Thursday, June 30, 2011

TFS: Tell the Freaking Story

For some time, your approach to a novel, whether reading one, talking about it in a class room or a review, or indeed writing one of your own, has been:  Something happens and someone changes.  Simplicity encapsulated, it is true, but given the explosive variety in genre and mainstream fiction, you'd do well to quit while ahead.

In similar fashion, there is short story (as opposed to the more generic concept of drama as story), where the operant meme is:  Someone assumes a task, writer speak for a character wants something to happen or not to happen, then undertakes to bring it into play or pull the rug from under it.

For an even longer time than you have been setting forth on the precarious sea of describing in construction terms what a novel entails, you have been pushing students to quickly list the elements they believe inhere in a novel, then assign a hierarchical listing of those elements, the sight of which, you argue, will present the student with a genome of her novel (as distinguished from the novel as visualized by other writers).  There is good sense in this exercise.  For one thing, it helps extend the notion that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to the novel.  For yet another thing, the exercise helps the writer see her personal approach to the novel.

For someone who has put in some years asking students in the class room, clients in the coffee shop, readers in reviews, and himself in his own stories and novels to please indicate where the story is because you for you part can't seem to locate it, you nevertheless rank many of the dramatic building blocks above story.

In the recent past, you'd argue character as the most vital of the tools needed to construct a story, shifting over to voice with the argument that the voice of the story had a direct effect on the choice of characters.

The time may have arrived for a change, with voice moving down the ladder to the second quality on your list, supplanted by story.  This is the result of you having spent some time working out the difference between story and plot, a definition that seems to have more or less spilled into your lap.

Story is the presence of every instance of activity portrayed in a narrative, whether the instance is taking place before our eyes right now or has happened in the remote or recent past.  The future is covered in the present time activity of one or more of the characters asking, as Bertha Young asks the Cosmos in Katherine Mansfield's short story "Bliss," the existential question of all time, "What will we do now?"

You've been uneasy about your relationship with story in your own work, in large measure because you had not come to terms with plot, which you now see as the arrangement of the instants in a story.  This points the finger in your own work at getting in with some housecleaning to determine which elements belong and which can go.  You are comfortable in your relationship with details and, although once hubristic about your approach to dialogue to the point of being hubristic about it, you now feel comfortable there, as well.

Could you have taught yourself something with all the years you have put in as editor of the work of other writers?  Beginning to appear that you have.  

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