Saturday, February 28, 2009

I Kid You Not

premise--a dramatic argument which states that a particular incident or situation leads to conflict, the resolution of which makes a story; an outline or idea for an as yet uncompleted narrative.

Borrowing its basics from philosophical logic, dramatic premise argues that a concept or partial chapters will indeed produce not merely a story, not merely a plausible story, but a nuanced and thrilling story. A writer discussing a premise with a literary agent, editor, or other writer usually has not advanced beyond a few opening pages and has yet to discover a throughline or theme, much less a mid point and conclusion.

This is not to belittle or disparage the premise, which is often the way ideas for work come to the writer, rather it is to say that the premise needs to be thought through or written through to a draft, where its potential for metamorphosis into story may be seen and nurtured along the path.

See concept.

jargon--language extending beyond conventional usage to convey hidden or special meanings; terms which openly make fun of gender, race, sexual and social orientation; terms and words used when speakers are confirming a special, insider status.

Jargon is an omnibus word, taking in academic usage,slang, lingo, buzzwords, shop talk, and idiom, representing age, class, and cultural ranges. When used in fiction, jargon is a risky business because of the possibility that it will have gone out of date, dragging the narrative down with it. The other side of that coin is the lengths some writers will reach in order to yank passe words from the vault as a means of presenting a verbal zeitgeist. A reasoned approach is to concentrate on the needs, ambitions, and intent of characters; those qualities will suggest the degree of jargon or lack thereof a particular character uses.

Friday, February 27, 2009

In Search of a Premise

premise--an as yet undeveloped concept for a novel or story; a character confronted with a choice or placed in an intriguing or threatening situation; a hypothetical dramatic situation that cannot yet stand on its own.

Premise is like a wobbly three-legged stool or restaurant table; it needs to be stabilized with the shim of action or intent or reversal, any or all of which will elevate it toward becoming story. At some point, characters, their goals, limitations, and strengths need to be articulated, which brings dimension and nuance onto the stage, giving the writer and the characters options that will make the development seem to churn up a vacuum, drawing character, reader, and writer along in their wake.

Two men, each laid off from a promising job, wander into a neighborhood cocktail lounge for solace, where they encounter a remarkably up-beat young woman who has just been dumped by her boyfriend.

No hint of story yet, but no lack of possibilities. Premise = the potential for story; it is often the rearranging of dramatic furniture that gets the writer's imagination piqued with the curiosity to see the outcome.

When all else fails, rearrange the furniture.

quest--the search characters make for altruistic and personal reasons; the act of seeking justice, revenge, a reward, or understanding; a major component of motivation in story.

The essential defining trait of a character is goal; what does that character want? What thing above all others will satisfy that character to the point of allowing him to move on to another goal? The quest or search for the goal becomes the engine for action, which is expressed in the way(s) the character behaves. A character who is frustrated in the quest for goal will act differently than a character who has experienced success. A successful character may be modest, confident, or propelled by hubris and a sense of entitlement. A frustrated character may be resigned, angry, resentful. Putting a successful character in a scene with a frustrated character produces results--dramatic results.

Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were contemporaries and well known each to the other. Dickens was by far the more successful, but he watched with envy as Collins produced to great success The Moonstone, arguably the first mystery-suspense novel in the English language. Determined to outdo the more profligate Collins, Dickens in 1869 undertook The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which remained unfinished at his death in 1870. It is somewhat a stretch to say Dickens' quest to outshine Collins killed him, nevertheless the quest was a contributing factor.

In more recent times, Irwin Shaw and John Cheever were contemporaries, well known to each other. Although Cheever had some street cred thanks to his short stories, Shaw commanded higher prices for his work, had a larger readership. Although each had high regard for the other, Cheever's account of a particular meeting between the two demonstrates again the potential for dramatic results when a successful character is on stage with a frustrated character. Out of collegial concern, Shaw had invited Cheever to his hotel room for drinks. With barely enough money for the cab fare to Shaw's hotel, actively struggling with his raging alcoholism, Cheever became increasingly more frustrated by Shaw's generosity and concern, drinking more Scotch, growing more convinced that Shaw was patronizing him. Each man was a a devoted and ardent craftsman, each with the avowed goal of pursuing literary excellence, a goal that in this case became a subtext for dramatic behavior.

To know a character's goal is to recognize dramatic power at its most intense.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

conversely: a stasis report

stasis--a state or condition in which process stops or rests in balance; a situation or series of situations in which dramatic inertia pauses; passages in story where there is no action.

The battlefield for writers is populated with two armies, the army of background and explanation and the opposing army of action. The timid writer worries that the reader will not have enough guidance or information to understand the implications of the story, thus slowing it or completely stopping it with backstory, description, and explanation. The more active writer keeps characters in constant movement, sometimes to the bewilderment of the reader. By most accounts, the reader is more likely to continue with the latter rather than the former, hopeful of occasional squirts of information.

One truth emerges: if nothing happens for too long, the reader will set the work down with little probability of returning. The culprit is not so much bad writing as stasis, poor management of movement with necessary development and explanation. Another truth awaits just below the surface: most readers of fiction enjoy the process of active reading, a process by which they use their imaginations, their ability to deduce, their complete willingness to be led astray. Readers want things to happen; they want complications to attach themselves to the lives of individuals they have begun to care about.

Stasis is the enemy of fiction. In successful stories, even when nothing appears to be happening, something at some level is advancing the inertia of agenda, intent, and motivation.

conversation--communication and discussion among two or more individuals; possibly meaningful exchanges between friends, family members, co-workers, extending to complete strangers; sometimes mistaken for dialogue.

Conversation should not be mistaken for dialogue; dialogue doesn't work well in conversation--it is too focused. Although conversation may have some theme or agenda--Eat in or go out, What movie to see, What'll I wear today--it is more an expression of momentary feelings, ideas, questions. Conversation can and often does edge into discussion, which moves toward argument in the theoretical or moot court sense before tipping over into argument in the argumentative sense.

Being another matter entirely, dialogue exists more in the territory bounded by contention, clash of agenda, and the subtext of the space between what a character says and does and what the character thinks and feels while doing it. Use of too many conversations in a story leads to stasis.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What's That on Your Nose?

aftertaste--a feeling or vision evoked after reading a short story or novel in which the reader takes up the characters and dramatic situations, giving the characters and their circumstances life off the page; a resonant impression triggered in the reader by the events, circumstances, and personalities in a dramatic narrative.

Some novels and stories are so evocative that they seem to continue in their readers' mind long after the ending has been resolved. For instance, how many of us have considered what would happen next to Jake Barnes and Brett Ashley after Barnes has delivered his famed closing line in The Sun Also Rises, “Yes, isn't it pretty to think so?” 

 Or, still with Ernest Hemingway, this time A Farewell to Arms. Catherine Barkley has just delivered a stillborn baby, then died of a hemorrhage. Frederic Henry stays with Catherine until she dies, attempts to find ways to say farewell, realizes he cannot, then walks back to his hotel in the rain. The endings of both novels, as written, leave no doubt that the story is over, but the characters were drawn so well that they do not fade from the imagination. The result is aftertaste.

Aftertaste is the emotive awareness in the reader of the entire narrative, the literary equivalent of the aftertaste of a particular wine or ale, the lingering effect of the very process by which evocation works, the affect and effect a skilled actor produces when portraying a character.

How to achieve aftertaste? Consider the goals of each character and the actions the character takes to achieve that goal. Consider how each character responds to frustration and reversal. Consider the endings of stories as dramatic moments of theme rather than explanations of their significance. 

 Consider the way Anton Chekhov ended his stories. Consider ways by which hints are introduced to pique the reader's curiosity, for instance what further conversations or actions Fortinbras and Horatio might have had at the conclusion of Hamlet.

A story that lingers in the reader's sensitivities has a life of its own, a life that will draw the reader back to hear more from the writer.

on the nose--a theatrical term indicating an action, behavior, or description is too literal; a reminder of the need for greater evocation of a desired result in all dramatic storytelling.

