elliptical orbit--a story path veering off from the circular orbit of the conventional narrative; the oval-shaped path of a story, implying a movement away from tight plotting while still appearing to revolve about a recognizable theme.
Conventional short stories and novels tend to follow the structure of the domino theory, in which events are arranged in close enough proximity to cause one dramatic event (a robbery, for example)to trigger another (unanticipated complication for the robber: get-away car stalls, flat tire, traffic jam), which triggers the arrival of an investigative agency responding not to the robbery but the stalled car, which triggers the appearance of the investigative agency responding to the robbery, which triggers a bureaucratic confusion in which the robbers escape, etc.
As stories and novels evolve beyond the conventional plot formation, the behavior of the characters involved becomes more notional, producing surprise and variations on reader expectations. The writer's role in such stories is to provoke questions rather than to insist upon or even suggest answers. Thus do those frequent passengers, ambiguity and subtext, hitch rides on the traveling sphere, pulling the circular orbit slightly off course and into an ellipse.
Let Poe's "A Cask of Amontillado" represent the uniformly circular orbit or domino theory short story, with James Thurber's more recent trope on the same kind of revenge theme represent the tendency to veer off slightly, and Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain" represent the elliptical nature of the latest evolutionary step in the decidedly elliptical orbit of the short story.
With this in mind, the question to the writer becomes: What new thing can you do for story while still keeping it a story?
Thursday, April 30, 2009
elliptical orbit--a story path veering off from the circular orbit of the conventional narrative; the oval-shaped path of a story, implying a movement away from tight plotting while still appearing to revolve about a recognizable theme.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
beating a dead horse--pursuing a conversation, line of inquiry, or agenda that has been overcome by events; a character endlessly blaming himself or others for the consequences of some previous act or decision; taking a had-I-but-known trope to an even greater extreme of recrimination; not merely crying but sobbing over spilled milk.
The worst example of animal abuse or beating dead horses comes when a character flails self on the breast, bemoaning some missed opportunity or some previous seduction that seemed like a good idea at the time. Even the rule of three--three repetitions--can be one or two kicks too many. Try a scene in which a character recalls such a time. Or try a scene in which another character chastises the beater of horses of record with "You're not still blaming yourself for that, are you?"
Cutting material is an art of its very own, and difficult to learn, but one good place to start is with the kicked horse. Another way to approach this matter is to ask during the revision period how much the reader needs to be reminded. Remember as well the number of persons who called you out for having Denise blink her green eyes on page 41 when those same eyes were a reassuring coffee brown on page 28. Readers do note anomalies, even if they are deliberate ones set into place by such authors as Mario Vargas Llosa in his romp, Aunt Julia and the Script Writer.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Mickey Mouse endings--an ending to a short story or novel in which justice triumphs with a loud tap of the gavel and the characters act as though they'd just been awarded E tickets to Disneyland; exaggerated all's-well-that-ends-well conclusions, prognoses, or payoffs.
True enough, not all stories require endings in which characters are being led to the gallows or guillotine or even seen rolling up their sleeve for a fatal injection. Many stories build to conclusions that by their very nature transmit touchy-feely emotions and are to be relished as, say, a frothy cappuccino would be relished or a bottle of Sierra Nevada pale ale. Mickey Mouse endings connote a mindless move toward propagandist tropes which pay homage to cultural decorations. Such endings relegate the protagonists of a story to the equivalent of the figures atop wedding cakes, a doughy, sugar-laced concoction colored with vegetable dye.
It is no accident that the iconic nice-guy figure from the second generation of comics in America has devolved into an adjective for types of music, books, and ad hoc events suggestive of music heard while riding in elevators or while waiting on hold for customer support from large organizations with whom we deal and have frequent issues. In a terrible celebration of wholesome excess, Mickey Mouse endings have become associated with the controlling imperatives of the company that owns him via copyright and registered trademark, a formulaic vision of the human condition, fostering a subtext of cynicism bordering on outright antipathy.
Much about endings of stories can be learned from reading the short stories of Anton Chekhov and James Joyce, adding to this accretion of wisdom the dead-pan wryness of Mark Twain, leavening the mixture with the individual writer's own special view on what it takes to make a go of life in the twenty-first or, for that matter, any century.
Yet more is to be learned from comparing the rules of behavior surrounding Mickey Mouse and his ensemble crew with the rules and regulations governing yet another figure from the animation world, Wile E. Coyote. From the former "bible," the writer can glean little more than ways to produce Mickey Mouse endings. From the latter, the writer can glean a workable recipe of humor, irony, and a GPS of the human agenda.
Monday, April 27, 2009
happy ending, the--an outcome of a story or novel in which one of more of the lead characters is successful in achieving a goal; a payoff or result of a narrative in which the behavior of the protagonist leads the reader to feel optimistic; characters getting what they want without having to overpay.
One could almost paraphrase Tolstoy with the observation that happy endings are all alike, then qualify that observation with the added observation that the happy ending is the one where most of the characters achieve some measure of success after having competed for it. One could also consider the number of such endings that were dictated by publishers after having read the original endings produced first by their authors. Charles Dickens, who knew his way around endings, comes to mind with his original ending to arguably his most superbly realized novel, Great Expectations. Dickens's publisher was not happy with the ending, asked for, and got an alternate where things produced a greater glow of home, but at what cost?
In some noteworthy cases, publication seems to depend on the trope of the greater good rather that what works for a single character. The ending, which is to say the payoff of Lolita had to have a justice-is-served ending because the stakes were--and still are--so high. Conventional morality wants Humbert Humbert to have suffered more than he already has. Conventional morality wants to forget that Dolores-Dolly-Lolita might have been sophisticated and aware enough to have read Humbert and his intentions and, accordingly, to have "been there" for him.
Two notably happy endings that bear heavy irony are found in Huckleberry Finn and Catch-22; each novel ending with the protagonist fleeing from a decidedly impossible situation. Both these happy endings deserve consideration and study. Each one has the protagonist faced with an untenable fate. As readers, we join them in that escape and consequently experience the happiness of the ending. Humbert Humbert is in a no-win situation. Even if he'd been able to ride off into the sunset with Dolores, we know she'd probably have grown tired of him soon enough and, indeed, he would have grown tired of her because she was already on the verge of outgrowing his range of interest.
As in other relevant matters, the writer must be the arbiter of what constitutes the happiness part of the happy ending trope. The better way to look at the happy ending is to see it as a "justice served" moment, when the time has come to cash in the characters' and the author's chips for dramatic currency.
Annie Proulx's short story, "Brokeback Mountain," written to expose what she felt was the resident homophobia of most rural areas, can hardly be said to have a happy ending, but given the characters and the author's stake in it, the payoff of the story speaks to the issue of justice and the double standard in its service.
Happy endings and sad endings are opening hands in the metaphoric poker game of the contemporary story; the true ending, the literary ending, comes with the reflection on the fate of the characters involved as it is measured against justice, served or not served.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
material--raw dramatic data; outtakes from previous writing projects; unused research data; scraps of overheard conversation; notes and observations made in alternate states of consciousness; suggestions from friends, family, and well-meaning readers; newspaper stories (particularly tabloids) focusing on intra-family disputes and feuds; ideas generated as a result of responses of admiration or disapproval while reading the work of another writer; moral, ethical, and social problems apparent to a writer but not yet emotionally sorted through; handwritten comments over one sentence in length, written on rejection slips.
