It seems that once certain stories appear on the literary radar the whole landscape changes and nearly everything that follows pales by comparison. What do these works offer readers that can help writers at all levels and styles better understand their own projects – and what’s missing?
Notice I didn’t say “personality”? The writer is consistently able to create separate, distinct, incorporeal humans on the page whether they’re primary or background characters, and whether they’re highly developed or not. Even the most cardboard hard-boiled gumshoe in great detective fiction is just the visible mask of something truer humming below the surface. There’s just no need to elaborate because of the nature of the genre. These are not just caricatures or sketches of humans with quirky traits that allow the reader to distinguish between them. People don’t just have traits. Life creates those traits. Each character has its own independent agency and motivations.
The mouth-wiping tic Stephen King gave Jack Torrance in The Shining would be little more than an annoying motif if it weren’t a symptom of the character’s slow and traceable crack-up. Rather than serving to define Jack’s nature, King comes at it from the opposite direction: the tic exists because of Jack’s nature, and that’s why it works. At the same time, Wendy’s paralyzing depression is a realistic and important response to living with an addict, but more importantly it frames up what must eventually happen far more dramatically than if she were written as someone coping just fine, or as a mountain of feminist strength. This is human. Together, the family forms a credible, traumatized portrait of mental fragility.
On the more literary end, every single member of the Bundren clan in As I Lay Dying is unique and palpably so, drawn in strokes as simple as Vardaman’s “my mother is a fish”; and who could ever forget the cringe-worthy scene of a boy unwittingly boring holes through his mother’s face trying to provide air for her in the coffin? The whole novel is a master class in individuality and family dynamics and culture – together a grotesquerie of human experience.
2. Understanding human nature
Not just the ability to draw a believable human being on the page, but to understand how humans think and act – almost as if the writers were born with a set of templates in their brains, which allows them to get what sets a particular type of personality off in any given direction. They’re not starting with a circumstance and throwing a character in there to deal with it. Rather, great authors understand how certain types wind up in those circumstances to begin with in order to get themselves slapped around by the disaster that’s about to come. Back story isn’t just a filler, it offers up the root source of the story’s purpose and the character’s role in it.
Take The Quiet American, for example. Greene completely gets the brokenness and essential disconnection that creates the funnel into working in foreign correspondence and intelligence. Like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, in Alden Pyle you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time with intellectuals to see how dehumanizing too much knowledge with too little understanding can be. How easy it is to core out the need for one kind of morality for ideals deemed far superior – and to apply to it the intellectual’s fervor that replaces the less savory fervor of religiosity. For Raskolnikov, for Greene’s Alden Pyle, ideals trump reality every time. It’s a blindness that hasn’t changed one iota for centuries in certain people and never will, and the greatest writers know this. It’s part of the human template.
Great authors are students of human behaviour. They’re masters at translating it for us ordinary folk who suffer from perceptual dystrophy. In all the best stories, the deeper you look the more there is to see. The farther you pull back, the more it all connects. As your life evolves and you go back to these narratives, your own maturation and life experience opens up new perceptions about what the story is about. And there’s always something you never saw before. That’s why there are some books people read over and over, each time seeming to evolve into something surprising.
3. Interpretation and translation of human speech
They’re the greatest mimics on the planet. They can capture the nuances of human communication so perfectly that the reader knows instantly, without any unnecessary tricks, who a character is – education, upbringing, intelligence, beliefs, even gender. Accents sound natural, even when the writer is not from that particular culture. Rather than risk creating cartoonishly absurd diction, they opt to tone down so transliteration captures the essence of speech rather than merely the sounds of it. Under-doing has no down-side; over-doing it is all down-side.
4. Character development = story development = character development
Character development works in tandem with story development. They’re inextricable. If you mess up story development, you mess up character. If you don’t get the right character in the right circumstances, you mess up story development.
