Sunday, March 1, 2015

What's a Story without a Satisfying Plan B?

In your four-part roles as reader, writer, editor, and teacher your approach to story has evolved from the acceptance of the episodic to the appreciation of the ironic reversal.  No more conditions where an event triggers a response, any response, which sends us we off to the next scene where someone wonders aloud, "What are we going to do now?"

Structure presents itself and is invited to come into the living room and take a load off its feet and perhaps a glass of lemonade or would you rather some tea?  What kind of structure?  Why, dramatic structure, of course, structure propelled by the major players thinking they are aligned with like minded cohorts.  If we dwellers in Reality share anything with those who live in story, it is the mutual malady of thinking persons we like must agree with us.  Isn't that why we like them?

Injections of irony into a story sometimes get a bad rap; some critics you've read build on the meme of irony being the thing that closes on Thursday, speaking of it as though it were Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds, denying their ingestion of metabolic enhancements.  You wish to add the word reversal to  the mix, thinking this takes us well beyond the kinds of irony associated with sarcasm, which has for so long become associated with teenagers who are impatient with their parents.  

You know this at close hand because your own teen-aged hormones and agendas, most of them focused on getting a girlfriend and writing things of publishable quality, led you to any number of sarcastic presentations to your parents.  At one point, you were glad to have these incidents beyond you because the memories of them did not have room for you seeing yourself at your best. 

This awareness opened the door to even later times when you were able to regard both parents without sarcasm, while seeing the dynamic between you in a near reversal, where you could visualize their potential for sarcasm toward you.  They, being who they were, did not return the sarcasm favor.  

In the way of your parents being first generation here in the U.S., you set forth on your own tradition by becoming first generation sarcastic teen.  This may have been your springboard for looking at the world through ironic lenses, and for being stunned by its appearance in the Jane Austen you'd read, long before you found Austin as comforting now.  Remember, you were hitting the high end of your teens and rushing into your twenties on the backs of Hemingway, Eliot, and that master ironist, Ezra Pound.  You did not wish to be seen admiring Austen then any more than you'd wish to be seen sitting at a cafeteria table with girls while in grammar school.

The first ironic reversal you were able to articulate came in several instances during the course of Austen's Persuasion.  Anne, its protagonist, has broken off her engagement with Wentworth, heeding the advice of an older mentor, and seeing Wentworth as unsuitable.  That was then.  

Wentworth has had considerable success in his career.  Now, Anne is in a position to see how favorable this success has been at making him more the kind of man an Austen heroine would consider.  But alas, he is paying attention to two young teen-aged girls who are clearly flirting with him, obvious in their gestures.  And Anne can do nothing about it.

Of course being helpless in such a situation as Anne's in Persuasion is just the sort of thing that requires the literary equivalent of an anabolic steroid.  Anne realizes her mistake, realizes she has feelings for Wentworth.  Now, the burden is on her, against considerable odds.  Except that the conventions of story render the effect of a directed verdict in a court proceeding; we know Anne is going to have another shot at retrieving what she has lost.

But the true ironic reversal comes in yet another Jane, in fact Jane Eyre.  Our eponymous protagonist has no doubt of her feelings for Rochester.  She loves him, but cannot be with him because he is married.  He suggests they move to Europe and live together, but she has  no desire to live as his mistress and knows that she would indeed become his lover were they to spend much time together, so it is So long, Mr. Rochester.  

But that is not enough. That may well be one of the strengths Charlotte Bronte brings to her fiction.  A man who is about to go to Africa to become a missionary, proposes to her.  In Africa, she'd be away from Rochester, whom she loves.  Lovely irony at work here.  She has to say no to love without marriage, whereupon she is offered marriage to a man she does not love.

Many of us--you included--respond to loss, or awareness of the complete inaccessibility of something we wish, by developing and pursuing a Plan B.  The more potential for Plan B in a story, the more depth to it, and the greater its potential for having a shelf life.

You can still get off on an episodic story.  There are occasions where nothing will do it for you the way a hamburger or tuna salad sandwich will do it for you.  But not for long.  You understand how a character has to be forced from Plan A, trying all the while to get a life of some lesser sort, in the process becoming enmeshed in Plan B.  However tempting it is to blame such twists on the Fates, our arguments fail in the fire of the knowledge that our hard-wired duality will force us to see some version of some truth, not necessarily our own.

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