In the best-but-broadest sense, everything is material, like an untidy desk, eagerly awaiting the writer's attention for the sorting-out process to begin. More than a placebo but slightly less potent than a steroid, material is the writer's holy grail, the radiant aura surrounding a creative impulse, the assurance that this is the material--more than any other material, particularly previous material--that will transform the writer's life, craft, and career. It is the arcane book on knots, found by Annie Proulx at a yard sale, that inspired and prompted her breakout novel, The Shipping News. It is the inspiration for the poem, "Kubla Khan," that visited Samuel Taylor Coleridge's psyche and upon which he was embarked before a pair of door-to-door missionary workers knocked at Coleridge's entryway, frightening away the inspiration.
On the feeding scale, material ranks close to the bottom. It is less by far than a concept or a glimmer or a hint of story; it is deceptive and radioactive in its shimmery promise. It is all book tour and New Yorker appearance, but no story.
It is no small thing to have material or, indeed, to have Moleskine notebooks, flash sticks, external hard drives, or three-by-five index cards on which to store such material. It is no small thing to embark on the intent of a night's sleep, mentally sorting through such material, scanning for the right trope, the right word, the key that will set the WM, The Writer Mind, off on a dizzying spiral of connecting thematic and dramatic dots. It is no small thing to note and record material, even with the foreknowledge that doing so makes one of a piece with those odd-looking men and women with the electronic scanning devices who roam the beaches and park sites just before dark, hopeful of finding something of value, often finding nothing more substantial than a beer opener or empty foil packet of peanuts.
Material is the entry ticket into the big tent of writing. The instincts to collect it, evaluate it, store it help provide the muscle memory for the technique of being a storyteller. It is inconceivable to think of a serious writer who has not amassed a trove of material, even more so inconceivable to think of a writer who has not been confronted by a well-meaning friend or family member who wonders openly what the value of such material is, how many actual stories it has produced, what revelations and new insights into the human condition it contains.
In truth, the material a writer collects is of a piece with the core samplings the earth scientist or archaeologist or polar cap specialist takes. Material is a core sampling of ideas, conversations, measurements, and observations of the world of reality and alternate universes of the imagination. Material is best interpreted by a writer.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
response--an acknowledgment, answer, or reply made by one character to one or more other characters; a dramatic answer to a dramatic question; an appropriate or inappropriate answer to an action, attitude, or question.
The spine of story involves confrontation of characters with differing agendas, a confrontation that can be developed within the framework of friendships, family relationships, professional relationships, or any conflation involving the manner in which individuals interact. This can be class- or status based, a PFC relating to a colonel or general, an employee dealing with an employer; it can also be generational, as in a grandchild dealing with a grandparent. The point here is that in dramas, characters don't go it alone--they react to other characters. This is also a necessary fiction in story and novel--and everything in between.
Some famous responses as examples:
Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.
Anton Chigurh and the convenience store operator in No Country for Old Men.
Bobby DuPre and the truck stop waitress in Five Easy Pieces.
Tom Sawyer and his friends in the whitewashing of the fence scene from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth after M. loses his nerve for killing Duncan in Macbeth.
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, M.D., in any Sherlock Holmes mystery.
Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo in The Midnight Cowboy.
Jane Eyre and Rochester in Jane Eyre.
Gatsby and Daisy in The Great Gatsby.
Frankie Machine's response to his wife, Sophie, in The Man with the Golden Arm.
Bartelby and his employer in Bartelby the Scrivener.
Chief Bromden and Randle P. McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.
In all of these examples, the characters have a layered, developing set of responses that grows by accretion as the story line progresses. To appreciate the interconnectedness of each is an enormous step toward the ability to constantly bring characters onstage together in ways that enhance the inertia and emotional drive of story.
Hint: There can be no chemistry between characters without response.
Friday, April 24, 2009
submission--an offering of a novel or short story for publication; a presentation of a manuscript to a literary agent or editor with hopes of impending publication; a practice engaged in by a writer in which work is offered to a publishing venue.
The moment comes when a writer knows a particular work is finished, that there is nothing more to be done to it without transforming it into something altogether different that what it is now, that readers will not be aware of any additional tweaking or changes. If the work is a novel, the writer usually sends it to a literary agent because relatively few publishers will read book-length manuscripts unless they have been invited. If the work is a short story, the writer sends it to the editor of a magazine or journal, hopeful of it being accepted and scheduled for publication. Such is the nature of submission. Writers wishing to have their work published accept the process of submission as a way of life, just as the actor or actress accept the reality of audition, equally as the musician accepts the reality of audition.
True enough, some writers are invited to submit stories to journals and novels to publishers. These writers are generally veterans of previous publications, which came from previous submissions.
As a generality, writers whose work reflects a difference in theme and voice, while observing an awareness of what makes a story, will have a higher rate of acceptance than writers who strive to make their work less different, possibly even lapsing into derivative or imitative approaches.
Beginning writers see submission as some Sisyphean chore; published writers see submission as a way of writing life.
When Joseph Heller was told he'd have to change the title of his forthcoming novel, Catch-18, because it was on the same list as Leon Uris's Mila 18, Heller readily agreed to changing the title of his novel to Catch-22 because it had been submitted previously to twenty--one other publishers before being accepted.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
chick lit--a literary form intended for women and young girl readers; novels and short stories intended to appeal to feminine tastes and issues; a separate genre from romance, with the ultimate goal specifically not focusing on marriage.
Relatively speaking, chick lit is a new kid on the block, an equivalent for feminine readers of the adventure stories aimed at male readers. As adventure stories run the gamut in voice from a drill-sergeant gruffness to a knowledgeable attention to the details of engines, motors, calibers of bullets, and the specific terrains of bull rings, chick lit reflects a full-bore enjoyment of professionalism, fashions, dating, sexuality, and relationships in general. The chick lit voice strives for and often achieves a tone of humor, with all the edge and potential for pain and sad understanding that implies. In other cases, the chick lit protagonist tends to be self-effacing, but by no means embracing victimhood.
It is not so much a case of men being barred from writing chick lit as it is a case of the potential for a male writer of chick lit sounding a few degrees too ironic, which becomes sarcasm, which is no fun for anyone to read. Nor is it a case of chick lit being the emergence of revenge fantasy writ large for women writers; chick lit is an emerged attitude about the conditions and problems of life that follow women about as though they were stalkers.
The works of Candace Bushnell are apt targets for studiers of chick lit, and although it is nonfiction, the works of Maureen Dowd are excellent study guides for what not to do when writing chick lit.
On balance, chick lit may be thought of as serious literature for readers and writers, which means its endings are of a piece with Thelma and Louise and, to mix the gender metaphor, of Huck Finn taking off for the territory ahead, fleeing from civilization. Some endings of chick lit novels are happy in the plausible sense. Others are reminiscent of Yossarian in Catch-22, taking off in a small boat for Sweden, hoping to flee the consummate madness that is war.
As with all emerging genera, chick lit is pushing envelopes of convention. To write it, the writer must remain abreast of the tide.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
slice of life--a relatively plotless stream of incident from a segment of a character's daily routine; a term used with varying degrees of sarcasm to describe a collection of scenes that may or may not be a short story; a dramatic narrative of any length.
Earth and ocean scientists frequently take core samplings of terrain under, variously, polar caps, oceans, and soil strata to examine the processes of sedimentation, weather, pollen/seed density, etc. Similarly, some writers, perhaps in the process of building a background on a character, take a sampling of a day or year in the life of that character. You could pursue an argument with some weight that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a slice of life; to be sure, it is a purposeful if highly romanticized one, said purpose substituting for a plot. It is beyond argument that the sequel, involving Sawyer's great chum, Huckleberry Finn, is not a slice of life but rather a plotted adventure, thus slice of life can be defined as a core sampling of life, being examined.
