Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Theme Park

Long before you were even aware such things existed, you were a fan of plot-driven stories.  This is due to the number of plotted stories you found as your interest in pulp magazines expanded your reading horizons.  Add to this your belief that most writers plotted out stories before beginning to write them.

The occasional literary story you found exciting contained a demonstrable plot, which you not only could find in theory, you did in practice, at once keeping the door to literary fiction open and strengthening your belief that writers took care to plot out stories before embarking on them.  Otherwise, what else could you do?

Then you heard the actual term "plot-driven," which caused you to understand there must be some form of opposite, as this conflict played out in the backstreets and alleyways of your psyche.  If, you reasoned, there were plot-driven stories, some opposite must obtain.  

Sure enough, the words hollered themselves out to you, like a recitative in vocal music or a response of a cheering section to the cheerleader, or the call and response you heard one morning from a gospel church, as you stood in a gas station, transfixed while pumping gas.  "Character driven, character driven."

Because you were having difficulties with the construction of plots, the discovery of character-driven stories had a big impact on you, opening what was not yet in your mind as the front door, causing you to think you'd found your way into story through the back door.  This has more or less remained your approach, because after all the years of trying to plot your way in, the process works best for you when you encounter a situation that speaks to you.  

Then you place armatures into the circumstances, wrapping traits and characteristics about these armatures to the point where you begin to see them.  There follows an excitement to see them in motion, working on something related to the circumstances so recently presented to you.

Such a moment arrived today, perhaps in response to your awareness that you'd be meeting a few friends for drinks at day's end.  Perhaps there is yet another factor in play, your having introduced a short story of Flannery O'Connor to your Adventures in Fiction class.  In "Good Country People," there is a character who has a wooden leg and another character, a door-to-door bible salesman who, on learning of the wooden leg, resolves he will do whatever necessary to steal it.  You still recall, in your presentation to the class, asking the students to imagine a writer pitching such a story to a producer.  As well, you recall the emphasis with which you said, "'Good Country People' is a classic character-driven set up,  Can't you just see the writer pitching away?'There's a woman with a wooden leg and a door-to-door salesman, see, and when he comes to call on her, thinking to sell her a bible or two, he notices her wooden leg, whereupon he makes up his mind to steal it."

However the moment arrived, it came forth like this:  A man asks a woman he's been dating for a few months to accompany him to a cocktail lounge/restaurant where a group of his friends are meeting for drinks.  So far, nothing to indicate where the excitement for this conceptual arrival resides.  Thus, so far--so what?  

The most possible tension lies in the fact that the protagonist's friends have yet to meet this woman he's been dating.  Will they like her?  Will she get along with them?  Still pretty much so what? here. But quick on the heels of this so what? comes the additional thought, the woman the protagonist has been dating becomes at first tipsy, then drunk, then, because of the protagonist's suggestion that they leave, obstreperously drunk.

Suddenly, there are dozens of questions to be answered.  Who is the man?  Who is the woman?  What's going on here that causes her to get drunk?  As some of your friends in A.A. might ask, who is she getting drunk at?

As the O'Conner bible salesman knew he would steal that wooden leg (with no idea what he'd do with it after having stolen it), you knew the woman was to be modeled on the hair cutter you just acquired after being cast loose by your long term cutter, who has just retired.  Indeed, your new cutter made it clear that she was divorced, her children off on their own, and no romantic connections.  Co-opting her to fit this potential story is a done deal.  Now the man who'd been dating her.  You still don't know who he is, but you know his name is Warren.  He's probably got close to twenty years on his date, which will have an effect on his friends, won't it?  And why not an effect on her?

These are all starting points, with the vector force leading to the date drinking to the point of intoxication, a thing she'd never done before.  In fact, now that you think about it, the last time they were out at dinner, she could scarcely finish one glass of wine, asking him if he'd like to finish it.

This is how you come at story.  This demonstrates character-driven story.  You have to develop characters, their backstories and contemporary expectations of themselves and each other.  You have no idea what she will say when she achieves the drunkenness that will cause some form of dramatic explosion.  You do know you could not have plotted this story.  You also know enough about yourself to say this is your process.

Somewhere, somehow, this much will get you to select the kind of cocktail/lounge restaurant where this story will begin, whether perhaps one of Warren's friends recognizes or thinks he recognizes the date.  You will assiduously avoid any turn suggestive of a plot-driven story, such as an approach where the date was once a high-price call girl and one of Warren's friends recognizes her from having once been her customer.  Way too much plot-driven activity in that.

There is no theme or symbolism yet, because those are things you will likely not see until someone gets to the completed story, then tells you she or he loves the theme of this narrative.

There is, in fact, no story in the narrative yet.  It is all there, waiting for you to discover it, a line at a time--if you're fortunate.

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