In a larger sense, being told a particular interpretation or scene is too "on the nose" is being alerted to the absolute moral white or black of meaning, of the operatic nature of one's drama. Human behavior tends more to gray than white or black; it is rich with shading and shadow. The judgment of "too on the nose" is a cry for greater complexity and depth of character and, accordingly, of the motive of character.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In the Beginning

beginnings--places where story becomes dramatic; moments of narrative inertia; onsets of events that assume dramatic form.

The longer the story the greater the likelihood that it will have more than one optimal beginning point, thus the beginnings you see on stories that resonate for you have involved deliberation and choice on the part of their writer. The same choice and deliberation are owed your own beginnings. Ideally, beginnings are places where action is already in motion, where action is about to begin, where a choice has just been made, or where a character is confronted by discovery or event that knocks him or her from everyday routine.

Readers are less likely to care about a story that introduces itself with backstory or some other form of explanation or footnote. Example: You are at a gathering--a party, or, if you insist, a soiree--when, of a sudden, an individual you do not know by name approaches you, telling you with convincing sincerity and sobriety, "Please help me. I've got to get out of here. There are two people in the next room who are after me."

Your mind is already filled with such questions as Who are you? and Why me? Both these questions will and should be answered, but if this is to be the beginning of a story, now is not the moment for the details. We want more convincing details that force the issue, which happens to be the issue of the beset individual's actions, convincing you, perhaps even against your will, to become involved, caught up in an ever slippy slope of dramatic event.

The Scottish writer, Ali Smith, has it down perfectly in her story, "The Child," where a protagonist who is never named is using her lunch break to buy her "weekly stuff" in a supermarket. Shopping carts in Scotland and England are called trolleys. "I left my trolley by the vegetables and went to find bouquet garni for the soup. But when I came back to the vegetables again, I couldn't find my trolley. It seemed to have been moved." In its place was someone else's shopping cart, with a child sitting in the little child seat. This is all in the first paragraph.

By the second paragraph, the narrator realizes it is her shopping cart; events persist to the point where everyone in the market thinks the child is hers. So completely have we tumbled into the events of the story that we do not question the narrator's resolve to take the child to the nearest police department; much less do we question the fact that the child has now begun to speak, delivering in the manner of a second- or third-rate stand-up comic a stream of racist and sexist commentary.

Even though we do not know her name or where she works or what she does or if in fact she is in a romantic relationship, we share with Smith's narrator a sense of being caught up in a swirl of event that demands a solution.

Beginnings yank us into situations that need coping; they lead us onto the path where we search for some kind of conclusion or, at the very least, a settlement.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled MSS

manuscript--the text of a narrative, either printed on 8 1/2 X 11 manuscript paper, or as a formatted electronic package including captured keystrokes, which may be transmitted by electronic mail; one or more pages of text formatted in accordance with the publisher's conventions.

The writer's first responsibility in preparing a manuscript for submission is to learn the publisher's conventions. Most book publishers in the U.S. standardize on (and copyedit to) the conventions of CMOS, The University of Chicago Manual of Style, aka Chicago Manual of Style (latest edition). In addition, most book publishers standardize on punctuation, spelling, usage preference, and word-break conventions articulated in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate (Eleventh Edition), although a wise and useful investment for the writer is the American Heritage (unabridged) Dictionary of the English Language (fourth edition).

Magazine and journal publishers have different usage conventions relative to the use of numbers, abbreviations, capitalization, and punctuation. A handy guide is The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, yet another is The Associated Press Stylebook. For scholarly book and journal publications, the conventions of The Modern Language Association's Style Guide are useful, particularly in the presentation of bibliographical and source notes.

A major key to the preparation of any manuscript is the consistency of usage.

Basic requirements for short story and novel manuscripts:

Opening Page for Short Story or Chapter-Opening Page for Novel
1. Twenty-pound basis weight white paper with an opacity factor of at least 90 percent.
2. One-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half-inch margins top and bottom.
3. Author's name, address (including e-mail) single-spaces in the upper left margin, first page.
4. Approximate number of words, rounded to the nearest hundred, flush on right margin, lined up with Author's name.
5. Numbers 1-4 are single spaced. Everything else in the manuscript is double spaced.
6. Five double spaced lines below to centered title.
7. One double spaced break below to author's name, centered.
8. Text is a twelve-point face such as American Typewriter, Baskerville, Courrier, (Unless a specific publisher requests it, do not use Times Roman.) printed in black ink. The use of computer composition makes for greater convenience in rendering italic.
9. Page number centered at foot.

Regular Text Pages

1. Author's last name or novel or story title, flush on left margin
2. Page number: either flush on right margin or separated from author's name or story title by a hyphen.
3. Use the # symbol, centered, or The End to denote completion.
4. Two-line space breaks throughout to separate scenes.

It is not necessary to concern yourself with copyediting, punctuation, or spelling until you have engaged and completed the revision process. The goal of the revision process is to have a manuscript that can be sent forth into submission with no further work, thus any preparation of manuscript is mechanical.

You may have some reason, particularly in longer works, to use different type faces to convey such effects as handwriting, interior monologue, shifts in point of view, newspaper stories

Much of the time, we will not have direct personal contact with those on the receiving end of our manuscripts, meaning that the arrival of the manuscript and its condition speaks of its creator to the reader. As you would not appear for a formal gala wearing sweat pants, your manuscript should reflect at first glance, via its crispness and legibility, your having dressed for the occasion. One or two strike-outs or uses of liquid erasure will not cause editorial eyebrows to twitch, but the reality is that professional writers tend to prepare their manuscripts as though the words on them merit respect and consideration. Think how you would feel if a colleague handed you a business card that had coffee stains on it, notes scrawled on the back, and perhaps a dented corner.

Think of the impression your manuscript will have on the reader, known to you or not; then think of that reader settling into reading your text, formatted, punctuated, and spelled with consistency, your choice of words exquisite, spiraling upward to the authoritative sense of authorship you mean to convey.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

You Can't Exect Me to Believe That

likely story, a--a narrative or tale producing a cynical or questioning response from the listener; an intuitive or logical sense that a narrative is of questionable value; an ironic expression of disbelief to a scenario, thus a judgment of information not being plausible.

Whenever we see or hear the words, A likely story, set forth as a response to a narrative, we are coming face to face with audience reaction writ large.

Stories, tales, narratives, and yes, even accounts are all very much like notes in a bottle, set lose in some river or ocean by someone hopeful of a response from someone else. By its very nature, a story is a crafted plea for a response, the worst of which (for the writer) is complete indifference.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a protean and often pompous literary force, set in motion a concept quite relevant to the designation, A likely story. Coleridge introduced for our consideration the willing suspension of disbelief, which is to say a deliberate setting aside by the reader of a narrative that its characters, their motivations, and the resolution of these motivations are anything less than plausible. Willing suspension of disbelief is often challenged in the courtroom of the reader's sensitivity. I don't believe that character would do or say such a thing, comes the indictment. To which the author replies, But it really happened that way. To which the critic replies, Doesn't matter; it wasn't rendered in a way that convinced me.

The great divide, wider than the Continental Divide--what the writer of the tale observes, either from reality or imagination or a combination of the two, and what the reader believes.

Check some of the Internet sites relative to Urban Myth for a sampling of things readers believe, things often stranger and with more tenuous logic than events found in reality. (See the choking Doberman)

It comes down to plausibility. How plausible is it that the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "The Minister's Black Veil," actually wore a facial covering? Only as plausible and believable as Hawthorne made it. We believe what we are led to believe, at which point the belief becomes what we want to believe. For some writers, it is second nature to bring politics into this equation, both as an explanation for what other people--notice the introduction of elitism there with the concept of other people, persons other than the writer, to which could also be added My Kind. Me and my kind--believe or can be induced to believe. The elitism continues to include my kind of truth and other people's, a not so subtle variation on the equation that the only real truths are those such as chemical and mathematical formula. Sorry, Jane Austen, but a truth universally acknowledged doesn't cut it; truths universally acknowledged often end up on urban myth websites.

Listening to a narrative--any narrative--then deeming it a likely story is a frontal attack on the narrative's intent of veracity. It is the equivalent of asking, Are you serious? Are you kidding? You expect me to believe that?