Instead of a denouement or negotiated settlement investigated in much twenty-first century narrative, slice of life depends on a single, evoked feeling, whether that feeling produces laughter, sadness, remorse, or nostalgia. Under close investigation, James Joyce's monumental core sampling, Ulysses, is slice of life writ large, its scrupulously close following of The Odyssey in no way a tie-in to a conventional plot. Another case for argument: Alexander McCall Smith's The Ladies Number 1 Detective Agency treads closely along the verges between slice of life and an actual plot. True enough, Mma Ramatsowe is given something to solve, but is it really a problem or more of an enigma?
Thus the resident enigma of the slice of life narrative: is it a story--or not? Writers aiming their narrative sights on a readership with more specific genre tastes will do well to consider McCall Smith's approach to narrative rather than the sometimes bewildering visions of Donald Barthelme or the short fiction of Raymond Carver as edited by Gordon Lish.
In slice of life as in the tightly plotted works of Harlan Coben and Lee Child, the ball is always in the writer's court, which is to say the senses of satisfaction and completion reside within the author and let the reader rather than the devil take the hindmost.
The writer at some point must arrive at an individual template for what a story is, then compose to the integrity of that template. To encourage the writer to think this point through, this question: Is Tobias Wolff's "A Bullet in the Brain" a short story or a slice of life?
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
don't tell the reader what the reader already knows--a needless repetition of dramatic events already seen; repetition of dialogue exchanges; belaboring motivation, character flaws, and implications.
At some point in the equation, the reader has to be let beyond the red rope barrier to the entrance to the story, allowed to find a preferred seat, and participate in the story being told, in other words, allowed to infer. This comes at a price to the writer, who is likely to have been stung in other dramatic venues by readers who completely misinterpret, then go forth to make erroneous assumptions about the motivations of the characters and the intent of the author. Writers are enough control freaks as it is to take this challenge lightly, but the fact is that writers who over manage to make absolutely sure the reader "gets" his intention is in fact dumbing the story down and not taking necessary risks.
Hint: Always risk the possibility that the reader will understand. Information exchanged between two or more characters in dialogue may be summed up tersely in narrative later on. Example, "He told her the details of his conversation with Fred and Willie. She had no questions, seemingly understanding why he'd acted as he had."
Similarly, don't remind the reader with stage directions that Fred had a furious temper and was likely to fly into murderous rages. Let the reader see theme, intent, and dramatic inevitability the way, for instance, John Steinbeck did in his depiction of the character Lennie in Of Mice and Men, reminding us through incident of Lennie's unintentional potential for inflicting painful consequences on the very things he found attractive and comforting.
Monday, April 20, 2009
venture--a deliberate undertaking or plan; the action taken by characters based on a decision to proceed with an idea, opinion, or agenda; going forth with an agenda as goal, against possible risk; an action thought to provide some profitable outcome.
Some characters venture opinions or advice to others, the risk being they may be disagreed with or outright shouted down. Some characters venture forth, perhaps tentatively, perhaps even foolishly, hopeful of achieving an inertia or momentum that will carry them farther along the path to a goal.
One example of the venture-gone-wrong is the discovery by Llewellyn Moss of the botched drug deal in No Country for Old Men. Had Moss read the circumstances as he did, then left the money and the local, leaving the principals and perhaps the law to deal with the situation, there would have been no story. Seeing the results, as evidenced by a number of dead secondary players and the money, Moss undertakes a venture of his own, which in turn pushes the story beyond the tipping point and on into inevitability.
Yet another venture is the one organized by the character Sonny in the film story,Dog Day Afternoon. Sonny and two friends venture forth to rob a bank. One of his two accomplices experiences a combination of cold feet and enlarged conscience, and the venture is accordingly pushed beyond the tipping point.
Another venture still, young Romeo Montague decides to crash a party given by the Capulets, a family engaged in a feud with the Montagues. We all know how that venture payed out; thirty-six hours later both Romeo and Juliet are dead.
Ventures do not have to be doomed from the start; whether they are romance, adventure, or fanciful speculation, they may close on a theme reflecting the positive joys of making plans, then setting forth to accomplish them.
Sunday, April 19, 2009
risk--the potential for and probability of an unwanted outcome from a venture; the chances a character takes when acting or purposefully not acting on a decision; the possibility of a character having enhanced vulnerability as a consequence of a prior act.
The major defining trait of a character in story is agenda (See also goal, purpose); close on the heels of agenda comes the risk the character will endure in order to accomplish the goal. Faintness of heart may hang over a character, posing a threat not only of failure but of shutting the story down. A character who acts in spite of the faintness of heart is keeping the story and his hopes alive. Readers want to root for a character who has been pushed by circumstances to risk all in favor of the stated or implied goal. Think Gatsby for a few moments. Think Ishmael, signing on the Pequod if he'd known in advance of Ahab's agenda. Think of Dorothy Gale taking on the chores assigned her by the Wizard if she'd known his humbug status in advance.
An integral element of story is the epidemic sense of things going wrong to the point where the characters are often waiting for the next round of things that do go wrong, followed by the existential question, What next? Equally integral to story is the drive and willingness of characters to take risks in such story atmosphere.
If the risks in a given story are not of sufficient weight or consequence, the reader will come to realize soon enough that the story is in essence a matter of shooting fish in a barrel.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
proposal--a presentation for a book-length project; a first chapter, outline, story map, and marketing materials for fiction projects; a thesis or operating statement plus table of contents, one or more developed chapters plus a marketing guide for works of non-fiction.
A cynical-but-practical approach for book-length works of fiction is the straightforward one in which "The completed manuscript is the best proposal." This is so because, should the writer find a publisher willing to contract a work from an outline or proposal, the publisher is most likely to insist on the finished product being closely allied to the proposal. This means that any changes or developments that occur to the writer after the project has been formalized will be regarded as something other than what was agreed upon in the first place.
The fiction proposal introduces in actual text one or more lead characters who forge a bond of appeal for a targeted audience. The character or characters then become involved in a situation involving accelerated vulnerability or a looming deadline with dire consequences for failure (which the author now proposes to resolve with dramatic flair).
In addition to actual text pages, the fiction proposal contains as detailed an outline as possible to show the story arc. Even though the outlines for the individual episodes of the TV series, The Wire, were not intended to serve as an outline for a book, they do convey the tone and theme of the overall design and serve as a guideline for the writers of individual episodes.
The purpose of the proposal is to show interested literary agents and publishers that the writer is capable of telling a story, has a viable one at hand and some sense of how it will play out. Unspoken in the transaction is the need to overcome the publisher's suspicion that the writer will not be able to complete the work, a suspicion allayed by presentation of the completed manuscript.
Writers who have produced one or more previous works may be granted greater leniency in presenting a proposal for a work of fiction. A larger number of nonfiction books reach contract stage on the basis of a proposal than those submitted as a completed manuscript.
An ideal fiction proposal would have at least one completed chapter, preferably the first, in which one or more of the major characters is introduced. This would be followed by a list of characters with a brief description of their roles. Then either a chapter-by-chapter gloss or a detailed enough outline to define the main plot points. This would be followed by the author's estimate of the demographics of potential readers followed by a brief statement comparing the instant work with one or more published works. Although thematic material will likely shine through, an accompanying statement about the writer's attitude and intent toward some relevant social, ethical, or political issue is a useful adjunct. Such books as Cliff's Notes, Monkey Notes, and Spark Notes provide useful approaches to the plot outline.
