Monday, January 4, 2010

Formula

Before his death in 1999, you managed two or three pleasant times a year of hanging out with Bob Easton, sometimes to talk about writing in general, sometimes to talk about his writing, and other times still about his late, remarkable father-in-law, Frederick Schiller Faust, aka Max Brand.


Although Max Brand had been killed in 1945 as a war correspondent in Italy, he was prolific enough that two novels per year were published until 2001, at which point the publishers had to rely on reprints. Before moving off to "cover the war" as a reporter, Faust-Brand also had a prolific career in films, writing the scripts for his own Dr. Kildaire novels and other assigned features. His formula for story telling, you learned from Bob, was The Good become Bad and the Bad Become Good. You put this to the test any number of times, rereading the Max Brand Westerns and watching his movies.

Over the years, you have more or less strode into your own formula, if you may call it that. It first came upon you as you wrote mysteries, stumbling badly when it came to motive, as in Why would Character A kill Character B in the first place. As your writing moved you a step or two beyond pulp determinism and single-dimension texture, it came to you that a plausible motive could be to prevent someone from revealing information your character did not want made public. It took years for you to work through that calculus to the closest thing you have today, which is: Someone has something that one or more others want for themselves. Although you are still fond of mysteries, are indeed working on one at this very moment, you do not need motivation for murder because, with one or two notable exceptions, no one of interest has died in your stories, even those of a more mystery bent.

Someone has something another person wants. To get into your stories with the equivalent of an A-Pass, a character has to want something. What does she want? What does he, even the he who delivers your pizza, want.

From Iris Murdoch, you learned to string things out a bit, your last mention of the pizza delivery person Fed-Ex-ing you the image of the stringy strands of cheese that afflict pizza in the way ants afflict picnics or, indeed, that the sand from a beach afflicts egg salad sandwiches brought to the beach. Your stringing out, learned from Murdoch, is that Mike loves Mary, but although Mary is fond enough of John to have on occasion been intimate with him, Mary wants Phil, and of course Phil is not quite sure if he wants Mike or perhaps Estelle, or possibly both. Into that particular calculus, you might have Estelle wanting John, but when John starts talking about exclusivity as a parameter of their relationship, Estelle begins to think that Phil looks pretty good. Naturally all these people know one another to some degree. Let's say that John, tiring of the incestuous atmosphere within the group, breaks from the group for a time during which he becomes involved with Phyllis, with whom he more or less returns to the group, only to have all of them discover that Phyllis is either a threat, an object of intense desire, or a combination of the two. There, that ought to give you enough for a novel.

The one time you met Orson Welles in person, he sized up your early twenties swagger, and said, "A writer, eh? Well then, as a writer you should know that you can tall who a character is by the way that person walks. I studied the way old persons walk in order to present myself as a convincing Kane in his later years. You remember that."

You remember.


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