Monday, August 15, 2011

The One-word Answer

If you wanted one word to describe the total experience of story, your choice would be "consequence."  You might have characters, situations, and settings floating about in front of you, but without consequence in the package, all you have is a laundry list passing itself off as story.

Consequence is pigeons come home or on their way to the roost.  Consequence is the mortgage come due, the positive in a drug store pregnancy kit; it is the dramatic equivalent of yeast.  Without it, story doesn't stand a chance of coming to life.  The results would be as woebegone as a fallen souffle, hard and unattractive as a bicycle seat.

Of course characters are staples of story.  We read story with the intent of becoming involved with them and their individual quirks as they are yanked into situations often not of their making.  Our own quirkiness provides the chemistry of the attraction between us and them.  Someone as "other" and "outsider" as I am, we reason, has had good reason to have trod into the same kind of crush I might have experienced.

We are drawn to read in the first place out of recognition of our own otherness and the vanilla worlds awaiting us if we are not careful.  To the degree that we are able to empathize with these imaginary character beings, who dwell outside our own immediate frame of reference, we assign the term "literature" to the narrative at hand. The deeper our empathy, the more likely we are to upgrade our personal assessment from story to literature.

Situations that squeeze moral choices or their denial from characters provide us with the opportunity to move from the vanilla boredom and banality from our surroundings into the exquisite puzzle of imagination.  Here is the setting where we long to live full time, but must be content to visit as a tourist.  It is a world of adventure, falling love with persons and things, where secrets are discovered, then revealed, a world where exciting new formulas produce exciting new results, and where temptations appear of epic reach.

In part, we compensate by becoming storytellers ourselves; we read and write as though our sanity depends upon them.  We are too familiar with those lackluster moments in our own life, our reading, and those oh, so embarrassing moments we sometimes discover in our own writing.  With these fears in the back of our mind, we set characters into provocative situations, nudging them away from safety toward crescendo, then into incident--any incident from which there will be consequences, an innocent cat or dog hair on a sweater taken as "evidence" of a sexual betrayal.

The connective tissue of the body dramatic is consequence.  Begin a narrative with an incident.  Tie it to another incident in such a way that the reader will say of a character, "I can't believe she did that.  She should have known."  Known what? you think, giggling into your sleeve.  The reader is already aware of the consequences approaching, the pigeons returning home.  And you'll have begun another in a long succession of tales, all of which have outcome in the best of all places--the sensitivity of the reader.

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