Successful proposals rarely if ever cite best-seller lists or predict sales figures.
Friday, April 17, 2009
combustion--the point in a short story or novel where dramatic elements collide with sufficient force to provoke action leading to a conclusion; the aggregation of forces prior to denouement; the literal and figurative boiling over of story.
A useful metaphor: story is a crucible into which such elements as characters and their agendas, opposing forces, surprise, reversal, and shifts of power have been added and the heat of plot inertia is applied. The pressure becomes so great that the story combusts, explodes, boils over, leaving the characters to clean up the mess, which is to say effect some kind of resolution, however permanent or temporary.
Most stories, longform or short, have combustion points; those that do not can profit from them. An excellent example of the combustion point in a short story occurs in Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain," where Anders has already been introduced as the point of view through whom the story is told, the bank robber is introduced, and the animosity between Anders and the bank robber set in motion. One combustion point comes when the bank robber fires a gun. A combustion point in a longer work occurs in the film, The Third Man, written by Graham Greene. The combustion point is viewable on You Tube (Third Man/Ferris wheel scene). Holly Martens, the protagonist, meets his old friend Harry Lime in a gondola car of a large Ferris wheel in the Vienna amusement park and Lime delivers his now iconic disquisition on the Swiss and the cuckoo clock. As a result of this cynical observation from Lime, a line is drawn in the moral sand between the two friends.
Each combustion introduces the element of change into the respective stories cited here, nudging each to its unique conclusion. The chemistry becomes: combustion causes change which forces outcome.
Hint: Aggravate, drive, tease, torment the characters to a point where one or more of them moves beyond what he or she appears able to take, causing the behavior that will make some things irrevocable, sweeping safer options off the table. Characters who are always in control ultimately tire the reader. Characters who appear to have breaking points concern the reader. Characters who either discover or are driven to an interior place they did not know they had become permanent residents in the readers' mind.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
farce--a dramatic subset of comedy in which the pace and physical action intensify to the point of combustion; plot-driven circumstances which accelerate to the point where characters cannot adequately cope with them.
An appropriate analogy for farce is the now legendary state room scene from the Marx Brothers film, A Night at the Opera (available on YouTube), another analogy being the results when a professional juggler drops the dishes he has in motion and is now surrounded by broken china. The dramatic beats begin to come faster, adding a surreal note to the already comedic, physical atmosphere of the action, causing language and gestures that turn up the heat, leading to one final, uproarious explosion.
Farce may appear in any story, coming as a surprise, appearing when the reader least expects it but where, appropriately, the building tension of the story is growing more intense. Depending on the length of the story and the writer's ultimate goal for the conclusion, the whole narrative may have the atmosphere of farce. As an example, thanks to adroit use of farcical elements such as one or two over-the top scenes, Evelyn Waugh's satire, The Loved One, moves into farce.
The important point to emphasize here is that farce may rise above mere jokes, pie throwing, and slipping on banana peels even while using burlesque settings and techniques. For all its antic, zany humor, Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys has a strong texture of plausibility.
As with its cousin, humor, the intent of farce is to reduce some target by ridicule. Just as humor may well appear suddenly within a tragic or lofty narrative, so too may farce slip in the back door to work its effects. The goal of humor is the exposure of some painful truth or awareness. Farce aims further below the belt, wanting not only to destroy or render dignity inoperative but to inflict some damage on the furniture as well.
For the history-minded, Georges Feydeau (1862-1921), the French playwright, is generally considered to be the quintessential modern farceur, A Flea in Her Ear being one of the more legible and instructive.
Overly complex plots, mistaken identities, and misunderstandings are salient ingredients of farce, making such diverse examples as Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest, Noel Coward's Blythe Spirit, and yes, even Michael Chabon's The Wonder Boys arguable candidates for the farce hall of fame.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
novella--a literary form of greater length and complexity than a short story; a prose narrative of at least 15,000 words and as many as 40,000; a narrative of greater length and thematic structure than a novelette.
Although there have been some longer short stories with more than one point of view (See Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood for examples), this facet may be a way of drawing the arbitrary line between short story and novel more deeply; a novella could easily support more than one teller of the tale. A novella could also support more thematic density than a short story, leaving word length as a major boundary market between the novel, which begins at about 50,000 words.
Novellas are widely believed to have originated in Italy, probably at the hand of Bocaccio, who gave it a satiric bite and thus invested the form with a tradition of edge or corrective humor, which passed along to Chaucer who put the form to work and to rhyme in his Canterbury Tales. Given their own edge and relative shortness, chick lit could be argued into this tradition of providing outgoing characters whose reach to readers is based on their non-traditional approaches to the traditions held up to them by a conformist society.
One of the older American novellas was Herman Melville's Billy Budd, which spoke to the naivete of a young person. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is a poignant novella about friendship among a group of farm workers, taking its thematic title from a Robert Burns poem in which "the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley (go awry) and leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy." It remains a stunning blend of tragedy and the reach for a satisfying life. Yet another facet of the thematic potential in the novella is found in Philip Roth's early Good-bye, Columbus, which returns the medium to the sharp edge of satire, directed against classism.
Because of its in-between size, the novella is not a comfortable fit for most book publishers. Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea first appeared in a magazine. The Roth novella appeared as a book, but the publisher added five short stories to provide greater bulk.
Arguably a writer who finds the length of the novella suited to his dramatic visions, Jim Harrison has produced a large number of them, his publishers bunching them in triads for book publication. His most recent collection of novellas is 2005 package,The Summer He Didn't Die.
Hint for writers: All the writers named herein have long since given up writing to a particular word length, rather they write for the story, regardless of its length or brevity. Should a novella emerge, it can be bundled with one or more others, used as a feature for a collection of stories, and simply mounted as an electronic publication.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
conscience--a societal barometer consulted with varying degrees of frequency by characters in pursuit of their daily agenda; a mediating device between "want" or "desire" and "ought I?" or "Is this ethical?"; a behavior fulcrum.
Conscience plays a major role in fiction, its very composition an effective analysis of a character, particularly when compared to that character's sense of self and that character's needs. If conscience is seen as a societal lens through which social and ethical behavior may be judged,the reader will automatically form opinions about where a character is placed on an ethical scale, much in the manner of charting the growth in height of a young person with pencil marks on some communal wall.
Readers are given frequent opportunity to assess characters and consequently form judgments about them based on the character's conscience-based responses to previous actions. At the end of chapter one of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, the reader has seen the immediate consequences of a severe trial of conscience to Michael Henchard. To call the response guilt is to put it in mild terms. A good deal of the arc of Henchard's response to that first-chapter lapse will cause many readers to root for him and his apparent redress of the enormous occasion of guilt, but Hardy piles more travail on Henchard, bringing him face to face with yet another moral quandary. Thus does the human attribute of conscience appear in the novel, almost as though it were a person itself, seeking another quality that may differ among an array of readers: atonement, redress, revenge. Thus does endowing a character with a large conscience or, arguably, no conscience at all, set the stage for drama. Every bit as compelling as the first chapter in the Hardy novel is the payoff scene in Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, when the full force of what she has in her need for love done to her husband and stepson leaves its mark on Abbie Putnam's conscience.
Of a piece with the full-frame sensor on the Canon EOS 5D single-lens reflex, the conscience is also a receptor site, taking in intent, fantasy, consequences, implications; it may deliver a response of guilt or self-justification. Even with murderous and vengeful intent full upon him, Hamlet cannot bring himself to kill his intended target, King Claudius, not at this particular moment because he is at prayer. Macbeth, having made the decision to murder King Malcolm, momentarily relents when he sees a servant carrying a tray with a meal to Malcolm. Macbeth's conscience calls out to him in a sense with the reminder that this tray carries what will be Malcolm's last meal, from which trope he is reminded of the Last Supper, which to say the least puts a damper on his ambitions.
