Monday, January 16, 2006
part three: what a wonderful world it could be
making a magic door
One of the best what ifs a story can deliver is to connect the reader with a world she does not yet know. What if I were somewhere else? What if I were someone else? Participating in a story circle with people from other cultures can give the reader/writer just that kind of connection. The purpose of this last section of the manual is to suggest some specific types of story to write and to foreshadow, simulate and help create, crossings between cultures.
Connections of this nature can have a very powerful effect on the reader, and likewise on the writer who makes them. Seeing an unknown world can help the reader to develop empathy with people who are different and whose experience and ways are strange to her. Seeing a world unknown to the reader can help her to look at her own world with new eyes.
What kind of connection can there be in a story between known and unknown worlds? There could be a path, there could be a window on another world; the connection could be a door that opens onto that other imagined place. In children's and in fantasy and even in science fiction, a door between worlds can be vital to the story. Through identification with a protagonist passing between worlds, the story offers the reader a key to such a portal. The door or portal often shows us the way between a world which resembles our real world and a world which is clearly of fantasy. Portals can take all sorts of forms and be found in all sorts of places. Let's take an example from the second of the books in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
The pages of the diary began to blow as though caught in a high wind, stopping halfway through the month of June. Mouth hanging open, Harry saw that the little square for June the thirteenth seemed to have turned into a miniscule television screen. His hands trembling slightly, he raised the book to press his eye against the little window, and before he knew what was happening, he was tilting forwards; the window was widening, he felt his body leave his bed, and he was pitched headfirst through the opening in the page, into a whirl of colour and shadow. He felt his feet hit solid ground, and stood, shaking as the blurred shapes around him came suddenly into focus.
The Harry Potter books are teeming with portals, and ways between worlds (the magical and the muggle), of many different kinds. Passage through the kind of portal shown in the text above allows the reader to experience the fantastic sensations that are associated with entering the world of the imagination. Paradoxically, portals both divide and link the world of the reader and the world of the story. They show the nature of the difference between these worlds. And they make physical the way between these worlds. Devising portals then is a way of creating a world decidedly different from the reader's. It's also a way of showing the reader in.
Before going further, we should recognise that the book itself is a kind of portal. Open the cover, step in through the door. In this way the journey is made physical. Stories like Harry Potter encourage reading because they show the child reader how exciting it can be to step into the other world in the book. Perhaps you're in a boring place: at home, on the bus. But when you put your head down and read you're in another place, understanding how things are there, doing what must be done there. Look up from your book and see the everyday world of real life again. How could the people there possibly understand where you've been? The reader who passes to and fro through a portal is a kind of adventurer and she has a kind of secret, one she need not share with the everyday world.
The point is that stories can take you where you've never been. That's nowhere more clearly demonstrated that in the work of an armchair adventure novelist like Jules Verne who, tradition tells us, never went further than the Paris Zoo. Fiction - especially of the fantasy variety - can take you to places where no one has been, for the simple reason that those places don't exist. Before we turn to the work of creating our own, let's look at a few more famous portals in stories for children.
In the Alice novels of Lewis Carroll, our girl protagonist dreams herself through a portal. In Alice in Wonderland that portal is a rabbit hole, in Through the Looking Glass the portal is the mirror Alice steps through. In the famous 1930's children's film The Wizard of Oz the protagonist, Dorothy's, means of getting to the other world is a cyclone. A cyclone might be a convincing method for sweeping a character unexpectedly away, one wouldn't want to rely on a cyclone to bring that character home. And so it is with Dorothy. Her whole story is - like the journey of the ancient Odysseus, in the famous story named after him - motivated by the desire to get home. Dorothy was on her way home when the cyclone swept her house away and landed it in Oz, right on top of a wicked witch, whose sister becomes Dorothy's antagonist for most of the rest of the story. To get home Dorothy must first travel to the Emerald City in order to seek advice from, and then carry out the tasks prescribed by, the great and powerful Wizard of Oz. When the wizard is revealed to be a fake, he offers to take Dorothy home in his hot air balloon. But Dorothy finds herself having to chase after her dog Toto and the balloon lifts off before she can step back aboard, so now Dorothy has to think of a new way to get home. Dorothy has to think laterally, she has to approach the problem from a different angle, on a different level. Dorothy wishes her way home by closing her eyes and repeating 'there's no place like home': a line which serves also as the conviction of the story.
