Sunday, January 4, 2009

Aristotle Sent Me

emotion--the mood, temperament, attitude, or disposition exhibited singularly or in combination by one or more characters in a narrative drama; a major force propelling the actions of a particular character; a resident setting or mood of a scene in a story; a dramatic catalyst that causes characters to behave as they do.

Characters are walking tool kits of emotion, using them or being driven by them to behave as they do. As a contrast between characters and real-life individuals, the individual is guided in behavior by emotions and/or their absence, occasionally becoming preoccupied, then driven, thus making the necessary transition from real-life individual to character. Being in some way driven, obsessed, or compulsive is the transformative energy needed by a character to earn his keep in a story.

Characters are commonly identified according to their goals and needs; the thoughtful writer has taken this calculus one step farther by identifying the goals and needs as the comet, the attendant emotions as trails of the comet.

short story--a dramatic narrative, conventionally (but not necessarily) advanced in scenes, taking an individual from a point of awareness of a goal or problem through some attempt at striving for the goal or engaging the problem to the point of awareness of the consequences of the success or failure of the venture; may be rendered in first, second,third, and omniscient points of view.

By its name, the short story intends a word length less than a novel, which is by convention thought to be at least 50,000 words. Short stories under 1000 words are usually given some designation such as short-short, flash fiction, or sudden fiction,delineating them further from the short story, sometimes, as in the case of under 100 words, making them more a whim or affectation. Conventional short stories run from about 2500 words to about 10000, some of these parameters determined by the availability of space in magazines and journals.

Thanks to a review written by Edgar Allen Poe on the occasion of the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales, (which Poe quite admired), the short story was accepted as a single-narrator vehicle, its focus on a single issue or situation. The ending was almost invariably a thematic equivalent of the recapitulation of a concerto. Then came Chekhov (1860-1904), who bade farewell to the elbow-in-the-ribs nudge of moral and philosophical resolution, and Joyce (1882-1941)who used the epiphany or relevant emerging awareness of a character to further the short story along into the twentieth century, where such significant voices as John Cheever, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Louise Erdrich, Tom Boyle,Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, and Joyce Carol Oates rushed the short story into its more elastic and plastic incarnation.

Because of these and other worthies, it is now possible to devise a short story that has more than one featured narrator, that moves about in chronology, refuses to be pinned down in terms of its did-they-or-didn't-they ending, and takes place over a large span of time. Still these standards have to obtain: The reader must care in some way about the narrator or have a stake in what happens or does not happen to the narrator; the characters in a short story should each be distinguishable from the others; someone has to have a goal; if there is no actual prize, nevertheless the reader should be able to conceive of an appropriate one; the element of surprise ought to be found somewhere in the calculus--not merely a trick or surprise ending but rather someone doing or not doing something that becomes a surprise or, perhaps, some surprise rendition of format.

unities--a set of three classical conditions for drama, derived from Aristotle's Poetics: a play should have one significant action; it should represent only one place; it should take place in the time span of a day.

A few critics have tried to tie the can of actual time to the play, intending that the events portrayed on stage be equal to elapsed time in reality.

Aristotle, who has made some significant contributions to such diverse things as scientific classification, logic, and the physics of the dramatic experience, has nevertheless been gone since 322 BCE, allowing room for the growth and development of story constructs. Even as far back--form our point of view--as Shakespeare's time, the unities were being disregarded, played with fast and loose. One of the delights of story is its ability to include vast shifts of time, some even generational.

Hint: the unities are good things to know about, particularly when reading or considering works from the distant past, but they cannot and should not hinder a writer's experiments with time, place, theme, or any other aspect of telling a story.

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