Saying or thinking A likely story! is taking a step toward cynical sanity, a form of questioning that may cause the questioner a great sense of isolation and loneliness, but in the end it causes the writer to examine his or her own unreliability as a narrator, to avoid the pitfall of making a holy grail of the abstract concept of truth, and recognizing the kinship of brother and sister pursuers of comfort with the written and spoken word.

After reading some work that strives for importance, say, internally, or externally, A likely story, then try it one more time, punctuated with an exclamation point. A likely story! Just thinking about it imparts a mischievous sense of freedom.

Some religious philosophies introduce the concept of a mantra, a series of mystically charged words to be repeated and contemplated until the individual begins to take on the very qualities embodied in the formula. Hindu mantras involve bija words, words crafted from Sanskrit that have no other purpose than to convey aspects of the ineffable. Our own secular mantra could very well be, A likely story, a lovely combination that will keep us on the writers' path of working at our craft and not taking anything, particularly ourselves, too seriously. It will also work wonders to keeping us out of the urban myth casualty lists.

shaggy-dog story, a--a long, meandering narrative, replete with irrelevant or distracting details, ending with an outrageous, groan-producing play on words--my homework ate the dog--or on a totally irrelevant note; a scenario in which the dramatic point resides in the unexpected, leading the reader or hearer--because shaggy-dog stories may be oral--in the lurch, at the mercy of the teller. Thus a story in which the hearer or reader becomes the butt.

One of the great glosses on the shaggy-dog story comes from one of the great written and oral story tellers, the man known as Mark Twain. Check out "The Grandfather's Ram" story in Twain's splendid, autobiographical tour of Nevada and California, Roughing It, one of at least four Twain must reads (the others including Life on the Mississippi, The Innocents Abroad, and Huckleberry Finn.

Ernest Hemingway said all of American literature began with Huck Finn; most of what one needs to know about story telling can be found in these five books.

In "The Grandfather's Ram," Twain writes of his days as a reporter for the Territorial-Enterprise,the free-wheeling Virginia City, Nevada newspaper for which Twain wrote during the early bonanza years of the Comstock Lode. A group of locals had sold Twain on the remarkable tale a certain old gent who loved to tipple was wont to tell of a ram once owned by his grandfather. Trouble was, the locals assured Twain, the teller of the tale had to have reached just the right, reflective state of tipsiness before he would begin to reminisce.

After a number of false starts, the boys assured Twain that the time was now; if he wanted to hear the story, he'd best drop everything and hurry on over to where the teller was holding forth, before a growing audience.

"My grandfather's ram," the old boy recalled with a smile at the memory. "I don't reckon them times will ever come again." And he is off, his brain cells, lubricated with spiritus fermenti, firmly focused. And Twain was hooked.

Trouble was, the old man never referred to the ram again, ranging from gossip in his home town to politics, religious preferences, and a remarkable story of a rug weaver who'd fallen into a machine-driven weaving machine and was woven into a six-ply broadloom carpet, making it necessary to bury him rolled up in long, narrow bundle. The story went on from there until the teller began to nod, then drop off to an early nap. Twain realized this was always the scenario, that the details of the grandfather's ram were largely unknowable, and that he'd been "had" by his friends.

This is not to propose that Twain invented the shaggy-dog story, but he expertly demonstrated it in all its living potential. By this time in his career, he already had an instinctive if not well articulated sense of story, which he later set down in another keeper, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," a critical diatribe against a writer who was the Tom Clancy of his day, embedded in a useful re-embodiment of Aristotle's Poetics.

Life is a shaggy-dog story, a series of often contradictory events or events competing for our attention, ending with some awful howler of a conclusion, or worse, ending with no proper conclusive inertia.

When we turn to memoir or biography or fiction, we look for travel writing--writing that takes us somewhere, a place where the laws of causality and determinism have greater effect than they do in real life. This is a place where justice is done, virtue is often rewarded, patience pays off, the good people get laid on occasion, and women are not reduced to having to marry just to get away from home (only to find themselves transported from one dreadful situation to another).

The message here is not that there is more satisfaction in literature than in everyday life but that the two can and should engage in a dialog, exchange notes, develop a rapport.

One good place to bring this metaphorical pairing of Israel and Palestine together is in the expectations we bring to our lives and to our reading.

All too often when discussing a particular story,we hear the disclaimer: That could never happen in real life. Just as often, when discussing the effect of a story and hearing an observation of disbelief about an element, the author will fiercely defend with the observation, "But it really happened that way." And increasingly, looking at the advertisements for films and TV shows, we see the inducement, "Based on a real story."

One of the Oscars--Wilde or Levant--once observed that in order for history to be effective, it must be rewritten. This observation sets the worm of cynicism into the apple of reality, leaving us with another potent observation. What is worse than finding a worm in an apple? Answer: Finding half a worm in half an apple.

Particularly since 2000 and the advent of the Bush administration (if it can be called an administrative function) we have lived in the midst of a shaggy-dog story, with distractions, myths, and ignorant armies clashing by night. We have found a half-eaten worm in our apple, a worm that should be held up to the light of inquiry

We must hasten to rewrite the more egregious histories we have allowed to befall us, using our understanding of story and the need to extract some sense of justice and then to transport ourselves to a kinder, more civil place.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dear Editor: The Dog Ate My Revision

hard luck story--a narrative of misfortune offered to secure the hearer's sympathy and possible financial contribution; an offered excuse as in The dog ate my homework; a narrative offered as mitigation for any non-performance.

All stories have some kind of end-game goal, some intended effect on the hearer/reader. Is it laughter? Perhaps the author's intent is education, or irony, or reversal. Perhaps the narrative is offered in self-defense, or the adjunct of self-defense, excuse. As long as we're dwelling on the conditional perhaps, might be the intent of a story is to make the teller sound modest--moi?--or resourceful.

Surely one of the more plentiful among dramatic narratives is the hard-luck story or its close relative, the sob story. The purpose is to evoke or elicit sympathy for the teller, both in the nature of troubles piled on and in the way the load is borne by the forces of Nature and natural disaster.

You could say--and probably will, once you think about it--that The Book of Job is the classic hard-luck story, not only because of the trials visited upon Job but as well because of the capricious nature of the way the visitation was set in motion. Job happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when those polar representations of The Cosmic Forces got into a bragging and betting mood.

Ishmael's was a hard luck story in that he signed on the Pequod with no other thought to get away from the depressing nature of life on shore, only to find life at sea a cluster of disaster in which he was lucky to escape with his life. Heathcliff and Cathy saw the chemistry of their mutual attraction torn into a hard luck story in Wuthering Heights, and the unnamed protagonist/narrator of Rebecca saw her dreams of a romantic future turn into a hard luck story, ditto Charles Ryder for being pulled into the swirl and eddy of the Marchmain family in Brideshead Revisited, and while still on the subject of Evelyn Waugh, look at the hard luck story he contrived for the hapless protagonist of the haunting short story, "The Man Who Loved Dickens."

deus ex machina--a too convenient solution for a dramatic problem; a way of removing an obstacle that seems to have come from an independent, even unrelated source such as mere chance or accident.

Originally a device in ancient Greek drama at a time when gods were thought to have a hand in determining the outcomes of human affairs, the name now evokes the presence of any dramatic resolution that creaks and groans its way to a mechanical-seeming outcome. Indeed, in some performances, characters representing gods were lowered onto the stage by means of a basket-and-winch device.

Hint: in ancient Greek drama, competition and jealousies among gods and goddesses was assumed, thus even at that level, personality and motive informed godly activities. In modern stories, personalities, differing agendas, and cultural squabbles produce the best mechanisms for initiating and resolving plot complications.

Further hint: it is acceptable for obstacles to grow larger, complexities to grow more intense by accident, but their resolutions must be more convincing in their engineering. Think as endings or resolutions as mediated settlements.

Friday, February 20, 2009

I Can't Decide; You Decide for Me

decision--the result of a choice being made; an outcome arrived at either by logical deliberation,intuitive reach, or emotional propulsion; a character's solution to the need for choice.

