Thursday, October 09, 2008

Naked under the sun

My friend Robert at Every Day Fiction brought up an interesting question today. Here's what he asked me:

Gay mentioned that “there are no new stories in the world, just each person’s unique way to tell them.” I’m wondering, Gay – do you really believe this?

Personally, I think this is a pessimistic viewpoint. Because when I hear writers say that there is no such thing as originality anymore, that every story is influenced by another story which was influenced by another story, it makes me ask then what’s the point in even writing to begin with. I’ll agree, everything is influenced by everything else (both consciously and unconsciously) but I think it’s our job as writers to try to tell new stories, keep originality alive, etc.

Here's my response:

Very good point for discussion, Robert. I probably should have used the word "plot" instead of story. Story combines all the compenents a tale weaves together to give the reader a unique experience. However plot is a single element or thread to the story's "structure." I should clarify here.

I consider that all stories have three overriding building blocks: content, structure, and language. Content is the actual meat of the story, the characters, the setting, and of course how the character react to specify events or plot of the story. Structure is the organization of the story, when the events happen, when the reader learns certain information, and the "plot." Language is how this is all said and includes tone, attitude, and word choice.

It is helpful to me as a writer to understand that there ARE three building blocks to creating a story and that although there is much overlapping of these three key components, looking at them individually helps me to weave all of this together for the best effect. Theme emerges from, and is enhanced by, all three: content, structure, and language.

When I suggested there are no new stories, I was talking about plot in terms of its most primitive definition, in its most primitive form: What happens?

For example, in a love story:
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy battles to get girl back, boy wins girl back(American movies) or loses girl(foreign movies).

That's the plot. Three acts: Act 1, a longer Act 2 with two distinct halves, and Act 3. Personally when I'm working on structure I call these Act 1, Act 2A, Act 2B, and Act 3, each act roughlty equal in length. It's helpful to me to break down my story whether 1000 words or 3000 words into these segments. It give me a handle on the action, the pacing, and the emotions.

Yes this sounds like formula, but plot is formula, and not to be confused with what a writer is going to do with the deeper structure, the theme, the characters, the language.

In the example above, where boy meets girl, the story question or plot question or premise is: Will the boy end up with the girl? That's the plot of a love story. Period. What an individual writer chooses to weave in and out of her story to deepen it, depends on the writer's point-of-view, her language, her understanding of structure, the choices she makes in setting, character, and tone. This plot is about man v. whatever for the love of girl.

The key to the most elemental plot is Aristotilian: What will the protagonist struggle against and will he win or lose?

The most basic plot setups are man against man, man against society, man against nature, man against himself, and of course in our new space age, man against machine which is really bastardized nature. All plots can be reduced to this question once you clear away all the other layers writers put into their work.

So will the protagonist struggle against an adversary for the one he/she loves and win or lose him/her in the end? Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, Die Hard.

Will the protagonist struggle against the forces of society and win or lose? One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Hedda Gabler, Erin Brockovich.

Will the protagonist struggle against the forces of nature and survive or die? Moby Dick, Old Man and the Sea, Ghostbusters.

Will the protagonist struggle against himself, his own wretched nature, his own weakness, and win or lose? Anna Karenina, Dorian Gray, Hamlet?

From these basic premises, stem all plots, but as you can see from my examples , none of those stories turned out formulaic or linear because it is the writer and the magic of the details and attitude of the writer that transforms plot. Classics usually manage to combine some or all of these basic premises.

The reason I'm going into this (I hope clearly but maybe not) is that unless we understand the basic elements of any skill, we can never truly master it. I fumbled around for years because I believed if I was to be a writer, some force outside myself (God, talent, DNA) would make it happen.

This is true of geniuses like the Brontes, maybe, Jane Austin, William Shakespeare, but most of us aren't them. There is still the rest of us who have things to say in language that is valuable, touching, lyrical, magic, but most of us can't turn our back on the continual lessons available to us about the craft.

Robert, I'm not directing this at you. You ask the question we all ask and most of us keep asking. But what I want to forestall is the doubt and fear in developing writers when they feel they cannot think of anything new. Too often a writer comes up with a twist only to read a book the next week and find the same idea illustrated. However, these gets washed away when the writer impresses his own thoughts and personality onto his own piece.

Newness is not in the plot. Newness--uniqueness-- is in the writer himself. Everytime a writer sits down to write, if he worries about the story-as-in-plot being original, then that writer is going to eventually give up.

