Saturday, March 10, 2012


With a persistence similar to a proud parent, standing his offspring against a rumpus room wall or doorframe to mark growth progress or take dreadful home movies, you have for some years been measuring and recording a growth of your own. Although the growth can be measured, it is not the easy, linear thing the height of children is.

At its formative moments, its literary equivalent of the Big Bang, your growth pattern test was in fact linear in its goal of demonstrating how many separate story elements you could list in a few minutes.  Your theory was the straightforward one of detecting all relevant elements, such as plot, dialogue, suspense, conflict, and the like, with the expressed expectation of being able to consider with some degree of nuance the functions and permutations of each.

Familiarity with tools is a necessary adjunct to the ability to use them, right?  No brainer, right?  This seemed a profitable way to set forth.

Set forth, you did.  You proceeded to the point where, at a moment’s notice, you could rattle off twenty or so story elements (reversal, character, suspense, denouement), feeling comfortable—but not smug—about your ability to bring these tools out of your tool kit.  At this stage in your life, there’d been some publication, but not enough (can there ever be enough?) to satisfy the reach of your ambition.

You felt justified pleasure in your ability to recall such a spectrum of dramatic elements (POV, subtext, narrative, interior monologue) while being able to speak at some length about the focus of each.

All the while, something was missing.

Could the missing element be surprise, or perhaps even such basics as protagonist or antagonist?

When the answer came, it bore no surprise, no attached Post-it Note reading “Of course!”  Perfect sense was implicit; you’d forgotten to include you, the single most important component of the exercise.

You could, you argued with your editorial self, produce a creditable story without being able to list and discuss its integral parts but you’d be doing so more in the way of an idiot savant.  You’d be better equipped if you were host to a strong sense of which tools you favored, using them, as it were, without thinking about them.

This vision is the equivalent of asking someone—anyone—not to think of an elephant.  Said elephant transmogrifies from an abstraction of a theoretical kind into the metaphorical elephant in the living room; your job as writer is to notice it, take it to task, describe it.
There.  You have arrived at the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle—your own vision, your preferences—the personification of story as you experience it and hope to transmit it.

You need to measure story and its evolutionary growth within you against the yardstick of where you place the individual elements you’ve already listed, as well as others.

You can’t put yourself against the wall, whereupon to draw a pencil line, nor can you rank your stories according to age, then line them up in the doorway to record their height.  But you can—and do—place the elements of story in an order of your preference.

The last time you took such measure of your dramatic vision, the primary element was voice.  Without voice on top of the list, any story that would appear would have little or no personality, no dramatic equivalent of a pole star.

The next element in your personal story profile, the number two element in your dramatic version of the periodical table of elements, has to be character.  Story is, after all is said and done, a record of what characters do when they blunder into or are thrust into a situation.  The voice in which the story is told will serve as the force determining which characters you will cast to write about.

By its own genome, voice will influence your subsequent choice and shaping of characters, theme, tone, and the resulting vectors and collision courses your story will take.  By these choices, you will have set in motion a chain reaction of causality that will obviate the need for you to provide the element you used to think was your weakest grasp at ability in your entire tool kit, the thing you so completely misunderstood that it caused you years of frustration and the inability to bring stories to a satisfactory conclusion.

The element remains in your list and its place remains the same—last—because you have learned to deal with it in its place from watching the elements at the top of your list.

You are talking about plot, the element you so wrestled with in earlier days, because you believed you had to have it in order to continue.  Many of your older writer chums did, in fact, have the ability to arrive at plot before writing a word of story.  By the same token, some of them were left handed, a fact that so far as you can see bears no relationship to story ability.

For you, plot, should you ever have to discuss it or consider it as an entity, comes last in the order of execution.  No wonder it is at the bottom of your list.

Every separate action, motion, incident in a story is a beat.  Fred wakes up early because he couldn’t sleep.  A beat.  Fred tries to get back to sleep.  Another beat.  The cat, hearing Fred moving about, hops up on the bed.  Still another beat. Fred brushes the cat from the bed.  A beat. Mary stirs.  A beat.  Why are you getting up so early? She asks.  Another beat. Sorry.  Didn’t mean to wake you.  A beat.  Mary sighs.  A beat.  Depending on the way the beats progress, the story can have tumultuous or peaceful endings.

After the entire narrative is set forth in draft form, the revision process begins.  The dramatic furniture is rearranged.  Extra pieces go to storage or a garage sale.  Then, it begins to make sense.  Plot is the final arrangement of the beats.  Plot is a design of beats.

Of course you tweak dialogue and physical movement and pacing when you revise, but the thing you put the most effort into is the voice, the emotional language of the story, and as you do, you can feel the sleeping elements waking up within the characters; their quirks and moods and habits come tumbling forth to the point where they awaken within you as well, and you have no problem seeing their benchmarks, not on the walls or doorframes of your study but in the pages of the story.

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