Go on with a relationship (criminal, professional, religious,romantic) or end it; opt in or out, accept or reject; ignore or notice; deal with or let slide. Characters in dramatic narratives are constantly faced with such forks in the road; they've learned from experience that dithering only worsens their situation, thus they, unlike their real life counterparts, struggle with the choice. After some deliberation, they pursue a course of action. The equation in fiction is: decision triggers choice, choice triggers action, and of course action triggers consequence. One instructive example has the word choice in its title, William Styron's Sophie's Choice. Lack of action, you may argue, also triggers consequence, but the effect of those consequences is often cerebral. Unless you can cause your cerebral consequences such as guilt, remorse, or denial to trigger specific actions, your characters will begin dithering before you on the page, awaiting some directorial input from you. Dithering characters often wander into the dangerous verges of stopping the story dead in its tracks with such internal wonderment as Where had it all begun? or, worse, How had she let herself get in this situation.

The key to dramatic writing is to bring characters to the awareness of a decision point, from which position they will make decisions as their nature directs them, from which point they will become aware of consequences. This stream of events was true in Don Quixote, in Hedda Gabler, in Lonesome Dove, and in Lush Life, accordingly spanning dramatic writing from at least the late sixteenth century to the very present.

frustration--an emotional response to the blocking of an agenda or goal; a sense of the lack of power to perform a motivated behavior; a triggering device for aggression or passive-aggressive behavior.

Characters in fiction frequently find themselves with frustration as a pole star, alternately inflicting it and being victim to its consequences. Given the very nature of dramatic writing, frustration is a key component, the leavening agent in story, motivating protagonists to take steps to slough through its quicksand-like impediment and as well motivating antagonists to step up their behavior.

If a story line appears to be faltering, add more frustration in the form of reversal or surprise. Keep the goal to which the main character aspires in sight but just beyond reach. An out-of-sight goal may be forgotten or trumped; a goal within reach may be moved or shattered or stolen.

As an illustration of the far-reaching effects and landing sites of frustration, consider the universal desire to be understood, then recall the comedies and tragedies in which two individuals, believing they have the same goal in mind, begin to act upon that belief, only to encounter the reefs and shoals of awareness that they have completely misunderstood one another. Thus dramatic irony, the bedfellow of frustration.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hidden Agendas and Old Wives' Tales

hidden agenda--a secret plan, initiative, or desire nourished by a character while professing loyalty to another cause; self-interest disguised under a veil of piety or moral superiority; a battle between the id and super ego of an individual.

By asking of a character what that character wants, doing so with the persistence of an investigative journalist, the writer may well discover a valuable commodity--the character's hidden agenda. This is not to argue that every character has a hidden agenda, nor is it to argue that most characters don't; it is to argue that characters who appear in stories are generally larger than life and have about them an explosive or impulsive tendency to act on desires. You have particularly to watch out for the repressed ones, who may all along have been fighting an increasingly losing battle of ignoring what they truly want. Similarly, the sybarites may secretly yearn for a moment or two of sincere renunciation. Go figure. But don't pass up opportunities to bring the hidden agenda forth. The censor, tollbooth guard, or other border cop should reside within the character--not the writer, which is to say the writer who wishes to be as effective as possible needs to ignore signs of personal discomfort in pursuing the motives of his or her characters.

The hidden agenda may be temporarily--but not indefinitely--concealed; it is the cat in the bag. The hidden agenda is a catalyst for the combustion inherent in the unthinkable coming to pass, because it is at this point that the story gains an irresistible momentum.

old wives' tales--an ancient source of rural and urban mythology; data purporting to be accurate information, passed along by an elderly generation of women or taken without authentication by moderns as valid; a hearty mixture of what may have once been common sense,home cures, myth, recipe, superstition. Also known as bubbie meistas.

An effective way to write off suggestions offered in a helpful spirit is to unthinkingly call them old wives' tales; some advice is shrewd and turns out to be effective if followed, making the recipient of the advice feel foolish for not following it. Old wives tales are often litanies of the consequences of someone about to do what she or he feels most like doing as opposed to listening to older sources. In many ways, and in many cultures, old wives' tales are operatic warnings direct from the communal super ego, stories of examples of dire fates that befell those who did not follow the conventional wisdom of the time and place. Amusing dramatic ironies take root when old wives' tales, contrary to conventional logic and wisdom, prove out in their accuracy.

In other ways and cultures,old wives' tales are seen as prescient and inspirational. Although they suggest what might be seen as sexist derogation, it might be wise to consider old boy's tales as yet another way of getting facts, intent, and ability all jumbled up, the consequences leading directly to story. In any case, their very mention as well as their use is a reflection of the writer's view of a particular culture and the individuals who inhabit it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Character Traits

iconic characters--memorable individuals in dramatic narratives; presences in stories whose attitudes and bearing outweigh the plot of the narrative.

A significant test by which to assess the memorability of a character is to determine what that character wants--really wants, then decide what that character will to to achieve the goal. Why is Hedda Gabler so memorable and what did she want. Why is Lady Macbeth so memorable? Perhaps for her insistent urge for power, but just as likely because of the first words out of her mouth when Macbeth returns to her, having already had one change of heart before screwing up the courage to murder Malcolm. "My husband!" she affirms.

Consider this list of characters culled from the ages:

Antigone: she was willing to put her life on the line for insisting on doing what she believed to be right.
Anton Chigurh: not just an enforcer or a hired killer but as well a control freak of epic proportions.
Becky Sharp: known for her bigger-than-life opportunism.
Captain Ahab: at the very least, he was so bent on revenge that he overrode his religious tradition and risked damnation to achieve it.
Captain Spaulding: with more than his greasepaint eyebrows to call him to our attention, his every act flies in the face of comfortable tradition and convention, and wouldn't we just like to get away with that?
Florentino Ariza: from Love in a Time of Cholera, his aching, unrequited love for Fermina Daza sends him through intimate encounters with over six hundred substitute lovers.
Fleur: this haunting presence of many a Louise Erdrich short story and some novels is incarnate a stunningly attractive Native American woman who years for a return to the old ways; she has the will and, seemingly, the magic to back up her presence.
Lewis and Clark: two military men who set forth on an assignment and in the process discovered a continent.
Jane Eyre: she rode plainness and intelligence and love into an archetype who spoke to Rochester across the Moors and to us across the eras.
Joan of Arc: a teen-age girl who hears voices and leads armies.
Omar Little: an impressive presence from the recent TV series The Wire, he made his living by robbing drug dealers. He had a code of honor, an ethos. The mere thought of him evokes memories of the sounds when he took to the Baltimore streets: "Yo! Omar commin! Here come Omar."
Sisyphus; from the Greek myths, a man who drew as punishment an eternity of the frustration of performing a meaningless task.
The Wife of Bath: an epitome of womanly force, spirit, and earthy intelligence. She would not be denied. Compare her to Erdrich's Fleur.
Wile E. Coyote: character write huge. Armed with Acme Products, Coyote is the patron saint of characters with established goals.

We must not forget the specific things these estimable icons want. To want something as abstract as freedom, independence, even love is to miss the point entirely and to miss the thrust of the true Valhalla of Characters: a specific something or someone; none had the time nor patience for abstractions.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Opening Pages of a Hard-Luck Story

opening pages--the first three or four pages of a novel manuscript, usually the first page of a short story manuscript; the opening velocity of a story; archaic references: hook, narrative hook.

Before a novel or short story has any hope of finding its way into book, electronic, or periodical publication, it must pass the watchful eye of the literary agent and/or the acquisition editor. To accomplish this goal, the narrative must present an interesting character in a situation of confrontation, danger, discovery, or emotional quandary of significant enough degree to trigger some measure of concern. The writer who refuses to consider this calculus or who feels unable to execute it is at high risk of receiving a note declining the manuscript on the grounds that the reader had not been sufficiently made to care.

As observed by such plot-driven writers as Louis L'Amour, Frank Gruber, and Elmore Leonard, many novels and short stories, sent forth into the world as eagerly as hand-waving students wanting to impress their teacher with their knowledge of the right answer, do not always begin at the right place. Ideally, the opening pages plunk a character into a spot where the character is physically vulnerable--sometimes emotionally vulnerable as well. The opening pages also include some implicit agreement that the character will get back up and try again.

