“Gravitas” is one of my husband’s million dollar words when he’s offering a critique. It’s a tricky word to digest when it’s thrown at you like: “This needs more gravitas.” He’s much more eloquent but, I mean, what can you do with that?
Generally I take it to mean that the stakes aren’t sufficiently high for my characters – but I’ve come to realize that this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes gravitas (gravity/weight/an anchor) isn’t in the story itself but in the way the story is told.
On the Road is a story with zero anchor, if you look at it. The characters flit from place to place in fast cars. There’s literally and figuratively no home-base. The characters ping around from place to place, leaving wives and children and parents. You can’t latch onto these characters. As Sal Paradise tells the reader when he gets to Old Bull Lee’s house: “Poor Bull came home in his Texas Chevy and found his house invaded by maniacs.” They are madmen. Druggies, cheaters, partiers, crazies. Trying to connect to these characters is very much like trying to nail down one of those bouncy balls you get out of the quarter machine. Ping ping ping! There goes the lamp.
So, with place and people unavailable for adding sufficient weight to a story, a writer has one refuge: language.
That’s how Kerouac centers his miscreants. He adds depth (a great deal of bullshit depth, truth be told) to their madness: “A tremendous thing happened when Dean met Carlo Marx. Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of a hat…From that moment on, I saw very little of Dean and I was a little sorry too. Their energies met head-on. I was a lout compared, I couldn’t keep up with them. The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in a big dust cloud over the American Night.”
This description of his two friends, who basically got together and talked ‘philosophy’ while drunk or high get some mythic heft from the way Kerouac describes them: ‘tremendous’ ‘keen’ ‘energetic’ ‘mad swirls’, he’s a ‘lout’ compared to them. Reading this, you feel like there are consequences to getting left behind – and a weird sense of admiration for those with greater faculties or abilities.
Plus, you’ve got that American Night. Capitalized. There’s not beating the sense of pride and participation in that kind of presentation. And there’s no sense of escape from the dust cloud that’ll cover them all. Reminiscent of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, shadows that still cover the whole country.
And all in a couple sentences describing two friends meeting. (Though, as an interesting side-note – Carlo Marx, a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg – had very little to do with the road trips.)
So, next time someone says that there’s not enough weight, or your characters seem flat, or there’s no meaning – instead of assuming it’s a plot point or a characterization (it still might be) see if it isn’t the way the words are working. Playing with the wording might just fix the issue.