When Dorothy wakes up in her bed at home, and we're told she's been sick, we realise that Oz and the Emerald City and the wicked witch have all been part of Dorothy's dream. Should the reader feel cheated to think that Alice's and Dorothy's adventures were only a dream? 'And then I woke up' is no resolution for a story; it's a clichÈ in exactly the same way that 'they all lived happily ever after' is a clichÈ. Still there's an analogy in the difference between waking and dreaming and the real world and the world in the story. The dream is the basic model for story makers of all ages. In dreams we cannot help making stories. The door to sleep is one we all go through every day. It provides a model for the other important division in our daily lives, that between fantasy and reality.
How innocent or serious is the business of travelling between worlds in a story? Just as the world in the dream has its material basis in the life of the dreamer, so the world on the far side of the portal must have some bearing on, and basis in, the world of the fiction's reader. Portal stories are unusual in their drawing attention to the fact of there being a story. They show there's a story by showing a way in and possibly also a way back out. On the other hand, portal stories can distract the reader from the fact that the framing story is also a fiction. The world of the framing story is so much like the real world of the reader, she forgets that it's also a story. What are the ethical consequences of that kind of trick? What does it mean to make the reader feel that the world of the outside story is hers, or that the world of the inside story is nothing like hers?
What does the portal offer the reader? Is it a window on another world? Is it the door to another culture? Is it a mirror in which we see, but fail to recognize, ourselves? A portal could be any or all of these. Perhaps it's impossible for a story to really let unknown others speak with their own voices. The talking animals of the fable and the fairytale provide the clearest example of this. It can't be their own words we're hearing because - although real animals may have wishes and conflicts, take action and have effects - we know that they have no language. We know, but for the purposes of the story, we've conveniently forgotten the fact.
Perhaps the portal story can't truly allow us to see or to meet the inhabitants of worlds radically unlike our own; what it can do however is to model the encounter, it can show us the way to find those different from us. It can inspire us with the bravery we need to make that kind of journey.
Asking questions/taking action:
Individually or by circulation around the story circle: create a list of possible portals or ways to other worlds. Here are a few examples to get you started:
You're running on a treadmill in the gym, you close your eyes and when you open them again you find yourself in another world.
The floor gives way beneath you and when the dust settles?
You put your finger on a map in the atlas and suddenly you are transported to that place.
You put your hand at the back of the refrigerator to pick out something delicious in there, but you're shocked when a hand grabs yours and drags you into the fridge and into the other world beyond it.
You get a very big television screen for your home. It's life sized in fact, and one night when you're falling asleep in front of a movie, the characters come out of the screen and drag you into their story.
You hit the wrong combination of keys on your computer keyboard and suddenly find yourself inside the screen instead of typing.
Your computer's mouse turns into a real mouse. When you double click on it you find you've become so much smaller that you can ride on the mouse's back. Where do you go?
Now select one of these portal ideas as the starting point for an individual or for a group story.
What if there were a magic door in the forest? How would you find it? Who could get through it? How? What would you find on the other side? What if the animals in the forest found the magic door first? What if they'd all decided to leave? Where would they go?
from one planet to another
The story has a role in finding resolution for conflict. That kind of resolution in a story follows a principle, the principle we've called the conviction or the moral of the story. Stories with portals show a way out of the familiar and into a strange world, a world of strangers. Portal stories show us how to meet with creatures and places fundamentally different from the creatures and places we already know. The writer of the portal story in general aims to show others how to make such a journey. In these ways, learning to read and to write stories provides a curriculum for tolerance and for understanding others. Understanding difference, finding a way to meet different others: these are among the best things a story can do. Because of its conflict resolving potential, because it can foster the kind of encounter that forestalls conflict, the story has a vocation for peace in the world.
