Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fire in the Air You Breathe

Early in your teaching tenure at the University of Southern California, you began improvising a narrative in hopes of demonstrating a practical answer to a student's questions.  What exactly is story? What elements are absolutely necessary to make the material a story?

You did not realize it at the time, but you were being led by these questions to develop a profile you've used for yourself and as well placed on your students from that time onward.

Characters in flux, you said.

Characters with agendas, you said.

One or more specific points of view, you said.

Scenes, you said.

An intriguing beginning.

A set-up.


At least one surprise.

At least one discovery.

Others things, for sure.  Suspense or tension.  Close on to thirty different elements

Perhaps you'd been rereading Graham Greene's poignant short story, "The Basement Room."  You began your own example with a little boy, although your little boy was American.  The little boy approaches his mother, wishing to share information with her.  "Every time you go out shopping on weekends," he begins, "the maid goes to Dad's study, knocks on the door, starts to take her clothes off, then enters Dad's study."

You are so impressed by your ability to pull these linked characters and their elements out of air so apparently thin that you improvise further, turning your narrative into template of the three-act play format.

Everything is there but the surprise and the discovery.  You've led yourself into the free-fall area leading to the payoff.

The mother interrupts the little boy, asking him to wait until daddy is home and is having his dinner, so that the little boy can report what he's seen directly to daddy.

And as you complete the improvisation, you realize what you've done, which is to tell the equivalent of a joke.  "The maid goes into Dad's study and he takes off his clothes and they do the same thing you do when Dad's at the office and Uncle Sid comes over.

How helpful for you to have had these improv tools back in those years where you struggled to plot out stories for the pulp magazines, the science ficton and mystery and fantasy pulps, where plot, which is to say story points, were essential things and you had the mistaken notion that you must have the entire pattern worked out in advance to the point where you knew what you were leading for the payoff of the story.

Much of these memories were pulled off the shelf and dusted for you when you visited the Amazon book ordering service, which had a recommendation for you.  You'd like a book called The Pulp Jungle.  Written by a prolific writer from the old days of the pulps, Frank Gruber.

You would indeed like the book to the point where you placed an immediate order, caught up in the tang of nostalgia.  You'd been the one to acquire that book after suggesting to Gruber that he write what amounts to an early memoir of his days of the mystery and western magazines.

The profile you developed for yourself and students after that joke-telling sort of day involves listing as many story elements as you can possibly imagine.  Then you number them in hierarchical order, starting with your own favorite element, your strongest.  The last one on the list is your least favorite, the one to which you have the least bonding and connection.

For as long as you've been taking the profile test, your last-of-the-list has been plot.  You are terrible at plot, that is, if you approach it from the plot-driven structure.  You don't need plot.  Something works better for you.

A group of individuals enter a scene.  Each believes he or she is right.

Over the years, characters has been number one on your list, but that has become number two to your own preference for what makes a story spread fire in the air you breathe.  

Voice, the vocabulary of the narrative and the attitude of the characters, spreads fire in the breathable air.

Voice is the lightning in a bottle of passion and conviction of story, of poetry, of music, of life.  Voice is spreading fire in the air you and your characters breathe.  Voice is the thanks you get when you love the language of story and passion.

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