Saturday, October 18, 2008

Story, or Sisyphus Rocks

A good deal of attention is properly paid to the movement of a story from its engaging, often rambunctious beginning, through its point of achieving a seemingly unstoppable inertia, often thought of as the middle or act two, concluding with the place where it comes to a rest, however temporary. This coming to rest is the end because the story has landed on someone or something, run out of steam, or dramatically changed its mind. It will not start up again until someone or something gets it moving again. This movement is frequently referred to as arc or throughline. In either case, the intent is for the story to have begun at point A, then moved through a number of points to the designated spot where it stops moving for some time.

Readers, accordingly, get the sense of a story being over when it stops moving for a considerable time, author's intentions to the contrary notwithstanding.

For the sake of illustration, I propose to call the path of a story an orbit; a circular or elliptical path as opposed to arc, which is, when you stop to think of it, a segment of a circle; or indeed a throughline, which suggests movement enough but movement on a straight line, which implies that the story is of singular dimension as opposed to the more textured implications of orbit. An arc or throughline is like a doughnut in comparison to the layer cake of orbit.

A well-constructed story may be begun at any point in it orbit. Stories do not have to be chronological, although they may be if it suits the author's purpose. By way of example, The Iliad, which begins in the famed medias res or middle of things, properly begins with that great twit, Paris, being asked to judge a beauty contest in which the contestants are goddesses. Lovely story. The main contestants try their godly hands at suborning Paris with incentives for choosing her instead of her sisters. Paris is most tempted by the offered bribe of the most beautiful woman in the world, an offer from the goddess of love. He proceeds to chose the goddess of love as the most beautiful among the competing goddesses, then claims his prize. "And so you shall be rewarded," she tells him. "The only problem is, she's married."

In The Iliad, this is backstory, explaining how Paris connected with Helen in the first place, making Helen WMS, weapons of mass seduction, and causing the seven-year Trojan War. It also explains how Paris was the forerunner of G. W. Bush. All the available contemporary renditions of The Iliad begin with Achilles, storming off to his tent in a rage that had nothing to do with the Trojan War. Achilles' rage is so intense that he opts out of fighting, which could mean a complete change in the complexion of the battle. There are other places in the orbit where this epic could have begun, each adding a different kind of texture and tone to the entire story.

Another splendid example of story orbit involves another set of characters from more or less the time of The Iliad. Let's look at the myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus, a mortal, has been sentenced by Zeus, king of the gods, to an eternity of pushing a huge boulder up a steep incline, where it topples over the crest, rumbles down an equally steep slope, rolling of its own inertia until it comes to rest. Having observed this behavior, Sisyphus must push the boulder into position, then repeat the process. No weekends off, no holidays, no time and a half overtime pay. Sisyphus' crime was hitting on one of Zeus lady friends. That story could be set in motion with Sisyphus hard at work, pushing the boulder up the hill. It could be initiated when he reaches the top of the hill. It could even begin with his wife trotting alongside him as he pushes, wanting to know what's with him, why he never calls, could he maybe spare a few shekels to buy some food. The story could begin with Sisyphus blowing his cool, storming into Zeus' office and refusing to push the damned boulder up that damned hill one more damned time, at which point Zeus snaps his fingers and summons over two henchmen, informing them "Okay, Sisyphus is off the rock detail. Soon as I finish the paper work, take him over to the mountain and give him the Prometheus treatment?"

"Prometheus treatment?" Sisyphys asks.

"Yeah. Some dude tried to steal the secret of fire from me so now he gets tied to a mountain side every day around lunch time. Vultures come by, rip out his liver. Prometheus gets to go home, grow a new liver, then back to the mountain side."

"Excuse me," Sisyphys says, "I gotta get back to my boulder."

Depending on where in that orbit you start, it can produce humor, pathos, existential woe, philosophical questioning, psychological humor--you name it.

Ah, I hear your first question: Suppose my story doesn't have an orbit?

Ah, indeed. Now you begin to understand why so many memorable stories do have an orbit.

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