Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Design

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?

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