Tag Archives: literary theory

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.


What Our Gravity Sustains (ballad)

Lyrics:

  • I’m feeling like the heartache
  • That you hide from me and that I hide from you
  • I’m feeling like the words we don’t wanna speak
  • ‘Cause both of us would rather fall to sleep than see this through

  • But I know we know we will wake up
  • Wake one day to realize our shame
  • Ain’t nothin but the bastard child of two dark stars
  • Both doubting what their gravity sustains

  • But as they spin they know they will blow up
  • And swallow every sorry stone that called them sun
  • It makes me wonder if our nova won’t one day
  • Wind up as the screensaver of a cheap desktop

  • But there you snore, and here I lay, sleepless beside you
  • Counting all the ways in which a man can be wrong
  • And thinking of the luckless loopholes that we’ve knotted
  • Way too tight to get free or give up

  • So I’m stuck with you
  • Yes I’m stuck with you
  • And by God that gives me peace

why stanzas & breaks

To demarcate the meaning,
accentuate the rhyme,
declare the rhythm
Or simply for
the shape.

Each poem obeys its own laws.


Believing is like Dreaming: a byproduct of intelligence

In which I urge a writer to explore his character’s doubts, rather than the deploring of others’ faith.

 

My personal take on religion is that it is a housing for experiences of an extremely personal and powerful effect, and over the centuries it has moved away from that, to a more or less impersonal aggregator of communal opinion, that seeks to mold the internal verity to an external denominator.

However (and this again is my personal take), both the disbelievers and believers base their beliefs on their own experiences. And when your character declares that he does not believe, that is not a lack of belief, but a (positive) belief in the lack of reality (negative value) of the religious experience, based on his dislike/mistrust/refutation of the religious doctrine.

Were he challenged by a [man] who uses religion not as a way to constellate the self in a cult of belonging — but rather as a way to communicate “deeper” or “uncommon” notions of connection, meaning, faith, and self — what would your character say to defend his belief that religious experience is a lie? How would your character hold up under a patient, reasonable examination of his certainty (absence of doubt) that there is no God? If he were to discuss his “un”belief with an intelligent inquisitor who insists on the psychological value, rather than the cultural influence, of spirituality — what experiences would he share? In his past, were there any moments [in his church] where the rituals fell away and he merged with something greater than him? What were the instances when his doubt emerged—the first cracks, leading up to the final shatter, which forced him to be honest with his own experience?

Believing is like dreaming: it’s a byproduct of our intelligence and imagination. We can’t not do it. And if some are convinced they don’t, it is more likely that they are not conscious of it.

(I in no way mean to say we all believe in a certain Something, but that belief itself is an attribute of human beings)

And a parting query: Can we doubt our dreams, while still allowing for their significance?


How I have Failed as a Writer, Part I

Impressive stat number one: I estimate I have written close to 2 million unique words in the last sixteen years.

Realistic and contrary stat: I have had a total of 20 words published, and that was in an article on internet piracy, in which I was wrongly accused of copyright infringement, as well as misquoted.

Both of these stats will change in the next few months, because 1) I have decided to self publish and 2) I have figured out what my freaking problem is.

My problem, in a nutshell: I have been doing every possible thing with the written word except for doing the one thing people want to have done to them, through the written word—which is to be given a moment wherein they forget their own lives and the act of reading, and are “swept up” in a tale.

My problem, mashed into nutbutter(yum!):

There are two positive and two negative moments from my teen years that have effected me as an artist, and only last year, with the writing of The BBVv3, have I been able to pin-point and lay them to rest.

First the positives: at 14 I contracted mono and was blessed with being allowed to do independent study (I loathed my highschool, and the next year secured a transfer). In independent study I was given a book that I haven’t been able to find the name of. It was about right brain/left brain politics and brain storming and such, and it propelled me into written expression. Before then, I had written some stories here and there, but afterwards… Well, there was this girl, named Brittney. She was a year older than me and I knew her from youth group and because I was not so much a ladies man as a girl’s boy I hung out with her and her friends quite a bit. Then I started to have some feelings for her, and I put these feelings onto paper, and as soon as I did so, it was like I had dropped a match onto a in late summer Northern California prairie. I burned through page after page of… stupid stuff, but I noticed that my feelings actually became stronger and more distinct when I wrote them. And, presaging the addictions to come, I was hooked on the act of poetry—moreso than the girl it was nominally directed to.

