Archive for the ‘Storytelling’ Category
He was the only child of middle-aged parents, a miner-turned-truck-driver named Neil and Neil’s wife Angela, a half Cherokee lady of rare beauty whom Joel loved with all his heart — one younger sister born dead four years after him.
He grew up silent, a silent child, pale and skinny but healthy. He brought coal from the shed to the stoker. He took out clinkers. He had certain gifts. He was quick with numbers and he could draw. His father had taught him to read when he was only four, and from approximately first grade onward, he developed the habit of counting almost everything he did. Later he began calculating things, it didn’t matter what, license plate numbers, prices in store windows, numerals on clocks, and then adding and subtracting and multiplying these numbers, dividing and subtracting, re-adding and so on, endlessly, all in his head, all day long. It brought him comfort.
The three of them lived together, on the outskirts of a mining town, in a large house-shaped trailer, fifty meters beyond the backyard of which an undulation of aspen trees fell away across the slopes. He seemed wise beyond his years and bore his father’s barehanded beatings with a stoicism unimaginable in one so young. Like his father, he possessed an uncanny sense of direction, and also time, but more than anything else, his mind was of a naturally speculative cast.
The month that Joel turned seven, it rained for three weeks straight. It rained and rained, morning, noon, and night, and finally it rained so much that after a while Joel thought it would never stop. He stood in his bedroom, in front of the window, watching for hours the low sky flash and weep. The woods beyond lay dripping and lugubrious. It was during this period that he came home from school one afternoon and found his aunt and uncle waiting for him near his bus stop, at the end of a leafy lane.
The two of them stood next to their mud-encrusted pickup, under a blue awning, waiting outside despite the cold weather, the rain sizzling in the streets around them. They watched him come up. His aunt Nikki was his mother’s younger sister, and she and her husband Peter lived in a town ninety miles north and rarely visited. So when Joel saw them both standing there waiting for him that day, he knew something was wrong.
There came a short break every afternoon when the spongy sky would momentarily dry—an hour or so at three o’clock, the clouds lackadaisically spitting—and then the rain would begin all over again, gathering easily at first, with a sound like the whisper of wind in the grass, and then increasing until soon everything was cats and dogs. It was this that he came home through.
He wore his red fireman boots and his golden raincoat. He walked with his head down. His uncle, a kind, phlegmatic man with the hangdog mien of a mortician, stood by the truck, his meaty forearms crossed over his chest, his Army Surplus boots planted widely apart and a butcher’s apron still on under his jacket. The apron was stained with brownish blood.
His aunt had her head turned, and she appeared convulsive, as if shivering. Joel could see beyond them the windows of the house-shaped trailer ablaze with lights, creamy in the burgeoning dusk, and he could see also an orange-and-white ambulance parked out front. The air was purple, the color of thunderstorms. Small bubbles were popping in the puddles he walked through, and box elder leaves lay enameled across the asphalt, tiny frameworks of leaves pitched like ribcages in the grass. An odor of iron hung in the air, mixed with the mealy odor of leaves. Feathers of mist blew off the cliffs above, and these details he would remember all his life.
His uncle didn’t say a word to him as he proceeded up, only adjusted his orbital eyeglasses and gripped Joel by the shoulder, as if trying to break a chip off. Joel turned to his aunt, who looked back at him with tear-shattered eyes. She blinked slowly, to gather herself, then told him that he would be spending the night with them, that they would all have dinner together and later a movie, if he wanted, and after that he would sleep at their house, in the guest room, and would not have to go to school the next day.
And so later that evening, in a diner eighty-five miles north, while his aunt held onto his dead fingers and his uncle smoked Marlboros without surcease, Joel sat in a crimson leather booth staring out at the watery lot beyond. The table beneath his arms reeked of bleach. Rain had completely stippled the glass, flatworms of water now sliding across the windowpane. A pink replica of the drugstore sign across the street lay slurred over the pavement. The gutters below were sluicing with liquid gold. Joel ate a piping-hot grilled cheese sandwich and potato chips; he drank milk. He watched his uncle crush with the back of his fork a lunar volcano of mashed potatoes and then flood the potatoes with molten gravy. After dinner, they all went to a movie Joel would not remember, throughout the entirety of which his aunt sat weeping in her chair. Thunder trundled down the sky above like rubber wheels across an attic floor.
