Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Seven Steps to Discovery

Seven things you write a story to discover:

  1. Whose story is it?  There are any number of successful stories with an ensemble cast of characters, but of all these, one has an agenda so overpowering that it sweeps the others along as though they were VW bugs caught in the wind pull slipstream of an eighteen-wheeler truck.  Ishmael had to survive in order to be able to narrate the tale.  The Great White Whale was a major player, but when all is said and done, Ahab’s is the story that most impresses us.  Lots of good supporting characters, witches and wizards among them, but it is Dorothy Gale’s story, pure and simple.  Lots of clues abound in stories named for their principal characters:  Rob Roy, Huckleberry Finn, and Ann of Green Gables, Ivanhoe, Elmer Gantry.  Of course they all need friends, opponents, and I-told-you-so sorts to play against.  What point in having Nora Helmer without Torvald?  Sometimes you know from the get go; other times you need a draft or two to find out, and when you do, there may be a tang of surprise and pleasure.

  1. What’s the story about?  The more memorable stories—those that have remained in vivid memory—leave no doubt.  True Grit is about bringing to some form of justice the man who murdered the father of the protagonist.  Hamlet is about a young prince, directed by his father’s ghost, to avenge his father’s death.  The essential quest or thrust of the story does not have to be achieved provided there is a suitable substitute discovery or understanding.  Philip Roth’s intriguing novella, Goodbye, Columbus, allows the protagonist to make some painful but valuable discoveries as he moves from youth into maturity.

  1. The prize?  For Dorothy, it is simple enough—getting home to Kansas, but if you’re a fan of L. Frank Baum, you can’t help but discover the other side of the prize coin, which is the price to be paid for winning.  In Dorothy’s case, it is growing discontent with the home (Kansas) there is no place like, and the desire to return to Oz. The prize in Dennis Lehane’s haunting Gone, Baby, Gone, is the return of a kidnapped child to its rather pathetic and indifferent single mother.  The price the detective pays is the break-up of his own romantic involvement and a conscience put to severe stress.  Going after a prize, any prize, even a Great White Whale prize causes a ripple effect that works its way to one or more of the important characters.  Emma Bovary comes to mind as an example of a character who sought a prize of freedom and romance.  The price she paid for these things was not pretty.

  1. Why should we care? The most direct answer to this significant question is found in a character who is seen disregarding or badly managing encounters with some life situation we as readers understand we will have to face.  John Steinbeck’s near perfect Of Mice and Men has several demonstrations of circumstances, from the dealing with an old pet to coping with someone of diminished capacity.  We tend to care about stories dramatizing experiences that squeeze characters in ways similar to the squeezes and pressures we have experienced.  We care if someone we identify with is vulnerable.  We care in Jim Harrison’s poignant A Return to Earth because we want to achieve the dignity his major characters achieve in a heart-wrenching circumstance.

  1. What is the major dramatic question?  How about the discovery that The Maltese Falcon is bogus, which is to say the sought-after goal is not there to be had.  Many of the Saul Bellow novels strive for some kind of stature or discovery that is beyond reach.  How much trust should young Jim Hawkins place in Long John Silver?  In Graham Greene’s short story, “The Basement Room,” the focus is on lost illusion of the young boy and his betrayal.  Greene, in fact, often uses betrayal as a major dramatic vector.

  1. Who are you?  What do you bring to a story in terms of tone, attitude, edge, if you will?  Remember, this is story, not journalism.  Are you bringing optimism, cynicism, anger, fiery rebelliousness?  All are valid because story is about evoked emotion.

  1. Where is all this coming from?  If these elements are brought forth from a textbook or some template, the results will be literary equivalents of paint-by-numbers pictures, possibly suggesting some minimal technical ease but none of the nuance and irony and controlled ambiguity found in more resonant fiction.  Your storehouse is your inner life.  This inner vision is reflective of your vision of How Things Work, of how people behave, of what individuals do under dramatic stress.  Your inner life is your toolkit for dealing with the outer world sometimes described as Reality.  Your inner life allows you to experience relationships with others, having first forged a relationship with yourself.  This life gives you the vocabulary to discuss with yourself why you find some writers compelling while having no patience for others. Your inner life gives you a sense of confidence in your ability to empathize and to observe the inner universe you inhabit as well as the outer universe where you are a guest.  Steps 1-6 come from your inner sense of how precarious some things are, how easy other things can be, and what they all mean to you.  Your inner life has helped you recognize the difference between confidence and blustering, bragging, and being the equivalent of a schoolyard bully.  So now you know.

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