You just have to give the right answers and follow the right directions.

Yes, it's not as easy as it looks. No one ever said that conceptualization and writing were easy.

If you want to write a suman story, you've got to do things just right. But exactly how you will go about doing it will be up to you.

In brightest day.

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