Conscience causes some men and women to refuse participation in armed conflict; as well it motivates their behavior relative to birth control and eating products derived from animals. Conscience makes its appearance in ways that may also add a note of wry off-the-wall humor, as in Frank Pierson's opera buffa, Dog Day Afternoon, which begins with three men deciding to rob the bank at 450 Avenue P, Brooklyn. No sooner are Sonny, Sal, and Stevie in the bank, guns drawn, shouting instructions to startled customers and bank employees, than Stevie decides he can't go through with his part, whereupon he leaves.
Back to Hamlet for a moment because of his observation that "conscience doth make cowards of us all," a reminder that many fear to act on their agendas for fear of the ransom gilt will require of the hostage. It becomes a fair question for the writer to ask of all his characters, How little or how much conscience does this character have? To which can be added, And what effect does that have on the character?
Monday, April 13, 2009
narration--any long dramatic recitation; an accounting of events; a story, novel, or drama; a dramatic discourse with a particular theme and/or goal; the way a story is related to the audience/reader; a manner of expressing dramatic information.
Narration is a generic term for story in one or more of its more specific forms (a film narration, a shortform narration, a stage narration). In context, it may also mean any part of a narration that does not include dialogue. Also in context, say Hamlet, one can refer to it as a narrative of revenge (implying that it does indeed contain dialogue). Narration is also spoken of in specificity as a narrative (a romantic narrative, a speculative narrative), leading us to the one or ones who transmit the dramatic information, the narrator(s).
Narrators are characters who carry the dramatic load for the author, removing the reader's or viewer's awareness of the author and contributing to the sense of the characters "coming alive" or seeming authentic.
General platforms for narrators are:
first person--the "I" who is relating or narrating the dramatic events.
second person--the "you" who is experiencing or narrating the dramatic events.
third person--the "he," "she," or a specific name, say Mary, or Mary Jones, or Jones.
multiple point of view--a number of third-person narrators.
omniscient point of view--where focus shifts to any number of characters within the same scene
authorial narration point of view--where the author appears to be saying things to the readers about one or more of the characters within a given scene.
Hint: There are some writers (Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Don DeLilo, W. Somerset Maugham, for instance) who are able to include themselves in scenes, making authorial comments, but these and others like them present a challenge to the less skilled among us. Readers are more apt to believe characters than they are likely to take the word of writers.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
revenge--a planned hurtful response to a real or imagined injury, a deliberate quid pro quo orchestrated by a character against another character, group, or institution; an act meant to restore a perceived loss of status.
Revenge is aptly thought of as the writers' emotion, beginning with an "I'll show them,"the them being teachers, family, and friends who thought writing was beyond the writer's ability or an infra dig profession), extending after the fact of publication to the "them" of critics who may have provided sneering reviews. It is the writer redressing the history of failed romances, failed earlier writings, even failed academic careers; allowing writers to refashion past failures, disappointments, and real or imagined slights. A romantic rival may be rendered as a blathering nincompoop, an academic concept may make its way past the stony reception of a tenure committee to a Nobel Prize or, worst case scenario, a Guggenheim Grant. A former lover may come to regret an intemperate decision to break off a relationship. Revenge may even produce a reversal of a known historical event.
Perhaps the most iconic of English-language revenge stories begins where a ghost appears to direct his son, Hamlet, to avenge his murder,although Wuthering Heights has claimed a spot on the wall. One of the quintessential American tales of revenge, Poe's 1849 short story, "A Cask of Amontillado," sets the inertia in motion with the first line, "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge." Not quite a hundred years later, "Cask" had its second coming as James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat," in which "Mr. Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway. It was theatre time and seven or eight men were buying cigarettes. The clerk didn't even glance at Mr. Martin, who put the pack in his overcoat pocket and went out. If any of the staff at F & S had seen him buy the cigarettes, they would have been astonished, for it was generally known that Mr. Martin did not smoke, and never had. No one saw him.
"It was just a week to the day since Mr. Martin had decided to rub out Mrs. Ulgine
Business has been good for revenge in America. Just two years after the Poe story came forth, two novels, Moby-Dick and The House of Seven Gables set it in literary stone, where it has flourished ever since in such well-known appearances as The Great Gatsby, Charles Portis' remarkable True Grit, and Donna Tartt's The Secret History.
Back to you, England, for the says-it-all-in-the-title tale of revenge by Jeffrey Archer, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, and the earlier classics from Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.
Take a character. Insert into that character's backstory the fact of having been wronged or carrying a grudge for a family member having been wronged. Add a few measures of revenge fantasy, then start writing.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
hubris--a display of pride or entitlement so vast in nature that it overrides an individual's more sensible behavior; the resident sense within a character of being right to the point where the character's behavior intentionally or unintentionally humiliates other characters; a near evangelical course of behavior from a character in service of a belief and/or goal.
Hubris drives many characters in the dramatic and literary arts, leading the reader to suspect that eventually such a hubris-driven character will have to pay a huge price. Was Achilles being hubristic in The Iliad, particularly after he had slain Hector in battle, then paraded his corpse about? Was King Creon showing hubris when he exacted his directive against his niece in Antigone? Was Ahab showing hubris when he gambled and lost against the whale? Was Dr. Frankenstein showing hubris when he believed he could take on Nature by creating life?
What began as indifference to or a disrespect for the Gods and Fates (who knew a thing or two about retribution) became as democratized as other aspects of social and moral behavior to mere humans who became impressed by their own self-interest to the point of believing it is their due to get what they want. Consider Charles Foster Kane as a modern force of hubris, forcing his wishes upon those near him and extending to individuals he might never meet. Thus consider all these larger-than-life characters made in part what they are because of a complete lack of empathy.
A guiding definition of a hubris-driven story is: How the mighty are fallen, the powerful being led to humiliation of their own, pushed along the road by hubris. Bringing the nature of hubris into tighter contemporary context, we examine how anyone of an overarching position of pride is brought down into disgrace and humiliation or, as Jane Austen did with the representational characters of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, the characters undergo an acceptable shift toward empathy. Although, since Austen is known for her keen wit and satire, perhaps she is saying that the payment for the positions of pridefulness and prejudice is--marriage.
Under most literary circumstances, there is some payment necessary for having lived at the level of hubris.
Friday, April 10, 2009
in medias res--literally in the middle of things; a reference to dramatic works that begin with a good deal of backstory having already taken place; a dramatically convenient way to expose the reader to the main characters.
One of the older, more enduring narratives with an in medias res beginning is The Iliad, where the Trojan War has already been raging for six years, and begins with a relatively minor incident in which one of the major players, Achilles, feels he has been insulted and consequently decides to stop fighting, indeed removes his Myrmidon warriors from the forces attacking Troy, a decision that could turn the tide of battle. Some of the other major players try to talk him out of his decision, during the course of which we get doses of backstory.
In medias res openings begin at some dramatic point which sets opposing forces in enough motion to engage the readers before taking a dramatic pause to fill in relevant details, descriptions, stakes, and issues. No less popular now than they were back in the early centuries, these openings become a valuable tool for writers to study. They support the removal of chronological constraints, and they guide the writer into beginning with situations where characters are actively engaged in conflict, by their very nature making it difficult for the writer to spend too much time on description or backstory the reader has not yet been prepared to accept.