5. Setting as character
Setting serves the story or, if that’s not possible or desirable, it’s symbolized completely, letting character speak for and lend meaning to place (which Death Of A Salesman does superbly). Place becomes a living, breathing actor upon the characters’ circumstances. Think of the oppressive, sweat-inducing humidity and heat that go hand-in-hand with the oppressive political conditions in Koch’s The Year Of Living Dangerously and Kingsolvers’s The Poisonwood Bible or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
6. Place is never just a location
If setting is just window dressing because you happened to vacation there with your mom and dad in ’04, don’t bother. Although great writers do their best work writing about the places that created them, they write with equal authority about other places because they do not seek to expose the outward trappings of place like some literary tour-book; rather, they are able to uncover the beating heart of place without even having to hint at publicly definable tourist-trap features. When they travel, they go with their perceptual eye peeled wide open, watching behaviour, observing atmosphere, taking notes. They have a knack for understanding and crystallizing what they’re seeing, often better than the people who live there.
7. Human and place
Place is creative. It’s generative. Deep observers of humanity see those connections in everything. How a person grows up, how their character is formed, is as much a product of place as family and culture and genetics.
Could you write a story like Dickey’s Deliverance without tapping into the outsider’s fear and misunderstanding of mountain people and inbreeding? Would there even be a story if Dickey had set it in Long Island or Nunavut?
No. Because place is generative. Place creates. The best writers know this.
8. Time and character
The breakdown of Anna Karenina occurs in tandem with the breakdown of Russian society that presages the Bolshevik Revolution. The novel is a reflection on and a statement about a particular time. In Beloved, Sethe and her family’s struggle to free themselves of a supernatural force mirrors the struggle of ex-slaves to free themselves from the past in the years immediately after the Civil War.
Characters are both subject and product of a time. In order for Sethe’s story to encompass the greater story, it must be materially and rawly connected to the relevant past. It must be Sethe’s own experience, with very real cause and effect (to be so desperate for freedom that she is willing to kill her own child to prevent her enslavement).
A particular time creates the window of opportunity for a character’s particular experience, out of which only one story seems possible or worth telling.
It’s a potential for character that would lose its reach and potency told at any other time in history. Time seems to cleave open for great storytellers who recognize in the moment a kind of synergistic opportunity, in the same way great sculptors seem to look at a piece of stone and know instantly what lies within waiting to be revealed – that only one particular story must be formed out of it to reveal something much larger.
9. Time and place
Some places only exist in a particular way for a brief time. Before, they were too small or too undeveloped or too stable to fund a story of any significance; any later and place loses its storytelling characteristics. It’s too big, too changed, or altogether gone. Alaska during the Gold Rush. Dustbowl Oklahoma during the Depression. The Old South.
But great writers somehow always manage to show us that no place, even the most unknowable blips on the historical horizon, is ever truly unfamiliar, or ever truly known.
10. Time and Time
In the same way that time and place can form a storytelling nexus, time can also create its own meaning that becomes synonymous with an era. If someone mentions the Sixties, that simple identifier funds an entire cultural memory for different parts of the world. The Soviet Sixties evokes its greyscale oppressiveness in contrast to the wild, colorful, rule-breaking Sixties of the West.
Great writers don’t play into cliche, but rather they take the unavoidable realities of a cultural time and create something unique without stepping outside truth. They do this in delicate strokes and in nuance, so readers know the when of a story that isn’t defined by it.
Creating the cultural-era equivalent of a guide-book is not an option unless you’re writing satire or farce. That’s because real people just don’t live the guide-book. Most people rarely have first-hand contact with the cliches; only Forrest Gump could get away with it. For the most, those cliches just sort of brush by us or appear in the distance.