If, however, when he starts tapping the keyboard, he thinks about everything else, things he knows, things that interest him, people who live under his nose that bug him, if he considers the way his own street looks like on a Sunday morning at 5:30 with its overhanging camphor trees, the tiniest glitter of light behind the water tower, the small arch in the middle of the asphalt with its freshly painted yellow stripe--damn the city for that one--and oh, there's a woodpeckerknocking his head against the lifeless electric pole....

And once that writer gets all his own uniqueness down, if he then goes back and thinks about what he has said, what is the truth that's seeping out, and considers how to say it better and more beautifully, sharply, or angrily, then he's on his way to a story people may want to read.

Phew Okay. Sorry about that. Hope my rambling convictions clarify that my view is anything but negative. My view is to say, you can do it, just be you, write what you want to write, then make it better.

Thanks Robert! I have my blog for today!!

9 comments:

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Gay for this great post. Personally, I find it reassuring that the plot/formula exists in the public domain, as it were. There is my scaffolding, around which I can build my unique tale, concentrating on the quirks that make it mine while knowing the "formula" will take care of the base structure.

Gay Degani said...

Thanks for the kind and encouraging comments on my blog. Can't believe any one took the time to read about plots! PLOTZ. It must mean something in yiddish! I have it in my heart to add to the vast amount of resources on writing because I haven't found many people who actually talk about blending mechanics and craft with inspiration and talent. Yet all four of those are necessary.

Barroway does, but her book is long. Carlson's book is extremely good about this too. And Jerry Cleaver. These are three of my favorites. Let me know of the others if I've missed them.

Gay Degani said...

And Robert McKee, but people read him to get a formula and ignore or don't pick up on his commentary on inspiration. Oh, and I want to add seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. Now that's a key to success if I ever heard one.

Shameless said...

Egads. After reading dude's comment at EDF (where he completely ignored my reply in favor of scholarly quoting) I think there's too much thought going into it.

Write.

It's like painting.

Do it. Push everything else away, lock yourself into it, and write. If it's not beautiful, then it's crap. Start again.

Too much thinking is evident in writing, too.

I'm finding that the rules are getting in my way.

I think I can play with the big kids. I think I play better when I'm just being myself, and not thinking about playing.

I'm leaning toward that.

I think I'm getting sick of literary nonsense again. Mayhaps I'll just go back to painting for a while.

I'm not trying to bag on you at all, or methods, rules, and quoting. I'm just thinking aloud, and venting about about pretension again. Dude's snub kinda pissed me off. I hate when people judge me because I'm not a douchebag. I think I'll have to get a dartboard for my office.

Sometimes I feel like I'm living in CANDIDE.

I love you, Gay.

Gay Degani said...

There's a time, Kev, for each consideration, diving in or analyzing. The point is to do both. When I start a story, most of the time I dive head first, letting the water stream by, holding my breath, and praying I won't see a ray before the under the sea delights reveal themselves to me.

After the story is "written" and I've told what treasures the water has brought me, it's time to haul out the heavy equipment, the metal cage to load the beautiful bits into, the crane to crank them up, the safety line in case I get into trouble.

First I have to discover, then I have to bring it all to the surface, wash it off, and put it on display in order to share it.

Some geniuses don't seem to need the second step. God gave them more valuable treasures small enough to hide in the pockets of their divesuits, so coming up never gives them the benz. The whole trove can be shared in the palm of a hand, perfect.

But I'm not a genius. I don't have any pockets, and I need the machinery.

I love you too Kev.

Robert said...

Whoa, didn't mean to cause a ruckus ... I just don't get a chance to talk about writing much and thought I'd share some things I thought were interesting ... didn't mean to snob you off, Kevin, but I thought your comments were great and directed more toward Gay, so that's why I didn't respond directly to you ... now I remember why I don't use the forms much.

Erin said...

I actually find the idea of master plots and character archetypes fascinating, as both a reader (or watcher) and a writer.

I totally believe that when you boil it down to a certain level, the basic elements shine through, but that it's our own unique take on the situation, our trappings, our ways of filling in the blanks, that make the plots and characters new again.

One of my favorite books on writing is "Heroes & Heroines" by Tammy Cowden. She goes into I believe 12 character archetypes and then shows all the different ways those archetypes have been used in exiting stories. Fascinating stuff! To me anyway. :-)

Gay Degani said...

Thanks Erin for stopping by. Good discussion, don't you think? It's always interesting to me to see how different writers work and what they think about their work.

I'll check out the Heroes and Heroines book. Sounds interesting.

You know about enneagrams, right? Helpful in trying to keep characters consistent.

I don't suggest a writer use anything as a handbook, but rather to read through out quickly, store in our own mental data banks, and let it arise out of that place all on its own.

Erin said...

Interesting, Gay. I think all those personality tests can be great character-creation tools. I'll have to look into that one more. :-)