Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What Good Is a Story if It Doesn't in Some Way...

There are times when you become so engaged in a narrative that you not only suspend your disbelief, you as well fail to realize what you've read is not a story.

You do not come lightly to this failure to recognize story from non-story; your own early work reflects innocence of the dramatic genome and its applications.  Not only is that fact a given, even today, you are in frequent need of several drafts before you can begin looking at the narrative, calling it out, challenging it with such rhetoric as "Are you story yet?"  Perhaps even the more stringent, "You call this story?"

To date, you're over two thousand mini-essays on this site.  At least a quarter of those are in some specific way an investigation about one or more facets of story.  If awareness of your own hypotheses and investigations is any help at all, you are at least that much more apt not to pass a narrative you've written until it shows a passport or entry visa of story.

If your speculations have any weight, you've in some measure defined for yourself and your dramatic instincts such concepts as "slice-of-life," "vignette," and "flash fiction," the later having a range of subjective definitions, ranging from acceptance as a shorter short story to your own definition of an expanded joke or apothegm or, perhaps, maxim.

You've had to work your way into what a story is for you from the point of view of what it is not.  Because so many of the narratives you called story in the past were narratives with attitudinal (authorial) payoffs, you were able to see how easy it was for you to pick a situation that was a concept, extend it for a bit, then resolve it yourself, scarce in your awareness that it was none of your business but rather the explicit business of your characters.  

Thus you wrote concepts.  Unable to take that necessary defining step in which the characters could cause some resolution, you supplied it via theme.

Thus, your personal rule number one:  A concept is not a story.  

A writer (such as yourself) trying to write a story and not being successful with the particular story is only a concept.  True, it has a basic ingredient, conflict.  The writer is trying to do something, but is not making progress.  He is frustrated.  

You introduce another character, say a pal who is an editor.  "Hey, how you doing on that story you owe me?"  External pressure.  "Fine, fine,"  the writer says, feeling pressure.  "Coming along nicely."  Pressure exacerbated, but still no story.  How about, add another character--the writer's SO.  "Hey,"  she says, "Didn't I just hear you tell Fred, who buys all your stories, that you were well along?  And aren't you in fact desperate for a story?"  Enhanced pressure, but no story.  A writer on a deadline, unable to develop material, is not yet a story, only a concept.

Feeling uncomfortable for the fib told his editor and guilty for snapping at his SO, then sending her off to a movie with a girlfriend, he resolves to be a better person.  Even you, back in the earlier days, could see that there was still no story.


The writer recalls an incident that might lend itself into that magnificent dramatic concatenation called a short story.  He sits before his computer, begins to type.  Still no story, but he is beginning to formulate who the characters are in this narrative, when, of a sudden, a female mosquito (only girl mosquitoes bite) enters the room, begins buzzing about the writer, sensing a four o'clock snack.

The writer grows irritated, waves the mosquito off.  For her part, the mosquito has begun to sense a nice afternoon cocktail.  She persists in her attempts to land on the writer.  Aware of the mosquito's intent, the writer pushes back from his desk, spots a copy of The New York Review of Books, picks it up, rolls it into a tight wand-shaped tube.  It is a weapon.  It is also the first direct step the writer in this scenario has taken to solve a problem.  

The concept has now been moved into story stage, which will be enhanced in any of a number of ways depending on the author of this story.  The writer could, for instance, take a swat at the mosquito, miss, and break a bone china coffee cup given him by his SO, swearing at the misfortune as he stops to pick up the broken shards, wondering if repair is possible.

Complication.  The SO has returned from the movie, which was so bad, she couldn't bear to sit it through.  Also, she began thinking maybe she could be more supportive of the writer, which she does by offering to make a pot of coffee, which now confronts the writer with the need to confess the misadventure with the china cup, consider the second  stretching of truth by concealing the misadventure with the cup.

Where once there was only concept, ironically buzzing about in search of a story, now, thanks to the introduction of the mosquito, story is in place, progressing as the writer attempts to deal with physical, emotional, and existential.

In order to impart more of your own fingerprint on this story or any story of your own composition, you wish to impart your personal rule number two:  You must keep reviewing, reconsidering, and improvising events and responses that provide some outcome or revelation that you'd not previously seen--a complete surprise to you.  All the better if the surprise borders on a revelation of an existential nature.  (You do write for discovery, don't you?) 

Rule Three--yes, there is a third rule here--is that the effectiveness of the story and its outcome are in direct proportion to some aspect thought to be unthinkable (to one or more of the main characters or you as the writer) has come to pass.  Another, less sententious way of stating this premise:  What good is a story if it doesn't fuck with some social or moral convention and your own sense of boundary?

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