Stay tuned for Part 2: 10 more Non-Negotiable Qualities of a Timeless Story
Build your story’s context with NarraForm, the world’s only panoramic storytelling tool, providing writers with the continuity and perspective needed for beginning-to-end control of story development – already launched onKickstarter. It’s the only story development model anywhere based on unique storytelling benchmarks found only in the best fiction the world has ever seen. Become a backer and be among the first to change how you create and develop stories, and at great values that won’t be possible once NarraForm goes retail.Followers of this blog who become backers on NarraForm’s Kickstarter project will get free access to an online step-by-step guide to building a contextual core.
Ever wonder why great novels always seem to get a better start than just about all the rest? If not the perfect first line perfectly delivered, then the perfect opening scene that seems to embody the story’s every narrative potential, like some quantum flux about to give birth to a narrative universe.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
You better not never tell nobody but God.
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.
Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.
The authors didn’t choose a strong beginning or a good beginning or a powerful beginning. They chose the right beginning.
It was the best of times and the worst of times for a reason. The clocks strike thirteen on a cold day for a reason.
In this post I’ll be exploring two conditions that create the right opening lines or scenes in master storytelling.
First, the opening lines – like the titles – are fully keyed-in to a driving contextual core that lies at the heart of master stories that have been given the right start. Second, the master writer’s understanding of in medias res (in the middle of things), differs from the way we average schmos understand it.
And by the way, chances are if a story has the right opening it’s going to be one of those powerhouse novels that just keeps a hold of reader consciousness no matter when it was published. It’s because the writer who understands the difference between a good opening and the right opening already understands his or her story to the bone. It’s this deep consciousness of the story’s context that won’t let the story go off the rails.
So – contextual core? You’re probably thinking: What on earth is a contextual core?
Glad you asked.
Context is defined by a set of conditions that create meaning or signification. Woman murders husband. Battered wife kills abusive husband. Mother kills abusive husband as he holds a gun on their children. Same people, same story, but context is what lets us understand what’s happening more clearly.
In fiction the set of contextual conditions in a story create agency.
Pay very close attention to that idea.
Context can make all the difference between a Tolstoi and a Jackie Collins. Without clear context, everything from tone to authority and credibility are compromised. Place Anna Karenina in modern-day Hollywood and you take away all the contextual influences that hold enough agency to push Anna toward her end. All the same plot points transposed into Hollywood conditions would turn Anna’s suicide from social tragedy to mere melodrama. Huge difference. If you’re writing melodrama, that’s one thing. If you’re aiming for social tragedy and do a belly-flop into melodrama, chances are your context is wrong for the story.
Without a particular contextual foundation, each unfolding outcome would lose more and more credibility and authority – and, eventually, the reader.
In fiction there’s context and there’s the right context. Great stories embody an exact mix of contextual elements that fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.
The Quiet American. A Tale of Two Cities. The Year of Living Dangerously. Middlesex. The Shining. Gone With The Wind. Heart of Darkness. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Rebecca. The Power and the Glory.
These are contextually almost pitch-perfect, and it shows in their openings (lines or scenes). When you come across stories like these it’s like coming upon Michaelangelo’s David in Florence. You can’t explain why, but you know you’re looking at a piece of art that’s like nothing else. The hands, the expression (dead-on and from below), the stance – none of it could ever be any different. It’s as if that sculpture was always in that block of stone from the beginning of time, awaiting only the right artist to come by and recognize what had to be chipped away to reveal such a wonder.
It’s the same thing with master storytelling. It’s as if the entire story has always existed fully formed,buried there under a pile of words and letters until some genius comes along, dusts away the excess and reveals this marvel of narrative construction.
So what does context have to do with getting it right in story creation?
Remember the old chestnut write what you know? Well, the master storyteller writes what s/he understands. That’s a world of difference. You can know life under the torture of a drug abuser without ever understanding it. What great writers understand about themselves and life seeds their storytelling context, which in turn becomes the reader’s deepest, most subconscious connection to the story and, inevitably, to the writer and humanity.
Graham Greene, for example, understood the psychological double-bind of his devout Catholicism and his personal moral failings. He explored it to great effect in his best works, thereby creating vital connections between himself and the reader through narrative.
