Monday, April 26, 2010

The Mine Field of Story

As you see it, event is critical to story. At one point in the history of when you began pondering such things and trying to understand why you used them and, indeed, why some of them were so much more effective than others, you were firm in your belief that characters were the most critical element. How, you reasoned, could a story progress without them? But then as editor, teacher, and your own self as writer, you began to see numerous examples of narratives in which there were characters but no event. If, after some pages of angst and reflection, there were events, they were all events expressed in past or past perfect tenses.

Event has become for you the unexamined part of the formula, which is of a piece with attempting to understand algebra without paying any heed whatsoever to the equal sign. Look at the mischief possible when A and B are at an event. The event passes into history and now A and B are discussing the event with C and D, each attempting to convey implications and nuances. Of course C and D begin as more or less neutral audiences, responding to the "You should have been there" trope from A and B. The neutrality of C and D begins to implode and explode as A and B constantly contradict one another as their attempts to define or describe the event and its implications progress.

This came about because you were in the parking lot of the Montecito Von's Market, unloading purchases from the shopping cart to the back deck of your Yaris, when you saw a friend with whom you began to converse. (Anything to avoid the task of unloading.) Moments later, a late-model luxury car drew abreast of you, pausing to make polite inquiry from the passenger seat of how to reach the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, a dead giveaway that they were tourists because a local would have merely asked How do I get to the Biltmore from here?

Okay. Round One: You said, "Go to this (pointing to the exit) exit, then turn right. Proceed for about a mile and a half until you come to Olive Mill Road--" whereupon you were cut off by your companion.

Round Two: "Go to the exit, then turn left until you approach the roundabout, which you follow until you reach Coast Village Road, where you will proceed southeast toward Olive Mill Road--" whereupon your companion was cut off by you.

Round Three: "Why complicate things with the roundabout and Coast Village Road? If they turn right, they will be on Hot Springs Road, which becomes Olive Mill Road, which will take them to the Biltmore without the extra traffic and potential confusion." Which was true but not critically true, imperatively true. Thus the vision of a story in the making over this seemingly random event in which A and B are more closely joined by a relationship and a history and C and D are the innocent victims caught up in this particular event which is the emotional equivalent of the improvised explosive devices we have experienced in all their sudden potential for damage and horror in Iraq.

Thus this formula for you from one who tends not to trust formulae: In the beginning, the event is entirely in the present moment and remains so until the reader can see the trigger for conflict being tripped. This allows the writer to move back into the past for a brief connection in which one or more characters sees a relationship between the present time event and a past-time event. Perhaps just a hint, but enough of one to alert the reader. Back to the present event again and an increase in the rancorous exchanges of dialogue, suggesting with even more clarity that the characters are not about to maintain civilized discourse, they are fucking growing angrier by the moment. This would be a perfect time to shift from the present event to some seemingly unrelated collateral event, which provokes even more of a disconnect, causing either or perhaps both A and B to turn on C and D as well as upon each other.

The event becomes as artfully and carefully braided as a middle school girl's pigtail, and is ready to lead you into the mine field that is story, a mine field you attempt to cross wearing snow shoes--one step at a time.

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