Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Doorway to Story

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There are vital things to be said about getting first draft down on pages, even handwritten pages, about not thinking overly about where the narrative is going, and pursuing event upon event until you begin to get the notion you are repeating yourself. 

There are vital things to be said about how then, and only then do you begin giving critical thoughts to articulating such details as whose story it is, what it is about, and what the goal is.

There are other questions to be asked and answered in as direct a manner as possible.  The vital things to be said for such strategy are, for you, of an intense, personal nature.  Without these vital considerations, you’d still be putting the literary equivalent of the cart before the horse.  This is a bad equestrian strategy as well as a bad literary one.

Early in your story writing attempts, you hit the speed bump of plot, the remarkable sense of design you found in the stories you liked.  In the same way there is inevitability in a Navaho rug, you saw patterns you feared you could never duplicate.

You could say you were so intimidated by plot that your writing sessions became thinking sessions in which you attempted to map out goals and strategies for characters you scarcely knew.  Such a strategy could not last long.  Friends who wrote for the kinds of magazines you longed to write for had the habit of reminding you that the payment rates were low, meaning you had to write a number of stories to stay afloat.

At the same time you were making this discovery, your reading and studies took you to the so-called picaresque tale, which seemed a more accidental narrative than a plotted one.  

The picaresque tale seemed a gift from the muses, particularly when Saul Bellow, a writer who alternately attracted and intimidated you, produced what seemed like a modern picaresque classic, The Adventures of Augie March.  You didn’t need a plot.  A quest would do.  Even a quest for self-discovery would do, if it were not spread on like the Horatio Alger novels (which did sell and did influence generations).

There you were, at that remarkable point so ably articulated by Yogi Berra.  “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” 

You took both roads, causing your reading to be an interesting hash of eighteenth- and nineteenth century coming-of-age novels and twentieth century pulp mystery, pulp science fiction, and literary science fiction.
But at least the approach got you writing enormous quantities, throwing away even greater quantities while an essential truth emerged.  Your doorway into story was through character. 

Instead of plot, you needed to make sure there were always at least two characters on stage, individuals who believed they were right.  Not only that, each character needed to know he or she had a dark side and a light side, each of which came to the surface when the character least suspected.

One of your two special mentors told you to write dark as though it were light and light as though it were dark, a sentiment echoed by your late pal, Digby Wolfe.

Of a sudden, things were beginning to look more functional.  One surprise revelation that came wriggling out of your difficulties with plot is the realization that formula is predictable enough without settling on one before discovering who the characters are to function in them.

What do the characters in a story want?

Why do they want it now?  (If they can wait, you’re in trouble.  Okay, perhaps you aren’t in trouble, but your emerging story is.)

What are they willing to do to get what they want?

What have they already done in service of reaching their goal?  (If they’ve done nothing, how do they feel about that?)

This may also help:  How do they feel about the achievement of the goal?

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