A more recent in medias res novel worth study is Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, which in addition to its jumbled chronology, features John Dowell, at first a seeming naive narrator then, by degrees, an unreliable one.
There is nothing toxic or wrong with telling a story in more or less strict chronology. Tobias Wolff's memorable short story, "Bullet in the Brain," is a compelling example. "Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed," it begins, "so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers, anyway, Anders--a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed."
From this beginning, it proceeds in close chronology to the dramatic payoff.
In medias res openings often come as a result of a revision tactic in which the writer purposefully reviews the entire narrative, searching for the most ideal place to begin. Sometimes moving the furniture about for a better arrangement will transform a story from the ordinary to the memorable.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
narrative hook--a dramatic device intended to draw a reader into a story; placing an interesting character in a situation of stress or vulnerability; using a mystery or puzzle to intrigue readers; any combination of narrative circumstances and circumstances that arouse interest and curiosity in a reader; an effective scene or situation placed at the beginning of a story with the intent of building sympathy or an empathetic connection between reader and character.
Some narrative hooks are so simple and straightforward on the surface that they completely belie their subversive intent, almost to the point of daring the reader to set the work down without thought of returning to see what happens next. This observation is made to suggest the infinite varieties of narrative hook, ranging from those of the plot-driven story (a man or woman in immediate trouble) to the more character-driven (a character is confronted with an intriguing choice which must be made almost momentarily).
Regardless of the genre and appropriate ominousness of the circumstances confronting the characters, narrative hooks have as their goal gaining and keeping the attention of the reader. The key is some form of action or a deliberate inaction in the face of some need to perform, meaning the narrative hook is action based, often with little or no support by way of explanation or reference to past events which might have some effect on the present moment. Indeed, some narrative hooks are little more than effective opening lines, such as "Call me Ishmael." Having decided to compose a novel based on the merest fact in Melville's Moby-Dick that Captain Ahab had a young wife, Sena Jeeter Nasland needed for her own novel, Ahab's Wife, a first line that was appropriate competition as a narrative hook. Her own first line is a masterpiece of narrative hookery: "Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last."
Since they are in large measure circumstantial, narrative hooks work best when they explain least, using innuendo, implication, perhaps even double entendre, certainly more action than description, emphatically more action than thought. Description often slows the narrative hook from its intended effect, suggesting that the writer is well advised to see a specific goal of the narrative hook the goal of causing the reader to have questions at roughly the same time as the reader digests the situational plight of one or more characters.
After the hook has been"set," which is to say the reader has become engaged to read the work through to the very end, then the writer may begin offering some clues and explanations of what the reader may expect down the road. To do so before the reader is caught up in active concerns for the characters and the outcome is to misplace the dramatic information. It is always better to withhold information than it is to provide it at times when the reader is not likely to be interested. A better dramatic effect is had when the reader is put on the information diet, rather than being force fed details.
In terms of percentage, the formula of sixty-five percent action to thirty-five percent dialogue and description is a useful suggestion for deploying dramatic movement and information such as backstory.
See also opening velocity
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
volition--a character facing a decision and making a choice; the acts performed or not performed by a character in service of an agenda; a necessary quality of determination and purpose resident in a character; the inertial guidance system of a front rank character.
Integral to any understanding of character and the subsequent empathy for or antagonism to that character, volition is the analog of the purring engine, already converting fuel to energy, ready to move forth with elan. Volition is the engine of personality for a character, the defining set of impressions that determine how the character will behave in a given situation. Will that character elect, as Melville's iconic Bartleby did, to prefer not to? Perhaps the character is more of a mindset with Shakespeare's version of Henry V, invoking his troops to follow him into battle against the French at Agincourt, "...cry 'God for Harry, England and St. George!'" Of course girl and women characters bring an equally nuanced set of volition to the text. Look at Scout,the six-year-old narrator of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, who had to make some tough choices about the small Alabama town in which she was raised. Not to forget Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. It is highly probable that her early independence and strong-willed nature led her to the rebellious affair that resulted in Pearl, a child born out of wedlock. Although the narrator appears to disapprove of her behavior, his increasing sense of admiration becomes apparent as she, subject to the humiliation and alienation inflicted on her, becomes contemplative as she develops into a more dimensional character than any other in the novel.
For the writer, learning who the character is becomes the first step in a triad of priority. Now the writer must intuit what the character wants, at which point the character is ready to leap from no or a single dimension into the realm of nuance. Will the character make that leap? Now comes volition: What is the character willing to do to accomplish the goal? With that awareness radiating within the character and suspected all along by the reader, what explosive results will come forth? With persistence and honesty, the writer is drawn into the equation with the discovery of the depths to which the character will go. Did, for instance, Melville know how far Bartleby was willing to go to make his statement? Did Melville have any sense that Bartleby's position of preferring not to do what was asked of him become the instrument of his death? Perhaps it was the added element that often attaches itself to the accelerated atoms of volition--perhaps it was surprise.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
tragedy--a dramatic form based on loss and suffering; pivotal story conditions from which there is often no chance of recovery,in which characters experience excruciating grief; the actual or metaphorical loss of power, position, and happiness; stories in which individual characters appear to be led away from a course of action that would provide them with happiness by personality quirks they cannot control.
In grim metaphor, tragedy has become The Man Who Came to Dinner personified, visiting all segments of humanity, seemingly at whim. Tragedy is the Fates on a drunken spree, the forces of Life choosing a victim such as Job, seemingly from whim or boredom; it can strike nearly anyone, nearly anywhere; it can find its way into the caves of meditating yogis, the cells of monasteries, the congregations of synagogues, the mosques of the ultra-orthodox. Tragedy can strike at the heart of the most disciplined and severe aesthetic, he or she who has renounced all earthly things, by separating that individual from God. Thus tragedy is the ultimate vulnerability, the ever present threat that an individual can lose the one thing he values most, be it life, another person, youth, a special ability, or power.
Over its years as a staple in drama, tragedy has become democratized, extending its reach from the noble families of ancient Greece to the middle classes in America,say O'Neil's A Moon for the Misbegotten, Miller's The Death of a Salesman or All My Sons, and thence across the seas to the failed British comic,Archie Rice in John Osborne's The Entertainer. We can see tragedy personified in the wrinkled and battered face of actor Tommy Lee Jones, particularly in his portrayals of Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men, and Hank Deerfield in The Valley of Elah. Tragedy inheres in the voice of an Iraqi mother, heard over NPR, wailing in Arabic over the senseless death of an infant child, an innocent victim of a suicide bomber. Tragedy is everywhere, in actuality and lurking behind a mere twist of chance.
Tragedy can come at any age. In retrospect, a failed teen romance may seem a trifle in comparison to the loss of a life-long companion. The death of a childhood pet may be trumped by the unthinkable tragedy of a parent outliving a child, but just as well, these early losses may leave life long scars on the emotions of the individuals involved.
By watching and reading tragedy, the viewer/reader is able to participate in that remarkable human ritual known as catharsis; by sharing in the tragedy of the characters, the viewer/reader is brought closer to terms with his own personal tragedy.
Much has been made and much more remains to be made of the narrow boundary separating the tragic from the comedic. Laughter, after all, has a cathartic effect of its very own. Accordingly, in that writer-like way of detaching the writer self from the self who has experienced tragedy of some measure, we may observe that timing is everything. The comedic is tragedy speeded up.