A portal is a way into another world. It could be entered or crossed through in a journey. It might be the beginning of a journey of discovery. The most obvious and dramatic examples of 'other worlds' are those we find in science and fantasy fiction. The other worlds of science fiction are often literally other planets, light years away from our own. As readers, we're only able to understand the experience of those other worlds because they have a certain amount in common with the world we know. After all, if we step out of the frame of the story, we remember that it was in fact written on our planet and by a member of our own species. For the purposes of remaining in the story, though, it's often as well to forget this fact. The reader opens the portal of the science fiction or fantasy novel with the aim of escaping from her real world.
It's easy to see how science fiction evolved from the kinds of earth bound fantasy worlds that had preceded it. In Jonathan Swift's day a satire like Gulliver's Travels could set its otherworldly business just on the unknown other side of planet Earth. The filling of the world map and the possibility of space travel have combined to make science fiction - and especially the story about travel to another planet - an important story type in the twentieth century. You could say that escape to other worlds was necessary once the whole of planet Earth was known. In saying so, you might however be glossing over an important contradiction, namely that those other planets - through whatever distorting glass we're provided - show the reader pictures of her own place, her own planet. The otherworldly story offers the reader characters with whom she can identify because, even if they're aliens covered with spikes and breathing fire - like the animals of fable and fairytale - they're still human. If they weren't human we wouldn't be able to understand what they say.
What motivates the reader's and the writer's desire to escape? What do they want to escape from, and why? Where do they want to escape to, and why? Escape can sound like an act of cowardice. Instead of facing reality, people choose to go somewhere else. But that judgement ignores the vital role of fantasy in the life of society as much as of the individual. Swift's Lilliputians, like Tolkien's hobbits, were Europeans in disguise. As are the fire breathing aliens in the paragraph above. Science fiction stories - however adventurous and exciting, however escapist - are only as good as the advice they give us about our world and about ourselves. So perhaps it's better to think of science fiction and fantasy fiction, not as escapist, but as providing us with the right amount of distance and the right perspective in order to have a better look at ourselves and at what's happening around us. We all need distance and perspective in order to work out what our convictions truly are.
Stories are worth reading because they go beyond the known and the possible: they make a difference. Stories test the limits of what a reader can accept as logical, reasonable, well enough connected. The story's home is and has always been on the boundary between fantasy and reality, between the possible and the impossible. The story's ethical vocation has always been in imagining and understanding a different world, a different way. A worse one, a better one, no matter; it's the difference that allows the reader to step away from known conditions so as to be able to make a judgement about them, so as to be able to decide what to do about them.
The science fiction mindset takes us beyond the limits of our known universe. It takes us to extremes, to places where the 'normal' rules can be tested against conditions which may make us question their value. Fantasy and science fiction help us to tackle the work of seeing our own world from the outside, as the speck of dust in the universe which it truly is.
Asking questions/taking action:
Five minute writing tasks. The purpose of this exercise is to help you imagine setting and characters as radically as possible different from those you already know.
Describe your watch or mobile phone for the benefit of someone who has never seen one before, doesn't know what it is or how it works. Do not use the name of the object. Explain the function of the object in a separate description (i.e. separate the description of the object's use from the aesthetic appreciation of the object).
Describe a house to someone who's never seen one before. Again separate the description of the house from information about its purpose.
Describe some other everyday normal thing in a similar way.
Describe a family relationship (mother, brother, father, sister, etc.) for the benefit of someone who has no such concept.
Describe for the benefit of someone unfamiliar with it, one of the following abstractions: love, war, peace, hate, pride, sex, death, birth, anger, happiness, God, proverty, innocence, greed, time. (Remember that this exercise isn't just translation and you're not merely trying to find synonyms. You're trying to make tangible one of these abstractions for someone who lacks a parallel concept. Examples will be very useful in the process.)
Around the story circle: Can you find amongst the group culture specific concepts which you need to explain to each other. 'Untranslatable' words could be a good starting point.
For individual, circulation or group discussion exercises
What do you want to escape from? Why?
Where do you want to escape to? Why?
You've recently read some tourist brochures. Name and describe the planet/s you'd like to visit. Name and describe the planets you'd rather not visit.
Build your own planet: describe a system of planets and moons.
Show a world without certain features you'd rather not have in yours.
Show a world with certain features you would like to add to yours.
Make rules for other worlds. How are the rules of the other worlds different from those of the world you know?
