Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Literary Story and The Concept

literary story, the--a prose narrative written to discover a feeling, intent, or meaning; an exercise of the writer's curiosity to see where the problem will lead and whence the solution--if any--will come; a prose narrative in which the writer knows the conclusion or believes the provisional conclusion is in fact the conclusion, then retraces in order to clarify the obstacle.

The writer often begins the literary story with a dramatic construct located beyond his ability to see an easy way out, barely able to deal with the emotional impact of the story in the first place, but drawn nevertheless into the void. This ongoing challenge of the boundaries of safety is one reason why many writers are suspicious of everything, why their monsters and misfits may not willingly retire at the end of a day's work. A literary story is a contract made by the writer not to write anything safe. This covenant, between the writer and the writer's process, has little to do with the use of language as related to profanity, sexual or racial slurs, but rather instead as the use of language to explore layers of observed behavior, residues of speculation, and confrontations with the intransigent parts of the self.

Starting in more recent times with the literary stories of such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anton Chekhov, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather, we can sense an insistent pushing at boundaries of human understanding and the beginnings of a move away from the formulaic, one-size-fits all effect.

Thus there is no formulaic way to produce the literary story; a profitable approach, however, is the Oliver Twist approach, daring to ask for more oatmeal in an atmosphere where doing so was a simultaneous expression of acting on personal need and exposing the self to consequences. Need and vulnerability are great comrades for the writer to have on board. Also swimming about in the sea of the writer's uncertainty is curiosity, which should also be hauled aboard.

The difference between the literary and the commercial tale is the difference between risk of the unknown and replicating the established; each tale has a dramatic genome, each produces an emotional payoff, but the point of departure is in the depth and complexity of the emotion, the difference between the shock of awareness and the nod of amusement.

concept--a collection of characters and dramatic conditions prior to becoming a story; a set of events requiring a triggering device; a group of characters whose agendas and desires have not yet risen to conflict; a plan or potential agenda that has yet to meet with opposition or reversal.

John is rehearsing before his wife the speech he will make to his boss, requesting a raise in pay.

A noted author of children's books has an intense dislike of children.

An elderly resident at an adult care center begins to receive expensive gifts from an unknown source.

Each of the above examples is a concept needing at least two other dramatic elements to turn it into a viable scheme for a story, the primary element being a plausible character with some exploitable background or emotional state. The next element is a dramatic beat of some sort, an action or discovery.

When John comes home from work, his wife has prepared his favorite meal and splurged on a bottle of champagne. Still not a story yet, so we add the complication that John has not only not been given the raise, he has accepted a reduction in salary.

The noted author of children's books has been asked to appear on the Oprah show with a group of reader fans, one of whom throws up on the author's shoulder.

One of the gifts received by the elderly resident turns out to be the director's missing Rolex.

Each of these concepts has now been energized to the point where a confrontation is quickly forthcoming--and the story is under way.

Stories often begin from concepts, from the writer imagining downstream consequences from a meeting or defining event. A particularly useful author to study in this context is Louise Erdrich, whose short stories often morph into novels with complex interrelationships. Alice Munro writes long, complex stories, often from more than one point of view, often beginning with the hint of a concept before the pull of story takes over.

Even in its more elliptical format, the modern short story is distinguishable from the concept because of the way something emerges for the characters to understand or not, but which the reader can see.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight about writing a literary story. My first novel, an interesting but not hugely risky challenge emotionally, helped me conquer my fear of "can I write a viable novel"- the challenge was in writing it at all, more than what I actually wrote. With that experience as a guide, I'm now headed into the uncharted waters of writing a novel which will exceed my safety zone- but since I've lived most of my life that way, why not write that way?

Anonymous said...

That literary label has always given me fits. I feel pretentious if I use it--and deluded. But then to say my work is commercial makes me laugh in that you've-got-to-be-kidding way. What? Make money? This?

Oh, those pesky labels. What if I just write and let someone else decide? Or is that chickening out?