Saturday, December 12, 2009

Story as The La Brea Tar Pits

Story has become a set of circumstances from which all concerned, characters, reader, and writer are trying to extricate themselves.  Once each is free of these circumstances, the story has been launched with a life of its own.

Characters take first place in the hierarchy of individuals trying to free themselves, somewhat like the larger fish trying to free themselves from the giant nets cast to trap smaller fish.  Their progress in all areas of their involvement with the story are of primary interest to the readers and the writer.  They are living demonstrations of the difference between life, which, in charitable terms, is multifarious, not always structured and, if structured, not according to human terms.

Readers are trapped in story to the extent at least of their identification with the circumstances in which the characters are cast, wanting some of the characters to succeed at the expense of others, recognizing that life may often have entirely other plans.  Readers want to see life as story because doing so offers them chances to get things they wish to have, avoid things they wish to avoid, and rest assured that justice is real and potent as opposed to benign and abstract.

Writers are trapped in story because of the need that drives them in the first place, nudging them to push these manifestations of themselves into tight existential and moral corners.

You may well begin working on a story of longer work with a character whom you conflate with one or more individuals for whom, in real life, you have little or no use.  You may also begin with a type for whom you have no immediate emotional association.  The former type is no problem; it is natural, certainly permissible, to dislike a character at one point in the story.  Readers do so all the time.  The latter is another matter.  You must quickly find details, mannerisms, goals for that character which, by their very nature, will tip the balance within you, causing you to dislike, show disdain, or disagree with that character to the point where you will have to change your attitude.  True enough, as some persons in real life cannot be expected to change, some characters within stories cannot be looked upon to change.  But you can and should be able to change, arriving at the very least in a state of acceptance toward that character you once disliked or thought to be irreparable.

The key to storytelling is your understanding of the story before you and your characters' understanding of the implications of the story in which they swim and flail in their attempts to get free.  So long as your attitude to a character remains constant, you are trapped in the one-dimensional world of cliche and/or outline, of characters behaving as types rather than individuals.

This entire calculus of awareness is, to mangle the metaphor, like multiplication tables which must be memorized to the point of being internalized so that you do not think of them so much as have the correct relationship stored in muscle memory.  The more you commit to memory the awareness of story being a pattern masquerading as a trap, the less often you will need, while in the midst of getting down a solid draft of a story, to do the dramatic equivalent of counting on your fingers.

Repeat after me:  When a story doesn't work, it is because a character you have invented has become an individual you don't know, trapping you inside the inability to get that character more firmly enmeshed in a pattern you know all too well but are not yet willing to claim.

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