Next morning outdoors, his uncle told Joel that his mother Angela had died in the night, a series of strokes, he said, these are what had killed her. Joel did not know what a stroke was, but what he pictured were large clots of blood chugging down her windpipe, and glottal sounds, her air totally cut off.
He thought: my pretty mother is dead.
He was driven back home that same day and spent the rest of the afternoon alone in his bedroom, staring out the window. The rain was still coming down. His window screen was an incomplete crossword puzzle. He stared vacantly into the gusting sheets, yellow hummingbirds rocketing through. Shortly before dark, the rain slackened and finally the sky began to clear. The clouds whirled away like cannon smoke. The temperature dropped. Joel walked out into the cold. Soon he began to run. And Joel was running, running. He ran north along the river road, toward a sky collapsed over distant lands, where gas burn-offs from an oil refinery cast cherry and apricot tints upon the low-hanging cloud base. Around him, the world went icy and green. The gutters were still sloshing with liquefied ore. Bottlenecked geese splattered up from a nearby river and then ascended high over his head, thin skeins he watched flap madly against the wind, shifting and fading with muted honks.
Like that my life has changed, he thought, she is no longer. My mother is no longer. He couldn’t wrap his mind around it — and perhaps that is why now, all these years later, approaching early middle-age, he finds himself so strangely touched by the rain, touched and saddened.
Dear Ray Harvey: Well, it took me five months but I finally finished reading More and More unto the Perfect Day and I wish to compliment you! Though it is a challenging and not easy read, it is rewarding and gives much food for thought to say the least. Your story reminded me a little (sometimes) of David Lynch, and I believe I remember you once answered a question about David Lynch, don’t I? Do you still have that?
– John Kronk
Dear John Kronk: Thank you! If you liked my book, please tell your friends about it: if your friends like it, get new friends.
The following is probably the post you’re referring to:
Dear Sir: Who’s the better filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch?
– P. Durango
Dear P. Durango: Are you kidding? But there’s no comparison. That’s like asking me: who of those two has better hair?
As a filmmaker, David Lynch possesses innumerable shortcomings, foremost of which is the fact that he’s an obscurantist extraordinaire — and this is no small thing.
The symbolic in art, you see, must never supersede the literal — or to put that another way, the symbolic meaning must always remain secondary to the literal meaning, and the literal must hold up on its own without reference to the symbolic. When an artist makes the symbolic meaning the tail that wags the dog, as David Lynch so often does, she defaults on art’s primary function: making the abstract concrete.
Yet for all this, David Lynch is not only the better filmmaker: he’s better by light years.
Quentin Tarantino barely makes it above average. He makes good B movies.
It’s true that Tarantino can tell a story (at times, not consistently). This isn’t really his problem. His problem is that he lacks any sort of real depth.
If theme is the meaning that a story’s events add up to — and it is — then Tarantino’s movies are almost all themeless because they add up to nothing. They’re action movies, which, even as action movies go, are often boring and wildly gratuitous. (Inglorious Basterds was a notable exception.)
Tarantino’s dialogue at its best is good, but it, too, is inconsistent. Pulp Fiction, slightly campy now, remains by far his best movie.
Reservoir Dogs? You can see certain skills at work there, in flashes, despite its wobbly plot. But there’s no getting around the fact that Quentin Tarantino could never in a million years create Wild at Heart and Sailor Ripley, let alone the John Merrick that David Lynch gave us in his awesome version of the Elephant Man — John Merrick dancing alone in his room with tophat and cane, the pure poignancy of which scene is unforgettable.
Tarantino has yet to match Pulp Fiction. It seems to me now that he never will.
Pulp Fiction spawned a thousand imitators — and for good reason: it was funny and it was original. And yet its appeal has dated a little: many scenes still hold up and are as fresh today as they were fifteen years ago. But an almost equal number (i.e. “The Bonnie Situation”) have grown stale and are unconvincing. Time has sunk them.
The David Lynch of Twin Peaks and the David Lynch of Blue Velvet has a depth and intelligence that Tarantino cannot match. Wild at Heart, which is half a decade older than Pulp Fiction, has proven more durable by far.
Just incidentally, Quentin Tarantino’s “The Man From Hollywood” (his Four Rooms contribution) was taken from a Roald Dahl short story called “The Gambler,” and if you want to see where Tarantino got his idea for the ending of Reservoir Dogs, please watch this movie, which was based on the novel by Lawrence Block.
Anton Chekhov answered that question this way:
You could write a story about this ashtray, and a man and a woman. The man and the woman are always the two poles of your story. The North Pole and the South. Every story has these two poles — a he and she.
