Saturday, December 13, 2008

What's the Story?

reversal--one or more points within a story in which the plans of the protagonist takes a punishing hit a disastrous turn; one in a series of accelerating blows to the aspirations of a main character.

Story is enhanced by reversal of fortune; the more serious the reversal the higher the story is borne along. The more plot-driven, formulaic stories use reversal as a vehicle for making it appear to the reader that the lead character's aspirations are done for, that the lead is defeated in some vital enterprise, perhaps even a candidate for a place in the morgue. Without some form of reversal or a direct threat of it, there is no conflict. Without conflict, there is narrative only--but no story.

In novels and longer short stories, reversals may appear as minor irritations, increasing in intensity to the point where one or more of the characters will wonder aloud, "What more could possibly happen?" And once again the doctrine of the Unthinkable, come to pass is evidenced because--if the story is effective--something more always can and does happen.

story--a bundle of information bits about characters, strategically deployed to produce a series of on-going emotional responses, culminating in a thematic, emotional payoff. Story is the resulting product of one or more individuals who make plans, experience frustration or reversal, then achieve some progress toward their goal; it is a condition reflecting the pursuit of agenda against odds; at the very least it is a dramatic expression of volition and intent.

Longer stories, those over 10,000 words, often referred to as novellas or novelettes, depending on their length, actually move one or more characters fo some kind of change in personality, life style, or understanding. Shorter fictional works running from about fifty words to 10,000 are called short stories. Because of their comparative length in relation to the novel, there is less likelihood that shorter works can track a character from the point of awareness of a problem or goal all the way through a complex ending and subsequent change in the character's perspectives.

Short stories may end with a realization or epiphany of stunning emotional impact, as in James Joyce's memorable "The Dead." Stories may also end on a note in which one or more characters, having realized something, resolve to change a course of action, but this resolve stops short of actual change.

The structure of the contemporary short story has changed, moving away from the moral finality or tidy outcome of the ending, although beginnings often set a major character in a situation where there is some need for a decision. Middles provide occasion for tension and suspense by encouraging the turning up of dramatic heat on the protagonist and/or by adding an atmosphere of texture and complexity to the narrative. Endings propel the lead character to some point where their physical or emotional state produces a direct response from the reader. Most of Alice Munro's and William Trevor's short stories well illustrate the current elliptical state of endings in the short form.

Another characteristic of the aggressively contemporary story is the way authors break further away from the traditional narrative restraints and conventional formats. Accordingly, Rick Moody's memorable "Boys" abandons the tradition of a first- or third-person narrator; short stories by other writers will render narrative as a series of numbered paragraphs, and yet other writers will either shift from the usual past tense to a present tense delivery or depart fro conventional spelling and usage in favor of Internet chat room or electronic mail abbreviations, acronyms, or symbols.

From time to time, authors will also cast novels i the present tense, use a larger ensemble of characters as active narrators, abandon quotation marks or, as Vikram Seth did in his novel, The Golden Gate, render his entire text as a series of Petrarchan sonnets.

As a dramatic entity, story is nuanced and satisfying enough to allow adjectives to be attached to it, suggesting types such as mystery story, which by convention has come to mean a story with a focus on the discovery of at least one corpse and the detection of the individual who caused that corpse to come into being. A romance story is taken by readers to mean a series of events in which an appealing but not necessarily attractive protagonist is faced with the choice of romantic partners. A fantasy story is set in a more or less conventional venue where the outcome is influenced by a strong element of magic.

There are two basic approaches for the writer to take with the short story, the first being the literary equivalent of paint-by-the-numbers approach of arranging a lead character in a beginning-middle-end configuration in which a goal or problem is introduced, followed by a resolve to achieve the goal or solve the problem. Then comes frustration and reversal to the point where the goal or solution seems helpless or pointless. Finally, through action and some form of determination, an outcome is forged. Such formulaic approaches can be and often are satisfying, if only momentarily.

The second approach for the writer to take with the short story is to define his own vision of story, including how problems or goals are introduced, and how relatively transparent the characters are, pursuing the avenues of collision and opposition the characters experience to the point of some fireworks display of emotion that will end the story arc. This is not merely a case of the individual writer moving away from a one-size-fits all approach to story, rather a case of wanting to establish a defining take on what story should do and what it ought not do; this becomes a matter of the individual writer imposing his individual personality on the story form.

No comments: