Tuesday, June 30, 2009


design--a structural plan for a story; a pattern of dramatic events; an attempt to determine order and significance to a set of motives and agendas; a unifying plan of behavior and response among characters in a story.

However episodic, picaresque, generational, or other loosely structured narratives, story is informed by design. Reading a given story is analogous to opening a surprise package, attempting to guess from the wrapping what the contents are.

True enough, many stories are begun with nothing more than a concept or incident which the writer follows just as the opener of the surprise packages tugs at the wrapping, sifts through the insulating material, then withdraws the prize. Through revision and rewriting, the writer begins to see the potential for design, then begins to grasp how the design leads to discovery, first the writer's and then the reader's.

F. Scott Fitzgerald did not see the final design for The Great Gatsby until the work had been set in type, then presented to him for proofing. Somewhere in the process of finding typos and making the AAs (author alterations) so typical of the writing personality and so abhorrent to the publisher personality, Fitzgerald was seized with the notion of elevating Mr. Nick Carraway to the position of principal narrator, thereby giving Fitzgerald the needed leeway to dramatize the closeness he felt with Gatsby and at the same time provide the nuanced perspective of what Gatsby's rise and fall meant on an even more epic scale.

The antic, satirical vision of Christopher Moore has on many occasions begun with a what-if concept, in which Moore invents a character he plunks into a well-known cultural event. His design moves like a glob of ketchup dripping from a tightly packed hamburger onto a clean white shirt, spreading, radiating outward. In Fool, he begins with the ensemble cast of King Lear, introduces a character of his own devising, and sets forth to design with and around the consequences.

Arguably outstanding amid a steady output of stunningly different novels, Joseph Wambaugh's The Secrets of Harry Bright begins with the after effects of an airline tragedy, presented with the intriguing and authenticity-on-steroids discovery that triggers a maze of events leading to the satisfying discovery.

"No River Wide," the first story in Robert Boswell's collection, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, is a chronicle of the friendship between two women, but only a writer of Boswell's expansive vision and technique could have designed such a complex design. Reading the story, we cannot help ratifying Boswell's choice of design as being the most effective, just as Fitzgerald's choice of Nick Carraway to narrate Gatsby was the most effective.

Hint: The ultimate design for a novel or short story is often discovered in the revision process, one small part of which is the question the writer must answer: Is this story told in the most effective way?

Monday, June 29, 2009


chaos--a dramatic condition in which there is no apparent order; a character behaving without a plan or design; a multifarious state of being in which there is no seeming thread that connects individuals or events.

Chaos is the world without story, its purpose random and unstructured. The writer enters the landscape of chaos, imposes a structure or plan, then steps back to watch the characters as they respond to attempts at design. Chaos is also the world without specific individuals being assigned starring roles; as it continues to unfold, the condition of chaos levels the playing field of agenda so that all agendas are of equal importance. When beginning a story, the writer chooses a landscape, which may be pure invention or fantasy or extrapolated speculative fiction but which nevertheless becomes a tangible place for the reader. The writer then adds characters, whose goals help define their prominence and focus.

Story, plot, design--they are all a purposeful rearranging of furniture, the feng shui equivalent of drama, allowing some procession or orbit of event, the totality of which eases the passage of energy from the beginning point to the resolution. Chaos appears at first to be all the distractions a character or group of characters may face, but as the reader grows interested in the characters, chaos morphs into "things that could go wrong," which is a sort of reverse feng shui, a negative energy that arrives in unanticipated increments.

Chaos is a series of laundry list events, awaiting the writer's hand to organize them in some form.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


catalyst--a character, social unit, or organization in a story that causes a change to take place; an event that transfers energy to the point of shifting dramatic inertia from stasis or status quo; a story point that tilts the landscape toward a point of no return.

Characters frequently self-catalyze to get themselves out of a perceived rut; they change jobs,move to different cities, join the Peace Corps, abort or switch romantic relationships, adopt dogs or cats. Characters also accept opportunities which seem to them to be steps advancing toward some long-cherished goal. Catalysts are often neutral but, depending on the nature of the character responding to them, can be seen as Cosmic, Fate-driven, and certainly Golden Opportunities and Lucky Breaks. As such, the character responding to the catalyst will see some guiding hand or throughline in an essentially chaos-filled universe.

A catalyst represents a dramatic unit of energy, which may come from a chance meeting, an unanticipated discovery on Craig's List, or a connection between elements not usually associated. Remember Ishmael, as early as the first paragraph of Moby-Dick, wanting--needing--some catalytic agent: "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." Luck of the draw for Ishmael was choosing The Pequod, nevertheless, his wanting a catalyst to change his humors drew him into an adventure of a lifetime.

Many characters have resident within them the first cousin to hidden agenda, the secret desire. When a character becomes aware of a catalyst that could bring about advancement to achieving the secret desire, you'll have created a conflict of wrenching intensity.

Hint: Make a list of ten favored characters in ten favored books. Identify the catalyst that propelled them into action. Now you have a profile of your own favorite types of catalyst which you can enhance by putting one of them to work in your next story. Adventurous sort that you are, you can also reach within yourself as so many fine actors do, where you will identify a catalyst that is contrary to your standard preference. From such adventures come interesting characters, doing interesting--and perhaps scary--things.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Dramatic Trinity, Conscience, Ego, and Need

ego--the essential nature of a character; how a character acts, think, feels about himself; the part of the character that reacts to and interacts with the world of reality.

The ego is the self, out in the causal world, reacting and interacting, planning, attempting to be effective in personal, professional, artistic, and moral relations. In combination with conscience (see) and needs (see), it is a helpful way to define a character, attributing respective sizes and shapes to each with the total combination representing the entire character. A statistically normal character would have equal triads of each aspect, a warning flag for the writer to look elsewhere for an individual of dramatic interest. Dramatic characters tend to have large ego and extreme needs at the expense of conscience.

Assign a given character a score of 100 points to be divided among this dramatic trinity. A character with an enormous conscience, say a 60 or 80 would accordingly have to give up ego and needs points. How would a large conscience effect the ego of your 20- or 30-point ego, and what would be left over for needs?

Try ranking some of your favorite iconic characters, dividing up their 100 points among the three spheres of individuality, then see how helpful this guideline is when it comes time to assess your own creations.

Friday, June 26, 2009

It All Depends

contingency--an event that has potential for occurring; a possibility without being a definite certainty; something liable to take place as a consequence of a previous action.

The behavior of a character in a story is contingent on 1) that character's reaction to another character, 2) one or more events in a character's past, 3) a character pursuing an agenda, 4) a character suffering a reversal. Contingency is the excitement of story, mixed with ambiguity and plot design to create a simultaneous atmosphere of causality and uncertainty in any given narrative. A splendid example of contingency in operation is Iris Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net, the net in the title mischievously referring to the net of language and the potentials therein for misunderstanding. One of the lead characters, Jake Donaghue, is writer who has just written a novel, The Silencer, from which comes this contingency-describing quote, "All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net." Many of Jake's actions ironically reflect his being driven from place to place by his inability to interpret facts and choices presented through the reactions of other characters.

Some modern critics have made names for themselves by linking closure with contingency, a useful way for a writer of stories to link the payoff of a story with the writer's personal take on the zeitgeist or ambiance of a historical time. For examples of this useful equation at work, consider Thomas Pyncheon's huge romp of a historical venture, Mason & Dixon, Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted, and Philip Roth's American Pastoral, each of which has a historical overview against which characters are driven to choices that are defined by contemporary forces.

It may also be argued that science fiction and the subgenre of fantasy dealing with alternate universes are providing a contingency for readers as well as for the characters. Contingency ranks high as a forceful factor in the writer's mind because it allows the writer to simultaneously deal with the structured necessity of drama and the seemingly anomalous plausible surprise offered by the very ways and means contingency is used. Although tightly plotted, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy provides contingencies that further define the various characters and their goals, bringing the tension of impending crisis into collision with delightful surprise in the crucible of dramatic event.

In the framework of contingency, Moby-Dick reflects a search for the nineteenth-century American psyche, and in Mark Twain's often neglected Pudd'nhead Wilson, the author literally and figuratively reverses black and white.

Hint: the message of contingency is to keep presenting characters with junctures, points at which they will have to make choices. These points of choice are where the contingency-based story begins.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Power Play

shift of power--a dramatic point where one character or group achieves a strategic advantage; a moment in a story when a character breaks free of a previously held obligation, belief, loyalty, or romantic attraction; an awareness by a character of a change in status which results in his being a peer or superior to other characters.

There is an inherent aura of strength in a character pursuing a purposeful goal. The reader anticipates and is not surprised to see said character responding to setback and reversal. When the character purposeful character suffers a loss of power, loses control, there is a tangible shift of emotion. What will those, formerly subordinates of the character in focus, do in response? It all depends, you say. Depends on the kind of person the character was before the loss of power. Will it be sympathy, a desire to punish, to humiliate? Perhaps it will even be a concerted attempt to help the disposed character regain lost power.

Look what happened to Edmond Dantes; his entire story arc is a shifting of power base to the point where, before events that led him to becoming the Count of Monte Cristo, he was determined to starve himself to death. Look at Mr. Martin, after the shift of power he effected in James Thurber's short story, "The Cat-Bird Seat."

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Family Matters

family history--a chronicle of causal familial events that helped shape a character; the cultural environmental forces in which a character evolves; generational behavior and the attitudes in which such behavior is viewed from within the family and from external sources.

Family is such a splendid launching pad for the definition of a character, giving traditions to be applauded as well as traditions to be shunned. A character may become a victim of such tradition or a beneficiary, not to forget a martyr. If a character is informed, "All our family did their undergraduate work at Yale," and the character had hoped instead to attend The Rhode Island School of Design, might not there be a howl of conflict raised? And what about the implication that the family did undergraduate work at Yale, suggesting that graduate school venue may be an option, but graduate school itself was more a directive?

Families are social bands, dispensing tradition, learning, social and financial resources, all provided with varying degrees of love or complete lack of love. Characters may be assumed to have responded in some way--as actors in stage and film renditions respond continuously to one another--to their family origins, but also beyond their family influence in terms of wanting to break from family behavior and set out on a fresh set of responses.

Two widely differing examples of family effects on present-day characters are found in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, and Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth. Each has as a pivotal issue the impending death of a patriarch and its effects on the survivors. Told from the point of view of the outsider, Charles Ryder, Brideshead is essentially the story of the Flyte family, who own the Brideshead estate, their Catholicism, its effects on them and Charles Ryder, who has a close friendship with his Oxford classmate, Sebastian, and a romantic relationship with Sebastian's sister, Julia. Returning to Earth focuses on the approaching death of Donald, a middle-aged man of mixed Finnish and Chippewa heritage, terminally ill with Lou Gherig's disease. The narrative begins with Donald, who is dictating his story to his wife, Cynthia. Reminiscing on his connection with his Indian heritage, Donald recalls the influence of his father's cousin, Flower, on him. "Flower shook my brain like one of her many rattles hanging from the rafters of her tar paper shack." Each of these authors is remarkable in a specific way, deft in the ability to describe the reverberations of family into the dance the individual members has with life.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


injustice--a character's sense of having been dealt with unfairly, a rip or tear in the fabric of social accord; a person or system inflicting on another individual or group of individuals a behavior or treatment extending beyond civility; encroaching on another person's or group's defined territory; any thoughtless or bullying oppression or harassment.

Injustice may be real or imagined. The actual victim may not feel the unjustified invasion but a close friend or family member, observing the circumstances, might see the occasion and then attempt to urge the actual victim into recognition of the injustice. What a splendid motivational force for fiction. Injustice may breed resentment, which in its turn motivates irony, which gives way to sarcasm, which becomes the catalyst for revenge. Injustice is a prized motivation because it so frequently begets dramatic action, which is, of course, the life's blood of story.

One of the more notable victims of injustice was Edmond Dantes of The Count of Monte Cristo fame. In Dumas's epic tale, Dantes becomes the victim of a conspiratorial web of injustice to the point of considering suicide in his helpless despair. Through a dramatic shift of power (see), Dantes is able to embark on a pattern of revenge which, once exacted, allows him the luxury of getting on with his life.

Another victim of injustice, the near-iconic Montresor of "A Cask of Amontillado," has suffered injuries (never specifically detailed but assumed to be countless humiliations) in the past but has now been insulted by Fortunato(also not detailed but through implication presented as sufficient to merit revenge). The story ends with Montressor having sufficiently played upon Montressor's overweening pride to the point of luring him into a fatal trap, during the course of which Montressor is given cause to cite his family's motto, “Nemo me impune lacessit,” (No one insults me with impunity)which is a tell of the outcome. Montressor's ultimate revenge for the injustice suffered appears to satisfy him, but since the story is narrated in first-person, it is possible to read it with the interpretation that this is merely one of many retellings of the story, that Montressor has literally been dining out on the tale for some years and that in doing so, he has become as overweening in his pride as he felt Fortunato to be in his.

Fiction abounds with characters setting forth to undo injustices. Happily, there is room for more.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Is it the real turtle soup or only the mock?

imitation--a process followed by beginning and intermediate writers in which they sedulously copy the style, concept, and attitude of established writers whom they admire or whose success they envy.

Imitation is useful up to an educational point, but once that education is achieved, the writer needs to move on to the risky business of discovering the self that awaits. As the sale price of an individual hardcover title increases, it becomes particularly apparent that the reader is going to want to get originality, not imitation for the $26 price tag. Why would a reader want to spend $26 for an imitation of Annie Proulx when, for the same $26, the real thing could be had. The writer's best opportunity for finding an audience comes as a result of the risk taking that provides original voice and ideas of dramatic deployment. It is not only possible but admirable to learn from other writers, living or dead. The time comes, however, when this learning must be recast into the writer's own words and feelings.

Intermediate- and experienced-level writers, having discovered their voices, themes, and lines of dramatic attack run the risk of self-parody when they begin imitating themselves, the ideal being that each new project is a launching of the ship of discovery on the vast ocean of enthusiasm.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Victim of Fictional Circumstances

victim--a character who is the recipient of a real or imagined injustice; an individual affected adversely; one whose agenda, health, plans, and general sense of well being is diverted or destroyed by an outside force.

Victims have real estate with a view on the literary landscape, seemingly standing in line to be first to claim the role. A victim, by definition has experienced (or believes he has experienced) some force of event that has derailed his aspirations and his hoped for rewards, allowing him in some cases to stop all developmental motion, take on the mantle of the martyr, and luxuriate in the misfortune. Other victims of birth or circumstance or both get up, brush off the dust, then get back to the business at hand.

He or she who proclaims victimhood the loudest is likely suspect of malingering or playing on sympathy. Neither is attractive. A character is a victim as a consequence of having ventured something, taken a risk, hoped a hope. Such activity is not lost on the reader, who is now prepared to invest hard earned empathy in such a character, thus whatever the character who has suffered reversals does next has a marked influence on the reader.

There is a delicate balance to accepting one's fate; should one go meekly or with a fight? Should one wail loudly after reversal (such as, say, Silas Marner, when his miserly stash was stolen), or be the stoic? It helps to know the character in some detail before inflicting the status of victim on him; his response may well provide the exit strategy for the story. Does a setback enhance the character's forward inertia or diminish it?

A character who wishes to avenge victim status (See The Count of Monte Cristo, see also The Mayor of Casterbridge) is a good candidate for reader sympathy. Even Ahab, setting forth the hunt down the whale, though extreme, nevertheless excites our understanding and sympathy, even our grudging respect. A character who welcomes victim status as an excuse for avoiding future venture is an individual who will not have many rooters among the readership.

Hint: To stir up the potential of mischief for the sake of creating new stories, consider your take on Herman Melville's eponymous Bartleby, "pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn," then consider his inner core. Consider how you would portray him if you were an actor, and how you would move him forth as a character you had created. Is Bartleby a victim?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

My heart's not in it

internal conflict--a battle between two or more opposing forces within an individual, a culture, or a society; choices a character makes that impact his behavior in a story; the agony of moral choice written large as dramatic issue.

The key word in an internal conflict is but, which translates as "except for the fact;" but is the tin can tied as a prank to the rear bumper of a car, it is the conditional divide between the two warring forces that tug at the character. But is the fulcrum, the contingency with which the afflicted character lives. Sound dramatic principle dictates an internal conflict step forth in front rank characters, Mark Anthony the soldier and Mark Anthony the lover. Similarly there is Cleopatra struggling through the emotions of the lover and the duties and responsibility of the queen.

A protagonist may be a natural leader, except that he freezes in arguments; a scientist may be devoted to the pursuit of her research but feels compromised for once having managed the outcome of one of her more significant studies. Huckleberry Finn may admire and respect the runaway slave, Jim, but feels his conscience being conflicted because, after all, Jim was his master's property and Huck has effectively helped Jim escape from his rightful owner.

The conflict may be essentially internal,particularly in the short story, but it will have an effect on the way significant characters behave and in the way the reader feels.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Words fail me.Really. Some thoughts on Problem Words

problem words--words that seem to enhance attributions but which actually muddy a given issue; descriptors intended to delineate but which instead blur; words meant to indicate an emphasis on degree of intensity; words which don't enhance the meaning for which they were used.

Problem words are the literary equivalent of hiring distant relatives; they mean well but ultimately do not understand what is expected of them. To say that John was quite annoying doesn't tell the reader much except that John exhibited qualities that were annoying to some undisclosed person or persons, and that whatever these qualities were, it is impossible to tell to whom or how his behavior caused annoyance; nothing is expressed or implied relative to the accuracy of the statement or its reflection on the reliability of the narrator. It is all right for John to in fact be annoying but the reader should have some relative sense of how this quality sets forth on its mission to annoy the beholder. Does John chew gum loudly? Does John tell racist or sexist jokes? Then there is the matter of the "quite." Does the "quite" mean "somewhat," "very," "considerably," or perhaps "intensely"?

Problem words and habit words dilute dramatic prose by injecting notes of vagueness and repetition into a narrative, venturing close to the verge of trespass into the terrains of cuteness, patronization, and affectation. Hint: You are in the literary equivalent of a police line-up, asked to identify miscreant problem words. Before you, in well-lit display, appear "rather," "very," "many," and "somewhat." You blink in recognition of your complicity in using all of them, then point an accusing finger.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Anton Chekhov @ Mt. Rushmore.com

Chekhovian--similar to or evocative of the thrust of the plays and short stories of Anton Chekhov; materials linked by an underground or less visible causality than conventional drama; seemingly ambiguous narratives, informed by the emphasis on subtext and internal responses of a character; stories decidedly lacking the appearance of being plot-driven.

Chekhov is best known among writers for his assertion that a gun appearing conspicuously in Act 1 must be pointed and fired by Act 3, opening the door for discussions about foreshadowing and causality. It may also be regarded as a framework in which characters use the tools at hand. Many of Chekhov's stories deal with the inability of characters to communicate with one another until a) it is too late, b) a sudden insight emerges, and possibly c) the elephant in the living room becomes through previous events visible to one or more characters. This last possibility links James Joyce to Chekhov, just as Beethoven's fondness for Mozart linked those two in an apostolic succession that began with the admiration of each for Haydn.

Chekhov is apostolic and his major plays and later short stories invite investigation, particularly for such techniques as interior monologue, internal conflicts, and subtext. His work has inspired twentieth- and twenty-first century actors as well as writers, inspiring them to find non-verbal ways of expressing emotions and intent. If there were to be a literary equivalent of Mt. Rushmore, Chekhov would certainly qualify as an image along with Franz Kafka, and George Orwell, and with some debate, Miguel Cervantes. The names of all four have become adjectival forms in the literary language, Chekhovian associated with ambiguity, Kafkaesque with apparent conspiracy theory or dead-pan satire, Orwellian implying Big-Brother supervision, and Quixotic suggesting extravagant romanticism and idealism.

Hint: Major things to be learned from Chekhov: 1) let the reader work at the story to adduce its meaning, 2) give the reader sufficient but not extensive tools.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sarah Palin, the Madam Bovary of Alaska

Bovary, Emma--a memorable, iconic character; a prime example of the way causality and determinism trigger responses in a front-rant character; a person who became disenchanted with her life, then attempted to effect change.

Emma is everything you could want in a character. She has a vision, which she seeks at accelerated levels to achieve; she has a mounting sense of frustration because her stratagems do not produce their intended goals; she has a growing sense of dislike for her husband, Charles, because of the fact that he, of all those with whom she has contact, wants nothing more than to please her. The fabric of life is Emma's romantic vision. Emma's behavior and attitudes comprise Charles Bovary's romantic vision. They are coevals in an existential train wreck.

Compare and contrast Emma Bovary with Mr. Stephens of Kazuo Ishiguro's remarkable The Remains of the Day: Each means no harm to others. Although each causes some collateral damage along the way, Emma is an absolute disaster in the totality of her effect, bringing her feckless husband to the state of utter inability to cope with life, while Mr. Stephens, although unintentionally breaking Miss Kenton's heart, has mostly damaged himself. He is, in fact, Charles Bovary writ larger than Bovary himself. Emma has romantic visions of enhanced social position and the exciting life she imagines will result from that position. Stephens has the romantic notion of achieving the enhanced plateau of being one of the best butlers ever. In fact, Stephens has served Lord Darlington, a conspicuous supporter of Hitler in the pre-World War II years, and who now, at the beginning of the novel, is reduced to serving a status-conscious American. Both Emma Bovary and Stephens are extreme examples of naive narrator, each intelligent enough to see beyond the surfaces apparent to them but each is resolutely unwilling to do so.

As Mark Twain notably did with his parodic treatment of Walter Scott-type romanticism and chivalry in such works as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Huckleberry Finn, Emma Bovary's creator, Gustav Flaubert, took Emma's reading habits as a vehicle he rode into the literary sunset. Emma's early readings only seemed to whet her appetite for the things she considered to be missing from her life. In a real sense, the more she read, the more her sense of reality was shunted off to the side, allowing the vast interior of her fantasy life to expand to the point where it overrode any possibility that reality would survive. In a fitting irony, Emma Bovary identified herself with Anna Karenina, pursuing suicide as the appropriate way out of the nightmare of circumstance she had created for herself. But here, too, Emma was betrayed by illusion. Anna Karenina's death was over in a brief moment. The drama of Emma's death was painful and protracted.

For more reasons than exquisiteness of character delineation, Madam Bovary is consistently cited as one of the five or ten major novels in any language at any time, but the complexity, inner struggles, and outer agenda inherent in Emma Bovary make her a tempting height to aspire when bringing a character onto a page in a story. Flaubert is famously remembered as saying that Emma Bovary is he. He might as well have said Emma Bovary is story.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Best Schemed Lays

complacency--a feeling of smug sureness and being in control; a dramatic fulcrum for characters who are about to be tipped into the froth of story either by action or inaction; a delineation between characters who believe they have sufficiency to suit their needs and characters who are hungry for change.

When the reader encounters a complacent character, said reader receives the literary equivalent of Blue-Screen-of-Death computer warnings; something earthshaking is about to happen, be it a palace revolt, or the reply to an innocently voiced "Hey, what's for dinner tonight?" being met with a "Get your own damned dinner because I'm outta here for good."

Into the story come those commandos Jealousy, Guilt, and Grief, their faces blackened, their knit watch caps pulled down low, invading and occupying the terrain, driving the circumstances and responses. 

 Complacency is metaphorically the best laid schemes of which Robert Burns wrote, and we know what comes after that, they "gang aft aglay," and do so big time.

Show us a complacent character, F. Scott Fitzgerald might have written in his longish short story, "The Rich Boy," and I'll show you a story in the making. A complacent character is astride his or her high horse, vulnerable to the low-hanging branch. 

 A complacent character might ride that high horse into thinking to make a romantic conquest or achieve a dramatic promotion in professional or academic status, only to be met with the reality of the leveling effects of falling unselfishly in love or being forced to recognize that there are others of equal or perhaps higher qualifications.

Hint: take an interesting male or female character. In one paragraph, establish him or her as being on the cusp of an easy achievement of a relatively significant goal, say chairman of a department or starring role in a stage play of extraordinary range. 

Paragraph two presents the character striding into the crucible. 

Paragraph three presents the enthusiastic response the respective characters are accustomed to experiencing. Paragraph four introduces the surprise of reality: in recognition of the male's good work, the dean is keeping the male character on, serving as a minor assistant to the new department chair; the woman is eagerly recruited to play the role of the maid to the female lead. Now the story progresses.

Additional hint: a universal theme is the awareness that life is not fair. (See, for instance, the last few lines of Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery.") How about a story in which a complacent character (as opposed to a truly competent or talented individual) wins. How about it?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Picture This Picaresque

picaresque--a form of narrative usually episodic in nature, featuring a male or female protagonist who is of uncertain origins or from a lower social ranking and who is not motivated to a work ethic but rather earns his keep by skulduggery, wits, and deception; often satiric and ironic in nature, the picaresque form allows a close look at a type of society that is, by comparison with the protagonist, even lazier and more corrupt.

The protagonist of the picaresque tale--the picaro--is usually seen to be more upright and moral than those in whose company he is cast. He (or she, because DeFoe's Moll Flanders certainly fits the picaresque rubric) emerges more victorious and with greater integrity at the denouement, a dramatic demonstration that too much virtue is unbearable. Thus consider Huckleberry Finn, in the eponymous novel wherein his behavior is put in constant question, by himself and by others, causing him at the end to pretty much write off the societal norms and potentials he sees about him as he lights out for the territory ahead.

True enough, the Horatio Alger novels sold extremely well in their day, their prototype protagonist becoming a secular saint of grit, good cheer, hard work, and politeness. Equally true, such gritty individuals as Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo from The Midnight Cowboy attracted their share of devotees, largely because readers can recognize more of these characters in themselves than can recognize examples from the Alger novels.

The picaro or picara may appear to be short on wit or incentive as in Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Schweik, and thus more vulnerable. Ironically, such a character nevertheless emerges ahead of the game, the winner by a narrow-but-discernible margin over "them," the characters representing the less marginalized segments of a society. For all practical purposes, William Goldman's screen version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an episodic trope of two bank robbers and the woman they both love, dancing picaresquely across the American West and parts of Bolivia, meant to convey the message that individuals at that historical time didn't have many opportunities for advancement and adventure. Similarly, the book and the screen version of Monte Walsh presented an episodic romp of a man whose primary ability in life was his talent for managing and breaking horses.

Picaresques have appeared in times of war and peace, in such specific locales as the American West, branches of the military (in war and in peace), and in the academic world such as the one portrayed by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim and the more extended worlds of academe as set forth by David Lodge. The underlying formula might be expressed as: Roguish character makes good in spite of himself. It is in many ways a thumbing of the authorial nose at the Horatio Alger or virtue rewarded tale. An underground legend of such a picaresque character persists in Richard Farina's compellingly antic Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Up to Me, featuring Gnossos Papadopulis, who rides in--and then out--on a motorcycle.

Picaresque novels are deceptive because they seem to rely on the comedic, which is by definition one or two steps removed from humor because of its physicality. Such tales deftly move beyond the physical into the visceral, the intensity of the sad revelations of humor taking us by surprise to the point of burning the characters and the story into our memory. A number of The Canterbury Tales make this segue from the comedic to the more deeply felt; notable among these are The Pardoner's Tale and The Knight's Tale, each of which pays off in revelations of self-awareness in the principal characters at the expense of their self-esteem.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Prick of Conscience

guilt--a state of awareness in a character occurring when that individual believes he has violated some moral boundary; an internal sense of remorse at having caused harm intentionally or deliberately to another; anguish for a particular behavior or for a specific lack of performance.

The Holy Trinity of the storyteller's art consists of guilt, jealousy, and grief, any one of which, by virtue of an extended examination, will provide at the very least a short story and quite probably a novel-length narrative. 

 Taken in tandem, The Trinity becomes a richly entwined tapestry of emotional power, well able to maneuver the flintiest characters, say Llewellyn Moss from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, through an engaging investigation of human experience.

A character feeling guilt is likely to do something energetic to ease the pangs, creating a causal equation, a domino effect of action. For his iconic character Leopold Bloom, James Joyce borrowed a concept from a thirteenth-century religious story, transmuted it into "the agenbyte of inwit," by which he meant the self-inflicted wound of remorse of conscience. The other major player in Ulysses, Stephen Deadalus, was also riddled with guilt for, among other things, refusing to pray for his dying mother at her request.

The reader may come to realize, as readers so often do, that the guilt felt by a particular character is inappropriate, an awareness that may cause the reader to identify more closely with the character, feel superior to that character, or consider the character an unnecessary martyr.

Guilt may be viewed clinically as a religious or social tool for imparting values. It may also be seen as a lever to motivate a character to act or, when appropriate, not to act.

All three arms of The Trinity, Guilt, Grief, and Jealousy, may be regarded by writers with some profit as the numerator of a fraction, the denominator of which is Remorse. A character infused with any one of the Trinity feels remorse for his behavior, then sets forth to square the emotional account, producing story. 

 See Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm, in which Francis Majcinek, aka Frankie Machine, driving while drunk, caused an accident that crippled his wife, Sophie. While considering this excellent, noirish novel as an example, consider also the manipulative power of guilt. Sophie may not, in fact, be crippled. There is no questioning the crippling power of Frankie Machine's guilt.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


jealousy--a major dramatic emotion producing anxiety and possible fear of loss of status, a romantic commitment, or ability; concern about ability to maintain a status quo, triggered by the presence of rivals or potential rivals; insecurity over anticipated loss of a tangible thing once securely owned.

With the possible exceptions of guilt and grief, jealousy remains a significant dramatic motivational force, emphasizing a character's insecurity and triggering responses that contribute to deeper dramatic holes for the character in whom it resides. One of the more plausible and enduring cases of literary jealousy is grounded in the unquestioned attraction between Heathcliff and Cathy Earnshaw, later to become Cathy Linton in Wuthering Heights. Even though she loves Heathcliff, Cathy sees Edgar Linton as a step toward a social status she aspires to. Heathcliff's loss of Cathy to Edgar provokes a plausible if melodramatic train of causality that plunges into the supernatural. Jealousy as a motive in mystery and detection novels needs no justification as a motive.

Novels set in college/university settings frequently use jealousy as a driving force applied to members of a particular academic department, and novels with medical backgrounds may bring jealousy and or rivalry between doctors and administrators or doctors in similar or competing departments.

From reading the journals of the gifted short story writer, John Cheever, the reader learns of his jealousy of the meteoric success of fellow writer Irwin Shaw who admired Cheever and continuously sought his company.

The jealous individual fears the loss or diminution of something--including a personal relationship--already possessed; envy is the result when one character covets a quality or ability or relationship possessed by another.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Domino Theory: Not Your Average Pizza

determinism--a literary equivalent of quantum mechanics, in which all dramatic events have an antecedent; the causal basis of story; a system or philosophy in which chaos or random event is marginalized, a domino theory of event.

By its very nature, story is a series of responses to a stimulus. An individual experiences an awareness of some emotionally charged stimulus, attempts to interpret it, builds a personalized system about it, then moves on to other tasks at hand. When the emotionally charged stimulus seems challenging in extreme, perhaps even to the point of becoming a threat, the individual seeks counsel, choosing a laundry list of advisers such as friends, clergy, psychologists, psychiatrists, philosophers. This is the analog of going to a dentist on the occasion of a pained tooth. The habit of consulting has a long history in the human condition. That habit is a driving force behind the decision to consult the writer, who has his or her own philosophy and has created an ensemble of characters to dramatize that philosophy.

Readers seek escape, understanding, transportation, identity, and companionship in story, thus they approach story with a curiosity that asks, Will this narrative interest and involve me? Writers have the intuitive awareness of how to invite a segment of the reading public into the forum of their story, knowing also that the reader's curiosity will engage to the point of wanting to know more relevant details about the characters in a situation and the situation itself.

By providing some system, some codification of the chaos, for himself, the writer provides primal assurances and comfort for the reader even while potentially disturbing him with a dramatization of the consequences that result from story. As sure of the outcome as the reader becomes while reading Billy Budd, the reader assures himself that he will behave differently under similar circumstances. By experiencing John Yossarian's sense of futility and frustration with the rock and hard place of war and wartime bureaucracy in Catch-22, the reader understands more intimately his own feelings of futility and frustration and is better equipped to engage the chaos about him in his everyday life.

Hint: Significant dramatic events in a story cause the reader to be on the alert for the consequences of those events. Lenny's early responses to stimulus in Of Mice and Men trigger the ultimate consequence. The poignant execution of Candy's dog by Carlson becomes another causal trigger that has payoff in Lenny's fate. George Milton, the bright, down-on-his-luck protagonist, becomes a consequential and ironic embodiment of the title of the novel, which came from a poem by Robert Burns, warning that the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley and leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Time Machine

time sequence--the temporal arc of a story or novel; the chronological order of events in a narrative; the arrangement of narrative events to effect the most dramatic result.

Time plays an important role in a story or novel. How long between events? How long has this--whatever this is--been going on? How long before he gets the idea? How long before she asks him if they have a future together? How much times does a Harlen Coben protagonist have before being discovered rifling the files in an office he has no authority to be in? The pacing or beats per minute is another way to measure the way theme and plot establish themselves within the reader's sensibility, helping the reader to remember bits of information as they come forth, We realize also the contrivance behind such manipulation, resenting it if we do not find it.

The skilled writer knows ways to manipulate time, showing an event in progress, exhuming an event from the past, switching away from a character who actually or metaphorically be hanging from the side of a cliff. Nor is it necessary to remain with a time line, instead juggling the various scenes and confrontations like the dealer in three-card monte.

Example of a relatively brief time line, Romeo and Juliet. In more modern times, James Grady's 1974 novel, The Six Days of the Condor, was successful enough to have evolved into a movie in which the time line was cut in half to The Three Days of the Condor. William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson's novel, Logan's Run, had a time-line imposed by population explosion: When a character reached the age of thirty, along came the Sandmen to put the character to sleep, as in the final sleep. Somewhere along the way between the penultimate draft and the draft submitted to the publisher, Nolan and Johnson decided to cut back on the arc of character life from thirty to twenty-one.

The Iliad begins with the story already having been set in action some seven years previously. Tim Gautreaux's 2009 novel, The Missing, takes place largely in the late 1920s but begins in the final days of World War I, then flashes back to an earlier time yet before delivering the reader back to the time the protagonist, Sam Simoneaux, returns from his experiences in World War I France to his job in New Orleans, where the main action sets forth.

Time in story is meant to be manipulated, is asking to be manipulated. Time may be compressed in narrative, frozen within the boundaries of a scene, projected into the future with a cheery "And they all lived happily ever after."

Some stories are about lost or stolen time, others are about travels in time, others yet are about waiting to grow up or trying to forestall the age process, while an entire sub-genre exists in which the focus is on the extent to which characters will go to deny the effects of time. Peter Pan did not wish to grow up, but even more worth further study and consideration is the character Jo Stoyte, from Aldous Huxley's engaging satire, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan. Stoyte, a Hollywood millionaire, at first wants merely not to grow older, but this desire morphs into his not wanting to die

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dramatic Intensity: "Shut up," he explained.

intensity in language--the use of italic, exclamation points, all-capital-letter words to emphasize dramatic points; the use of "very" and other intensifiers to visually signify emphasis.

Mommy doesn't like it when you do that.

Mommy wishes you would stop doing that.

Mommy is tired of having to remind you not to do that.

Mommy is very tired of your behavior.

Will you please stop doing that?

How many times do I have to ask?

Stop it.


I said, "Stop," damnit.

What is it you don't understand about shut the fuck up?

It is neither fair nor an intended slight to suggest that mothers alone are driven to the use of intensifiers in language. John Lardner, in a splendid reminiscence of his remarkable father, Ring Lardner, told of a time when the family was out for a Sunday morning drive, the auto being driven by father (RL) who was suffering the effects of last night's drinking spree with his newspaper chums. After a number of wrong turns, muffled curses, and roads being driven in reverse gear, one of the Lardner youth ventured to query, "Are we lost, Daddy?" To which the now classic reply, "Shut up," he explained.

It is encouraging to note that characters frequently blow their cool, over respond, lose composure, and experience other lapses of equipoise. How to represent these moments? The best way is through dialogue in context, which is to say with words, expressions, and accompanying gestures that do not require italic or exclamation point or all-cap lettering in order to convey the exasperation and/or frustration being experienced at the moment. The second best way is with some bodily response, the blink of the eyes, a tilt of the head, a flinch, a muffled grunt, a shift in stance, and yes, the sudden attempt to drive the human fist through the inhuman wall. The third best way is through an ironic combination of the first two, say pinching the bridge of the nose and saying, "I see." particularly when it is clear that the character doesn't see--not at all. Any other ways, such as italics or exclamation points or authorial intervention are "tells," clues poker players look for in their opponents, that the author doesn't know how to bring off the intensity or is afraid the reader won't get it without Las-Vegas-like displays of emphasis.

Imagine a spoken response to an incendiary disclosure of information. For instance: "I am very disappointed in your behavior." Now imagine an intensified response. "And I am very disappointed that you were so very disappointed in my behavior that you couldn't see the necessity for me to do what I did." The response obviates the need for such adverbs as "retorted defensively,"or "sneered sarcastically." The response is in what the characters say rather than the way the writer uses MS Word aps.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Chilling Effect

effect--the result or consequence of a previous action or condition; a segment of a sequential scheme of events; the product of causality.

Effect is the response of a character to an ethical or sensual stimulus; the reaction of one or more individuals to a previous stimulus or action. Capt. Ahab felt the effect of the great whale; Huck Finn felt the effect of having been a contributor to the escape from slavery of Jim; Jane felt the consequences of her growing attraction to Rochester, acted upon them, and was rewarded by the appearance of additional effects.

Little happens in a story without some regard to design, less yet happens without an effect on someone, something, somewhere. Relationships, be they romantic, political, or professional, grow in complexity and interdependence or accordingly withdraw from closeness, then consequently wither. In a broad, sweeping sense, story is a record of effect, the effect of a place on a character, the effect one person or character may have on another (see Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassady for the former, see Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for the latter). Thus effect is a record of impressions and responses that writers are at pains to dramatize and describe.

Characters may be seen as individuals who try to contain and constrain the effects visited upon them by other individuals, by life experiences, and by the physical and social content of places. In his 2009 novel, Brooklyn, Colm Toibin demonstrates the complex range of effect a small town in Ireland and the borough of Brooklyn have on the behavior of a young Irish girl and those she comes in contact with, showing by deft indirection how the effects of place are filtered through a character, then have effect on other characters.

The musical, My Fair Lady, and to a slightly lesser extent its parent, the stage play Pygmalion, dramatically demonstrate the effects of social class and of physical locale on the character of Eliza Doolittle in an emotional spectrum worth investigating for the writer who wishes to show how places and individuals evoke emotional responses in characters and, if we are fortunate, in us.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Other Shoe

other shoe dropping, the--a dramatic (emotional) payoff resulting from a previously foreshadowed clue; the literary equivalent of the aftershock following an earthquake; a degree of closure achieved from an earlier action.

The well-known trope of the other shoe dropping comes from the theoretical supposition of an individual preparing for a night's sleep in a cheap hotel or rooming house. As the individual settles down to sleep, a guest in the room one floor above is similarly preparing for sleep...removes his shoes and let's one fall to the floor with a thud. The individual of our focus is wrested from the brink of sleep by the sound above him; he waits for the second shoe, the famed "other" shoe to drop so that he can return his concentration on achieving sleep. Of course he cannot. The wait for the sound of the other shoe dropping has claimed his focus. It could well be that the guest in the upstairs room has realized the consequences of letting the first shoe drop. Out of consideration, he has resolved that the other shoe shall be set down quietly. But the expectant one cannot achieve sleep until he has heard the second shoe drop.

The other shoe dropping may be an actual physicality, such as the lodger in the upstairs room removing his shoes; it may also be an association made by one character or a realization achieved by a character. Oscar Madison, one half of Neil Simon's dramatic odd couple, is used to getting verbal suggestions and written notes from his roommate, Felix Unger, any of which serve to intensify the growing irritation Madison feels toward Unger. But as the narrator of Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado" puts it, "when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge." In this case, Felix Unger's venturing on insult is not at all intentional but is nevertheless seen by Madison as having crossed a line, of having gone too far. What is Unger's step over the line, his dropping of the other shoe? Why, leaving a note for Madison signed merely with his initials. How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of a note signed FU?

Anticipation is a cherished dramatic force, whether the drama is comedic or tragic. Simplistic as it may sound to offer the council that the reader is in a constant state of expectation, it is virtually unthinkable not to mention anticipation

Hint: At some point during the revision process, see if there are any shoes being dropped, any event that would cause irritation or consternation to visit a character, perhaps even an event that refuses to go away. Then exploit it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


novelette--a narrative running between 7500 and 25000 words; an arbitrarily defined narrative whose length is longer than a short story and not quite so long as a genre or category novel.

All of Alice Munro's short stories have the feel of novels, but this is because her ability to evoke characters, situations, and settings is so commodious and accomplished. It may be positively said of her that she has compressed novels into a shorter form; it may also be said that it is difficult to read one of her short stories without feeling as though it had the texture and layering of a novel. 
 Many of Munro's short stories have elements commonly associated with novels, elements such as multiple point of view, protracted time span, and extensive shifts in locale (or at least significant shifts from urban to rural settings).

Although technically a novel because of its theme, throughline, and ensemble cast of characters, George Orwell's Animal Farm is often spoken of as a novelette, perhaps as a mild rebuke or patronizing response to the author because of the political views expressed in the work. E. B.White's iconic Charlotte's Web is rarely spoken of a novelette and generally regarded as a novel intended for younger readers. 

 The Orwell and the White are of an approximate length. For a better perspective, try thinking of the serialized story that once appeared in monthly magazines. These had a reduced length, ensemble cast of characters, possible shifts in point of view, and possible shifts in time frame. Such stories were edited with an eye to cliffhanger episode endings and overall space considerations. 

 In the 1950s and 60s, Cosmopolitan Magazine editorially trimmed such novel-length mysteries as Ira Levin's A Kiss Before Dying and Bill S. Ballinger's A Portrait in Smoke to make them fit in one edition. These and other novelettes (see also novella) appeared later in unedited hardcover and paperback book form.

Because of its word length and the subsequent decision to package it as a part of a hardcover book, Houghton Mifflin packaged Philip Roth's narrative, Good-bye, Columbus as a novella. Had it been given first appearance in a magazine, it could easily have been called a novelette.

In the belief that younger readers are less likely to stick with the 210,000-word length of Moby-Dick, or the 600,000 words of War and Peace, YA novels such as Gary Soto's Afterlife cap at 40,000 words or under. Books for younger readers tend to cap at less, with such nineteenth century titles as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Uncle Tom's Cabin remaining as pre-TV anomalies.

Hints: Write the story for its length. Revise it for its length. Send it forth into the world at whatever length you have felt best presents it. Depending where it is sent, if it is under 40,000 words and over 200,000, expect an argument.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Sense of Story

"in the story"--a condition in which the writer is actively immersed in the activities and details of a story to the extent of proceeding in the process without thinking; being in the emerging, creative details of a narrative.

However well planned it may be in the beginning or, conversely, however much in the moment the developing story stands, it is a place on an emotional map for the writer. Being too thoughtful, too mindful of readership or audience removes the writer from a precise place on the emotional map, opening the door for too much detail, too much explanation, too much self-justification from the various characters. All of this contributes to the writer being evicted from and thus "out of the story", needing to sneak back inside if anything more is to be done.

Time enough during the revision process for critical thought, rearranging of scenery, meddling with time lines.

How to get "in" the story? Find out what the characters want, then set them free to secure the goal, watching to see what ruses they will employ, and to what depths they will reach to gain an advantage. Next step, consequences emerge, demanding payment.

Friday, June 5, 2009


distraction--a character, event, or detail that will shift attention away from the main goal in a dramatic narrative; an accidental or deliberate device having the effect of arousing the reader's curiosity and possibly as well the interest of one or more characters within the story; a detail that because of its being noted by writer or character has the power to change the direction of the story in which it appears.

Distractions appear as a result of authorial laziness, authorial intervention into a narrative, or through random accident. Distractions may be deliberate calculations, sometimes no more than a word, much of a piece with a skilled magician using some device to distract the audience from seeing the mechanics of an illusion. The point to be emphasized is that distractions take the reader's attention from the procession of story elements. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on the writer's intent. A distraction or digression will raise expectations in the reader and, possibly, within other characters, triggering the reader-as-matchmaker instinct, causing the reader to make assumptions, to wait for a payoff which might not come.

Even though the writer is as conversant with the necessary elements in a story underway as a director is aware of the throughline in a written narrative, the most efficient mental state for the writer at work is the state of being "in the story," or completely immersed in the movement of events. Unanticipated details emerge from such states. It is a good policy to include them and move on until the next convenient moment for revision and possible rethinking. In other words, do not think about these distractions as they appear, waiting instead for a thinking mode--a revision mode--to decide whether they stay or go. Yes; you heard that correctly: details come rushing forth during the writing mode. Like guests wanting the maitre d' to seat them in the restaurant, they must be given appropriate scrutiny. Do they belong? Do they enhance the story? Or, like the fabled tourists with white belts and loafers, worn with green polyester trousers, are they distractions?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Distraction: On the other hand...

digression--a movement away from a story line; a detail, introduction of character, time shift, or description that calls the reader away from details vital to the understanding of and immersion in the present narrative.

Digression is either a dramatic strategy or a literary wrong turn, the former a contrived movement that will have the effect of urging the reader to continue reading, the later a case of the author becoming impressed with some detail of surrounding, of meaning, or of implication that will have the effect of causing the reader to say, "Huh? What was that about?" The gap between the two poles is, sadly, rather narrow, hence these questions: Does the digression directly add a sense of tension or suspense to the narrative? Digressions in novels are easily achieved--merely shift the point of view to another character, who is appropriately engaged in intriguing activity. This strategy causes the reader to suspend focus on the previous situation, although keeping it close at hand. A short story proposes a more difficult situation because words must be chosen with mosaic precision. Digressions in short stories may be achieved and accommodated in short stories by having one or more characters respond directly to the digression, questioning its very appropriateness (which is what the reader will be doing).

A key to understanding the related plateau of anticlimax is the awareness that digression produces distraction, which in turn yields anticlimax. Digression and distraction combine forces to undercut the dramatic momentum of story. Writers need to develop a search-and-destroy agenda for digression and distraction. This agenda begins with the close examination of the digression to see if it will effectively assist the payoff of the story or is placed where it is merely as an advertisement for the writer's ability with words. Does it lead to a relevant discovery, or is it in fact merely showing off? If it does contribute to a discovery the reader and one or more characters may achieve, stet it; if it is merely showing off--well, that will not get us very far.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Gut Feelings: Intuition or Heartburn?

romanticism--male and female writers, male and female characters acting out their enthusiasm; a dramatic, personal attitude reflecting a passionate interest in and curiosity about travel, science, history, animals, behavior in general, art, food, drink, literature, all terrains of the imagination; an overwhelming belief in the potential inherent in humanity; an instinctive and vigorous distrust of philosophies or systems that diminish or remove altogether the sense of individual choice based on individual responsibility.

Although romanticism and romance have a brief arc of overlap, the two concepts, particularly in the literary sense, go their separate ways. The romantic is the Quixote-like character but equally the Tom Jones or Becky Sharp or Asher Lev character, off in the world to seek some form of fortune. The romantic is often forced to squint at the accouterments of reality because of the dazzle of reflected light from the goal or ideal. 

 A scholarly debate of some vigor argues the likelihood of Geoffrey Chaucer having worked at translation of a medieval French poem, The Romance of the Rose, which involved such romantic tropes as dream visions and the true identity of the protagonist Rose, as in, was she a real person or a metaphor for all women? The scholarly debate adds yet another note of romanticism to the persona of Chaucer, who also may or may not have been a spy, may or may not have been involved in a court case where he was charged with rape. Ah, the possibilities.

Romance is more an extended and complex display of a wedding cake, complete with bride and groom effigies at the top tier. Will a particular couple stop fighting long enough to get married? Will Beatrice and Benedick find true happiness? Will the Wife of Bath finally settle into a good relationship with a man, and is her current husband, Jenkyn, Mr. Right? As readers, we already know we feel pretty sure about Jane, so much so that we cannot help wonder if Rochester is going to make her happy. And as we nervously reread the final paragraphs of the ur-romance, Rebecca, can we be absolutely sure that the nameless narrator is going to be okay with Mr. Right?

Both romanticism and romance are considerable forces for a writer to deal with. After rereading The Crystal Cave by Mary Renault, we are tempted to observe that romanticism (as well as the English language) is alive and well, thank you. Even though Candice Bushnell exudes a tangy modernity and edge, any of her novels assures us romance--at least in her hands--has not gone vegan on us.

Romanticism recognizes the nine-to-five job but argues in favor of the intuitive, aggressively emotional state over the more formal, rational, mechanical. Thus does romanticism become alchemy as it helps transmute the perfervid scientist into Dr. Frankenstein, who may have slightly overreached. Thus does romanticism bring drama into the equation by matching Dr. Jekyll against the neo-Russeauian Mr. Hyde. 

 Indeed, isn't Natty Bumpo the Russeauian noble savage, gone around the bend. Not to forget John Yossarian nor, for that matter, Tom Joad. Romanticism gives the writer a sterling opportunity to take on established order, one of the most splendid examples of all inherent in lead character and writer in Huckleberry Finn, the former taking on social caste and civilization, warts and all; the latter taking on the excesses of Sir Walter Scott (whom he came to loathe), slavery, and race relations in the U.S.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


implications--meanings or qualities expressed by indirection or double entendre (see);attributions attached to a character by demonstrations of how that character performs or does not perform; markers or signals strategically placed in a story to cause the reader to make assumptions about the intent of a character and/or subsequent events in a narrative.

Implication resides at a considerable distance from--but still in sight of--the trope "show--don't tell," allowing the reader to see, to suspect, thus confirming that said reader has bought into the characters and their story. This is polar to the notion of the writer describing character traits. Under the circumstances of a proper set-up, the reader will assume two characters have some romantic destiny or that, were they to continue as they have, they will evolve to a serious conflict. The more the writer allows the characters to proceed on a vector of (a) each pursuing his agenda or goals and (b) each responding in some way to the others in a particular scene, the more implications will be broadcast for readers to pick up and, accordingly make. The reader is not only a natural match maker, as mystery writer Leonard Tourney has observed, most readers fill in their own descriptions and images of characters, thinking and feeling things about them, waiting for these thoughts and feelings to emerge.

Thus are the variables of assume and assumption introduced into the calculus of story to work their way on the reader.

Hint: As the writer, you know the tendencies and attitudes, even the secret desires of the characters, allowing you to write at them--in their general direction--but not directly to them. And thus will you have set your toe in the pond of implication.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Secret-Sharer

secret desire--a dream, plan, or agenda held in absolute confidence by a character; a wished-for outcome with a romantic, career-based, or otherwise political outcome nourished by an individual in a story.

When pushed to extremes, many individuals will readily confess to being indifferent lovers or bad drivers; they will do so well before admitting their secret desire to anyone, making a strong argument that true power over an individual is not related to sexual prowess or financial position but rather to knowledge of another's secret desire. This secret desire may very well be sexual or financial in nature. It may also be the ability to perform well at a sport or in a particular art. The secret here is, in fact the secret. Most individuals who wish to act or dance or sculpt or play the B-flat Selmer saxophone are upfront and open about their wishes, but a person who indulges in secret the desire to sing or dance or write or sculpt is setting forth at the very limit of vulnerability. That person would be mortified to have his agenda known, preferring to continue the fantasy life or the secret desire or preferring the risk of leading a double life in which working toward that secret desire had provided enough inner security for the dreamer to go public.

The argument is provocative: Every character has in addition to stated goals and agendas a secret desire. Let us, through the magic of projection (which is what many secret desires are in the first place, suppose a number of men whose secret desire it was to have a sexual relationship with a current public figure female entertainer, an equal number of women similarly attracted to the notion of a sexual relationship with a current public figure male entertainer. So far, nothing out of the ordinary, so let's inject the beginnings of combustion positing a male character who is having a sexual relationship with a current public figure female entertainer. He is in effect experiencing the wildest dreams and fantasies of a number of other males. Now we have to wonder who this man has a fantasy desire with or, alternately, what his secret desire is. The same turnabout works with a woman who is in a sexual relationship with a much desired male figure.

The intriguing question arises, What would your characters do if someone discovered the very secret desire held by another person? To add a note of irony and complication into the equation, suppose Character A's security has been breeched; someone now knows her tightly held secret desire. Character A is aware of this breech. What does she do to protect herself? And then there is this related scenario: Character A's security has been hacked. Someone knows her secret. But the someone who knows doesn't care, isn't the slightest bit impressed. What does Character A do and how does she do it, the goal being to keep the progression of events an arguable dramatic format--a story?

Luis Alberto Urrea's 2009 novel, Into the Beautiful North, posits Nayeli,a nineteen-year-old who works at a taco shop in a remote Mexican village, who dreams of her father, who has gone northward, to Los Yunites, you know, the United States, there to make a better living and a better life. But her dreams are not deep enough or secret enough to be the yeast for a novel. Accordingly, into this calculus, Urrea adds a realization that most of the men in this small village have gone northward, and now a group of drug dealers have noticed the lack of men, moving now to take over the village. We're almost there because, one night, when Nayeli is at el cine, watching a subtitled re-run of El Magnifico Siete, The Magnificent Seven, her secret desire metastasizes to the point where she must do something about it. Nayeli's secret desire is to sneak into Los Yunites, find her father and six other Mexican males whom she will entice to return to Mexico, where they will, ala El Magnifico Siete, take on the nasty drug dealers.

Having one's secret desire made public is one way to get a story going, possibly, as in Joe Orton's play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, lead to the ending. Even fear of discovery will prompt behavior. You don't have to let the cat out of the bag or the genie out of the bottle, but the array of combustive and original story vectors await writers who know this buried secret of all their characters. Doesn't hurt if they know where to dig.