Tag Archives: literature

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.


More Writing Shop-talk (boring warning!)

Here are a few words that are on my rewriting “watch list”, which I try to minimize / synonymize in each successive draft:

  • Look
  • Just
  • That
  • So, very, really
  • Something
  • Said
  • Walk
  • Actually
  • Suddenly

These words (especially just) are used often in casual conversation, so they just tend to slip in when one is first ‘telling’ the story.

But writing, imho, should actually be a grade above the casual. Also, I’ve seen a lot of first drafts where writers use double modifiers on the subject, I.E.:

The stairwell sent him quick, dark echoes…

It’s a matter of taste, but I think that the second of the two modifiers should always be an uncommon word, or else the prose comes off as really, very predictable, or something.

Most importantly: while editing, concentrate on the tone and rhythm of the narrative itself, and let all the rules and such attend to it like servants.

If all we did as artists was follow rules, then this game would have long ago been over.

we are storytellers first, and writers by way of revision


“Being known is like a crumbling of my jurisdiction.”

I’m experimenting with merging music and fiction. This is the first in a series:

 

And for blogging points, I will include a new meme:


Writing from the Heart

Last year’s novel was concerned with Memory and Mistake, and it’s greatest fault—and the reason it’s sitting in the vault, aging for a spell before I go back over it—is that it is largely written from a state of removal. From the first page, the “writer” states that he is writing about his writing more than he is writing about the life that his writing sprang from. And by the time the denouement starts to form, like a storm accumulated from the dust and wind and moisture of the traversed landscape, the Blackbird Variations, 3 retreats into a fractalling demurement of self reference, interpretation and critique that is so freaking dense and uncalled for that I’m sure anyone who made it that far would end up chucking it across the room, shouting: “What the hell is your problem, Benjamin? Why is it so hard to just tell a damn story?”

I let my mind guide my prose, and while some people can pull this off, I’m not one of them. My wheels spin so tight and quick that all too soon they spend the grist they’re fed, and begin to masticate their self-same mechanism.

Probably the greatest complement I’ve ever received, as an artist, was voiced 10 years ago by a four year old girl. She said to her mom, while describing the stories I would make up for her class while they ate lunch: “Benjamin tells stories from his heart.” And yet every time I tell a story to a blank page, my head steps all over the heart and tries to get the blood portioned out into a 42 fluid ounces, labeled and tested and siphoned of hemoglobin.

There has to be a way to cheat this.


Deconstructing the Greatest Commandment

From Matthew 22:36-40

36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Considering this over breakfast, my thoughts kept gravitating to the first part of the commandment: “Love the Lord your God with your heart and soul and mind.”

Well, what does that mean, to Love God? Paul famously writes (in I Corinthians, ch. 13):

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

But every single action on this list can only be applied to terrestrial matters. How do you be kind to God? How do you protect God? Christians tend to personify God in Jesus, in order, perhaps, to get a better handle on the concept, but practically, if there is a God, then there is no possible way a mere organism on a rock spinning listless at the edge of a galaxy can comprehend the frightful magnitude of such a—I can’t even call him a “being” without somehow reducing him.

We say God is Love, yet feel our skin crawl when we see one insect devour another. And others will rage at God for the great injustices of history—yet each night they find peace and obliteration—even if only for an hour of sleep.

As humans I believe we are incredibly limited. Furthermore, we seek to limit everything we come into contact with in order to comprehend it. The walls, tables and chairs around me right now are composed of organized energy—but were I to comprehend everything as knots and loops of atoms, I would be of very little use to other people.

God needs context—not for his sake, but for ours. God the word is thought to come from “Khoda”, meaning the one invoked. Allah and YHVH are both conjectured to be echoics of the act of breathing.

To get down to it: To love God a man has to love everything around him, everything he comes into contact with, he must show no prejudice at all, but be all-accepting, perfectly beneficent, entirely sympathetic, and free of any judgment. And the heart works against this, and the mind works against this too, by design they limit man’s perception of reality into a “me” and a “you”, into a “this” and a “that”, into “want” and “diswant”—

So I guess J.C. was using hyperbole again, shattering the constructs of the religious by saying: “Perhaps you have learned to love yourself by following the rules you inherited—but have you learned to love you wife—have you learned to love your neighbor—have you learned to love your country—have you learned to love the world? Tell me, you who banter about laws, and speak of the Creator as if you can know his will—how big is your heart—is it large enough to step from your containing commandments and meet reality uninhibited? How open can you be?


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