Often the true opening pages of a story are buried within backstory or other explanations which come forth more as unwanted-but-necessary descriptions rather than emotion-based circumstances. The net result is to present the reader with text book narrative rather than dramatic engagement. 

 The solution is often found in the revision process, wherein the true opening pages present themselves. How are these pages to be recognized? They are spare on description and backstory, sparer still on auxiliary verbs such as had, which yank the chronology from the present to the past.

Wherever opening pages are in the story's chronology, they are more effective if they appear to be happening in the immediate present. If they actually took place, say, ten or twelve years earlier, the reader will quickly adopt to the manipulation of the time frame. No convention requires fiction to be in strict chronology; chiropractic adjustments to chronology add to the senses of tension, suspense, and reality.

hard-luck story--a narrative which intends through its telling to evoke sympathy and compassion for the teller; a story in which one or more characters collide with an ever worsening pattern of setback and misfortune.

All stories have some kind of end-game goal, some intended effect on the hearer/reader. Is it laughter? Perhaps the author's intent is education, or irony, or reversal. Perhaps the narrative is offered in self-defense, or the adjunct of self-defense, excuse. As long as we're dwelling on the conditional perhaps, might be the intent of a story is to make the teller sound modest--moi?--or resourceful.

Surely one of the more plentiful among dramatic narratives is the hard-luck story or its close relative, the sob story. The purpose is to evoke or elicit sympathy for the teller, both in the nature of troubles piled on and in the way the load is borne by the forces of Nature and natural disaster.

You could say--and probably will, once you think about it--that The Book of Job is the classic hard-luck story, not only because of the trials visited upon Job but as well because of the capricious nature of the way the visitation was set in motion. Job happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when those polar representations of The Cosmic Forces got into a bragging and betting mood.

In more modern times, you could argue that an archetypal hard-luck story is found in a heavy contributor to Republican politics, being given a chance to go hunting with the forty-third Vice President of the United States. We all know how that turned out. That poor man will be known throughout history as the man who went bird hunting with the Veep. In Texas, where the incident took place, Republican school children will be allowed to stay home from school on the anniversary of that day, and boys with aggressive cases of facial zits will be able to say, "I went dove hunting with Dick Cheney."

You could also, if you wanted, put the majority of Americans of voting age as players in a hard-luck story because it was our hard luck to have at the helm of the ship of state a man more like Captain Ahab than the President of the United States, although there are those who would disagree with my literary analogy, reminding me of Mary Shelley's archetypal Frankenstein as the more appropriate fit. Dr. Frankenstein represents the force behind the Vice President of the United States, a man who once was more benign than he now is, having created a monster who has attached some seven hundred fifty signing statements to bills acted into law by the Congress. Mrs. Shelley's point was a moral one, in which hubris could create a monster.

It's our hard luck story that the forty-third President of the United States, with graduate work in hubris, was in over his head and the best we could think to do in the name of conventional wisdom was to wait his term of office out.

We will nationally remain at the wrong end of a hard-luck story as long as we continue to accept our status as victim.  

Monday, February 16, 2009

Description: Rhetorical Strategy or Cock-and-Bull Story

description--the salient qualities of a character, place, or thing; the briefest gloss without distracting from story on how an organization or tradition works; relevant details in a story; a series of adjectives, adverbs and evocations that convey personality, sense of place or sense of atmosphere.

When you choose words to describe a character, a locale, an institution, even a room at a Motel 6, they should come from a menu of emotion-friendly words, words that help transport the feeling of being in Character A's presence, the patience needed to overcome the ambient awfulness of Locale B, the fussy bureaucratic wrangling within Institution C, the no-holds-barred torture to the back and neck experienced while sleeping or otherwise on a Motel 6 bed.

And yet.

Words of description are not like the words of political conventions, intent on mobilizing crowds to cut back on thought and open up the spending of rabid emotion. Words of description are like the evocations of champagne, rascally pinot noirs, single malt whiskey, the hoppy promise of a pale ale, the piquancy of a homemade pesto; they lead us to the experience then turn us loose to experience it rather than lock us in the closet with it. If it is important enough to the story to include the breakfast menu at a particular meeting, we should be able to have our impression of each character enhanced by what he or she orders, and how it is eaten.

The best descriptions of a character come from the way he or she does things; a locale has a particular personality that is conveyed by the way things within it appear and behave; organizations reflect the personality of a leader or of individuals trying to imitate said leader; rooms in any given Motel 6 smell like mass-produced disinfectant, cheap furniture, and indifferent pizzas delivered by indifferent drivers who despair of reasonable tips. To inhale the atmosphere of a Motel 6 is to breathe in the pathology of the American dream and perhaps be numbed by the experience.

We should be using description to convey personality; at all costs we should not use description to display our ability as a writer.

cock-and-bull story, a--any narrative or story which on its face becomes of doubtful provenance; a narrative suspected of being contrived, embellished, or a deliberate fabrication; thus a deliberate attempt at deception.

Talking animals have held a significant place in the literature of the ages, seemingly well suited to illustrate fables, satires, and tales. Grendel comes quickly to mind, she of Beowulf and the eponymous novel by John Gardener. Aesop put words into the mouths of animals; so did George Orwell, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Dragons, wolves, unicorns all have had their say, some prescient and others hysterical (see Henny-Penny).

A cock-and-bull story is built in the first place to deceive, divert, or delay. A cock-and-bull story is the dog ate my homework writ large. If the deception has as its purpose an amusing payoff and/or a moral purpose, such as those told by Mark Twain, we are often the better for it, refreshed, our critical senses laundered and hung out to dry in the sunshine of reason and self-examination. If the deception is to tighten the grip of fear and control, the believer becomes in time as much at fault as the perpetrator.

For those of us who are book oriented, it becomes pleasing to think of an anthology, perhaps even a lofty Oxford Companion to the Cock and Bull Story. Imagine the fun and clamor. The anthology is to be divided into two parts; no not Cock and Bull, but rather For Fun and For Real.

The aforementioned Mr. Twain would be a welcomed addition to the fun side, as well as one of his modern embodiments, Kurt Vonnegut.

Imagine the mischief and consternation and competition for inclusion in the For Real side, those men and women who promulgate C & B as though they had come down from the mountain top, bearing an engraved slab of granite:

Phyllis Schlaffly
The Rev. Falwell
The Rev. Robertson
Number Forty-three and his Vice-president
Charles Krauthammer
Ann Coulter
William Krystol
Jean Schmidt (the GOP wingnut rep from Ohio)

and, as the late, lamented Mr. Vonnegut would have said, so it goes.

The cock-and-bull story can be a lovely learning experience, or a one-way ticket to the worst kind of convention of all. My personal belief of it is that it is the forerunner of the tall tale in the grand tradition of the American West. One place to look for its origins is in that remarkable novel about origins and reality, Tristram Shandy,
in which a character says, "It is a story about a Cock and a Bull--and the best of its kind that I have ever heard."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cool Hand Sisyphus

Sisyphus--a figure from Greek mythology, variously a king or prince, but in every version of the myth a devious, self-aggrandizing individual who eventually pushed the envelope too far and was condemned by Zeus to an eternity of meaningless work; a prototype for a character who is doomed to repetitive behavior; according to Albert Camus in his essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," a happy man.

As with so many bigger-than-life characters, Sisyphus is defined more by his fate than the events leading to it. Now forged in our collective memory as a man who must push a large rock to a steep hill to its crest, whereupon it will roll down the other side, Sisyphus makes us think of the tedium of tasks we abhor, ways of avoiding the tedium, including the karma yoga approach of work,however meaningless, as worship. 

Suppose, however, that Sisyphus were an atheist. Would the karma yoga concept cause him to engage in the inevitable transformative change that is imposed on protagonists in longform fiction--change?

However his plight is seen--karmic justice done, for instance--he is an embodiment of story, as an action and as an active concept. Whatever myth you follow that led to his ultimate fate, the constant application of force to move the rock to the top of a hill, only to see it tumble, suggests story orbit, a path that may be interrupted at any point as a beginning. 

