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10 More Non-Negotiable Qualities Of A Timeless Story

A few posts back I published 10 Non-Negotiable Qualities Of A Timeless Story. Here’s another ten.

APPROACH

11. Narrative before writing

In the writing paradigm, writing comes first. Most often, it’s the only consideration. It’s a symptom of our narcissistic age where anything that serves the Self supersedes anything that serves the Other. So naturally we’ve moved away from any narrative approach that puts the reader’s interests on the radar.

You see it a lot at the higher levels of literary writing: the complex or experimental pieces submitted to a group for review, which everyone else feels too inferior or stupid to critique. Silence feeds the writer’s hubris about his/her own intellect rather than serving as proof of the work’s utter failure to reach the reader on any level. After all, everyone knows that if it’s incomprehensible the writer must be extra-extra smart and, well, there’s not much we doofus types can add.

No.

Incoherence does not equal smart. If you’re a writer who thinks stream-of-consciousness means just yakking out whatever comes to mind until the last yellow drop of literary bile has drained out, then you don’t understand that stream-of-consciousness is just fiction that’s been left to the reader to approach archaeologically or forensically. But it’s still narrative and there’s still has to be something there for the reader.

If you’re not reaching the reader through narrative, none of the fancy tricks of writing will help.

The best writers know that communicating with the reader comes before the way you use the language. If you don’t have a story to tell, then all the lovingly crafted language and lyricism or from-the-hip adjectiveless, adverbless plainwriting in the world might as well be left in a journal where you can admire yourself whenever you like.

Narrative is for the reader. Writing is for the writer.

How does this matter? Because as soon as the reader starts noticing the writing, the writer has failed. This has nothing to do with whether or not a writer produces quotable writing or beautiful passages. It means the writing can’t be an intrusive force. Writing should serve as invisible an element beneath the story as breathing, no matter the style.

The greats have always known this.

12. Narrative over ideology

Most writers use fiction as a platform through which their worldview can be realized. Often, they don’t even know this is what’s happening but even if they do they usually lack the objectivity or critical thinking to be bigger than their own perspective. They just want their characters to tell the world how it should be.

First-rate writers do this, of course, but they also simultaneously hold their ideals out at arm’s length, then brutally test them within the confines of their story world. They are able to boldly cope with moral, ethical, religious, political realities that are in direct and painful conflict with their own.

They remorselessly call their own ideals to task.

Great fiction is never an ideological screed or manifesto even when it takes a powerful stance for or against something personally meaningful to the writer. Ultimately, nothing is more important than creating the most honest kind of story, and the born writer knows that’s impossible if it’s filtered through a skewed and rigid ideological lens.

The truth within belief systems comes and goes. The truth that lies beyond that is forever.

That’s what great writers aim for.

Like a martial arts master aiming toward a point on the other side of a concrete block.

13. Humanity over ideology

Having said that, the best novels serve as public demonstrations of intensely personal values. That’s not a contradiction of the above point. The first concern is always the human story, not the screed that will be masked by a story. In fact, the human story is usually so richly expressed, and with such complexity, that even if there’s a position involved it just doesn’t seem like the important part for readers.

That’s because great storytellers don’t pit a particular Me against a particular You, even though the conditions of the story may be highly particularized. They do this by making sure that all their characters are threaded into the larger human tapestry, not just the ones that serve the writer’s value system. Villains exist (they must) but powerful writers approach Other without dehumanizing, demeaning, or demonizing.

Or by turning them into caricature.

Similarly, the characters representing the writer’s values don’t get the kid glove treatment either. The writer has the magnanimity to make their ideal pitiful, ridiculous, mock-worthy, or even contemptible, all without losing their purpose.

Strong writers write from – and to – an essential humanity against which no particulars of any ideology are able to survive. There is no Me and You.

It’s just Us.

14. Reader before writer

Similar to Story Before Writing, but not quite.

A good host makes sure their guests have the best time possible – even if the host has spent the entire party serving canapes and topping up drinks and whisking away dirty dishes.

Writers are inviting readers to a narrative party. Writers who put their own needs and ego ahead of the reader’s engagement is like inviting a bunch of people over then serving rain juice and sawdust crackers (because converting your guests over to your dietary morals was your true ulterior motive), and spending the entire time making sure you’re the one having the best time.

A really great host (even if not a great human being) will make an effort to give guests something worth coming for – and hopefully worth coming back for next time. Otherwise, don’t have a party. Sit at home with your rain juice and sawdust crackers and enjoy them the way they’re meant to be enjoyed – solo.

