Thursday, September 18, 2014

Salute Your Adversarial Gorilla at Some Point in Every Story.

First come the characters, then the task or set-up, then the beginnings of opposing forces, which at once begin to accelerate.  There you have it, the beginning of story, which presents you with a presentiment of the ending, a "this can come to no good" presentiment.

Say you have chosen as your characters those iconic, Beckettean prototypes, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, each in his appearance and manners suggesting a wild difference from the other.  The former, tall, reedy, easy to distract; the latter a variation on themes of roundness, a role model for a snow man, his round head seeming to have been plunked on his round torso.  Hardy's other trademark prop, the ever present bowler hat.

The task, the movement of a piano.  They struggle against a mild upward grade, seeming to have some measure of control and poise, but what's this?  We are shown the upward grade in context.  The path leads to a mountainous gorge, spanned by a narrow bridge of planks, held by vines and ropes of questionable provenance.  The essential characteristics of the bridge re its flexibility and rustic engineering,

Thus does The Piano begin.  The two piano movers are dressed in Alpine shorts, suggesting The Piano is an excerpt from a longer work in which Laurel and Hardy are set in motion in some Alpine locale.  For our purposes, this excerpt is nevertheless a complete story, a stand-alone, in its way demonstrative of the shape and personality of story.

We are only seconds into the vision when Hardy's impatience manifests itself.  Hardy is, of course, impatient with Laurel; he is always impatient with Laurel.  Such is the nature of their dialectic.  Laurel is always gawking or looking or distracted.  Hardy is always impatient to get on with things, whichever things manifest themselves at the moment.  Laurel is fated always to be the engine of Hardy's impatience.  An Oliver Hardy who is patient is not in any way a story, rather the opposite.

The story has already begun, but from the moment the pair has the piano on the bridge, the point of no return has passed.  Story is running at full throttle.  Two helpless men on a flimsy bridge, several hundred feet above any convenient land.  They could not be any more vulnerable nor could we be any more involved.  We are, however, suspicious.  We know enough about story to know this particular point is a plateau to be surpassed.  Ah, there it is.  Some of the planks give, and Hardy has taken a tumble, leaving him yet more vulnerable, hanging from one or two of the more secure planks, his legs dangling.

Of course Laurel will attempt some tactic of rescue and of course this will in some manner incite more of Hardy's volatile temper.  We now have  two men and a piano halfway across the bridge.  To remind us of the precariousness of their position, the producers allow us another view of perspective.  Precarious,.  Scary,  We still have no knowledge of why they are moving the piano, where its final destination will be.  Our own lives have been assigned such Sisyphean tasks with equally little explanation.

Whoever devised the next step, he or she has demonstrated an understanding of the surreal nature of existence, of story, of the essential psychology of story.  Coming across the mountainous span from the opposite direction on this essentially one-lane bridge is a gorilla.  Laurel attempts to warn Hardy.  "There's a gorilla."

Edgar Kennedy, a contemporary of Laurel and Hardy, had a trademark facial expression celebrated as "The slow burn."  Kennedy could steal a scene with his slow burn sense of events going wrong beyond belief.  Much as you admired Mr. Kennedy;s work, his facial registration of an existential cluster fuck was nothing to the inner anguish and world weariness of Oliver Hardy.

"There's,"  Hardy mocks, "a gorilla."

But there is in fact a gorilla.  In the manner of a serious opposing force, he has an agenda.  He causes things to happen, the sorts of things you might suppose a gorilla could cause to happen.  By this time, on levels beyond conscious levels, you are drawing on your own sense of experience in the world,on the plank bridges and whimsical rope and vine engineering, and of the considerable distance down, to the bottom of the gorge spanned by the bridge.

This, too, is story at its best, where the absurd, by its very absurdity, is no threat whatsoever to our concepts of the real and the imaginary.  Yet there are memories, social and of high personal nature, and tangible fears.  And there are triggered responses that send chills if not chills and adrenaline through our bloodstreams.  The absurd, exaggerated japery of two great performers and one unexpected gorilla send our senses into the spin of understanding, acceptance, and bonding rituals most of us experience every day and which some considerable number of us relate to on a first-name basis.

No book on fiction writing technique, including the two you've written and the one you're currently grappling with have suggested the need for your lead characters to encounter an adversarial gorilla at some point in your next story.  This is a matter you will do well to correct.

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