Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Back to the Basics

 In the spirit of mischievous investigation, you've spent time considering the basic patterns for story more or less in the same way you've spent past times in pool halls, considering the sorts of angles and problems that geometry classes had rendered boring. 

There was something satisfying in being able to stop literary conversations by announcing with the certainty only a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old could muster that there were two basic story types.

So far as pool halls and geometry were concerned, you struggled even to achieve mediocrity in both. On one memorable night in a game of call-shot with two other players, you ran six consecutive shots, but never again. Not until you'd oversold yourself into a job as a production editor and book designer did the Muse of geometry come to your side to speak to you,

The first of the two basic story types you were more certain of because these were the kinds of stories you were more likely to have read.  "Coming of age," you'd say with the authority of a barroom trickster who'd pulled a rabbit out of a hat.  

And indeed, you'd even rattle off a few coming-of-age stories to show you knew whereof you spoke and also to show you were standing your ground. Of course Huckleberry Finn.  Of course, Great Expectations. And because you'd only recently been assigned My Antonia, why, of course, it as well, picking titles you'd not yet read but had divined through a lucky guess.

The other basic type was more of a long-shot, but you were energized by the way the suggestion that there were only two types had the effect of deadening a conversation, including some teachers. The stranger in town, come for a purpose that was immediately misunderstood. On this call out, you stood your ground with the estimable Western, Shane, by the estimable Western Writer, Jack Shaefer, then dared to bring in the Russians with Nicolai Gogol's Dead Souls.

In recent times, another basic type has come your way, making it a candidate for an archetypal third. A lead character, male or female, is bored to tears with a lackluster job and, to a degree in the manner you employed when assuring your prospective employer that you were a viable candidate for the position of Production Editor and book designer. The character is given the job, which quickly spirals out of hand, causing a multitude of moral choices, each new one becoming progressively worse than the last.

You could begin by citing Ishmael, whom you identified as a loner who liked to get away from the city and the negative aspects of city life by going to sea. Herman Melville could, you suppose, have made Ishmael an ordinary seaman aboard a merchant vessel, but where was the story in that? Better to have Ishmael sign on a whaler, by chance the whaler under the command of Captain Ahab, as megalomaniacal a captain as it would be possible to have, at least until the arrival on the scene of Herman Wouk's masterly characterization of Captain Queeg.

Always worth a few points to throw Moby-Dick into a literary argument, particularly if you had the slightest clue that someone in the discussion group had always wished to read it but had not, as yet, done so. With that small victory tucked away, you'd move on to the equivalent of something you'd never yet been able to do, announce to an opponent in a chess game, "That's mate in--" and here, you'd hesitate for a moment as though counting, "--in thirteen moves."

That stratagem would be trotting out the influential yet strangely neglected novelist, Nathanial West, and his mesmerizing novel about a beat reporter who is given the vacant position of the advice to the lovelorn, Miss Lonelyhearts.

In his new job, the lead character becomes caught in the ever widening gyre of moral decisions gone awry, of his life on the job conflated somehow with his personal life to the point where his future is not at all clear, much less certain. As Macbeth tumbles into the rabbit hole of ambition, Nathanael West's character, who is known throughout only by his professional name, Miss Lonelyhearts (the title of his advice column) accidentally enters the rabbit hole, you could say as a result of ambition, but his way out differs from Macbeth's murderous path. Miss Lonelyhearts, in his driven and desperate way, duplicates Christ's path.

So we are left now with an individual thinking to effect a career change, but being driven to an extreme apotheosis, clearly a third basic story type. This leaves you, at this moment, with a fourth, which in its way is a variation on the previous one: A man or woman who has left the city of birth and rearing to achieve at least a modicum of success in the big city, is forced by circumstances to return home. True enough, this borders on the stranger in town theme, because being away from home causes one to feel other, and causes the home cadre to regard the returning individual as different, an outlier.

This individual invariably finds a document or informant who relates life-changing information to the protagonist. You were adopted. The individual you believe was your biological father was not. You were a love child. There is some unsettling information that relates directly to the returning individual, forcing him or her to take action that in turn polarizes the town or family or clan.

There you have it then, the universe has expanded. What you once thought were two has become four. Now the least you can do is write a story using each as a pattern.

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