Give the reader something more important than what you want.

15. The second glance

This is a quality that adds longevity to a story. It’s a deep complexity that makes the story somehow different the next time you read it. And there always is a next time when a story is among the best. Read this post for a more detailed look at what goes into giving readers a chance at the second glance.

THE REAL DEAL

16. Writing

Clarity.

Control.

Confidence.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s lyrical or the flattest prose possible, writing that lacks clarity, control, and confidence is like listening to a third rate actor butcher an Australian accent. The agonizing effort and lack of skill and overconfidence scream out from the text.

The best writing just disappears into narrative. How and when to use punctuation, vernacular, switching back and forth between voices and times and points of view – all happens like a great conversation that veers from news to the utterly private to politics and religion without awkward pauses or anyone even noticing the switch.

Don’t know if you have clarity, confidence, or control? Let’s give’er a go. This sample has everything I usually seen in manuscripts. Lots of adjectives and adverbs, time flips, over-the-top actions, digressions, regressions, unbelievable dialogue/vocalizations, odd metaphors.

Kimmie trudged her way heart-breakingly across the dark and creepy room screaming and crying, so hard it was like her heart had exited her body and was now in the room and it was going to beat her to death with its throbbing pulse. She trudged on, her feet like lead torpedoes, a fist in the air, her mouth in a hideous, malformed grimace, saliva slathering down her chin, tears pouring like a water spout.

“No, No, NOOOOoooo,” she kept crying.

With shoulders shaking with every heaving sob, she shook her clenched fist and lamented grievously, “DAMN YOU!!!!”, and when she reached the fireplace mantle she let out an animalistic “RRRRrrrr!” as she beat the fireplace mantle with both fists, screaming wildly and painfully, then sweeping the candlesticks and remote controls and vases off. They start falling around her sobbing shoulders in a rain of glittering glass and flashing metal and glowing plastic, and as her perceptions gear down into slo-mo, she stupefyingly watches the candlesticks fly by like existential nunchuks, end over end, their brass glinting in the twinkling light of the hot, searing sun.

The remote controls make contact with the gleaming marble of the old Victorian fireplace mantle made of hard wood, and split open like rectangular electronic skulls, their brain matter exploding off in every direction like the shrapnel that had hit Joe back in ‘Nam in the MeKong Delta when he served as a gunner in the Brown Water Navy and they used to patrol through snipers and booby-trapped sampans, and he’d tell her the mosquitoes and leeches were almost worse than the war itself.

Suddenly she sees the vase spinning through the air toward her, the beautiful, gorgeous yellow bohemian art glass vase in mint condition with hand-painted white roses that he’d bought for her at a flea market in Sacramento back in ’78 when they were still young and in love and he still thought about all the little things that make a relationship worthwhile, and it was such a good deal at forty five dollars and some change and went perfectly with her decor, so she reached out one hand like a ninja and saved the vase. Then she crumpled to the ground, still clutching the vase, and sobs incoherently, “why me, why me, why me? WHYYYY?”

You’re welcome. Indeed, why any of us?

If this sounds like you, start asking yourself if each word, sentence, phrase, paragraph, and scene answers to clarity (are you communicating something that serves the purpose of your story?), control (are you using only the most value-added words, sentences, phrases, paragraphs, and scenes?), and confidence (do your words, sentences, phrases, paragraphs, and scenes represent your authenticity and mastery as a human being as well as a writer?)

Just like memorable, effortless conversations are a rarity in life, it’s a rarity in fiction.

17. Voice

Writing is the expressed You.

Voice is just you.

If you were standing with a group of people at a party and you started talking like your writing, would people start inching away backwards, then spend the rest of the night avoiding eye contact with you, and every time you came near they’d hide out in the washroom until the coast was clear?

When you know who you are you have a voice. When you have a voice, you have the control and confidence to make powerful use of it. When you make the most powerful use of your voice you don’t need tricks to impress anyone.

A writer able to write from his/her own authenticity and mastery is a writer with a powerful voice.

19. Authenticity is internal

Related to voice, but not quite. You won’t find out how to become your most authentic self as a writer by letting other writers tell you what that should look like.

If you need prompts to write or you have to look to others for ideas, the road toward your own true voice will be a lot more difficult.

First-rate writers have the opposite problem: too many ideas and not enough time to make them all happen. That’s not to say there’s no writer’s block, but that’s something completely different.