Monday, April 6, 2009
transportation--the process of being taken to a mental, physical, and/or emotional state by means of reading a story or hearing it read; a condition of being caused as an observer of a staged drama, motion picture narrative, or televised presentation to identify with characters and cultures both in and out of your own personal background; a means of accepting and being convinced by the reality of a fanciful or realistic narrative.
The goal of the writer is to provide immediate, first-class transportation to the reader, with no hassle about lost luggage or chintzy in-flight meals; transportation recognizes the reader's passport immediately, does not insist on security checks. There are a good many competing conveyances out there in the world of conventional and electronic publication for the reader to have to experience any inconveniences. Frequent-flier miles are welcomed. Any successful story offers this seemingly ineffable quality of transporting the reader from his present, grounded reality into another reality in which the rules, conventions, and traditions of story exist to be broken, the ultimate goals being such destinations as disturbance, entertainment, information, and plausible suggestions for dealing with the moral and social conflicts of the reader's immediate present.
Twenty-first century readers may be transported to the eighteenth century,where they will experience a socio-economic landscape of pellucid clarity simply by picking up any of the three novels completed by Jane Austen. Similarly, readers wishing an entirely different type of transportation may follow the career path of one Valentine Michael Smith in Robert Heinlein's epic science fiction novel--regarded by many as the science fiction novel--Stranger in a Strange Land. Valentine Michael Smith is the son of two of the eight astronauts of an ill-fated first human expedition to Mars. Smith is raised in the culture of the native inhabitants of the planet, beings whose minds live in another world. By signing on for the trip, we get a picture of differing cultures and their effect on one another. Each of these two novels, written a tad over a hundred years apart, have influenced generations of readers, the one from a satirical observation point of view, the other from an imaginative gloss on differing views of human behavior.
In order for any work of the imagination to offer transportation, the characters involved must be caught up in some recognizable cultural and social clashes, enhanced by some form of deadline or emotional imperative.
Thus the question: How does a writer transport readers? The answers are various and simultaneous. The writer's first duty is self-transportation. Develop the vision of a place, a time, and the individuals who inhabit it, then write with the unfettered energy of enthusiasm for the vision, regardless of whether the vision is dark and gloomy or light and inspirational. Write with the detail and certainty it takes you to believe. The more imaginative the landscape, which is to say the more it appears to vary from convention, the more real it needs to seem, thus the characters must behave as though the terrain were absolutely, convincingly real.
Not easy to do, but not impossible: Your favorite writers do it for you most of the time.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
fun--an engulfing sense of pleasure; a condition of being transported into a zone of carefree, sensuous, and intellectual awareness by a combination of stimuli; an antidote to boredom, depression, or gloom; what writing should be for the reader and the writer.
A number of writers, enormously skilled and well progressed in the development of their talent, neither suicidal nor given to depression, emerge as serious, argumentative, perhaps even gloomy. Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates come to mind in this context as examples. Nevertheless, these writers all continue at their writing efforts because not doing so would produce a sense of disconnect with the inner landscape they strive at such effort to achieve. No matter what one may think, they are having fun while they are working.
Writing has been justly described as hard work, but the mere fact of its difficulty should not and does not preclude the results of it being fun for the writer as well as the reader. Fun, it may be argued, appears when an individual becomes interested and involved in the work at hand. Albert Camus argued that Sisyphus, given his ordained task, was nevertheless a happy man, a judgment to give us pause. How, we wonder, can an eternity of performing a meaningless task, make the performer happy? And if Sisyphus is happy, does that mean he is having fun?
The very nature of writing produces frustration in the writer, primarily because of the difficulty in translating the vision of the project into words that do it sufficient justice. In a real sense, writers (artists of any sort) are doomed to the frustration of "not getting it right," which is to say not rendering the vision adequately enough. This is fun? Well yes,it is. Like Sisyphus, you take pleasure in lending your skills to a task that appears hopeless from the get-go, leaving you in the same mind set as Samuel Beckett, who said, "Fail again, only next time fail better."
Every time we read a poem, a short story, or novel that moves us in some primal way, our exquisite response blazes across the night sky of our imagination like a fire fly, intense, brief, and gone. In its place, to extend a mixed-metaphor, we are faced with the vision of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, handed a packet of crayons, then told, "Go thou and do likewise." And yet, some of us will do just that, diving into the project to the point of losing the hopelessness of the task, seeing connections, possibilities, opportunities. The last part of that equation is fun in action. Like the fire fly, it is intense and brief. It is the writer's job to keep it from being gone.
Elmore Leonard, a writer who knows a thing or two about having fun, has shone his light into the darkness. "Only write the scenes that interest you," he has said. This dictum could well be studied alongside Camus's essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," for its implications. There is a particular scene that you don't feel like writing. A literary agent and/or editor wants that particular scene in place before the manuscript can progress toward publication. The answer: find a way to make yourself like the scene. Do something to it and the characters within it to make the writing of it become not a chore but fun. What attitudes did Sisyphus need to allow him to take pleasure from what would seem a hopeless, eternal exercise of rote behavior? How could he, of all people, think to fail better next time? Are the Karma Yogis--work as worship--having fun? And what about that remarkable line from the Bhagavad-Gita, "To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof."? Surely there is flat out fun to be had from such approaches.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
vision--a writer's outlook; a philosophical map of a particular segment of humanity; an attitude toward a system or condition of behavior; an emotional assessment of life and its denizens; the way a writer looks at material.
Along with voice, vision is a significant, transformational factor in determining how a writer views circumstances, turns them into dramatic situations, and populates them with distinctive characters. Writers may have a cynical outlook or one that is preternaturally optimistic. There is no right or wrong choice, only the need for honesty. A writer who is notable for technique but no vision will produce work that has the same effect as the floats in the rose parade or as pinatas used for holiday or party celebrations or paper cups intended for single use. The technique will trump the story--and while being amazed by the technique, the reader will mourn the loss of drama.
Regardless of the size or nature of the landscape, the ripened writer will see it with all its quirks and dents, will know if the undersides of the bureau drawers have been painted or varnished, will be aware if there are any recycled parts within it, and will have taken pains to see that everything is is smooth working order. Whether the setting is a colony on Mars, a girl's school above Mill Valley in northern California, or a patch of backyard garden, the landscape will seem important because of the way it is regarded by the writer and by the characters who are somehow connected to it.
Writers variously think the world is going to hell in a hand basket, is a venue for unparalleled chaos, spawns mediocrity, is a splendid opportunity for growth and progress. To the extent they are capable of dramatizing these views, they achieve readerships and as a consequence of that exert some influence on what their readers believe. To the extent that writers cannot dramatize these feelings, they push their readers back from direct engagement to the end that they are lecturing their readers rather than entertaining and challenging them.
Pick a handful of writers, say five, who entertain you. Compare these with a group of writers who cannot seem to get beyond the merest semblance of plot and whose characters are as stiff and uncomfortable as though they were first-time visitors at a family gathering of an intended lover. Compare the difference between the two groups of writers, then look at the way their characters react to one another, produce chemistry, produce a tangible feel of a particular vision. Notice also the difference in the physicality of the characters from writers you enjoy.
Look at it yet another way: study Louise Erdrich's memorable first novel, Love Medicine, which will perhaps distract you away from the intent of this exercise thanks to Erdrich's evocations of her characters, but which will ultimately give you a full, vivid sense of her overall vision as well as the dramatic energy within her scenes.
Vision and voice. What a writer sees and how the writer relates it.
Thus these questions to help you focus on your vision:
Who are you?
How do you see the world?
Is your world a safe place? Safer than the world of reality?
If you were writing fantasy, what element would you bring in from the world of reality?
What is the biggest prize in your stories?