The late Raymond Carver, who worshiped at the shrine of Anton Chekhov, undertook Chekhov’s challenge, and here’s what Ray Carver came up with:
They’re alone at the kitchen table in her friend’s
apartment. They’ll be alone for another hour, and then
her friend will be back. Outside, it’s raining -
the rain coming down like needles, melting last week’s
snow. They’re smoking and using the ashtray. . . Maybe
just one of them is smoking . . . He’s smoking! Never
mind. Anyway, the ashtray is filling up with
cigarettes and ashes.
She’s ready to break into tears at any minute.
To plead with him, in fact, though she’s proud
And has never asked for anything in her life.
He sees what’s coming, recognizes the signs -
a catch in her voice as she brings her fingers
to her locket, the one her mother left her.
He pushes back his chair, gets up, goes over to
the window . . . He wishes it were tomorrow and he
were at the races. He wishes he was out walking,
using his umbrella . . . He strokes his mustache
and wishes he were anywhere except here. But
he doesn’t have and choice in the matter. He’s got
to put a good face on this for everybody’s sake.
God knows, he never meant for things to come
to this. But it’s sink or swim now. A wrong
move and he stands to lose her friend, too.
Her breathing slows. She watches him but
doesn’t say anything. She knows, or thinks she
knows, where this is leading. She passes a hand
over her eyes, leans forward and puts her head
in her hands. She’s done this a few times
before, but has no idea it’s something
that drives him wild. He looks away and grinds
his teeth. He lights a cigarette, shakes out
the match, stands a minute longer at the window.
Then walks back to the table and sits
down with a sigh. He drops the match in the ashtray.
She reaches for his hand, and he lets her
take it. Why not? Where’s the harm?
Let her. His mind’s made up. She covers his
fingers with kisses, tears fall on to his wrist.
He draws on his cigarette and looks at her
as a man would look indifferently on
a cloud, a tree, or a field of oats at sunset.
He narrows his eyes against the smoke. From time
to time he uses the ashtray as he waits
for her to finish weeping.
The first thing you’ll no doubt have noticed about this piece is that it’s well written and poignant.
The second thing you’ll have noticed is that it’s not so much a story as it is a poem — specifically, a narrative poem. I chose it here, along with Chekhov’s semi-famous quote, because it illustrates an important point: namely, conflict is the crux of storytelling.
If you don’t have a sufficiently complicated conflict, you won’t have enough material for a story. That, I believe, is what happened here.
Chekhov’s suggestion — which is his version of what we call a Situation — isn’t complex enough to build a story upon. One would need more adversity — more obstacle — to launch a truly compelling story.
Plots derive from characters under adversity.
But it’s important to emphasize that adversity need not be expressed in terms of pure physical action. Adversity means conflict. That conflict can be psychological, emotional, physical, or all three.
Here is an example of how we might improve Chekhov’s situation:
You could write a story about this ashtray, which is heart-shaped and has a hairline crack down the center, and a man and a woman, who does not love the man, though she’s married to him, and though he loves her …
There’s a game that certain writers like to play, and it’s not called Hide-The-Salami (although that game is popular among certain writers as well, myself perhaps foremost among them). In the game I’m talking about, someone — anyone — comes up with a random list of words or components, and the writer is then asked to create a story using these words. For example:
A knife, a monk, an abandoned building, a beautiful woman, a strange light, a handwritten letter, a bloodstain.
For many writers — even experienced writers — the immediate temptation here is to cram all these elements into the very beginning, so that the mission is accomplished.
“In the abandoned building, illuminated by a strange light, a beautiful woman with a bloodstain on her blouse held a knife to a monk’s throat. The monk did not look at her but stared down at a handwritten letter, which the beautiful woman could not see.”
Almost invariably what ends up happening next is that the writer panics a little over where the story is going to go from there, and thus the writer begins to create more and ever more characters, and to add to the increasing complexity, until by the end of the game, the writer cannot keep everything she’s devised in her head. The new ideas, which in and of themselves may be perfectly sound, spin out of control, and the story loses cohesiveness.
The most edifying aspect of this game is streamlining.
What some writers who play this game have learned is that it’s best to sprinkle the elements all throughout the story.
A compelling story can be told with relatively few elements provided the writer creates a believable Situation, with a compelling conflict. Conflict is at the heart of storytelling, and plots, let us never forget, derive from characters under adversity.
