Tag Archives: Poe

Special Events — The heart of storytelling

I love verbs and I’m suspicious of nouns.  So it’s not surprising that what really attracts me to any kind of a story is what happens. And what keeps me turning the pages or glued to the screen is anticipation of what happens next.

Sure, I’ll come back to a book or a TV show or a movie because the character or actor interests me.  But, in most cases, I’m interested enough to give them another try because they have paid off in memorable events.  In other words, I trust them because of their actions.  So story building, essentially, depends on generating good events.  Without a doubt, they need to connect in some logical fashion and it would be nice if the characters involved are sympathetic, but if nothing interesting happens, forget about it.

So where to events come from?  What makes a good event?  How many events do you need?  What makes a good collection of events?

In fiction, events come from everywhere — experiences, dreams, imagination.  They may emerge unexpectedly from seat-of-the-pants writing or they may be collected from many sources into lists.  The lists may be random or they may be aggregated around a core idea or feeling.  The core idea of “Peter’s Shell” was turning “The Cask of Amontillado” (imprisonment) up-side down (freedom).  The core feeling of “Waverley” was loneliness.

The first event of “The Cask of Amontillado” is the protagonist tricking Fortunato into coming with him.  Note that the protagonist does something.

Whichever way events are generated, many of them will be weak or useless.  I take a list, either derived from my pages of text or created as a list, and strike out anything that doesn’t interest me.  (The ones that interest me might not interest others, but I have little hope that they will interest others if they don’t engage me.)  Among those that are struck out will be some events that are needed for the story.  Maybe.  It is amazing how many times things that seem to be needed really aren’t.  Writing the story without these events usually works since readers have the ability to fill in what they need.  Some of these events may simply convey some needed facts.  The facts can often find their ways into the story by other means.  In any case, I put question marks next to these events as reminders.

The verbs — good, strong, active verbs — are at the heart of why these events interest me.  (“Trick” is a great verb.)  Can any of these events be made more interesting?  Often, yes.  I go through the list and try and push things to the limit.  In one story, a scene where a character chastised another became one where she demanded he sign a separation agreement.  Finding ways to push to the limits is not hard.  Accepting what comes out is.  It usually “messes up the story,” requiring a lot of rewriting.  It always makes things harder on the characters.  When I am being diligent, I will write the scene in the full-on way before I decide to reject it or go with it, no matter what he consequences.  In most cases, it makes for a better story.

Besides going to the limit, there are other things that can make an event more interesting.  The protagonist in “The Cask of Amontillado” uses reverse psychology at every turn.  His ironic attitude enlivens every event.  Images (such as the tinkling bells of Fortunato’s motley) can also make a scene irresistible.

So now you have a list of events with great verbs that go to the extreme, have attitude and are filled with memorable images.  They need to go into the right order, an order that will make sense, reduce confusion and build.  You may find yourself with too many or two few events, depending on what you are trying to create.  (A good rule of thumb is one event, on average, every three to four pages.  One event may occur in more than one location, especially in a screenplay.  A short story may have fewer event because there may be more narrative set up.  Flash fiction will probably have extremely compressed events, with a high average for the wordcount.)

The best circumstance is too many events.  Looking for further cuts is usually a good idea.  Not much needs to be done in a case where bigger is not a problem (e.g., turning a short story into a novella).  When length is pretty much fixed, as with a screenplay, working backward is one good technique to identify unnecessary events.  The toughest part of having too many events is letting go of those you love but don’t need to tell the story.

I’m more likely to have too few events.   Working backward, asking questions about the characters and getting other folks to read what I have can help me come up with more.  If I’m lucky, the list itself will suggest holes to fill.  If all else fails, simply working on the rewrite, telling the story from start to finish, will get my imagination going.  Each new event, of course, needs to be challenged.  It won’t help to fill gaps or pad the text with dull and mediocre scenes.

There are times when the idea or feeling for the story is too slight.  In these cases, it is best to put the work aside.  Sometime in the future, you may discover that the events really have a different focus, one that is stronger.  Or it may be that the events find their ways into other works over time.  But some events, scenes, sequences and draft books should simply be abandoned.

Almost there now.  The final question is what makes a good collection of events?  Having interesting scenes that all belong to the story and flow together is more than a good start.  But there is a danger that the sum may be less than the parts.  It may not add up to a compelling story.  Here’s where the tools of plotting, looking for motivations and architectures of acts and story design can come in handy.  Everyone from Aristotle to Robert McKee have written about construction of obligatory scenes, the climax, inciting incidents, points of ritual death, pinches, etc., etc.  If all this is a mystery to you and you’re interested, I’m happy to add references, but there is lots of help out there.

Events, however, get you most of the way.  They can provide the go/no go for people with not enough time to write.  (And I don’t know any writers who do have enough time to write.)  The characters we love — in fiction, in history and in our lives — are memorable because of events.  Arthur pulls a sword from a stone.  Hannibal crosses the Alps with elephants.  Your child is born.  We reference people by names, associations (works for, is cousin of) and physical descriptions.  But the most powerful reference is he/she is the one who did an interesting act.  This is at the core of storytelling.