Greene’s The Quiet American opens with Thomas Fowler waiting for Alden Pyle to show up for their dinner plans. Even the names are perfectly chosen to suit the context, especially the apt mangling of Fowlair on the French colonials’ tongues. Opening at this exact moment is brilliant because (spoiler alert!) Fowler isn’t really waiting for Pyle to show up for dinner, he’s awaiting a defining moment of moral conscience – to see if he has succeeded in getting Pyle killed or not.
There’s so much wrapped up in starting precisely at this moment – Fowler’s manipulation of the situation, of Phuong and Pyle, the authorities, his ability to psychologically hive off and justify his own moral failure but not Pyle’s, his opportunism and narcissism. All these are characteristics Greene knew well in himself, through his many affairs and betrayals, and his own personal character and politics.
There’s also a pivotal geopolitical context in this specific opening: Fowler (colonialism) thwarting an early (1955) attempt at American interventionist policy (CIA/Pyle) in Vietnam (Phuong). It’s not just genius, it’s downright prescient. The perfect context sets up the story conceptually, symbolically, thematically, relationally, and morally.
When Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities on those famous lines, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, he’s setting up a context of dissonant binaries that define and fuel the entire story – geopolitics, morality, social structures, family, love.
Context – the right context – informs not just story development, but character development as well. It’s what lets it all work together, separately, to move a story in the right direction instead of just toward some kind of plotted conclusion.
Unsound context creates dissonance with readers. Scarlett O’Hara is a very different character than Pansy O’Hara would have been had Margaret Mitchell not renamed her heroine at the last minute, even if not one other detail about the story had changed. The name alone would have been a confusing red herring, intimating weakness and frailty and, perhaps, somehow the inconsequential. It would have stripped GWTW of an important driving subtextual allusion: Scarlett and the scarlet woman, the whore of Babylon; Babylon with Atlanta, Atlanta with Belle Watling, the whore of Atlanta; Belle with Scarlett the Southern Belle; Scarlett connected with ruin through Atlanta and Rhett (the beast upon which the whore rides). The average reader might not pick up the chain of allusion, but it’s there in the background pulling a vital part of the storytelling load.
A story with no context at all is unfocused, weak, lacking in life force and drive. That’s when writers just throw in some random opening because it’s “hot” or puts the character in a high-action moment to get readers interested, only for the story to crumble to pieces with every page and chapter.
The right context won’t let that happen. The right context gets a story off and running in the only way that’s possible, and keeps it going toward the only ending possible, not in a way that suggests predictability or stock storytelling, but in the way that David could only have been sculpted as it was.
In Medias Res
Whenever you hear or read people discussing this idea it’s always somehow associated with the middle of the story’s action – something linear, a moment in chronological time.
Actually, if you look at the greats (and why look at anything less?), in medias res has less to do with the story action or chronology, but rather a contextual crossroads (yes, that again!). It’s a 3-D collision point, after which we witness the unfolding carnage and aftermath.
In The Year of Living Dangerously, a brilliant and forgotten masterpiece by Christopher Koch (the movie is a pale but beautiful ghost of the novel), the story opens at a crossroad of the characters’ lives both individually and together as a group, and in terms of geopolitics, driving symbolism, and Wayang allegory. Although Guy Hamilton is technically the protagonist, the novel introduces Billy Kwan first. It has to. Billy is the spark that sets everything off toward conclusion. That’s agency. Without Billy, Guy’s story would have slogged through with a resounding meh.
