Archive for the ‘The Situation’ Category
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 …
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.
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.