Friday, December 12, 2008

The Choking Doberman and Other Enigmas

anticlimax--a shift away from a matter of heavy relevant consequence to something entirely trivial, producing a bumpy, undercutting effect; a comparison of something high-minded with a matter of little or no consequence; overkill on the payoff of a story (the delivery of a death sentence when a reprimand would have sufficed). When done with deliberation, the result may be amusing, even considered satiric, but when done unintentionally, not only does the reader suffer, so does the writer's reputation.

Anticlimax is a feeling of impatience forced upon readers when an author overstays or over embellishes the dramatic effect of a satisfying conclusion. Often brought about by a writer's unwillingness to allow readers to draw their own conclusions, anticlimax is brought about when the author directly or through the intervention of one or more characters, insists on explaining critical events by offering background for them or explanations. Think of anticlimax as undermining an effective conclusion or as the mounting frustration experienced when a friend intrigues us at first with the beginning of an artfully told story only to persist in embellishing it with more details than we want to hear.

However managed and emphatic his endings were, Beethoven understood the dynamics of anticlimax in his compositions. Many writers of the past whose works are still being read today--notably Anthony Trollope, Joseph Conrad, and Jane Austen--seem to have found the boundary between the precision of an effective, memorable ending and ornate excess, then observed that boundary, giving some critics the opportunity to note that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors made sure their readers got their money's worth.

More recent novels and short stories are increasingly likely to end on a note of ambiguity, prompting the wisdom that writers looking for a voice, a theme, and an audience are well advised to err on the side of understatement.

arena--any landscape where a scene is set and/or the context in which narrative progresses. Think of the Roman Colosseum, replete with gladiators trashing one another, with crowds braying for more, with emperors and lesser dignitaries turning thumbs down. Consider those one-sided scores where the Christians were opposed by the lions. Now think of setting as an unfriendly atmosphere or locale in which to place characters (who may not even want to be there). Recall the moving dramas you've seen whether on stage,screen, or the page. They all took place in arenas of one kind or another. Now, go you and do likewise; impart that vital measure of tension to your scenes by setting them in arenas rather than travelogue backgrounds. Think of Bobbie Ann Mason's breakout short story, "Shiloh," in which a contemporary family heads out for a picnic in the area once the scene of a bloody and extensive battle during the American Civil War.

Query: What do living rooms, court rooms, dining rooms, school rooms, police stations, bed rooms, banks, and laboratories share in common?
Answer # 1: They are all arenas.
Answer # 2: They are places where story is able to grow.
Answer # 3 They are breeding grounds for dramatic stress, tension, and character development.
Answer # 4: All of the above.


Choking Doberman, the -- an eponymous device calculated to arrest the reader's attention through the opening pages of a story and into its development. A paradigm opening concept for a plot-driven story.

A woman returns home from grocery shopping to find her pet Doberman racked by a severe choking fit. She rushes the gasping dog to a vet, who examines the dog, but sees no reason for the breathing difficulties. He decides on a tracheotomy, telling the worried owner that the procedure wasn't anything she'd want to watch, suggesting the woman go home and leave the Doberman there overnight.

When the woman arrives home, her phone is ringing. When she answers, she is surprised to hear the vet. "Get out of the house immediately! Now! Go to the neighbor's and call the police."

Who could fail to be intrigued by such an opening?

Very few, it seems, because what started as an exercise in arresting beginnings in a creative writing class ended up as a post on an Internet site that deals with debunking urban myths. This intriguing concatenation of events, classic in its allure and promise of story to come, ultimately shoots itself in the foot by the very qualities it sets in motion. After such a fine beginning, the payoff has nowhere to go but a downward spiral. It plays out with the vet having discovered two human fingers lodged in the dog's throat, a result of the Doberman having attacked an escaped killer who was attempting to hide in the house of the unlucky dog and its owner. When the police arrive, the escaped killer is found unconscious, in a state of shock, and somewhat the bloodier for wear.

The concept was so good that it gained the kind of repetition and currency momentum common to the urban myth. In much the same way that a successful movie or TV series beget imitations, the choking Doberman began appearing on urban myth Internet sites as having originated in numerous Canadian and U.S. locales. It was so successful that it even made the jump from web site to book, The Choking Doberman and Other Urban Legends. During his tenure in the Department of Theater at the University of New Mexico, Digby Wolfe frequently invoked the Doberman as a splendid example of the opening velocity needed to get a plot-driven story underway. The excellent medical thriller, House, M.D., alive and running with six seasons of TV exposure at this writing, begins each episode with the equivalent of a choking Doberman, in which an individual suddenly begins acting out the bizarre, life-threatening behavior of some unusual symptom, often placing the eponymous protagonist, Gregory House, M.D., at risk of breaking some moral code, civil law, medical ethic, or a combination of all three.

Admonition # 1: Although there is nothing artistically or morally wrong with the plot-driven story, its side effects often include a weakening sense of reality, diminished plausibility, and suspended character development

E. B. White, the New Yorker writer, children's novelist, and co-author of a legendary style guide, once wrote, "Whoever sets pen to paper writes of himself whether knowingly or not." In similar fashion, writers who attempt to fashion a compelling opening to a story, pushing at the outer limits of plausibility, write of the choking Doberman, whether they know it or not.

Admonition # 2: the choking Doberman is a plot-driven device. While effective, it is no substitute for characters the reader has been made to care for.

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