Make a war of the worlds. What are these planets fighting over?
Create a gadget that does something presently impossible. A good example is the Babel fish in Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. With a Babel fish in your ear all alien languages are instantly translated into your own. Here are some other examples:
A ray that makes people (or things) invisible
An instant transportation beam
Suspended animation for space flight
A pill that allows people to lose weight because they never feel hungry
A device that disables mobile phones within a certain radius of the user
A device that makes people listen to/obey the user
A world volume control
A traffic stopper for pedestrians
A wishing machine
Add to the list and then choose an invention around which to write a story.
Cross off the list above the imagined inventions that have been over-used (or else use them in a novel way).
Letters to another planet:
You find a letter from another planet. Where? How? How do you know it's from another planet? How do you feel about this? How do you respond?
Write the contents of the letter from another planet that you've found.
Write a letter in reply.
Which writing position do you prefer to be in? Or would you prefer to write the letters in both directions?
Or, imagine the encounter by e-mail. You receive a spam message that reads, 'I am an alien from another planet. I want to put some money in your bank account, but?' Finish the e-mail, and then just for fun, write a response. You get a response to that response. How do things continue from there?
Your alien friend comes to visit. Describe the view from the porthole as the spaceship comes in to land in your town.
Organise a tour for your alien friend. What specific difficulties might she or he have on earth?
Explain how things are on earth to an alien who's never been here before.
Your alien friend takes you home to meet the family. Describe the space ship, the journey, life on another planet, and so on. How do the people (or creatures) there react to you?
Personal rocket ship:
Imagine your refrigerator gradually becomes noisier and noisier. It seems to be noisiest in the middle of the night. One night you sneak into the kitchen for a glass of water at two o'clock in the morning and you notice a strange light coming from it. It begins to vibrate wildly. It seems as if it wants to leave the floor. Eventually you climb on top, trying to keep it on the floor, and that's when it takes off, taking you with it?
Let's end by making a last what if? list
Add five more 'what if's to the list below then choose the one around which you'd like to write a story.
What if your building turned into a rocket ship and took off, leaving the earth's atmosphere?
What if the appliances in your kitchen turned on you and started telling you what to do?
What if you were ten metres tall (or ten centimetres)? What if you could change your height at will?
What if you woke up one morning and found that you were a different sex from what you were when you went to sleep the night before?
What if everyone in the world had enough to eat and could live a peaceful life doing what they thought best to do?
What if everyone's dreams came true?
What type of story do you want to tell?
Journeys through portals and to other planets provide us with illustrations of how much distance a story can cover and of just how surprising its contents and its destination can be. Fantasy and science fiction are only two choices among many the many genres available for the writer of fiction. Already in this manual we've looked at jokes, at fairytales, romances, ghost stories, tragedies. Once you begin writing stories, you read with an additional purpose in mind. One of the functions of this chapter is to provide you with a writer's guide to classic stories, stories that will be useful for you to consider as a student of fiction. Once you've created a few stories that work, the question you should ask yourself is this: what sort/s of stories should I write? The best advice for the beginner is to try your hand at as many different kinds of story as possible.
Different kinds? There are many ways in which stories can be classified. Subject, theme, genre, conviction: each of these terms suggests a different kind of classification. The traditional division of drama into comedy and tragedy - or into comedy, tragedy, history and pastoral - works well for Shakespeare's plays. In some ways these categories can still be seen today as the dominant story telling modes.
There have been a few genres or movements or modes of the story we might add to the list since Shakespeare's time, e.g. realism, surrealism, absurdism. Philosopher of history, Hayden White, divides the stories with which the past is explained into four narrative types: romance, satire, comedy and tragedy. In brief, the romance shows a person or people escaping their situation. The satire shows people as prisoners of the way the world is. Comedies show the triumph of people over their situation, while tragedies show their failure to triumph. This neat (perhaps too neat) classification helps us to see a relationship between genre and conviction and it also demonstrates how particular types of story have their own temperament. One way to decide what you want to write is to work out which story type matches your view of the world.
In the last chapter we'll return to the idea of conviction and look at stories from the point of view of what they're trying to prove. In this chapter, we'll consider the classification of stories by subject or theme, along the lines of an answer to the question: what's the story about? For this purpose, ten 'plots' have been identified as representative. Examples are given of each, along with comments on how the beginner can best approach them.