My doings:  I had a book proposal turned down and four contest entries have failed to even final.  Oddly, I’m not discouraged.  Within an hour the editor who turned down the book asked if I would be interested in collaborating with another author.  (I would.)  One contest returned the best feedback I’ve gotten on my fiction.  Clear and actionable.  The other had two apoplectic judges’ sheets from non-pros that trashed the work, but the one from the pro said:

“Great job!  Entertaining read, & a fresh, topical (identity theft, child pornography) spin for the plot.  A computer dude for a hero–fresh!” and “Wonderful style, very readable & very fitting with the sub-genre.  Some wonderful turns of phrase.  I felt fully immersed in the story as I was reading.”  She gave a score of 149 out of a possible 150 points and said to “get this puppy out to agents.”

I’ll be doing that later today.

No sheets yet from the other two entries.  We’ll see.

What Goes into a Short Story?

Short stories are a blast.  A world, a character and an event are created in about 1-5K words.  People read them in one sitting, so they’d better create a strong emotion or at least a lingering mood.

With Ice Parrots of the Himalayas, I sat down with the title and started typing.  Every twist and turn was a surprise for me, but the driving force was the first paragraph that put me into a Rudyard Kipling world of strangers and fools.  (We turned into the pass, and the wind stopped. I caught myself listening. For what? )  I knew things would not end well — for the characters, not for me.  I knew I’d have some fun.

Waverley was different.  I had a snatch of a dream to work with, but the main character really drove it.  He told the story, and I listened.  The strangest thing is that I knew nothing about the town or similar towns, but I was convinced that everything about the setting was true.  I still believe that the time and the place are authentic, and even the reactions of the townspeople to fantastic circumstances feel right to me.  This story was one where I got a visit from the muse and sat down and wrote for many hours straight.  It’s one of my favorites even though it was a hard one to sell.

When I wrote Crossing the Blood Brain Barrier, I was in a toxic mood.  My bad waking dream was transferred to paper with a lot of keyboard pounding and snarling.  The whole experience was fueled by emotion.  The original draft was relentlessly grim, like Night of the Living Dead.  Rewriting made it more accessible and humane, but it still is the creepiest thing I’ve put on paper (at least for me).

A mood, a voice or an emotion can pull the writer through a short story and the reader has little choice but to follow (if the execution is right).  But is it possible to coldly calculate a short story?  Can one be stick built rather than grown?  I think it can, but it isn’t easy.

Peter’s Shell, just published, has rational, left brain origins.  (If you haven’t read it, take a look before continuing with the blog.  I’ll wait.)  I wanted to write an inverted story, and I chose a favorite, Edgar Alan Poe’s Cask of Amontillado, as the basis.  Most stories cannot be inverted.  The plot and the structure need to be almost perfect or it turns to mush.

The best example of an inverted story is “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  The basis of that script is Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.”  Instead of a miser wanting to save his life, we have a generous man wanting to commit suicide.  Another reversal: the main character is poor in money and rich in friends.  Instead of being shown the error of his ways, he’s shown the virtue.  Etc.

Given a strong story, most people could go through the intellectual exercise of turning everything upside down.  Peter’s Shell features lovers, not enemies.  The intent isn’t murder, it is enhanced life.  The characters move toward the clouds, not deeper into the ground.  The journey is not toward disease, but toward health.  Etc.

I had all of that worked out, literally for years, before the story was finished.  If you read the odd numbered sections of the story, you can see the essential inverted version of Poe’s story.  (It even includes a bottle of Amontillado.)  The left brain had created half of the story that exists now, and it made sense.  But it wasn’t a short story.

I picked it up and read it a dozen or more times, convinced that something was there, but lost on how to take it forward.  What Peter’s Shell needed was Wendy’s Shell — the even numbered sections.  While Poe’s narrator could handle a complete story, Peter just couldn’t.

Wendy does not narrate.  I wanted readers to experience her, but not from the inside.  She’s a magical character (reversing the roles of Peter Pan), so the narration is third person.  She builds her spell with bits and pieces, and I did the same.  The child’s voodoo she practices even before she finds the shell comes from what my daughter Carol did at a similar age.  The Funny Buck (added to liven up Peter’s bit) in the lighthouse references a short story that got me into Clarion.  I walked past the sculpture shop in Manhattan on a day I was working on the story, and I grabbed what I saw.  As a kid, I used to drag Pick-Up-Sticks over the ridges of shells and listen to the music.  Etc.

I seeded the story with these experiences, emotions and responses.  I wrote snatches of Wendy’s Shell, and I found bits to play off of in Peter’s Shell.  The picture started to come together, but it wasn’t there yet.  I had to knit Peter’s Shell together with Wendy’s Shell in a way that carried the reader along.  Essentially, I did this by creating (or discovering) the kind of cliffhangers used in novels to end chapters.

When a writer does that, the next step is usually rationalization.  Parts brought together need to make some sort of sense.  Normally, this is done in a cold-blooded fashion, but I took a different route.  I put my characters in charge.  Peter’s voice and Wendy’s intuitive choices finished the sections.  When I went back to see if it made sense and was true to the original vision, I was satisfied.  I also found that the piece as a whole created a mood, a whole body affect, of exhilaration/anticipation that is both familiar and strange.  It is the feeling I have at the beginning of things, when I feel most creative.  And this inverts the feeling of Poe’s story in exactly the way I wanted it to.

Can the left brain create a short story?  The answer is no, but it can start one.  And since a good right brain story usually needs to get shaped up by some left brain logic, there is a nice symmetry here.  It is good to have many ways to get to a short story.  The important thing is to make sure it delivers the experience for the reader.  If they don’t have a blast, what’s the point?