Tuesday, May 7, 2013


There is a question you ask with some frequency when doing your first read of a manuscript you're editing or listening to a student read from a work in progress.  You ask the same question a number of times before launching a story of your own.  If you ask the question of a published work you are reading too many times, the potential grows in increments that you will not read the work through to the conclusion.

The question is a familiar one to you because at about the time you were leaning into your interest of storytelling, you were on a parallel course of thinking there was some place for you in the worlds of journalism.

The first mantra you can remember is the mantra for journalism, Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How?  The question of most significance to you in storytelling is none of these, although they are not far from mind.  The question in story, which is to say invented story, is if. How is if a question?  Because, if you were to say if an event takes place, what will happen? you get not only the question but the string of consequences radiating from it.  What if?

The question you had in mind earlier is why?  Why do characters do as they do?  Why is a place the way it is?  Why is one reaction an apparent enigma while something even more complex seems appropriate?  Why do we care?  Why do you care?  Why are you writing this particular piece?  Why are you writing it in this particular manner?  Why do you continue to read one thing and find the going so difficult in another?

True enough, if you begin asking too many whys, you soon set the material aside, thus the trick in your own composition is to answer the why questions before they arise, which is to say through the innate awareness of a situation the writer needs to be convinced of the story as a whole.

The trouble for you with your understanding of journalism at the time you departed from it had to do with the whys you could not answer.  They were unscratched itches.  You began to believe you needed to invent reasons why rather than move on to the next story without knowing the real why, the why of fiction, the why of drama, the subtext why.

The subtext why is the everybody knows answer than nobody writes about because of the belief that everybody knows and so what's the use of telling us what we already know?

How did the elephant get into the metaphor to get into the living room?  Simple enough to deconstruct this:  The elephant, even as a baby, is pretty big, in most cases larger than a hippopotamus.  Perhaps elephants in the living room sound more eloquent or metaphoric than hippopotamuses in the living room.  Pity the poor rhinoceros.  The elephant winds by a trunk; the buried-but-obvious truth is the elephant in the living room.  Sorry for your loss, hippos and rhinos.

Story that is not linear does not traipse about the elephant, rather it uncovers the elephant, says "There."  Story tells us why.  Or better still, Why?  Because story can ask seemingly unanswerable questions, leaving them posed for the reader to consider.  Although it was published several years ago, 1906 to be specific, Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, featuring Jurgis Rudkus, kept a good many people away from eating hamburger or much in the way of red meat.  The novel asked a strategic number of Whys, showed some of them in action, then created a firestorm of response, in significant measure because it revealed elephants.

Over a hundred years later, we get similar firestorms about revelations of metaphorical elephants, horses, appearing in foods and products where horse meat is not anticipated.

Journalism plays a part in such revelations.  You are not trying to imply journalism is a second-class citizen as much as you are stating that the characters (and animals) in Sinclair's novel were all invented, brought in as metaphor for actual persons and actual animals.

Why is a good way to begin considering a story.  Why did you think to read it?  Why did you think to write it?  Why did it have to be rendered in this manner as opposed to some other manner?

We writers and readers are approaching two hundred years of having lived with a concept coined by the noted critic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, famed for his occasional bouts of boredom and stuffiness, ironically provoked by his persistent use of opium.  Willing suspension of disbelief.  Intended as a commentary on poetry, it has been co-opted for drama and fiction.  The meaning is clear enough:  Getting the reader to stop asking why.

When you stop asking why, you're in the story, in the landscape, in the heartbeats of the characters, possibly even in the heartbeats of the writer.  When you stop asking why, you care enough to make the jump.

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