Sunday, March 17, 2013

Episode: The Difference between What Comes Next in Story and What Comes Next?

You use the term "episodic" with regularity in classes dealing with the writing of fiction, classes dealing with the reading of literature, and editorial reports to writers whose manuscripts you've taken to evaluate.  The term takes you--a child of the double-feature movie and (on Saturday afternoons) a cartoon and serial as well.

This was a world where you'd come into your parents' life as the Great Depression was ratcheting to an end.  Even so, you came into your parents' life after they'd been fairly affluent, then saw resources dwindle.  You didn't know the affluent part.  The fifteen cents you were allotted for the Saturday double feature seemed an enormous gift. Ten cents for admission, five cents for a Peter Paul Mounds bar, a chocolate-covered oblong of coconut, divided in two, each half topped with a small almond. When a few of these gifts seemed at risk, you were forced to extremes such as work. When a State tax of one cent was added, upping the admission to eleven cents, you were in a living episode.  You could not purchase a Mounds Bar with four cents.  You either needed a way to find the extra penny--sometimes the lounge cushions at the Ritz Theater, Wilshire Boulevard and La Brea provided bounty--or resort to the penny candy at the magazine stand on La Brea and Olympic.

You could not contain your patience to reach the age level where you could begin selling or delivering the various Los Angeles newspapers of the day, the then hated (because of its anti-union attitudes) Los Angeles Times, and the despicable-in-other-ways Los Angeles Herald-Express (afternoon and, ugh, Hearst) or  the Los Angeles Examiner (also Hearst).  You were thrilled to be able to sell the Daily News, which in its wonderful way had already begun to inform your politics.

The point is, you had some cash available for Big Little Books and movies.  Your favorite reading  and viewing in both genera were apt to be centered on characters who made frequent appearances.  Two such characters got your loyalty in yet another medium, the afternoon or evening radio serial.  As your tastes began to change, you used such anthology-type radio programs as a bargaining chip to remain "up" until nine o'clock, the better to hear the mysteries and weird suspense stories.

The key word in your tastes was serial.  A character--even ones you had less care for--of note would have at least one adventure a week.  Announcers often used the word episode.  "Tonight's episode begins..."  Or perhaps, at the close of last week's episode..."

Some one was forever in the act of moving from one disaster or close call to the next.  "Successfully avoiding the trap set for him by the Masked Avenger, Captain Midnight, his faithful pal, Icky, and other key members of the Secret Squadron, set forth to stamp out evil in ..."

Episode became a series of events.  Depending where you came in, the events could begin with the escape from the fate of the previous adventure, then on to the immersion in a new adventure, which ended in a cliffhanger.

By the time you were up for reading A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy, you'd ventured into the origin and intent of the term cliffhanger, which among other things, was how any given episode ended.

The Hardy novel brought to you attention another fine element for an episode.  In your slalom race toward puberty, you became aware of the love triangle as another aspect of the way to end an episode (and in real life made few friends thanks to your belief that being involved in a love triangle was a pathway to a more satisfying relationship).

Your use of the term episodic leads you often to the description of a popular conceit that is demonstrable with a box of dominoes.  Stand the dominoes in end (not side) in close enough proximity that you need tip only the first domino to set off a chain of toppling dominoes.  "And when the last domino has fallen,"  you say with some measure of triumph, "the story is finished."  Thus do you add "domino effect" to your description of what propels a story along its way, impelled by the momentum of energy from the goals of one or more characters.

Now you may begin discussing sub--for under, text for the narrative of the story.  Subtext.  Hidden agendas, What a character says as opposed to what she feels or thinks.  Texture:  the simultaneous procession of agenda and appearance in story, which present themselves to the reader through direct action and--another lovely word--implication.

You wish story to have a more significant inertia than mere episode.  No wonder love triangles seemed attractive.  No wonder the good and evil sides of serials became more opaque, bordering on blurry.  No wonder Mounds bars gave way to U-no Bars.  No wonder selling newspapers or delivering them gave way to thoughts that you could pay your way, whatever the cost, to a bookstore of your choice or a theater of your choice, on monies realized not from selling coat hangars two for a penny, rather from stories you'd written and published.

Leap ahead to the year 1956, after you'd toppled many, many dominoes.  You are in one of the Fox flagship theaters, the Carthay Circle, where Mike Todd had showcased the movie Around the World in Eighty Days.  You are with a number of friends who have their own individual dreams of being a writer.  Each of them is employed as a writer in a field many consider more honorable than fiction, which is to say they were at the time all technical writers.

As a result of a still memorable week in which each day brought you a special delivery check from your then agent, Forrest J. Ackerman, for the first serial rights to one of your stories, you've purchased a ticket to the Carthay Circle, stocked up on Mounds bars, a box of candy-coated licorice pellets, and a tall Coke, you are sitting among friends, closing your eyes in the dark, then falling down the rabbit hole of adventure as the first chords of music sound from the monumental stereo, and lights from the Todd-AO special lens light up the screen.

You are in story and out of episode.  You are buoyed by the most up-to-the-minute technical reaches of story.  You have not only paid your way in, you have opted in to the sense of ongoing change in which you were surrounded.

You'd seen Fantasia in that theater.  You'd gone there to see a story spectacular set in India, called The Rains Came, unmindful your father was pranking you when he advised you to sit under the balcony so that you would not get wet.

You were at the last film shown at the Carthay Circle in 1969, The Shoes of the Fisherman, after which--things change--the theater was, as so many things in Los Angeles are, torn down, replaced with an office building.

You have changed.

Episodic and domino theory are only steps on the way to the unvisited attics and solaria of story.

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