Sunday, August 24, 2008

What's Your Story?

Back in the day, when the concept of story lurched from the primordial ooze of conversation and pulpit-driven homilies, inching its way toward entertainment and provocation of thought and in the bargain developing the ability to conceptualize, the medium of transfer was the spoken word, delivered in a chant or intonation, a mellifluous recitation, or the multi-voiced presentation of an ensemble of speakers.

By the time story had reached such sophistication as serial publication, magazines, books, iPod and computer screens, books on tape and, more recently, CDs, it had undergone its own Darwinian progression from tale of caution, such as, say, Pamela or Robinson Crusoe, each with a built-in message to an eager audience, to the Pre-Obama message of Yes, We Can as evidenced by the Horatio Alger novels, and, as such things go, back to the present. Now, at present, we are looking at stories more than a little cautionary in nature, taking us on journeys through some noir landscape, where it is not always possible to lead the life of moral compass we wish, thanks to the distractions about us of fear, social pressures, needs, and demagoguery.

Through it all, story has remained a series of elements, DNA if you will, that are arranged according to the time and place of telling. Memorable stories--the kind all of us as writers wish to tell--have in common a protagonist with whom we establish some sort of bond, whether that protagonist is Rebecca Rowena Randall, sent to Maine to live with her two stern aunts, or perhaps with the more contemporary fifty-years from Rebecca Rowena inner conflicts of Holden Caulfield, who tells us of his ouster from Pencey Prep School and his downward spiral to fragmentation as he attempts to emerge unscathed from adolescence.

Two vital elements, a principal character and a quest. Establish these in all sincerity (which is to say in a manner you, hypocrite lecteur, mom semblance, mom frere, believe), and you are on your way, discovering as you write the true destination or what the story is about.

Digby Wolfe speaks of the destination in Hamlet:

"Imagine a TV Guide synopsis of “Hamlet”: “Gloomy Dane pursues his father’s assassin.” It sounds stupid but it’s important that you basically know the shape of the story you’re going to tell, or at least have a rough idea of its beginning, middle and end. Hold these points loosely but firmly in your mind—allowing room for surprise, for yourself as well as the audience. You may alter your original devices many times along the way, and inspire ideas that were hitherto no more than shadows on your unconscious mind--but a sense of direction that isn’t completely prefigured can be very useful. It may keep you from getting lost. It also forces you to look at the story as a deliberate sequence of dramatic events--not just an uneventful state of being. Not one damn thing after another, but one damn thing because of another. Remember, this is drama, not just a group of people sitting around chatting about the price of corn futures. Something happens, and it has to happen dramatically in order to change the characters’ lives and keep the audience in a state of excited anticipation."

One damn thing because of another! Enter the stealthy pickpocket of causality. Things happen in stories not merely because they are supposed to but because they have been provoked. Bobby DuPre, the iconic Jack Nicholson character in Five Easy Pieces, sweeps the dishes and condiments from the diner table because he has been provoked to the point of combustion, not so much by the waitress as by what the waitress represents. The eponymous protagonist of Hamlet seeks revenge because he has been bidden to do so by his father's ghost, a powerful enough incentive to rouse him into action of such intensity that he is pushed beyond the point of no return.

Wolfe has done a nice deconstruction on Hamlet; if you're sufficiently interested, I'll get his permission to post it. In substantial agreement with him on this rush of causality, I call your attention to an earlier drama, perhaps a bit more otherworldly, but nonetheless relevant, particularly in light of a joint venture in progress with Wolfe. I speak of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. No matter which version you choose, the Mallory, or the excellent modern translation/renditions, the stakes are the same. Gawain is goaded into accepting a challenge from a mysterious knight clad in green. The challenge: They will exchange blows. Gawain goes first. The Green Knight is to be given his chance a year and a day later. On his first shot, Gawain lops off the Green Knight's head. Not bad, the Green Knight says, scooping up his head, tucking it under his arm (You should hear Wolfe sing "With his 'ead tucked underneath 'is arm")reminds Gawain of their meeting a year and a day hence, then goes off to his horse, er, 'orse, mounts up, and rides off. Which brings up the next question. After causality, we ask What's at stake?

Gawain has a year and a day to understand what's at stake. With him, we understand that he is almost certain to meet death at the hands of the Green Knight. But first. Ah, talk about the Labors of Hercules. First, Gawain must endure the considerable offerings of the wife of his host at a wayside inn. Dare I call it Knight's Rest?

Where you begin your story, where and how you end it are your call to the point that where you start, where and how you end will contribute mightily to the next piece in this puzzle: How to make it your own.


Anonymous said...

Your questions make me want to rewrite everything.

Lori Witzel said...

Am I sufficiently interested? Hell yeah! Definitely want to read/hear that deconstruction on Hamlet.

Querulous Squirrel said...

A deliberate sequence of dramatic events, not just an uneventful state of being. Whole posts can be written about a single sentence in your blog. Um, I think I'll have to do that. You know, like Talmudic commentary in the margins of the text.