Thursday, April 30, 2009

Orbituary

elliptical orbit--a story path veering off from the circular orbit of the conventional narrative; the oval-shaped path of a story, implying a movement away from tight plotting while still appearing to revolve about a recognizable theme.

Conventional short stories and novels tend to follow the structure of the domino theory.  Events are arranged in close enough proximity to cause one dramatic event (a robbery, for example)to trigger another (unanticipated complication for the robber: get-away car stalls, flat tire, traffic jam).  Any one or all of which triggers the arrival of an investigative agency responding not to the robbery but the stalled car, which triggers the appearance of the investigative agency responding to the robbery, which triggers a bureaucratic confusion in which the robbers escape, etc.

As stories and novels evolve beyond the conventional plot formation, the behavior of the characters involved becomes more notional, producing surprise and variations on reader expectations. 

 The writer's role in such stories is to provoke questions rather than to insist upon or even suggest answers. Thus do those frequent passengers, ambiguity and subtext, hitch rides on the traveling sphere, pulling the circular orbit slightly off course and into an ellipse.

Let Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado" represent the uniformly circular orbit or domino theory short story, with James Thurber's more recent trope on the same kind of revenge theme represent the tendency to veer off slightly, and Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain" represent the elliptical nature of the latest evolutionary step in the decidedly elliptical orbit of the short story.

With this in mind, the question to the writer becomes: What new thing can you do for story while still keeping it a story?

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