The only way you can become authentic is by staring yourself down in your own existential mirror to find out what you’re truly made of, because this is where all writing starts.

It’s not good ideas. It’s not using the latest software or joining the hottest group or enrolling in the best writing program.

You are It. The Source. The Root. The Cause.

It’s all in there, and you’re the one who has to get it out.

Nobody else.

That’s where authenticity comes from, and it’s where you’ll find your voice.

19. Allowable Input

The more serious/credible the writer, the fewer people they allow into their creative world.

First rate writers do not expose themselves or their writing to third rate talent. Or second-rate, for that matter. Sometimes not even first-rate, because who is worthy or not is so personal and subjective.

That’s because first rate writers protect their voices and their ideas with a jealousy bordering on pathological. There will usually be one or two people they can entrust with their work and their voices.

Take a page from their behaviours. Choose carefully who you let influence the kind of work you produce, your ideas. Ask yourself: can this person help your writing become the most you – or the most them?

It’s your voice.

It’s your voice.

20. Mastery is all DIY

Nobody can make you a better writer than you are willing to be – and it all comes from inside you, not from being around the right people or getting a hand-up. Even opened doors and knowing the right people won’t help if you don’t show up prepared with the goods.

It’s something you have to do for yourself.The learning curve is yours, it’s steep, and there’s no short-cut.

There is never a short cut.

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10 Non-Negotiable Qualities Of A Timeless Story

sandrachmara.comIt 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?

CHARACTER

1. Individuality

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.

PLACE

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.

TIME

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

 

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The Story Analyst: Good Openings vs. The Right Opening

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.

Contextual Core

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.

Context.

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 DarknessThe 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.


 

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Writing Quote: Walter Benjamin

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

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

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The Relationship Between Structure, Technique, And Development

What writers tend to do to put together a story:

                           Image result for wooden blocks                            

Linear                                  Non-linear                                 Abstract

But this is how writers should understand fiction creation:

                                        

Linear                              Non-linear                                        Abstract


Delivery structure as well as compositional technique (like stream-of-consciousness, for example), shouldn’t change the Big Picture. No matter how you present your story, it should still be something. That “something” is the role narrative development plays. It’s what helps the reader process the presentation in order to understand, ultimately, the story as a whole.

Otherwise what is it but a jumble of nonsense?

Here’s why:

Linear:

The writer leaves the least amount of work for the reader in interpreting the story vision. Each part is distinct and fits into a conjoining part because individually and together they add up to something unique and specific to give shape to a coherent, holistic narrative creation. Delivery structure and narrative infrastructure are closely paralleled, and narrative benchmarks are met point by point. 

Non-Linear

The writer purposefully re-orders (as opposed to disorders) sections of the story to control how and what the reader interprets, usually to heighten tension and suspense or to make a philosophical, stylistic, or symbolic point. The non-linear technique is not random or based on whim. Delivery structure and narrative infrastructure are not paralleled, and where benchmarks are not fully met, point by point, they are suggested, hinted, or left to be intuited.

Abstract

The writer fragments the story and leaves only select pieces for the reader to interpret in an almost archaeological or forensic fashion. Abstract narrative is not built on incoherence or chaos; rather, the writer works from a complete developmental vision then deliberately chooses, for artistic, philosophical, or symbolic reasons how to let the reader experience it. Delivery structure and narrative infrastructure are not paralleled, and benchmarks are not fully met point by point; some are suggested, hinted, or intuited; the rest is a deliberate omission. Never does the writer lose control of coherence developmentally.


This analogy helps writers understand the difference between story development that’s just writing and plot, and story development that has an overarching purpose.

Regardless which technique you use to convey your narrative, it still has to be a story in the same way an intact skeleton, a disassembled skeleton, and skeletal fragments are all still a human skeleton.

Most writers approach storytelling like stacking and ordering blocks without ever realizing that despite plotting that makes the story seem coherent, there is no ultimate vision being imparted.

Storytelling delivers the writer’s vision .

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Hilarious: Jane Austen Gets The Old Writing-Workshop Makeover

SCEW - SC iconWho among us hasn’t been on the receiving end of – and dealt – such an incisive critique? Read, weep:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/shannonreed/jane-austen-receives-feedback-from-tim-a-guy-in-her-mfa-work#.atQrxBVg7

My game-changing story development system is soon to be launched on Kickstarter, so if you want to get updated so you can be among the first to change how you create stories, please subscribe to or follow this blog.

