Thursday, July 2, 2009

Design for Living

design--a dramatic plan or structure; a deliberate manipulation of dramatic elements with the intent of producing a story; a plot or story arc intended to generate a lasting and memorable effect on the reader.

Design is, in this sense, a noun; it may also be used as a verb in which case it becomes the act of producing a plot line or arrangement of significant dramatic elements that lead to a satisfying conclusion. Plot-driven stories are those in which the design may become predictable, even though the emotional effects such as suspense, tension, horror, anticipation, dread, longing, etc may vary. The better of the plot-driven stories, say those of Harlan Coben or Lee Child, implicitly offer a design of sufficient complexity and issues at stake to lure the reader's attention away from the design while producing one or more of the previously listed emotions. In many ways, such stories are the equivalent of Navajo rugs, intricate, colorfully patterned, pleasing to experience. Character-driven stories are designed to provide emotional responses as well as moral, intellectual, and aesthetic challenges. Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, while superbly plotted, brings characters on stage with issues that actually call their very sense of self into question, luring the reader well past the notion of mere formula or suspense and into self-examination that could produce uncomfortable feelings.

A conventional approach for producing both types of pattern, the more geometrically structured as well as the more open-ended design begins with confronting a single character with a choice of behavior or the need to make some choice within a narrow time frame. On a more plot-oriented design, a character may be given a choice between serving out a long prison term or accepting a life-threatening assignment as a ticket to forgiveness for the crime that landed the character in prison. As well, a character may be confronted head-on with the need to chose allegiance between two feuding factions. One possible approach for beginning a character-driven story is to present the lead character with the need to find out some highly relevant information from his own past or from the past of family, a quest that will lead to the discovery of some unspeakable information. Jay Gatz, later to become Jay Gatsby, began a quest to find his former love, Daisy Buchannan, a quest that brought Gatsby into the midst of a complex pattern or love, betrayal, and social collision.

Particularly in a longer short story, a novella, or a novel, changing points of view in rendering the narrative will have a measurable effect on the dramatic design.

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