Let the rock equal the goal (which is always to keep the rock moving). Now the story may begin at any point in the circuit of Sisyphus addressing the rock or watching the rock fall or rushing to the other side of the hill to be in place when the rock comes to a halt, in order to begin pushing it to the top once more. 

Given Sisyphys' devious nature, he may be working on a plan, either to get out of this meaningless work altogether or to turn it into something with meaning. Thus the story could begin at the point where Sisyphus would ordinarily begin to push the rock up the hill, but this time he does not; he storms into Zeus office, where he quits, refuses to push the rock any longer. 

As a potential for reversal or antagonistic force, Zeus nods, then directs his underlings to assign Sisyphus to the Prometheus Treatment.

"Wait," Prometheus protests. "What's that?" Whereupon he hears the fate of Prometheus, who stole the secret of fire from Zeus and pass it along to humans. As payment for this misadventure, Prometheus is bound to a mountain side every day, in time for his liver to be an afternoon snack for a vulture. By nightfall, a new liver is regenerated, and the following day--back to the mountainside and the hungry vulture.

Hearing this tale of eternal high choler and higher cholesterol, Sisyphus quickly decides, "Excuse me. Got to get back to my rock."

Epic characters such as Sisyphus, Captain Ahab, Captain Spaulding, and Joan of Arc are resonant because of their own focus on task and because of the ways in which their behavior reminds us of other characters, those more accessible to our lives. Notable within this panoply is Luke Jackson, from Donn Pearce's novel, Cool Hand Luke, in which Jackson, after a drunken prank, is sent to a prison where his days are spent performing increasingly meaningless tasks.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Thinking it Over, Family Matters

retrospect--a vision of a character, place, or situation from a later point in time; a revisit to a person, place, or situation with the implicit promise that at the very least the reader will learn something not known before, and possibly one or more characters will similarly profit.

Returning to a past event is a springboard to an emotional revelation; a character who revisits a situation will now have awareness to see what had not been visible before, to understand the implications of responses or treatment not understandable before. In such retrospect it is possible for a character to recognize lost opportunities or behavior that will cause time-released humiliation.

family--a group of characters related by blood and/or adoption, conventionally considered a mother, father, and one or more children, but easily taking grandparents into the equation or, in contemporary times, a single mother and her children, a single father and his children; a potentially diverse group involving one or both spouses having remarried, bringing step-children into the family equation; a parental pairing of a gay couple with children from a previous heterosexual marriage; a parental paring of a gay couple with adopted or artificially inseminated children.

By their very individual nature, families may be supportive, neglectful, abusive, eccentric; they supply energy through direct action or backstory that has direct influence on all who live within their borders. Families are believed by some to have procreation as their primary goal, followed by the raising of young to the point of their own independence. This view is dramatic in itself since there are substantial numbers who see the function of family as entirely different.

Family gatherings, whether to celebrate holidays, indulge such rituals as funerals, weddings, and anniversaries, are frequent sources of story, suggesting that plots are not necessary; there is already ample story within every family.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Right of Way: Behaving with Intent

being right-- an existential sense of certainty of decision and goals expressed by a character in a story; a belief supported by relevant actions exercised by an individual or group; a conviction of moral certainty.

One of the few exceptions to the rule of all characters believing in the moral high ground their actions occupy is the absolute sense of their inability to restrain themselves from acting toward a particular goal they know to be wrong. Example: "I knew it was wrong to compromise my position, but I was desperate for the money." Another example: "I knew it was wrong not to tell her the truth about my past, but I so much wanted the relationship with her that I remained silent."

For writers who claim to have trouble with plot, the formula of each character arriving on stage with an absolute sense of being right is formula enough; it insures a clash of agendas. Characters in stories want in addition to their dramatic goals to inhabit the moral high ground of being right, especially in matters related to the arc of the story; they will go to great lengths to support their decisions and the rightness of their cause, using imaginative stratagems to avoid awareness of any responsibility for wrong-headedness, much less wrongful behavior. The great rallying cry of the tyrant, whether a household, organizational, or national tyrant is, "I did what I did for your own good."

Even though most serial killers tend to see themselves somehow as victims, they nevertheless justify taking lives by an elaborately argued sense of being right, a position one hundred eighty degrees away from the course of the heroic man or woman who uses a refined version of The Social Contract as a pole star.

Hint to the writer: Major characters want major things, are defined by them, wanting the objects of their desire to the point of initiating rituals such as homa fires, novenas, fasts, charms, and spells to enlist supernatural agencies in the rightness of their cause; they also invent rules or bend already invented ones. Macbeth was blown off course a few times, troubled by his conscience, but the mood passed, and Macbeth reasserted his rightness at the expense of Malcolm and, of course, his own conscience.

intent--one of three things a character comes onto the page with, a desire to cause something to happen or not to happen; the most important tool in the a character's toolkit, the others being backstory, and what the character was doing immediately preceding entry into the scene; a character's action relative to bringing to fruition his goal; an implicit sense of what the character will do to achieve his goal.

Equally important in the character- and plot-driven story, more likely to be overt in the latter.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Things "They" Carry

tool kit--an assembly of abilities, skills, and talents a character carries; an actual collection of tools, implements, and/or weapons a specific character may use in furtherance of his/her agenda (as in the character Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.)

Many characters have few tangible tools or implements, relying instead on such interior qualities as persistence, dignity, honor, which they use as tools to effect their coping with the problems they encounter. Such antihero characters as Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) use a healthy cynicism or pragmatism to define their activities.

Similarly, the more or less independent contractor, the samurai warrior, an interesting comparison to the legendary knights of Arthur's Round Table, and American gunfighter of the legendary Old West, emerges with a different toolkit than twenty-first century century of fortune. The "toolkit" of the samurai, taken from a thirteenth-century text:

I make the heavens and earth my parents
I have no home.
I make awareness my home
I have no life and death.
I make the tides of breathing my life and death
I have no divine power.
I make honesty my divine power
I have no means.

I make adaptability to all circumstances my principles
I have no tactics
I make my mind my friend
I have no enemy
I make carelessness my enemy
I have no armor
I make benevolence and righteousness my armour
I have no castle
I make immovable mind my castle
I have no sword
I make absence of self-interest my sword.

Captain Ahab--the fictional captain of the fictional whaling ship Pequod in Herman Melville's epic Moby-Dick; by implication, owner of a monomaniacal focus on a particular target or goal; the embodiment of a character with an ends-justifies-the-means agenda.

Ahab was not the first sea-going tyrant nor will he be the last, but of all the William Blighs and Philip Francis Queegs, Ahab calls out to the writer as an example of character-driven purpose precisely because his quest pushed him past the tipping point, from which he had no hope of recovery. Born into the Quaker faith (which is notable for its ethical pacifism), Ahab seeks revenge against the whale that destroyed an earlier ship and bit off his leg. With virtually his last breath, he curses the whale " the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee." Ahab thereupon throws a harpoon at the whale, which act becomes Ahab's undoing. Despite the majesty of Ahab's language, lofty and booming with the cadences of unrhymed iambic pentameter, Ahab brings us moderns to a comparison with his cartoon doppelganger, Wile E. Coyote, as the exemplar of how we must invest our protagonists and antagonists with desire, purpose, steadfastness.

Nor is it fanciful to see Kenneth Starr, the former judge, lawyer, and solicitor general who saw in Bill Clinton the apotheosis of the great whale in Bill Clinton and perhaps again in California's notorious 2008 ballot measure, Proposition 8, which weighed in its outcome the right of gays to marry.

Somewhere in the middle, between Ahab and Coyote, stands Florentino, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, so convinced that his youthful love for Fermina is "the real thing" that he is willing to wait fifty years to prove his point. In spite of his having counted some six hundred sexual partners in the interim, Florentino tells Fermina he has remained a virgin for her.

All three of these characters are patently larger than life, which is no small clue but rather a nudge to the writer in considering which men and women to cast for the stories to come.

Ken Starr

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Devices and Deadlines

device--any stratagem, trait, or narrative technique that triggers consequences in a story; a framing pattern for including one or more stories within a longer work; a catch-all for narrative technique, metaphor, props, mistaken identity.