1. Journey or Quest
This plot foregrounds linearity, in other words it is structured as a line though, like the course of a journey, not usually a straight one. This plot of the journey story is like an arrow heading for a target, though usually having to get around some serious obstacles along the way. The 'journey books' - the great journey stories - are among the most famous classics of western literature. Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, Dante's Divine Comedy: the journeys of which these stories tell are among the world's best known. Many other classics involve a strong journey element or the setting of a journey. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales have a journey setting more or less ignored in the process of telling the tales. Chaucer's characters are on a pilgrimage and they have to tell each other stories for entertainment in order to pass the time at the Tabard Inn (where they're staying). The Bible contains many journeys, probably the most notable of which is the wanderings of Moses with his people. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden is the beginning of a story, the story of mankind.
Journeys are often motivated by a specific goal, sometimes of the kind that draws the protagonist on - over and around various obstacles - like a magnet. That motivation could be the quest for the Holy Grail, it could be the strong desire to get home. The suspense in the journey story is to do with getting around the obstacles that lie in a protagonist's way; ultimately it's to do with getting 'there', wherever that there - at the end of the road - happens to be.
The journey or quest plot is not the exclusive property of western culture. One of the most famous of Chinese classics is Wu Cheng En's Journey to the West, a work sometimes named after its central character, Monkey. It's the story of how a group of unlikely pilgrims is led by a Buddhist monk from China to India in order to bring the Buddhist scriptures back to the Chinese court, so as to facilitate the dissemination of Buddhist teachings through China.
The journey metaphor is a powerful one in many if not most cultures. And there are several good reasons for starting with the journey as a first plot type. Life is a path or a journey along a path, and a story likewise - and especially in the sense of the linear sequence of events - is also a journey. It's actually difficult to explain the life-as-path metaphor without saying it means 'a way to go' or something like that. Choice and decision seem like more complicated concepts than 'path' or 'way'. There's a good reason they seem that way. They are more complicated! They're abstractions. The metaphor for life and its crises and choices - whether it's path or road or way - is concrete. Thinking of life as a path gives you an image, something to picture. And thinking of a story or of plot in this way is similarly useful.
The idea of a plot itself closely resembles the idea of a journey. The journey or quest is a kind of adventure. It often consists of a long series of turns or complications and resolutions. In an adventure story - as in many others - it's conventional for the action to rise as the story progresses. This means that the dangers intensify and the stakes get higher as the goal gets closer. Whatever it is that the protagonist seeks - holy grail, golden fleece, secret formula - others may also seek or wish to keep. The quest story has built-in conflict and built-in suspense. Whatever it is your protagonist wants, an antagonist also either wants, or perhaps already has. Or perhaps there are several competitors or claimants for the prize. The built in suspense comes from the fact that until the goal is reached there is doubt that it will be reached. If you have a team of protagonists then perhaps some of them will die or be left injured along the way. To the extent that your reader identifies with the members of this team, your protagonist cares about these losses. They build empathy for the protagonist's team as a whole.
The rivalry plot foregrounds conflict. The rivalry and the conflict could be between individuals or groups. It could be the rivalry between men and gods that is expressed in the Greek story of Prometheus, the hero who stole fire from the gods. Or it could be rivalry between men and God as in the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel. The rivalry plot overlaps with the journey wherever there is a race of any kind towards a common goal. Probably the prototypical journey of rivalry is the race between the tortoise and the hare in Aesop's fables. The arrogant hare, knowing he's faster, runs in fits and starts, dawdles and naps, and so loses the race to the steady plodding tortoise, who never picks up pace, but never slackens. The moral is straightforward: 'slow and steady wins the race.' Around the World in Eighty Days is probably the classic example of the journey based on a conflict between rivals. Jules Verne's story requires an interesting suspension of disbelief on the part of its reader today. Whereas Verne's contemporaries had to stretch their imaginations a little to imagine someone getting around the world so fast, a century later, we're wondering what took them. Other interesting rivalries to study in literature include man against nature in Herman Melville's Moby Dick or in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea or the tragic triangle romantic conflict of the kind we find in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale. Another classic rivalry plot is the one in which a good soul has to face the wicked world in which s/he cannot fit. Shakespeare's Tempest would be a good example of that story.
