Friday, January 1, 2016

In the Beginning Was the Rabbit Hole

There are times when discussions of beginnings are the equivalent of asking Beethoven how he knew where to begin The Fifth Symphony.  A notably impatient, bombastic, rule-bending genius, he would no doubt have responded along the lines of, "Because that's where the story started."

Beethoven would have had little time for requests to explain the origins for the meaning of those introductory notes or their symbolic implications for many intelligent adults. Depending on its length, the dramatic narrative has one significant beginning, which is the major theme, carrying us into direct action, or a sense of falling from some point of stability into a dramatic abyss.  

What better way to examplify than to speak of Alice, stumbling down the rabbit hole? A rabbit hole, by itself, is not a story. A girl, out walking, is not a story. Story starts when the girl falls into the rabbit hole Now we want to know a few details.  Who was the girl? How deep was the hole? What plans does she have for getting out?

Subsequent beginnings, such as new scenes or chapters, are also beginnings, a fact we may tend to lose sign of in our attempts to keep the requisite momentum of story.Each time we start a new scene or chapter, we expect to see some progression, some acceleration of the notion that we are in a rabbit hole, some hint that a recovery plan is necessary or there will be even more rigorous consequences.  Life and story are each a series of disasters or distractions caused by forthcoming rabbit holes.

In a sense, many of us are plagued, rather than assisted, by the beginnings so dear to our early associations with story.  "Once upon a time--"  To this day, when you hear that equivalent of Beethoven's Symphony Number Five (in C Minor) you are packed and ready for the potential trip on which you might be taken, depending on the immediate artfulness with the author has produced a character you are to follow into the depths of some menacing abyss such as the one in which you found yourself most weekdays while in the presence of a classmate whose last name translated from Italian into "sings while she walks [Passacantando]."

Ancient and anachronistic as it may sound today, another potential beginning still has the power to lure you:  "In a city named X, there lived a girl/woman, boy/man named Y, who had great dreams of A,B, or C," thus presenting you with an individual driven by the kind of goals and intents the ancient Greeks were likely thinking about when they spoke of characters who were mere pawns being driven by some god, goddess, or muse.

In a real sense, Paris, son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, was a good-looking airhead, a near equivalent of today's antihero.  You felt sorry enough in the first place for him when you learn that he'd agreed to be the judge of a beauty contest among three goddesses, and almost found yourself saying, "I told you so" when each of the three covertly offered him a bribe.

You were already at the point of not expecting much from Paris when you realized he chose the bribe of "the most beautiful woman in the world."  Poor fucker didn't realize the bribe prize, Helen, was already married to Menelaus, had no idea that when he carted her off, he was triggering the Trojan War.

But the wise author knew that would never fly as the beginning for The Odyssey, which begins seven years down the line, with the Trojan War having been in progress for seven years, giving tempers the opportunity flare to an even greater degree, emphasizing the folly and stupidity of war, bringing in the resonant and controversial theme of vanity.  The Odyssey begins with "the wrath of Achilles," one of the big players in the war, but nowhere as big as Helen, Paris, or the true hero, Paris' brother, Hector.

Achilles is mad and has refused to fight any longer, has pulled off his cohort of troops.  Why?  Because one of his own prizes of battle, a stunning young concubine, has been taken from him and given to someone else.  Of a sudden, we realize we are inside a satire of epic proportions, perhaps not to be duplicated until Joe Heller's remarkable vision, Catch-22.

If you have anything close to a strength in assessing stories as an editor or teacher, the strength is your ability to recognize where a story begins. To reach that awareness, that Alice-falls-into-a-rabbit-hole moment, that Wrath-of-Achilles moment, you have to arrange a destabilizing potential, assemble your characters around it, then cause something to happen which will produce consequences severe enough that they cause you a personal sense of unease, the more potentially embarrassing for you, the better.

Thus a new year on the blogs, acknowledging the need to look for the place of ritual discomfort and instability before the beginning can be properly considered to have begun.

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