Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tradition

tradition--a system of customs, rituals, practices; a long-standing literary apparatus for passing myth, history, and cultural beliefs from one generation to the next; a genre or platform for presenting story or coded cultural lessons and information.

Story is carefully arranged dramatic information, arranged to have maximum effect on the hearer and then, as language became written, then printed, to have the added effect of being transcendental. Quite a daunting gulp to lay on a writer, nevertheless it is so; story is the dramatized version of traditional information and social behavior options. People tell stories to instruct; people read stories to learn or to be transported to places and situations they have not themselves experienced.

Story in the aggregate is a record of evolved cultural tradition. Many stories that frightened us in our childhood amuse us in our adulthood or dotage. Story is the process by which tradition undergoes evolution, both in content and form. Just as music may be placed in time by an assessment of its tonality, story may be a reflection of cultural growth by close observation of the traditions it extends and perhaps even breaks. Short stories have evolved more radically than novels, but such novels as Annie Proulx's The Shipping News have stretched the traditions of style, place, and internal rhythm; novels such as John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men have stretched the traditions of theme, place, and the moody sense of life's purpose.

Tim O'Brien broke a number of narrative traditions in The Things They (the they being U.S. servicemen in Viet Nam) Carried, while Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler broke the traditions of place, motive, language, and construction in the novel of mystery and suspense.

Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones broke the tradition and convention in which a principal character could not, once dead, be the narrator of a long form story. Susy Salmon, protagonist of Bones is dead by the second paragraph.

It is no guarantee, but a story that somehow pushes the envelope of tradition to the breaking point is more likely to be remembered. That said, story construction is of paramount importance; so are characters, motives, point of view, and voice. When they are altered merely for the sake of alteration, nothing is gained or served. When traditions fall in the service of providing a memorable story, reader, writer, and characters are served.

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