Although the reader may not see the device immediately, its cumulative effect begins to tell at some point and the reader goes forth, making assumptions about the left-handed individual who walks with a slight limp, causing the reader at the appropriate moment of hearing the sound of a halting step behind the protagonist in the alleyway to suspect that the protagonist has been betrayed and is about to suffer unknown consequences. 

Another such device is a frequent cliche in low-grade horror films where, #1, the protagonist is specifically warned about going up to the attic, and #2, the protagonist goes up to the attic, where it is quite dark and, #3, steps on something that produces an eerie yowl. #4, the genesis of the yowl was a cat, identification of which produces the catharsis out of early Greek drama, setting the protagonist for stepping something which produces an eerie yowl but the something is not a cat, it is the reason the protagonist was warned against going to the attic in the first place.

Device may also be point of view, particularly if the use of that particular point of view goes out on strike against a convention such as having a story or novel narrated by a dead person, such as the narrator of Machado de Asisi's Epitaph for a Small Winner or Alice Seybold's The Lovely Bones.

See also Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, in which two identical-appearing boys have their roles transposed, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, in which the character Viola pretends to be a young man, in which guise her love is sought by a woman, a device that could have stopped right there had Shakespeare not recognized the added device of having Viola fall in love with the man she is now serving as a confidante.

See also alternate universe novels such as those of the His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman, in which the device becomes an entire universe parallel to but slightly different from our own.

See also details.

deadline--the time by which one or more characters in a story have to make a decision; the time by which a character was to have completed an assigned task.

Often a moment of exquisite tension, the arrival of the deadline is a threat even in the abstract sense of the main characters in a story being reminded that the meteor will strike in one day, the dam will burst by noon tomorrow, the planet Earth is doomed in two years if scientists cannot determine a way to shift the tilt of it on its axis, a patient in an episode of House, M.D., being consumed by her own immune system and only five minutes left in the episode, a wrongly convicted man facing lethal injection in six hours unless... Thus time running out; the guttering candle, the remaining grains of sand in an hour glass, the needle flickering even on a hybrid auto's fuel tank.

Deadlines are stress situations writ large; they infuse story with a necessary sense of inevitability, which is, after all, one of the ways story takes an alternate route from life.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Politics as Usual

politics--approaches to the use of power; systematic applications of problem solving; means by which divergent groups or individuals attend ethical, moral, and social issues; points of view regarding group and individual governance.

All characters have politics, whether they know it or not. A basic approach to determine a character's political views comes from investigating that character's family background, both in terms of the character's general political views but also from an assessment of that character's gender, the number of siblings, and when that character arrived in the family. Individuals who are adopted may have yet other political dynamics including a curiosity to learn the identities of their biological parents. Orphans or characters who have broken relations with family have yet another political as well as psychological dynamic.

For the writer, knowing the political Petri dish of the character's psyche is vital, providing information about the character's attitudes, responses, and readiness to form alliances and enmities. Of equal significance, a writer needs to consider his or her politics or lack of interest in the broader sense of politics, then investigate personal senses of awareness within family, friend groups, workplace associates, and ties with former classmates.

Of all the many influences likely to emerge in the themes of a particular writer's work, the writer's personal and broadband politics rank close to the top of the pyramid, influencing choice of characters and the types of conflicts in which those characters engage. As examples of writers whose politics or political interests seem to shine through their pages, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, John P. Marquand, and Margaret Atwood inspire close study.

quest--a major goal for any character; an intensified apprenticeship undertaken in hopes of achieving virtuoso ability; a search, study. or other organized pursuit with a goal in mind; a systematic and insistent research; an attempt to find a meaning, relic, or understanding.

Sometimes a quest is for a tangible, physical place, other times it is the means by which a point of view or personal commitment is achieved. Everyone in fiction is on a quest. Often, relationships in fiction are abrogated because of conflicting quests, thus the importance of knowing what each character in a story wants, how seriously, and to what lengths the character will go to achieve the end results of the quest. Murder? Perhaps. Betrayal of principal? Perhaps. Treason? A likely possibility.

A popular add-on to the quest being achieved or realized can be found in the irony of B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Was Charles Rider's quest in Brideshead Revisited any the less ironic? And what about the payoff of The Maltese Falcon? For a writer, knowing what a character wants is a major step toward realizing a memorable story; it is no less important for the writer to know how the character might behave having seen the quest through to completion. Would Gatsby have been truly happy with Daisy? For that matter, would Daisy have remained content to be with Gatsby? And while we're on the subject, Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy each appeared at the conclusion of Pride and Prejudice to have arrived at a goal of a companionable, partnership-type marriage, but would they remain so ten years down the line?

Thus quest, the dramatic boulder of Sisyphus, poised at the peak of a hill.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A Whale of a Story

whale, the great (aka Moby-Dick)--a tangible, forceful adversary; a dramatic partner to the protagonist in story landscape; a presence eventually discernible as having an agenda opposing the protagonist.

Cruising along at mid-level in the sea of dramatic convention, surfacing on occasion for a gulp of air much as the whale does in real life, there is the convention of the worthy opponent, the man, woman, or child who not only believes utterly in the rightness of his or her position but who radiates the embodiment of that stand. It is the very strength of conviction within this opponent that drives the story toward its eventual combustion. Therefore it must be respected rather than demonized. In creating such a dramatic presence, the writer is clearly investigating opposing forces within his or her own sense of conviction and justice. It would be foolish to suggest that the great whale had a personal vendetta against Ahab or any crew member of the Pequod, but it is not so foolish to ask the reader-who-wants-to write, the writer within, as it were, to imagine the preparation need to prepare for portraying the role of the whale in a dramatized version of Moby-Dick. What does the whale want? The very question suggests parody, but that absurdity is mitigated by the further question: What does the whale represent? The whale represents forces of Nature, which is a start to the answer. The whale wants to survive, another answer. The whale has been witness to and present at events counter to its desire to survive.

In similar fashion that borders on risk of absurdity, it is instructive to think through the agendas and goals of the adversary, whether they be forces of Nature or teen-agers wanting to borrow the family car. This introspection is not for the purpose of finding the irrational in the dramatic partner. Rational partners don't make for drama, they make for moot court proceedings. Rational as he was, Sherlock Holmes could not have stood up dramatically without Dr. Watson. Although not an adversary in terms of plot goals, Watson represents a behavioral and social force antithetical to Holmes, just as Dr. Wilson represents antithetical behavior to the fictional Dr. Gregory House.

Let the great hulking whale represent a literary totem, representing the duality of partnership and adversary. A partner represents someone with whom the protagonist can confide, share, explore survival strategy. An adversary represents a threat to the protagonist's agenda in significant enough measure to cause the reader concern for the outcome of the story. Remember as well: the protagonist has caused some level of threat to the adversary--otherwise the adversary would not behave in such a gradually accelerating pattern of opposition.

The collision between protagonist and adversary can come suddenly, with no warning, in spite of preparations; the consequences may be highly physical as in plot-driven narrative or of more internal, morality-sensitive issues as in the character-driven story. Although a significant dramatic convention exists to turn the protagonist into a Cassandra, who is fated to see the future exactly but no one believes her, the consequences of a protagonist alone with no confidantes triggers the risky business of the protagonist having no place to go but interior monologue.

Think whale. Think partner. Think confidante. Then, without even having to think about it, you will be introducing layer upon layer of dramatic intensity.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Agents of Change

literary agent--a former book editor; an individual who represents authors with publishers; someone to whom authors are required to assign a limited power of attorney, authorizing payments due the author be made to them; an individual who may have been the scape goat (fired from a publishing company) when sales figures sagged; an individual who often becomes a writer's scape goat when a project does not sell well; an author of form letters suggesting no new clients are being accepted.

The literary agent is the first hurdle the writer must pass; because of his or her expertise, informed judgment, and taste, the agent believes what all characters believe--the agent believes the agent is right. Often it will take more effort finding an agent to represent the work than a publisher to publish it.

NB: literary agents are not career coaches or MFCCs; they are skilled editorial workers.

subplot--a secondary plot line in a larger work of fiction, possibly involving different characters than those in the main plot; a thematic counterpoint of action to the major events of story; often a related series of events taking place in time past relative to the setting of the main plot; usually a series of events involving characters below front-rank status.