The Power and the Glory does the same thing, opening on what seems like an odd note: not the morally compromised Whiskey Priest, the story’s protagonist, but a sickish, abstracted ex-pat dentist heading through a dusty, broiling Mexican town toward a wharf to pick up canisters of ether. This scene sets up, first, the contextual breadth of the story’s experience with the Whiskey Priest. Second, it establishes the oppressive atmosphere and menace that bring the Whiskey Priest to us in the middle of it all and, eventually, delivers him into legend. The heat, the poverty, the corruption, the hopelessness – all work together like cogs. The story’s eye can’t be focused directly on the priest, but rather obliquely; an internal exile on the run, he enters and exits, enters and exits each scene and each perspective, so that we the readers feel the dogs of pursuit (his own, personally, and ideologically) that continually drive him on toward martyrdom. It’s a fraught, contextually rich opening scene.
To create good stories, and to engage in storytelling as the only delivery system possible between writer and reader, you need a solid contextual bedrock.
How powerful is it to get context right?
Context helps you put the right characters into the story, with the individual and collective agency to enact your storyline. It keeps you on track, focused, because you’ll understand what your story is about instead of just following a series of plot points that, alone, can’t generate the vitality or dynamic momentum that otherwise originate in the writer, from inside the story, out toward the reader.
Even a strong theme and premise can’t do that.
Starting with the right contextual core and understanding its power means that the right opening will be easier to find – the in medias res, that crossroads, that quantum flux where your story’s universe will come to glorious life.
Build your story’s context with NarraForm, the world’s only panoramic storytelling tool, providing writers with the continuity and perspective needed for beginning-to-end control of story development – already launched on Kickstarter. It’s the only story development model anywhere based on unique storytelling benchmarks found only in the best fiction the world has ever seen. Become a backer and be among the first to change how you create and develop stories, and at great values that won’t be possible once NarraForm goes retail. Followers of this blog who become backers on NarraForm’s Kickstarter project will get free access to an online step-by-step guide to building a contextual core.
No writer should go without reading Benjamin’s work, especially The Storyteller (available free here)
Walter Benjamin (pr: Ben-ya-meen) was one of the greatest critical theorists to come out of the turmoil of interwar Europe. As a Jew he fled Nazi Germany and lived in exile all over Europe, then decided to seek refuge in the US after his arrest and imprisonment by the French Vichy government. A problem with transit documents from Fascist Spain meant certain repatriation to Nazi Germany and thus death in an extermination camp. Benjamin chose to commit suicide instead.
Shortly after his suicide the rest of his party gained safe passage to Lisbon.
His death was an unthinkable loss to the theoretical community, yet it was because of his death that we know him at all: a theorist and philosopher whose work had gone completely unrecognized during his lifetime was posthumously edited and published and thus saved from obscurity.
This quote is a great idea to ponder for writers.
Do the architectonic and textile stages mean anything to you as a writer? Do you understand what Benjamin means by approaching prose as musical vs architectonic vs textile, and why he differentiates between composing, building, and weaving?
Most writers stop at stage 1: composition (yes, even published writers). So what do you think Benjamin’s second and third stages add to the process, individually and together, that can’t be achieved through composition alone?
Does it make a difference if your work is literary or genre?
It’s well worth giving yourself a stress headache to wrap your mind around this one.
“Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.” – Walter Benjamin
It’s a game-changing form based on a master narrative infrastructure found only in the best fiction ever written – all on a unique panoramic form allowing writers beginning-to-end control for the first time ever. Just click below and change the way you understand storytelling as a way to reach readers while your work is still in development.
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Why is context so important?
Context is the DNA of storytelling. It’s what links you to the reader through your story. It’s how you provide your readers with a profound recognition of their own humanity through the way you translate your personal context into story context. It’s this establishing, deeply internal bond that opens the first door to reader engagement.
Without strongly developed, rooted context it will be very difficult to maintain focus and purpose, and to create any significant agency in your story. Plot becomes just a series of loosely connected events.
Everything you build into your story’s infrastructural development depends on getting context right. Through the Context guide you’ll learn how the masters use context to link themselves to the reader through story.
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Thank you so much for spending time on this blog. I hope you’ve learned something about the story creation process with each post, and I hope that NarraForm will help you transform into the writers you were meant to be.