The revenge plot again foregrounds conflict. Revenge, whether driven by passion or pragmatism, is one of the extreme ends to which a rivalry can be brought. And the function of actually annihilating - as a group or team or tribe or nation - the whole of the group defeated, is specifically to rule out the possibility of (further) revenge or retribution. Squabbles between nations and races and tribes and religious groups often go on seemingly forever for the simple reason that one side's 'final solution' has only made more implacable the hatred of the survivors on the other side. The revenge plot is focused on the outcome that will bring the domination or the annihilation of the party on whom vengeance is sought.
What could bring a character - a protagonist! - to this diabolical desire for vengeance? Many things and nothing. Nor need we even specifically know. That's the case in Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado'. Othello and Hamlet are Shakespeare's two most famous revenge stories. Probably the nastiest and most extreme of revenge classics is in Euripides' Medea.
The transition from childhood to adulthood is a major theme in literature. Growth or maturation is a process which all adults have gone through, usually have at least some dim memory of, and can therefore identify with. In the most common kind of growth plot in the fairytale, a character loses innocence by going out into the big bad world and fending for herself. The event - the crisis or crises - through which a protagonist - or other character - goes, in order to emerge an adult, amount/s to what anthropologists call a rite of passage. Often characters have to go somewhere to grow up. Whether it's moving to the house next door or being abandoned in the woods, Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, all go somewhere to learn who they are, to become themselves.
Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden is a novel that entertains just this kind of hope for the young. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is a character who grows despite (and in fact because of) her apparent powerlessness in the story she centres. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein should be recognized as a story centred on two male characters, each with great power, though with power of different kinds. Frankenstein and his monster both grow through the story as a result of the epic conflict between creator and creation. Importantly though, this is also story of inner conflict and turmoil, a story about the limits of responsibility. It's a story that asks us to consider the issue of responsibility for actions which cause consequences beyond our control.
Growth can come at any stage in life. It comes for Shakespeare's King Lear in the final stages of a long life. It can even be manifested in madness: Cervantes' Don Quixote is a character growing and getting a kind of wisdom only available to him by virtue of first having gone mad. A number of twentieth century growth stories call into question the relationship between self-discovery and social expectation. Good examples include James Joyce's The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and R.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.
The change - like the growth - plot foregrounds character transition. It's a story about how someone becomes a new person, a person different from the one the reader met at the beginning of the story. Often the change has to do with self-recognition. Hans Christian Anderson's 'The Ugly Duckling' and Carlo Collodi's 'Pinocchio' are classic children's examples. Shakespeare's classic of transformation is A Midsummer Night's Dream. Ovid's Metamorphoses provides the reader with a treasure trove of change stories. The Roman author's objective in that work was to thread the whole of classical mythology into a single story made up of stories, on the basis that what all of the stories had in common was change, transformation. George Bernard Shaw picked out one of these tales for his play Pygmalion, better known to many through the musical film version, My Fair Lady. Robert Louis Stephenson's Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde and Bram Stoker's Dracula are great nineteenth century change stories, as - in a very different way - is Ibsen's A Doll's House. Probably the most important twentieth century change story is Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. The feature length cartoon Shrek is a twenty first century example.
The love story foregrounds empathy and identification. If we can't feel the pain and the torment of the lovers then the story won't hold our attention. There's only a story in love if the love is somehow against the odds. Whether the lovers survive the action, whether they are winners or losers at the end of the story, love has to be an ordeal for them. Classic examples include 'Pyramus and Thisbe', 'Orpheus and Eurydice', Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
Fiction is itself a way of escaping from the real world which dominates our waking lives. Every story has this much element of escape to it, but in some stories the reader's attention is drawn to the fact that someone or something is being eluded, that someone is getting away, saving themselves from or for something. The need to escape could provide a framing context for the telling of stories. Boccaccio's Decameron is a collection of tales told by young men and women who have escaped from the plague stricken town to the country and lacking the amusements to which they are accustomed have to tell each other stories there to pass the time. Another set of stories framed by the hope of an escape is the collection told in The Arabian Nights. Sheherazade (the narrator) has to keep her audience of one (the king) interested enough in hearing these tales in order to save herself from being executed at sunrise every morning. This king has become disillusioned with women. He doesn't trust them. And so he's decided to marry a new virgin every day, deflower her at night, and execute her in the morning. That's been his custom until Sheherazade, daughter of his vizier, applied for the job. Her father was horrified when he found out but she managed to keep him entranced with Aladdin and Ali Baba and Sinbad the Sailor. And pretty soon he turns over a new leaf, re-forms his opinion of women, and marries her. Sheherazade escapes death and becomes queen, all thanks to her gift with story telling.
