The Elements of Story

Every once in a while someone will publish or share a definitive “List of Plots,” which makes the construction of fiction seem like a paint-by-numbers affair. I would like to open up a discussion on story-telling that sees the making of narratives as a complex process which is not only a combination of elements, but a creative act that can be aware of formal structures without being claustrophobically constrained to a list of prescriptive rules.

An easy way of seeing what a fiction is built of is by investigating how “genre” is attached to fictional works. I see genre being attached to these five aspects of a story:

* Genres which describe a setting
* Genres which describe a plot
* Genres which describe a character-role (this is the funky one)
* Genres which describe a style
* Genres which describe a type of sense-making

Setting is perhaps the easiest way to classify works of fiction. Signifiers such as “Fantasy” or “Urban Fantasy” or “Science Fiction” describe a certain range of elements which form the background of a fiction. These elements are attached to a sense of the time of the story. A Fantasy book tends to take place in a time prior to ours, and a Science Fiction tends to take place in a time more advanced than ours. When a writer is establishing this background it is usually called “world building.” What they are building are the rules of the world, the behavior patterns of the characters and consequences for actions. In works that are aspiring to be epic, the plot of the book (or series) usually has something to do with changing these rules. A more “novelistic” writer (and there’s probably a better word to use) will usually focus on how a character comes to terms with these rules, how these rules shape them, and how these rules contradict their character. When a writer wants to “make a new genre” they might end up simply mixing elements from different settings, and the fact that the rules of these settings are interchangeable is very useful to keep in mind, as it opens up to the writer a wealth of possibility, in their work.

Plot is not usually used to describe genre anymore, but there are certain generally accepted patterns that shape the reading experience, and that we use to classify what happens in the book. For example, a tragedy has a certain arc, and a comedy has another. When a writer is constructing (or inventing) the plot, it is often recommended that they place their characters in difficulties and then allow their characters to get out of these difficulties. I want to tweak that advice a bit by redescribing what a plot is. The plot is the “channel” of events that carries the attention of the reader along to the end of the story. In order to maintain a reader’s attention, we need to engage their interest and their excitement (their intellect and their passions). The way to maintain this engagement is not just through conflict, but essentially by modulating (changing) the intensity of the happening. This intensity is felt by the reader because they are attached to the outcome——they are attached to the outcome through the character. While we can talk about character and plot as though they are two different things, I personally believe you can’t have one with out the other, so that I define

Character as the “vessel” that the reader’s attention is situated in, during the twists and turns of the channel of plot. Characters can be classified in a general sense by certain traits and certain behaviors and certain relations to other characters. In simple literature (simple is not meant to be derogatory) we have heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys, pro- and an-tagonists. They are the ones we “tag-along” with :), and we love them and hate them depending on our own values. Needless to say, character is what we take personally about the story, and while a writer can construct the most fabulous settings and the most ingenious reversals of plot, in is in the reader’s experience of the character that I believe is found the power to effect how the reader sees the world. This (like everything else I’m saying) is entirely debatable—and not meant to be a negative judgment, but an assertion of what is valuable in stories.

Style is the bastard of all literary advice. It has sooooooo much to do with personal taste, and at the same time everyone thinks they know what’s best. I think if you look at the history of literature you will see the oscillation between terse styles and more lyrical or ornate styles—but I’d like to reframe the conception of style to make it more variable and open for experimentation. Instead of “style” let’s call it “voice.” In every single fictional narrative there are at least two voices: the narrator’s voice and the character’s voice. The narrator’s voice can be (carefully, tentatively) thought of as the “objective” voice: the lens through which the action and the setting are conveyed. The character voice is more “subjective”—which means to say expressive and evocative. When people get annoyed with style, I think it has to do with them feeling it is in the way of their experience of the text, and what they value in reading the text. Writers do not necessarily need to aim for concision and clarity of style above everything else, but rather be aware of when they are frustrating the reader’s connection to the happening of the story. When done artfully, the expressive voice can describe states of thinking and feeling that are not necessarily, or rather not directly conveyable by direct prose. Your milage may vary, but don’t stop experimenting with your language just because it’s considered “bad form” to do anything but the bare minimum. Style is another aspect of story-making that is infinitely variable—though the thing about experiementation is that we find a whole lot of shit that simply doesn’t work.