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The Story Analyst: The Loveliest Trick Of The Devil

SCEW - SC iconIt’s pretty amazing to pull off. If you can pull it off. Make the POV character appear to be the protagonist so convincingly that the only way anyone would ever notice s/he is actually the antagonist is to re-read the story with a mental focus on someone else.

The quote is from The Generous Gambler by Charles Baudelaire: “The loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist!” If you’re a writer and you can disguise your antagonist as a protagonist, you can convince readers to look elsewhere for the story’s devilment. By doing so you’ve created an undercurrent of such angst that it keeps readers digging right through to the back of the story trying to figure out the source of their uneasiness.

But like anything that makes us feel that way, we just have to make it go away, to resolve it somehow. But even when you find out, you’re left with a permanent sense of self-doubt about who’s the real devil.

In my last Story Analyst post, The Second Glance, I discussed how Margaret Mitchell did such a thorough job convincing readers that Scarlett O’Hara is a proto-feminist survivor and hero of phoenix-like power who has been a role-model for millions of women, especially those who faced the Great Depression and WWII, that it isn’t until you look at the story through Rhett’s choices that you realize there’s something very different going on – and it’s so much darker and more sinister than readers realize.

This is playing with storytelling DNA. It’s the epigenetics that runs deep in the molecular matter of powerful, memorable narratives that no plot twist could ever equal. Plot twists merely change a story’s outcome. Great storytelling DNA allows writers to flip a switch through this epigenetic quality that changes what the story is depending on how you look at it. It’s not just the appearance of one thing until the end confirms the trick, like a Shyamalan movie. It’s simultaneously different stories.

In The Virgin Suicides [spoiler alert: plot points and ending will be discussed], when Jeffrey Eugenides introduces us to the collective voice of the neighbourhood boys who witness the tragedy of the Lisbon family, it’s very easy to get so caught up in the fact that we’re being told this story from their perspective that we assume their role is that of any ordinary narrator – the protagonists in a story about their efforts to understand what happened in the house across the street (I’ll refer to the narrators in plural, although it’s never entirely clear).

But Eugenides does something so clever – or intuitive – and subtle that it’s never even mentioned when you read reviews or critiques.

The narrators are not protagonists. The narrators are the antagonists.

They’re sexual predators.

While they’re busy asking themselves what was wrong with the Lisbon girls, we should be asking ourselves what’s wrong with these boys and, potentially, boys. Period.

After all, they are as a narrator a multi-headed beast, the collective “we”. A Chimera.

What we’re convinced by the narrators is fascination with a family of beautiful girls is actually a lurid and dehumanizing sexual obsession. It’s a prolonged, concentrated, group violation on the sisters during a period of their sexual formation that slowly chips away at their sense of security, privacy, integrity, selfhood, sexuality, and identity – as all violation does – until their damage is so irrevocable that suicide is the only way they can escape the torture that’s described to us in such passionate and delighted terms. And like all sexual violence, the community shares blame by doing nothing about what’s going on. Boys will be boys, right?

Check out the first scene. Cecilia the Stoic is floating in the bloody water of the tub after having slit her wrists, with a laminated “picture of the Virgin Mary … held against her budding chest.” Spirituality and sexuality together are an important cue for what we’re about to experience; they are not just dichotomies which, taken to extremes, are devastating, they are also inextricable binaries that bleed into one another. Repression and profligacy, denial and dogma. The boys and the Lisbon parents play out this drama in tandem, trapping the girls, squeezing the humanity and life out of them from both ends.

Every single detail matters symbolically to the story, even the fact that the picture is laminated.

By linking this imagery, Eugenides is already revealing the terrible source of the sisters’ pain, and by using the term Stoic (as opposed to stoic) right off the bat he’s instructing us to not look at the story based on what we are told, but by what we witness of the players’ behaviors. That’s what Stoicism is, and it’s an important revelation to place right there at the beginning.

The story is so richly written that there’s hardly a thing a reader dares ignore – even Mary in her bedroom window, captured in a real estate photo looking as if her hair were on fire like Lavinia standing at the sacrificial altar from the Aeneid.

(Oh dear fellow writers, this is why you must know your legends and mythologies and biblical accounts! Details like this make you want to snatch Eugenides by his soul patch and kiss him straight on the … forehead? Forehead. I wouldn’t take any liberties, after all.)

The boys’ focus on the girls is expressed with a robust enthusiasm that makes the reader lose sight of what’s actually happening.

Now, instead of teenage boys, let’s exchange the narrators for a group of neighbourhood men and see how it would make any woman feel.