A real story cannot exist without some sort of conflict.
If, though, you don’t have a specific message, you must then begin your story by thinking up a good central conflict. And by “good,” I mean a conflict that’s important enough to hold people’s interest.
(If, for example, you’re hungry for cookies but you’ll only allow yourself one cookie, and then you find in your cookie jar two peanut butter and two sugar, there is here a certain conflict that you must resolve — i.e. you must choose between those two things — but it isn’t the kind of conflict upon which a story can be built. Why? Because the choices aren’t strong enough to be of lasting interest. To be of lasting interest, the conflict must be of certain importance to many people. That last thing is known as universality. Universality is important because stories must appeal to a range of people.)
Often, new writers ask if they should decide their theme first, or their plot first. The answer is, it doesn’t matter. Either method is okay.
The method you’re most comfortable with is a personal preference. Sometimes, in a fit of inspiration, you get an idea for a theme, and you must then figure out how to dramatize that theme, the act of which is called plotting.
Or sometimes you get a good idea for a story — a real clash of desires — and you must then, if you’re philosophically inclined, figure out a way to convey a universal message which that conflict represents (for example, honesty in the case of the movie Quiz Show, which I thought was a unique and excellent idea).
If you don’t have a universal message — i.e. a theme — that’s okay too. Your story will then be a plot story without an added level of depth. Soap operas and most commercial fiction, as I’ve also said, are examples of this.
The hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is one of the most famous (and played-out) Situations there is: Pretty Woman, with Richard Gere and Juilia Roberts, used it.
Leaving Las Vegas, with Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, also used it, though that story gave it a distinctly dystopic twist.
The reason the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold is such a popular Situation is that it has a built-in conflict — a woman who betrays a certain respectability and then falls in love — and also because it’s inherently sexual, which is one of the most universal desires there is.
Here are some less common Situations:
The Situation of Crime and Punishment is this: a man who believes that great people are above conventional morality commits a crime and is then condemned by his own moral sense.
The Situation of Madame Bovary is this: a small-town French girl, bored by her petty bourgeois marriage, engages in numerous adulteries and dies as a result.
The Situation of the movie Amadeus is: a marginally gifted musical composer named Antonio Salieri grows increasingly consumed by his jealousy over Wolfang Amadeus Mozart’s prodigious musical talents and so plots and carries out Mozart’s murder.
The Situation of House of Leaves is: a mysterious house that’s bigger inside than outside, containing endless unlit hallways, is explored by the family who’ve just moved in — explored until it almost kills them. (This Situation is symbolic of their marriage.)
If you’ve ever read a book or watched a movie where the characters do little more than engage in long, philosophical discussions, then you’ve seen an example of a plot that doesn’t support its theme — which is to say, a theme that is not well integrated into the plot. This is a flaw in the storytelling, and the basic standard of measurement for that is this: how complex are the events of your story, and are they complicated enough to support the philosophy that you’re putting into the mouths of your characters — without, mind you, taking readers out of the framework of the story?
The main point here is that theme, if it exists, must be integrated into your plot. This means, among other things, that when you’re searching for a good Situation — i.e. a good central conflict — you must find a Situation complex enough around which a whole story can be built, and which will support your theme.
Here, then, is how you create a setting:
One hour before nightfall, on a pink-and-blue evening in the third week of August, 2011 …
Here’s how you create a character:
a solitary man traveling on foot …
Here’s how you introduce a situation:
entered the small, tree-shadowed town of Clifton — an isolated village about which many rumors circulated.
Here’s how you introduce tension:
Several people from their windows and doors eyed the traveler with suspicion …
Here’s how you heighten that tension and begin your plot:
and yet one, a woman upon her doorstep, who had never laid eyes on the traveler before today, felt an icicle skewer her heart the instant she saw him — and saw also the strange and unmistakable key he wore on a chain around his neck.
Here’s how you further develop your character:
The traveler was a man of medium height, lean and lithe, thirty or perhaps thirty-five. He had wheat-colored hair cut high-and-tight, and there was in his posture a certain military mien, an excess of energy which set him apart.
Here’s how you further set your scene:
The day was dying. Wind went warmly about the grass. The village was silent.
Here’s how you introduce foreshadowing:
He passed by a small cinema the lights of which shed a crimson sheen over his hands and face.
Here’s how you introduce a new character, a potential conflict, a new paragraph:
Among those watching him was a strong-looking young man, alone and hatless, who stood half-hidden with the statuary, in the black shadows of the conifer trees. He and the traveler looked in some way alike, yet the man in the shadows was younger, and his face was charged with suffering.