Sense-making is also highly subjective, and hotly contested. Too much intentional meaning will turn the story into a fable with a neat little moral at the end. Allegory, too, is a genre that is defined by the way that a story is making sense. And when we ask “what does this story mean?” we usually want the writer to give us enough to go on to reach our own conclusions. I will cut short this last paragraph by saying: A text’s significance is as important for the author to mold as its other aspects—it is as open to refinement and complication as its style, character, plot, and setting. A certain amount of authorial energy needs to be expended on crafting a meaning that is as surprising and subtle as the story’s other aspects—because meaning isn’t some quality inherent in the text, it is the text’s ablility to be used to make sense of other things.

The Surface Tension between the Esoteric and the Exoteric

The esoteric is opaque by definition; yet the depths rarely mind it when the surfaces discount them.


I subscribe to the notion that there are various levels to spiritual knowledge. As the alchemists put it: “as above, so below”— meaning, in a sense, that obvious facts correspond to inner truths.

For example: the leaves of a tree will brown with age and fall out. The same happens to the teeth of a man. These are, at a glance, entirely mundane facts. But on consideration (and with a pinch of poetic license) one could say that this speaks of how a person develops from a state of hunger and purity, and then moves to a state of decay and barrenness (the leaves being thought of as hungry for the sun, as teeth are for food). And in later life, a person returns to needing softer morsels, and all her showiness is stripped away, revealing the skeletal branches of her life’s choices.

In religion, too, there are levels of interpretation: the lowest being a blanket acceptance of the inherited laws. At a certain stage, the question arises: why? And what-for? There is a resistance to this leap from those who are content with the answer “because X said.” And here lies much of the “surface tension” between non-believers and believers—because experience of a self demands personal proof. Gurus and mystics arise to satisfy this demand, and due to the ambiguity of spiritual knowledge, many of the so-called wise are either willful charlatans, imbued with attractive charisma, or people who have received something personal, who try to communicate this to others. Some knowledge can be communicated in such a way that it is useful for others, and some knowledge can only be understood by personal revelation.

Esoteric knowledge (eso = inner), I believe, exists, but the exoteric (exo = outer) obscures it, and often corrupts, misinterprets, or outright discounts it.

Pretension VS. Ambition

(excerpted from A Resistance of Letters):

I find her seated in the pre-ordained bar, and say this place is a little loud. She agrees. We start to walk, find ourselves at the WTF Cafe. Funnily, I had worked here, long ago. For all of two weeks. The troll owner is not around—but over by the register I sense the residue of the prophetic homeless man, and I smirk. Rene asks what’s up. I ask her:

‘What is pretension?’


‘I want to hear your opinion.’

She leans back. Her asiatic eyes narrowing into bladed orbs. A couple weeks ago I took her out with Karl for drinks and he told her: “I want to fuck your mind.” She had got offended, and ranted about that later on, but in the moment she was quiet. She does have a voluptuous intellect, barely contained by her 90 pound South Seas frame. When she gets considerate, like now, I usually feel a tingling in my palms. She says:

“There’s the derogatory connotation, which muddies the meaning some. Like, you can be sincere and heart-felt, but if you have a developed aesthetic taste, then you will automatically be inventive with your expression of those emotions, and people might respond to that by calling you pretentious. Because they see your refinement as dishonesty—as a removal from “being real,” or as affectation. And so, by that yardstick, a poet is the epitome of pretension—his works being refined expressions of feeling.

“But that’s not real pretension. True pretension is acting as if you are something you are not, usually something better or higher or more ideal than yourself. And not only that, but you believe in that ideal self so much that you are out of touch, or deny, the lower or more “mundane” self. That is pretension: when your skill is disharmonious with the actualities expressed.

“Why do you ask?”

‘A homeless man once told me I would accomplish something… important. And I’ve always thought to believe him would be pretentious, but to doubt him would be foolish.’