The second positive, isn’t a specific incident, but I recall several moments in my teens and later where I would be consumed by a proto-physical creative urge. Almost sexual in its intensity, but rather than being focused in my loins, it seemed to radiate from the crown of my head, and I would end up climbing trees and onto roofs, or crawling under tables, brimming over with this almost nightmarish sensation of prescience-without-context. I can’t really describe it. But I knew it had to do with making art—or, making art was the only thing I knew that could act as a channel for this sensation.

So: the contraverse: this unfortunately has to do with my father, so I’m running a little too close to whining by bringing this up, but, in writing the previously linked autobiographical account of my early twenties, these two events really made some sense of the extremity and severity of my “rebellious” actions, post childhood.

At 15 my father found some poetry I had written to a girl—to the girl after Brittany, I think, for after she had convinced me I didn’t really like her, I found another object for my adoration to be ‘inspired’ by—and then another, and then another. But dad found one of these poems and he got quite angry at me for the language I was using. I wasn’t being sexual, but rather highly metaphorical, evoking grand natural imagery to evince the boundless charge of my feelings. He said that only God was to be spoken of in that manner. That only God can be loved like Mountains and Sunsets and great big old storms, and it was wrong of me—I’m not sure if he used the word blaspheme, but that was the connotation—to compare a mere girl to the grandeur of creation. Thereafter, I never showed him a thing I created, and if he came across any of my writings it seemed he would laugh when I was attempting to be serious, and become angry when I was attempting to be humorous. This caused me to have a very, very high standard, but also caused me 1) to hide myself, actually, scratch that, to obfuscate myself, and 2) to doubt the worth of everything I produced, to see its faults and to consider it ‘not good enough’.

The second incident is rather weird, and personal, but if we aren’t personal when we’re navel-gauzy [sic], then what’s the point?

So at 16 my parents took me aside and they told me that, after praying for me, they felt that I had “Something to SAY.” We were in a church and that church was on the boring side, and my parents were on the Pentecostal side, so there was a tension that somehow landed on my shoulders. After my siblings had gone to bed one night, we stayed up praying and they ‘anointed me’ with oil, saying, again, that I had some sort of God-delivered WORD to impart to our community.

This didn’t have an immediate effect on me. I had been graced with enough self-doubt to not feel myself the prophet all of the sudden, but the seed was planted: that whatever I ended up producing had to have a super-normal worth to it. Once I was out of their house and encountered the first wave of depression in my life, that weight sent me reeling into abuses of the heart and the nervous system and… not least of all… the English language.

(it’s dinner time now. part II forthcoming)


In Defense of Myth

In a writing group I’m grateful to be a part of, I got called out for using masculine and feminine stereotypes. Here is the tail-end of my defense:

Literature follows an escalating curve: from myth to legend to romance to novel to “meta-fiction.”

Each tier has its own laws and guidelines, and when I go into myth and fairytale I assume a thicker pen, and a brighter palate.

In the beginning, there are binaries — single celled organisms who eat and poop and not much else — cartoonish representations that, as time progresses, descend/evolve into increasingly complex entities, with more dextrous appendages and greater amounts of volition and articulation.

Which all goes to say: I totally dig what you’re saying [about the adverse effect of stereotypes on actual people], but when we invoke the giants, they lumber about clumsily, tangling powerlines, toppling celltowers, smashing through our warm little domiciles with careless momentum. They have massive digits good for pushing and pulling, and use simplistic, deafening growls for words.

Likewise, there will be nothing so evocative as talking about “The White Man” or “The Angry Woman” — there’s something about these terms that move us on a primary level, and they force us to reckon with or reject them outright — but still, even when we deny them defiantly, they irritate us with their repulsive attraction.

As to why there’s such a breadth of form in this collection — I’m not a polymath, but I am a polygenreiste. I’ve always worked in multiple forms, partly because any given style doesn’t encapsulate what possesses me to be expressed, and partly due to my Intention Surplus Disorder (aka “over-ambitiousness”).

The problem, however, remains ‘accessibility.’ My myths always require commentary, and my commentary is too rapid and changeable to hammer down into a flat, print-worthy form. I blame this on the woman in me, who speaks in loops and purls — who the man in me can never peg down to just one definition, or statement, or even climax!

“Riddles and hogwash!” hollers the centaur, as the little girl draws her questionable answers in the receding surf.