Here’s how you intensify your plot and introduce dialogue:
Quickly the woman left her doorstep and, with a tremor of intent, approached the traveler.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.
Here’s how you develop your main character through dialogue:
“Yes,” he said.
Here’s how you intensify your situation again and at the same time give the reader an idea of your novel’s theme (which in this abbreviated example is: superstition in an insular society):
At last her eyes went to the strange-looking key that he wore around his neck. She’d been avoiding it, but now that her eyes were upon it, she couldn’t look away. The key was very beautiful, entirely real, modern and yet somehow science-fictional, not at all as she’d been told. In its silver glint, she caught a quick reflection of the stone gargoyle perched on the building behind them. Her heart paused and then released a thunderous beat. A rill of sweat slid between her breasts. Unexpectedly, she felt a sexual surge shoot through her.
Here’s how you raise tension through dialogue:
“Time is running short,” she said. “Come with me.”
Here’s how you further develop your plot:
She said no more after that but turned and walked toward the cinema that stood burning with a hellish glow in the August twilight. The traveler followed.
She hadn’t noticed the man watching from the shadows.
But the traveler had recognized him instantly.
The best stories are those that can be summed up in one sentence.
Said John O’Hara.
A solid story hinges upon The Situation.
The Situation is not the whole story but the essence of that story’s conflict, which will in turn shape the events of your plot.
Here is an example of a situation:
On a certain summer evening, a charismatic priest, no longer young but not yet old, who has devoted his entire life to God, suddenly feels the last particles of his faith dematerialize before his eyes, when a veiled woman he cannot see convinces him that God is a logical impossibility.
This situation comprises the essentials of a good story because it carries with it the essence of the conflict.
Conflicts come from characters in the face of adversity.
Conflict is at the heart of every good story because conflict is what will hold the reader’s interest.
A conflict means that there is a clash, and that there are obstacles to overcome. These two things are what hold one’s interest.
Holding the interest of the reader — or, in the case of movies, the viewer — is the total goal.
If, for example, you’re thirsty and you look in your refrigerator and find only orange juice and soda pop, there is here a certain conflict that you must resolve: i.e. you must choose between those two things.
Obviously, though, this isn’t the kind of conflict upon which a story can be built. But why?
The answer is that the choices aren’t important enough to be of lasting interest.
To be of lasting interest, the conflict must be of certain importance.
Of course, not everyone regards the same things as important — and that is one of the reasons there are genres: romance, western, history, mystery, horror, fantasy, and so on.
In all genres, though, the basic principle remains the same: there must be a clash of values (which is to say, a conflict), the clash must be of relative importance, and the best stories can state the essence of that conflict in one sentence.
That one sentence is The Situation.
Characterization is a presentation of the personality of the people who populate a story.
Characterization is primarily a depiction of motivation and motive. The reader must understand what makes the characters act in the way that those characters do.
It’s been said that one of the truest tests of good literature is when you can discuss the characters as if those characters are actual people: when you can psychologize over them, talk about their strengths, their gifts, their shortcomings, their personalities, their deeds, all as if these people are real.
To create such a character — which is to say, to create a truly convincing character — the writer must first understand what motivates the people he or she is creating. By that I mean, the writer must have a fully formed idea of what the character’s premises and personality are. After which, by means of the plot (i.e. the action, which includes each passage of dialogue), you proceed to present the character’s motives and (in turn) their personalities.
Know what motivates your characters.
One of Shakespeare’s greatest living admirers (and arguably the world’s best-read human being), the critic Harold Bloom (not to be confused, as he so often is, with that hack Howard Bloom), honestly believes that in creating so many convincing characters, Shakespeare went far in creating our modern-day conception of humanity itself. It is an incredible statement, and yet I, for one, won’t argue it. In Harold Bloom’s own words:
“Shakespeare, who at the least changed our ways of presenting human nature, if not human nature itself, does not portray himself anywhere in his plays.”
Even more interestingly, perhaps, Mr. Bloom goes on to say this:
If I could question any dead author, it would be Shakespeare, and I would not waste my seconds by asking the identity of the Dark Lady or the precisely nuanced elements of homoeroticism in the relationship with Southhampton (or another). Naively, I would blurt out: did it comfort you to have fashioned woman and men more real than living men and women? (Harold Bloom, Genius, p. 18).