“Well, I think I’m qualified to say you’ll be thought a fool regardless.”

‘Heh. You are, and right.’

A Tale of Western Woe

Now, I’ve noticed my readership has fallen off somewhat since I began concentrating on music. views listens have exploded, so it’s a trade off. People expect certain things from Blogs—I assume photos and words.

But I have something fresh for thee, bloglodites! I know, I know, its a dang recording but still—it has so many words! And a story!

Four minutes long and well worth your time:

“When chaos reigns upon the earth, maybe then I’ll have nothing to lose…”

Well, I absconded from posting yesterday’s recording here, due to its exceedingly personal and some might say explicit content. But the enterprising listener, I’m sure, will be able to hunt it down, because it’s out there.

Today’s the Seventh, and our recording is about shyness and loneliness and introversion.

Cave Hands

Every day I promise myself that I’ll try
Not to be so alone inside
My head which is where I prefer to be
And if the angels way up high
In their wide white sky
Decide to look down on me, then I
Hope that with their light
They’d send some peace

And I admit I’m dressed for the wrong solstice
Seasonal Dyslexia I suffer from
But that don’t explain
The tremble in my hands

And as the predator awaits with twitching tail
And salivating maw
Before the burrow of his scented prey
I fear the moment that I step outside
My patchwork slipshod shell that I’ll
Be set upon by internecine grief

And I admit most days I think nothing of
The outside world
I’m content to paint pictures of buffalo
Beside outlines of my hands

And as the wetted stone reveals its colors true
And yet when it dries
Appears to be a drab, unlustrous thing
I too abscond from drama’s wheel, and anger’s hold
That they wont magnify
The two or three realnesses in me

And I pray each night anonymously
That the Lord of Hosts won’t identify
This supplicant
Who hides his light
Between two tight-clasped hands

And at the End of Days
When Saints descend, and Chaos reigns
Upon the earth
Maybe then I’ll have nothing to lose
And I’ll step out from my cave, with what I’ve found
Held up high within my hands
And there declare the triumph of the peace

And I’ll search for you through the forests charred
And the harbors dried
And if I find you beneath a pile of
Broken toys
I’ll save you with these hands

“Where we can dance for an hour like a couple rainbows.”

MayDayChallenge, day Five: I return to my childish roots.

Hot potato

would you like a hot potato
before we leave for Chicago
sour cream and salt and pepper
loads of butter and some cheddar

in the oven we will bake it
in some foiled tin we’ll take it
to the plane across the city
over land and lake so pretty

and when we land in Chicago
we will unwrap our potato
in a park all filled with people
we will eat it until we go…

la, la, la, la
la, la-la, la…

& later on we’ll be feeling fine
we will slip through the crowd and take the red line
all the way north past Sheridan
to where the line turns purple up in Evanston
and then I’ll take us to a place that I know
where we can dance for an hour like a couple rainbows
and after that we’ll have a cup of tea
and find ourselves a couch and fall to sleep, Zzz, Zzz

“All they lack is experience of something other than themselves…”

Day Four of The Challenge: we get a wee bit protesty.

Secret Life

Black death creeps across the streets
Teen girls cover their mouths as the boybands sing
Eulogies to their prepackaged hells
All they lack is experience of something other than themselves

Every surface stained with perfection’s lie
Women starve themselves to fit the ever narrowing eye
And seeking to avoid their karmic pain
The insured pop pills to feel good and act all the same
(forget your prayers and rewire your brain)

Poor man’s cardboard reads: “SPARE SOME CHANGE”
Rich man’s lawn littered with politician’s names
And that eruption on Capitol Hill
Ain’t terrorism but expansion of the shareholder’s will
(All hail the Almighty Dollar Bill)

And those who’d spend their lives in protest
Often end up seeing only what the most detest
And if belief becomes a man’s definition
I’ll put my faith not in defiance, but rather invention

So hush my dear that none of this will touch you
Allow the bitter skin to open up upon the sweet fruit
And if you search beyond the evident Joys & Ills
I promise you, you will find
The secret life that fulfills.


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