Monday, September 24, 2007

Missing from the List

One of the assignments I'm fond of inflicting on myself and on students is the one in which we attempt to list as many of the essential ingredients of story as we can. My fondness extends to the point where some students invariably come forth with an element I have either not considered at all ever, or one I'd allowed to slip into the dusty drawers of forgetfulness .

Thus we have such elements as character and lot, voice, dialogue, narrative, point-of-view, suspense, reversal, tension, suspicion, hidden agenda, scene, backstory. All in all, I reckon between twenty and thirty building blocks.

My purpose in embarking on such a list and inflicting it on students is resident in the next portion of the assignment. Now that you have your list, give it a hierarchy, starting with the most important element and trailing down to the least important (to you) or the one you feel most estranged from.

This list, set in an order of importance, provides an intimate portrait of the writing personality; it is at once a clue to how you define story and which elements you find either the least useful or with which you are most uncomfortable. 

 At this point I jump in with the confession that plot is invariably at the bottom of my list, to which I add, perhaps even projecting a certain perverse pride, that this is so because I am not very accomplished with plotting.

How then, someone will ask, do you get stories?

And I reply, Why, through characters, of course. My characters all think they are right. Whenever they enter a scene, they expect this rightness to be validated, observed by other characters, perhaps even characters who are strangers.

It is a lovely kind of conversation/therapy session/confessional/shop talk; it gets them thinking and it keeps me thinking. For some considerable time, I'd had characters at the top of my list. In more recent times I'd leaned toward voice, arguing to myself that the tone or attitude I brought forth would influence the characters. That approach lasted for quite a while. We often wish to hear a particular story or reminiscence repeated because of the tone of the teller. I think I have heard all Barnaby Conrad's stories about the time he spent as a younger man serving as secretary to Sinclair Lewis, but somehow the story of how Conrad, showing off with a bow and arrow, let one fly only to fatally and unintentionally impale a toad sends me into paroxysms of mirth. Ditto the story Lewis told Conrad about the attractive woman on a neighboring deck chair on the Queen Elizabeth, reading a copy of Lewis' latest novel. Thinking he was about to make serious romantic time with the woman once he revealed to her who he was--"Are you enjoying that book?"--he was stunned when she stood, advanced to the deck railing, and dropped the book over the side. I know these stories but they are made more memorable by Conrad's obvious pleasure at telling them.

Which brings me to the deck railing as it were; the moment of truth. Character was a good thing to have considered number one. Voice was an excellent thing to have replaced it with. My current favorite is subtext, which is something I describe as the trough between what a character says and what the character does. Implication, if you will. Actually, I've been quite pleased with myself for having seen that lovely distinction and because I've been on such a nonfiction vector these last several months, I've only had one opportunity to try a story in which subtext was deliberately elevated to the top.

But there is something important I have forgotten, not just for the moment but for all these years of trying to move my craft along some line of progress. It is the thing every successful story has in abundant measure. Indeed, it is the thing the creator must carry about as though it were the most advanced iPod, listening to it, using it, being aware of it.

My bad for having forgotten it or for merely having taken it so much for granted that I may have on occasion obviated it.




Anonymous said...

Shelly: You say you are least comfortable with plot. But you have helped me greatly with concerns about plot. Second probably only to 'conflict', the fire under the plot pot.
In writing (so I suppose also in teaching and in life) I guess we are often best at what we are least comfortable with. We work harder at it.
I'm not particularly easy with plot. But I'm going to enshrine it at #1. Partly because I have to consciously work at it.Parly because, if there's no plot, the book goes over the rail.
Thanks for a great start to the morning!

R.L. Bourges said...

"the trough between what the character says and what the character does."
Any suggestions for a good example of this at work?

lowenkopf said...

LR: Try William Faulkner's "Spotted Horses"

R.L. Bourges said...

Thanks. I will.