Tag Archives: narrative

The Hell With Worms

The smallest things can do a number on you. Fill you up or tear you down. Rip you up, apart, sideways. Blow you away, blow you to kingdom come, blow your mind. It doesn’t take much.

A couple nights ago I dropped in at a nearby reading series. Good stuff for the soul. The guys who run it don’t know me that well, so they’re still glad to see me. I find it a welcome escape from the isolation routine of writing. They welcome me, and they read to me. They present original things—some more original than others—things they’ve created, things they’re serious about, things they’re excited about. For me, that’s better than a bottle of Centrum or a hoity-toity cocktail.worms

So this one egg gets up. His piece recounts a half-year in his life as a grade school teacher. Maybe he’s not the next F. Scott Hemingway, but who is? He pulls off some nice gags, works in a poignant moment or two, and it’s got a good beat to it. I’ll bet he’ll never believe what bit threw me for a loop.

This is a local guy, right? He’s local, I’m local. That’s what you get most of the time at these readings, but not entirely. You can’t count on it. You never know. But in this case, sure, the bird’s local. He’s so local that, when I least expected it, he references this neighborhood park just two blocks from my house. Just a small thing. An easy thing. A throw away bit.

I smiled out of recognition. Actually, I downright beamed. In the midst of this writer’s foreign experiences, this moment hit home big time. I experienced a great dose of pleasure in sharing recognition for the familiar plot of land at the end of my street. Then zoom! It hit me. It struck me. Like a flash. I won’t go around the bend and talk thunderbolts, but zounds if it wasn’t good enough to spark a low-watt bulb.

The moment struck a chord, and that chord connected me to the format of his presentation, to reading, to writing, to literature, to all of goddamn art. And the humble idea that washed over me was this: that very moment is what art’s about.

I’m not talking about glib references to local haunts or shallow name dropping. I’m talking about that feeling of recognition. Can you pull off that recognition moment with an observation, a bit of dialogue, a particular series of actions or the denouement?

If you can make a reader register hard with some form of truth, then you’ve really done something. That’s something to shoot for, baby. But you’ve got to aim high. Awful high. Who wants to aim low, anyway? All you’ll hit is dirt. Maybe bag a worm. Worms ain’t for me. Sure.

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Hooray for Hollywood Narrative

You want a crescendo, don’t you? That splashy finish? An ending to end all endings?

You’ve seen it more times than you can count. Think about classic Hollywood and you’ll recall a string of examples.

  • The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.
  • After all, tomorrow is another day.
  • He used to be a big shot.
  • Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
  • Oh, Auntie Em—there’s no place like home.

They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Sure. Whether you’re rolling your eyes or not, those are classic examples of ending on a high point. And the same idea works throughout the rest of those features, scene after scene after scene.

Somewhere along the line, especially with the influence of European new wave filmmakers, scenes became flatter. Narrative language and traditions changed. And that’s swell. More is more. More artistic language, more options, more devices, more techniques, more etcetera. There’s no right or wrong in story telling. The bottom line is making it play.

But I miss the old Hollywood construction. The approach was basic, solid, classic. In it’s time, it established an approach that served melodramas and comedies alike. The form can be applied to any art form, including my indulgences with the written word.

Creating top-drawer quality is never easy—a look at most flicks, books or TV shows is proof of that. But the idea behind this old-style story telling is simple enough. It’s plenty obvious, too, but we don’t always think about it. Plenty of authors go on about editing. They talk about cutting out the extraneous, creating dialogue, giving voice. There’s lots of attention given to creating characters and their arcs, how the protagonist has to go through personal change.

That’s a bunch of moving parts to contend with. Continually. Nonstop. They feed each other, affect each other, overlap like crazy. And they can all fit into one, repeated pattern until you reach your boffo crescendo.

That big bang ending still holds true today, most of the time. Once upon a time in Tinsel Town, however, they worked it scene by scene, beat by beat. The accepted standard was that a scene should rise in pitch until its high point, then cut! If you can’t contrive that climax, toss in a comedic character actor, set up a good joke, and go out on that high point.

You wind up with a series of scenes that start quiet or slow, catch fire, and ignite in a flash. One after the other, over and over.  If you do it right, the overall story line, it’s drama or conflict, spirals at the same time until you reach that biggest daddy high point of them all.

Simple, isn’t it? To put it another way, every chapter or section is a mini-version of the whole work. You’ve got a beginning, middle and an end. From A to B to C. From once upon a time to they lived happily after ever. Or not so happily if you’re writing noir. Scene by scene by scene.

The approach is a tough nut in the short story form. And maybe it’s not foremost in my thoughts while I’m working. But I’m pre-wired that way. I like that rise and bang! I want that. I dig that. Pulling it off is like creating a beautiful friendship. Sure.

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Hearing Voices: The Story Speaks

How many voices do you run across in a yarn? Typically you run into three types. Sure, we got types. And they’ve all got to play in order to make a story sing.

In a previous post, I rambled on about the most obvious of voices, dialogue. More subtle, perhaps more cunning, is the voice of the story itself.

Every yarns has its own point of view, perspective, take. It’s the voice that sets the tone and creates the story’s narrative form. It’s the brain and the heart behind the story. It ain’t easily achieved, but the idea’s as simple as asking, “Who’s telling the story?”

Leave it as easy as that for the moment. Imagine someone else is telling you the story, imagine the possibilities, and wake up to all those possibilities. Who, exactly, is putting across your little adventure? Your eight-year-old grandchild? A rummy at the bar? Your main character from her jail cell? That effects everything, from the subjectivity to the vernacular to the point of reference. Is it told with a sense of humor or as dire as hard-boiled can get?

Think about the heavy contrast going from a story narrated by Mister Rogers to one related by Rod Serling. Your story has its own, peculiar voice. It speaks up from the very first word, the initial combination of words, the very weight or weightlessness of the first idea or description. Name your poison and lay it on.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely –having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

 

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