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.

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