They watch the house, look into the windows.  They know intimately the Lisbons’ comings and goings. They watch them from their own homes. The girls are their masturbatory aids.

When one of the boys is invited to dinner, the entire experience is framed through the narrators’ sexualized interpretation. If the girls are kicking him under the table, it isn’t just youthful goofing around. It’s sexual. It’s arousing. When the boy goes upstairs to use the bathroom he violates their privacy and sanctity by making a creepily detailed inventory of their rooms (the bra hanging on the crucifix reinforces the spirituality/sexuality binary) and the contents of the bathroom, right down to the shade of lipstick they are able to match to its owner when they spy on her later. Which is disturbingly specific. He digs into the trash and finds a used tampon – something the narrators sickeningly find titillating, like the handkerchiefs dipped in blood after an execution and kept as a souvenir.

One of the boys crawls through the sewage system to break into the house with the intention of watching them shower and to spy on them in their most intimate moments. When he hears water running he enters the bathroom without hesitation . He’s on the hunt, that’s what he’s there for. There is no question of his entitlement in this act.

Imagine someone doing that to your home, your private, personal space invaded by someone who is willing to permanently cripple your sense of safety, privacy, and feelings, just so he can watch you shower. It’s so rapey it should send chills down the readers’ spines. But it doesn’t. Like all other aspects of rape culture, even in its infancy stage (which this novel perfectly illustrates) our only response has always been going blind, deaf, and mute in its presence.

So the boy walks in on the opening scene of the book – Cecilia naked in the bath, covered in blood from her slit wrists.

Now, by this time the boys have been watching and sexually abusing the girls for quite a long time. This is not a new development. There’s no way the family – or at least the girls – would be unaware of the lewd interest always directed at them.The boys have opened their pants and exposed themselves to Cecilia. They have looked up her dress. Transgression is their norm. It’s our norm.

After the funeral – of a thirteen year old girl – another boy admits he “would have copped a last feel … if only [the others] had been there to appreciate it.” They enlist a neighbourhood girl to take inventory of Cecilia’s bedroom post-suicide, even checking to see if the sheets have been cleaned, what’s in her underwear drawers.

Even in these moments of finality, the narrators’ prey is denied her own space, sanctity, dignity, and peace.

They further impinge on her right to respect by getting hold of her diary, stolen by a plumber’s assistant, and pass it around, fingering it like porn instead of returning it to the family. Even the sisters’ medical records are later breached as the boys grow up and research every aspect of their lives in their increasing fetishization.

The high school bad-boy, Trip Fontaine, later tells the boys he loved Lux like he’d never known love before or since, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Yet he pursues her relentlessly until she finally finds herself on the football field on prom night losing her virginity to him. She awakens there in the morning alone. Despite his claim that he never loved anyone the way he loved Lux, he abandons her after sex and discards her there on the field like a used condom, then never speaks to her again – or even sees her.

Stoic. We must look at the actions, not the words.

On and on it goes, a portrait of boys so secure in their romanticized depravity and their right to it that even we the readers grow too fascinated by the Lisbon girls to really notice much more than a faint cringiness as we’re reading.

Violation is the norm. The knife-sharpener delivers a fifteen minute demonstration just to leer at fourteen-year-old Lux sunbathing in a bikini. Fourteen.

Each of the girls is a casualty of these experiences. Set up against the increasing repression and break-down of their parents, they react in ways that any rape or sexual assault victim – or any therapist – will agree are credible: depersonalizing, disengaging, becoming hypersexual, disappearing into faith or mysticism.

With each progressive assault on their privacy, burgeoning identity, and sexuality, the girls go from being normal, healthy, vibrant young women to depressed, disconnected, and suicidal.

None of this happens until the boys begin to essentially violate them – sexually or otherwise – on a continuous basis. The girls are their sexual fantasies and little else, a living, breathing pornography that requires no consent, and no humanity.

Is it any wonder the girls invite the boys over to return the violation: they use the boys’ blind lust to lure them to the house where each girl one by one commits suicide right under their noses. It’s the only way the sisters can regain their power as women and as human beings.

This is a story about a group of boys’ sexual awakening at someone else’s expense. When, finally, they ask themselves if they contributed to what happened, the only conclusion is no, they didn’t.

Of course not.

Look at the way those girls acted. Look at the way they dressed.

They weren’t just asking for it. They were begging …

Bravo, Eugenides. That was truly the loveliest trick of all. Your readers thank you.

Writers, how about it? Could you pull it off?

 

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