Escapes are always adventures but they aren't always successful. Take the Greek myth of 'Daedelus and Icarus' for example. In that story the great architect Daedelus decides to escape from the island of Crete with his son Icarus. The two had been kept prisoner there by King Minos, even though Daedelus had already completed the job he had come to do. That was to build a labyrinth under the palace in order to keep the queen's half bull/half human son at bay. Minos made sure the father and son couldn't get away by boat, so Daedelus simply had to invent some way for them to escape. He made himself and his son a pair of wings each, but when they were most of the way home, Icarus flew too high, came too close to the sun, which melted the wax holding his wings together, with the result that he plummeted to his death in the sea.
Like the escape plot, the rescue plot foregrounds suspense. Will the rescuers beat the perils they need to beat in order to effect the rescue? Will the rescuers and those they rescue all get away safely in the end? The rescue plot is a combination of quest and escape. It usually involves running towards a goal (a gaol for instance) so as to get someone out of the place in question and so as to then run away together. If the moment of rescue is the climax, then the rescue plot is naturally asymmetrical. The escape is in the falling action. There's usually a strong element of faith or compassion or friendship or alternatively monetary gain or political importance in the rescue plot. That's because one party takes a risk to save the other. The party taking the risk to do the rescuing is likewise generally brave or strong or smart or cocky, or some combination of these. Otherwise s/he wouldn't be fit for the job. The classic escape story from Greek mythology is that of 'Theseus and the Minotaur'. It's connected closely with the 'Daedelus and Icarus' story. Theseus is the hero who has to rescue the boys and girls who are fed to the Minotaur, as an annual tribute from Athens to Minoan Court at Knossos. You'll remember the Minotaur is the half human half bull monster that lives in the labyrinth under the palace. The labyrinth is a maze and the problem is that once in there no one manages to find a way out. Eventually you either starve to death or the Minotaur eats you alive. Fortunately for Theseus and those who were with him, the princess Ariadne falls in love with our hero and helps him by providing a ball of thread so that he'll be able to retrace his steps after he's fought the monster. The Minotaur is defeated, the sacrificial boys and girls are rescued and all goes well until, sailing home Theseus forgets to change the sails on his ship. Before he'd left he'd told his father he would have white sails if all had gone well. His father, standing on the acropolis of Athens, saw the black sails approaching the port of Piraeus below. Assuming the worst, despairing, he threw himself off the cliff. And so Theseus, arriving home, found his father dead through his carelessness, and found himself suddenly King of Athens.
The temptation story foregrounds suspense because the reader wants to know whether or not the protagonist will give in to whatever it is that is tempting him or her. The most important and famous story of temptation is Goethe's Faust (based on Christopher Marlowe's play Dr Faustus). It's the tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil. A nice example of temptation sought and succumbed to and leading to a downfall is in Moliere's Tartuffe. The temptation story tests out the clichÈ that everyone can be bought and everyone has his or her price. It's usually only late in the story we find out what the real cost of yielding to temptation is.