If you had to divide humanity into two opposing approaches, which pair would you choose? (Winners/Losers? Givers/Takers? Old/Young? Inner directed/Other directed? etc)
In you world are there happy endings or morose ones?
What is the biggest fear held by your characters?
Friday, April 3, 2009
chemistry--the tangible result occurring when two or more characters interact; an effect that seems to emerge and transfer into action when characters notably get along or develop an enmity; a palpable aura of reality emerging from the manner in which characters respond to one another; non-verbal signals which draw characters into friendships, alliances, or mutual distrust.
Chemistry is the unspoken glue in fiction, producing its own inexorable logic and the resulting consequences of that logic. Often coming as a surprise to the writer, particularly when it threatens to shift the predetermined direction of the story, chemistry is a jump-start to motivation and action. Sometimes the chemistry between characters is accepted by the writer and the reader on a non-verbal level, "just because it is." This very quality helps project a greater sense of reality and believability because of the way it overrides logic. Readers will probably have some sense in their own life of disliking or liking someone on sight, without any good reason; they probably make judgements as a direct result of such non-verbal signals, picked up by the sensory receptors of the social animal humans have become.
One of the many great chemistries in American fiction emerges in the characters of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, each drawn to the other in ways that make sense only after they are considered in light of the activities shared by the two. To Tom, Huck represents the freedom and anti-convention that runs rampant in a young boy, the ability to come and go as he pleases and the "worldly" knowledge such freedom brings. Huck on the other hand has come to accept Tom's views of conventional behavior, a slap-dash view of chivalry as seen by Walter Scott, and the classroom view of the way the world worked at that time. Tom was social, Huck wasn't. In this primordial ooze came their boyish desires for adventure, and from this came the chemistry that bound them.
In real life, Harry Longabaugh and Robert Leroy Parker met while in prison, each jailed separately on horse theft charges. The chemistry between them brings the Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn chemistry to mind. Longabaugh morphed into the Sundance Kid, an appellation doubtless hung on him by Parker since the name of the prison in Wyoming Territory where they met was the Sundance Prison. Parker, of course, was known as Butch Cassidy.
Yet another version of chemistry between characters emerged in the lengthy series of mysteries featuring Robert Parker's investigator, Spenser, and the unorthodox operative, Hawk, often retained by Spenser as a consultant (for which trope, read "backup gun hand").
Not to forget Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
The important fact for writers to consider takes in the reaches of partnering (say Dashiel Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man series, and Dionysus and his slave, Xanthias, in Aristophanes' play, The Frogs) and leaving one character alone on stage for too long. When two characters appear to get on well or, as in Louise Erdrich's remarkable short story, "St.Marie," plucked from her novel, Love Medicine, a young Native American girl in a convent school forms a totally explosive relationship with a nun, run with the energy. Follow the trail. Exploit the chemistry.
See also fun
Thursday, April 2, 2009
reaction--an answer or response made by one character to other characters and/or a stimulus.
The reaction of one character to another, to groups of characters, and to stimuli ratifies the presence of reality and importance necessary to cause the reader to accept the fiction as being plausible. Characters who do not react or, indeed, respond, help to impart a dream-like state to the narrative, making it more like an oratorio in which the principals are seated together in a pew than opera in which the characters interact on a stage, complete with blocking and mise en scene. In successful story of any length, one or more characters are working actively to change the status quo. Even if it is the lone, nameless protagonist of Jack London's "To Build a Fire," the reader is made to see the goal. The reader already knows the consequences of this character's failure to succeed--this is literally a life in the balance. Whatever else the reader may think of this character--how, for instance could he have allowed himself to get into this predicament?--the consequences of failure to achieve the goal are apparent.
Longer, more complex stories, such as Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth, pretty much illustrate the way reaction among characters works. The first of a menu of narrators is Donald, mid forties, a superb athlete when younger and now a man whose profession still keeps his relatively physical. Early on, Donald is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS. Donald's reactions alone are worth the investment of time to read the novel. "...it seems I am to leave the earth early but these things happen to people." He begins to dictate his family history to his wife, Cynthia, so that their children will have a record of who he was and whence he came. Subsequent chapters are narrated by Cynthia, by her brother, and by the children of Donald and Cynthia, all of whom are reacting to the feelings set loose by Donald's impending death and his own wishes for how and where his life shall end and where his remains shall be interred.
Characters are neither required to flail about the story arc in an operatic manner nor be tight-fisted about demonstrating how they are responding to the circumstances that pester and plague them. Whether the story at hand is a Raymond Carver short story as intended by him or as edited by Gordon Lish, there is no mistaking that his characters are being affected by inner griefs and conflicts, possibly even being assisted by such add-ons as severe drink-related problems. Similarly, characters in short stories and novels by the Irish writer, William Trevor, present the reader with situations that impinge upon them like tight suits.
A story where one or more of the characters appear to move through the complexities of a torturous plot without reacting is suspect, surely not as memorable as stories in which characters demonstrate their feelings by some form of behavior as they pursue their goals, avoid reversals or frustrations, and continue their efforts.
On occasion in stage, motion picture,or television performances, actors will be seen to produce a "chemistry" that adds to the entire story. One such combination was Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively portraying the outlaws Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, aka The Sundance Kid. Another dramatic coupling, Neil Simon's play, The Sunshine Boys, produced yet another type of chemistry, the long-time vaudeville association of two characters who refused to speak to one another when off stage, a chemistry found in real life with the paring of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.
Successful characters have been stoics, cowards, hypochondriacs, taciturn, and overly emotional; they have been afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome (Lionel Esrog in Motherless Brooklyn), and severe autism (Christopher John Francis Boone in The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time); they have been as self-absorbed and difficult to like as Sherlock Holmes and his contemporary counterpart, Gregory House, M.D. They have in chemical common the fact that they react to the persons, places, and things about them. The reader may not, need not, like them, but the reader knows a character when he sees one.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
concept-driven story, the--a dramatic narrative focused on theme; a novel or story whose plot appears to emphasize a particular subject such as revenge, redemption, or poverty while still providing dramatic structure.
Novels such as Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle may be seen as examples of the concept-driven story, and although equally at home in the categories of speculative fiction and cautionary fiction, so too are Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, George Orwell's 1984, and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. Each of these deals with burning political and/or social issues to the point where they have become more than snapshots of a particular era but rather have assumed the status of museum-quality prints, hung in galleries.
Unless a concept-driven story has more to it than the potent dramatization of theme, it runs great risk (as many fictional protagonists do) of being caught in the bog of disaster, which is to say it forgets its debt to story. Alissa Rosenbaum, she who became Ayn Rand, is an unfortunate example of this forgetfulness, beginning her career with The Fountainhead, which took on the theme of art for art's sake to great popularity and, to many critics, to great extreme. Her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, a thirteen-hundred-page-plus novel, articulated her Objectivist philosophy in extraordinary detail, allowing her to express anti-communism, anti-fascism, and anti-welfare-state views in unbridled gallop, reaching a full, Libertarian crescendo in which she deplored any kind of state at all.
In this regard, Rand may be regarded as the right of Upton Sinclair's left. Although they were roughly contemporaries, Rand is probably the better--and more favorably--known, but the reputation comes from her philosophy and argumentative skills rather than her dramatic skills.
The point here is that story is the freighting device for the message. For the concept-driven story to have an audience in the first place, it must eventually have characters who become memorable not because of the smirks they produce but because of the heart tugs. Compare, for instance, George and Lenny with Howard and Domenique or, for that matter, John Gault.
See plot-driven story
See Character-driven story