Tag Archives: writing

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.

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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?’

“Rhetorically?”

‘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. Soundcloud.com 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


“As if you needed to correct some small accident…”

Day Three of The MayDayChallenge: a troublesome duet sung by two strangers in a double bed.

Napalm and Cake

Yesterday,
with a tumult in her eye
She tried kissin’ me, and I don’t know rightly why
But I’m about to be
Caught up in the storm, she brews next to me

Keeping my body warm
In this double bed
That perhaps from too much drink
I had let her in
And I can’t allow her to think
She’s got the upper hand

But I can’t recall her name, and she’s lyin’ on
My arm that’s half asleep,
And my knighted pawn
Moves to the words she speaks
In the morning light
Her skin a sheath of down, and her heavy sighs
The wind before the storm that she clarifies:

“Yesturday,
When I saw you standin’ there at the dim-lit bar
With your wild, unkempt hair
Your eyes seemin’ far
As though set on something wrong
In a distant land
And I could tell your will was strong
In your heart & hands
As though you needed to correct
Some small accident
And if I would interject
myself in your plans
You’d change my insides for the better,
Here…”

And she moved her hand astride
My listenin’ ear
And she moved her body high
On my body, and
We unmade the day with that gruesome act
Of napalm and cake
And her hurricane
It scooped the dirt from my guts,
The scum from my brain
And for a moment we were one
And all but the same


“If you must use your cellphone, kindly use conversive tones.”

Day Two of The MayDayChallenge finds us visiting the baristas at The Raindrop Cafe, who got something to tell us:

  • fair trade, shade grown
  • fair trade shade grown
    roasted 3 blocks from your home
    shipped in sacks from africa
    hispanic lands and sumatra
    each cup is crafted expertly
    all our milk is hormone free
    or if you dont take to dairy
    we also offer milk from beans
  • fair trade, shade grown
    & for your dog a biscuit bone
    our flavored syrups ultra pure
    evaporated cane sugar
    and if you’d like a pastry
    we buy ours from french bakeries
    except for these delicious pies
    they’re made by this one bearded guy
  • fair trade, shade grown
    our cafe, your second home
    and if you must use your cell phone
    kindly use conversive tones
    we offer high speed internet
    (don’t use it for your bit torrent)
    yes we compost & recycle
    as marked on these receptacles
  • fair trade, shade grown
    succulent, velvety foam
    we’ll top your late with a heart
    of if you like some abstract art
    we’re here before the sun is up
    especially to fill your cup
    and if you’d prefer the decaf
    we promise you we will not laugh…

This is a part of my Over The Top Non-Stop Stop Action Non-Toxic Sock Poppet Rock Opera.


“Like teeth spilled from the sky’s broken jaw…”

I’m challenging myself to record one song each day this month, as a part of The MayDayChallenge. Here’s number one:

  • “Moldy Drywall”
  • Where the nail hung into / the moldy drywall
    I hung the icon / of the blessed virgin
    Her tears bled my breast / of its self pity
    No more will I succumb
    To the want of my impotent heart
  • I lay my back upon / the dusty hardwood
    My eyes found escape / through the curvéd skylight
    The lightning carved lines / betwixt the red clouds
    The earth drew the rain
    Like teeth from the sky’s broken jaw
  • Sleep crept toward me from / the furthest corner
    I turned my head to view / the encroaching shadow
    My throat offered up / an Ave Mary
    As the silt of forgetfulness
    Swallowed whole my dissolute self
  • In dreams madness swelled / with salty vengeance
    Rusted centipedes danced / on bleeding parchment
    I felt my lust and hate / gather hot beneath me
    My devils clamored
    While angels drained the pitch from my veins