Saturday, February 4, 2017


One evening, a number of years ago, when you were addressing the fiction-writing class of a friend, you lost your temper, then stepped over a line you'd not trespassed before.

In retrospect, you see how your patience could well have been lost with yourself and your own occasionally discursive routes to setting narrative in motion. In any case, you offered to give the students in your friend's class the equivalent of the keys to the family car. You offered the absolute key to narrative success.

T, you said, F, S. You indicated that those of us who'd found our way into some form of regular publication were aware of these three initials. They'd become part of the ritual we used whenever and however we chose to compose fiction.

A hush fell over the room. Your friend found himself writing down those three initials before he  made eye contact with you. "TFS?" he said, his face now embarked on registering the meanings behind secret ritual.

You nodded, time to spring the punchline, for in many ways, this was if not an outright joke, certainly an expression of humor. "Tell the fucking story," you said.

You recall the event and the moment now with a great clarity, no doubt greater than actual memory. The students and your friend lurched in their seats. You persisted with the moral clarity of one who'd trudged to the mountain top to receive not just any old message, rather the message.

In your time, you'd gone to many lectures and classes, absorbing what you could from a range of writers, editors, and critics. All of them seemed eager for you to understand the mechanics of what things one must do and should by no means do in order to produce publishable work.

The sad truth for you is that by the time you'd formulated that writers' equivalent of S.O.S. or the French au secours, you'd managed to publish a number of things where you'd have done well to tell the fucking story.

To say "Tell the story" has some but not sufficient effect.  Application of the gerund fucking adds the necessary urgency to the observation that story itself is more than observation, digression, and commentary. In order to be a story, the narrative needs to resonate with implications that surround, even envelop the primary individuals around which story is invented.

Even jokes, which are the precursors of today's so-named flash fiction, begin with one or more individuals, set in a particular place. One of your favorite jokes begins with an individual who appears for the sake of a laugh to have been yanked in off the streets. "An elderly gentleman has just discovered his best friend--" thus two unnamed men whom you are sure you've seen hundred of times in hundreds of parks.  "An elderly gentleman has just discovered his best friend has been carrying on an affair with his wife." The story is less than a sentence old and it already has existential implications, resonance, and a hint of betrayal. But remember--this is to be a joke.

Without any further detail, this unnamed individual confronts his best friend. "I don't understand," he says. "Me, I have to. But you--" and the punchline hangs in the silence.

You are so much a fan of TFS that you have included it in a compendium of storytelling terms and conditions.  Whenever a story is begun, its effectiveness resides in it transporting and surprising the reader, taking that person on a journey of discovery. The journey is best served with inherent wrong directions and unplanned surprises.

Another thing you've said in concert with TFS is "Never take the reader where the reader wants to go." The reader must be motivated to curiosity, which can be assisted with the judicious sprinkling of details, This effect is waiting to spring on Mark Twain and us in his mischievous romp, "The Grandfather's Ram," where Twain makes himself the butt of an outrageous shaggy-dog-story distraction, taking us on side trips we'd never have imagined, each one taking us farther away from what we hoped to hear about a ram that once belonged to the grandfather of someone whose hold on any given subject varied according to the amount of whiskey he'd had to drink.

We--you included--need only pour over recent drafts of our concocted fictions to see where the details took over from the story and led it astray.

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