Because of length constraints, short stories are unlikely to contain subplots, but in the works of Louise Erdrich, which seem to have been carved from novels or have their origins as platforms for later novels, this construct is an anomaly; ditto Alice Munro. Novels with extensive layers of subplot emerge as being more dramatic and theatrical; this is particularly true of novels with multiple-point-of-view narration.

If the reader is not able eventually to see a reason for the presence of a subplot, the reader will likely regard it as padding. A good "excuse" for the inclusion of a subplot is parallel development, in which differing groups of individuals are subjected to the same dramatic situation.

theme--the metaphoric or symbolic message of a story; an abstract representation of authorial intent; a lesson, moral, or observation to be had from considering the consequences of various options.

Theme is similar to authorial style in that it is what remains resonant after the story had been written, revised, and published. Authors are often surprised at the emergent theme of a work after it has been written, an observation that is thematic in itself.

Most themes, when reduced to their basics, tend to sound banal: The brotherhood/sisterhood of humanity; Self-interest, Nihilism, Twilight of the gods, Man's inhumanity, etc. Fabulists, moralists, and academics eager for broader audiences, tenure, or both, added verbs to the equation, resulting in the apothegm, such as Art is long, life is short, or Blessed are the meek, or A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Loss Leader

loss--the quality of having experienced or possessed something at one time, but no longer; a sense of something or someone being valued then wrested away by circumstance; an ability, a position or talent once enjoyed and used, no longer accessible either through neglect or a deliberate disassociation; a relationship such as a friendship, mentorship, or romantic connection abrogated by death, neglect,or lack of interest; a prized possession lost or stolen; sums of money or other trade-based media subjected to risk then forfeited through rules of the risk; the after-the-fact realization of something or someone of value being appreciated in retrospect.

Loss, an important coeval to experience, is a significant means by which a writer can convey to the reader a sense of who a particular character is; a simple laundry list of things lost begins to supply background, but dramatic focus on such internals as Innocence, Face (thus dignity), Ambition, Power, Youth, Confidence begins to sketch in an inferential picture of how the character will respond under specific circumstances. The focus on such dramatic externals as Agility, Hair, Teeth, Eyesight, Hearing, and particular abilities associated with performance that do not result in pain or stiffness further define a character and that individual's attitude.

Imagine a particular character, then, engaging the loss of a loved one, a special professional position, or some treasured relic or memento. Imagine as well a particular character becoming aware of lapses of memory. In such awareness and recognition or, conversely, by lack of awareness, a dimension of the character emerges, propelled by loss, by grief, or by the stoic presence of denial stalking the battlements instead of a ghost with an agenda. Think about Beethoven, who revolutionized the music of his day, writing some of the most sublime music of his life after his hearing had departed from him.

As in real life, characters will do things with greater purpose in their attempts to regain what has been lost or to attempt to protect what might next be lost, in so doing revealing even greater depths of themselves, embarking perhaps on an ever widening path of vulnerability.

We can learn more from a character once we discover what that character has lost.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Wile E. Coyote: The Things He Carried

products--equipment, merchandise, devises used by characters to advance story; material goods used by writers to denote living conditions, relative affluence, degrees of decadence, boredom inherent in characters; things people want or conspicuously do not want in stories.

Nowhere in stories are products given a more substantive and metaphoric treatment than the cartoon adventures of Wile E. Coyote. In these iconic dramatic ventures, Coyote lurches forth, a faithful replication of Mark Twain's description of the species from Roughing It. Coyote's hunger prods him to consider as prey The Roadrunner; the extensive number of Coyote-Roadrunner cartoons a monument to Coyote's abject failure. The rules surrounding the Wile E. Coyote landscape are myriad and inflexible, at once rendering the terrain a cross breed between Beckett and Krazy Kat. Coyote must not catch Roadrunner. Coyote's attempts at catching Roadrunner invariably end in his humiliation. Coyote may use devices such as explosive tennis balls, giant mouse traps, do-it-yourself tornado kits, and female Roadrunner costumes, but these and all others like them must come directly from the Acme Corporation. No other organization, neither Kafkan bureaucracies nor Orwellian imperialists, is so catholic in its offered menu of product; no government or manufacturer has such a smorgasbord of devices which, taken in totality, could be seen to represent the quintessential formula for curing all ails and supplying answers for all needs. In point of fact, some of the items on the Acme Corporation's list work, they simply do not work for Wile E. Coyote. But rules are rules, meaning Coyote has no recourse; if he is to use products, they must come from Acme.

Probably based on the ubiquity and comprehensiveness of the original Sears-Roebuck mail order catalogues, the Acme Corporation's arsenal of products and their built-in exclusivity for Wile E. Coyote become a metaphor for the writer who is setting forth, beginning with a particular landscape or locale, then basic rules of engagement between the major characters, then the source of materials the characters have at their disposal.

Wile E. Coyote's credit seems to be good so far as Acme Corporation is concerned; there don't seem to be any issues about accounts receivable. There are neither long, elaborate rationales about the Coyote-Roadrunner landscape nor the rules governing it. Neither, for that matter, are there distracting questions about the landscape within Beckett plays; Beckett stories hold up while being read, then become iron filings attracted to the magnet of the mind after the reading or witnessing ends. Similarly with Coyote and Roadrunner.

The message from Beckett ("Fail again, only next time, fail better.") inheres in the Wile E. Coyote cartoons; the after-the-fact paradigm of the cartoons with respect to story also becomes apparent with a personal deconstruction of the entire, precipitous southwestern mesa-butte landscape of the cartoon series.

Tim O'Brien has written a splendid account of American servicemen in Vietnam, The Things They Carried, a novel in which products play a major role in defining character and dramatic outcome. In the cartoons, Wile E. Coyote's frequent fate is having his hair singed off, falling to bottoms of steep declivities, being squashed by falling rocks or even the occasional debris from an Acme Corporation product; sometimes Coyote sustains all these fates simultaneously. O'Brien's characters inevitably reveal a distinct, moving relationship to a product, whether the product is a letter from a loved one (or a Dear John letter), a keepsake, a weapon. Coyote and O'Brien's "grunts" are set forth in an atmosphere and landscape that could not have suited Beckett better, thus is there a transcendent plateau reached and recognized when the writer brings characters with purpose and products to a locale, imbues them with constraints, restraints, and possibly even conscience.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Waiting for Mr. and Perhaps Ms. Right

anticipation--the visualization of a future event or condition by a character, usually accompanied by an emotion; an intimation of a forthcoming emotional and/or political climate; anxiety over potential consequences as exhibited by a character; a reader's expectations about the fate of characters, the turn of plot, and critical scenes within a long story,

Characters come into scenes with anticipation and intent; readers come into story and longer works with concerns and hopes which are massaged by the writer; writers come into story with anticipations just as well, with expectations of how the story will develop. 

 Thus anticipation becomes a metaphoric presence in an equation involving reversal of fortune, fortuitous turns, dumb luck, and a protracted campaign against some character's agenda. More so even than the characters, readers expect persons in a story to experience frustration, defeat, disappointment, from which point they reorganize, set forth once again to accomplish a cherished goal, mindful of all the successes and failures to be found in literature.

A character who has no Plan B has given up the right to have readers care; a character who anticipates an easy go in a venture, then proceeds to have just that very stress free time is robbing from the reader such senses as suspense, concern, and fear.

Some characters have as a trait the anticipation of success in every venture while others have been led by experience and propaganda to expect nothing. The anticipation of success, so says one philosophical side of an argument, passes along a greater burden; he or she who has neither anticipation nor expectation has nothing to lose.

Anticipation livens up a character, animates and motivates him, sets him up to go forth into some further scene and venture, there to meet the future which, in fiction, is sure to be a challenge.

romance--a type of genre in which a character is forced by circumstances of plot to make choices which will effect her lifestyle; the tracking of a attraction and desire between two persons as they pursue the potential of a partnership; a story in which two individuals seek a partnership based on love and affection; a dramatic narrative in which such added themes as adultery, career, homosexuality, death, old age, historical settings, and abusive behavior may be dealt with; a major pillar of genera fiction.