10. Rise and Fall
The rise and fall story - like the journey story - provides its own plot diagram. It foregrounds rising and falling action (getting the protagonist up and down a tree) which can coincide with the fortunes (being on top of the world) and with the mood (being down in the dumps) of the protagonist. On the other hand the suspense in the rise and fall plot could be greatest just where the hero is hitting rock bottom. Stories of the dramatic reversal (and sometimes re-reversal) of fortune have long been popular. A classic is Plato's story of Gyges, the shepherd who made himself king after he found a ring which could make him invisible. The Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch pioneered the rise and/or fall story in the ancient world. Plutarch was one of Shakespeare's major sources. One of Shakespeare's classic rise and fall stories is Macbeth. Chaucer's The Monk's Tale is not a story at all, but a list of famous figures who fell. These include Adam, Samson, Hercules, Nero, Julius Caesar, and Croesus. The monk is interrupted before he finishes his list because others find the account dull and depressing. There are just too many of these stories!
True stories in this category at least as plentiful in modern history as they were for Plutarch or Chaucer. Think of Napoleon, Hitler, Princess Di. Less celebrated examples are in the newspaper every day. They're there because the rise and/or fall of famous persons is news. As for the ancients, so for us today, it's very difficult to draw the line between myth and reality, when it comes to the lives of the rich or the powerful or the otherwise famous. The famous are our modern gods and heroes. They're larger than life. The lives of the living famous are a bridge between fiction and fact, between fantasy and reality. And the great lives are invariably rise and/or fall stories. Consider Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Joan of Arc. Great lives are a focus for issues of justice in the world. The deaths of Socrates and Jesus are in a sense crimes against humanity; they're also the archetypal sketches of man's inhumanity to man.
As with the temptation plot, justice and morality are highlighted in the rise and fall story. Consider the Bible story of Job. It's the story of one man's struggle with God and faith. Job is a good and innocent man who suffers because of a dispute between God and Satan. Job loses his wealth and his health and suffers terribly in numerous ways, despite being more righteous than those around him. It appears that God has forsaken him and that nothing can restore his previous condition. His wife urges him to 'curse God and die'. Although he refuses to take this advice and much more like it, eventually Job's forbearance is rewarded and his fortunes are restored, demonstrating that God's ways are beyond human understanding.
Thinking through these ten plots, you'll have realised that classifying stories along these lines involves a question of emphasis. Job's story is rise and fall, yes, but it's also a story of temptation. From another point of view it's a story of rivalry between God and Satan. A long novel can afford to have love and revenge, a journey, the rise and fall and rise again of certain characters, their temptation, their rivalry and so on and still be unified by conviction. In a short story it's more necessary to choose a plot type. A sensible teach-yourself approach to the practice of story writing is to focus on a theme at a time and to read the classics - like those mentioned above - which show you how it's done.
Asking questions/taking action:
Around the story circle: Each participant chooses one of the ten story types listed above. On a loose sheet of paper, nominate the story type together with a possible title and/or a possible conviction and together with this information jot down ideas for any other aspects of the story. Silently circulate the sheets around the circle to see how much of a story can be brainstormed by the time the paper returns to its originator.
Create a common set of characters to try out in each of the ten story types. Talking through character questionnaires can be helpful for this purpose. Each participant around the circle works with one story type, but the same set of characters, to see if they'll fit a particular genre. When individuals have sketched each of the possible story lines, it's time to compare notes in the groups. Which story or stories work best with these characters? How can story types be combined to make the best story (or sequence of stories) for these characters? How have these characters evolved through the process of being tested against particular story types? (This process can be regarded as an advanced form of character questionnaire.)
Try the whole of the above process in the circle again but this time with the aim of together creating a plan for a novel that combines as many of the themes/story types as possible.
What are you trying to prove?
Because this is a manual for world changing action and because it has the practical aim of helping everyone to tell her or his own story/ies, in this last chapter we'll turn things upside down a little and start first with questions relevant to the business of taking action. Chapter 5 introduced the idea of conviction, that a story proves something. Now that you've learned the basics of story making and now that you've probably got a collection of story drafts and ideas, more and less complete, on paper and in your head, the time has come to ask yourself a simple but important question, namely: What are you trying to prove?
Look back over the stories you've written or planned now and make a list of the convictions you've tried - or you want to - prove through these stories. How visible or invisible were the convictions of these stories to your reader? How subtle - or on the other hand - how obvious was the message you were delivering? You may be surprised from your list to discover what you're really interested in and to discover what you've been trying to prove to the world, to the story circle, to yourself. Is it the case that your stories all have similar convictions, or are you surprised at the range of concerns? Take the opportunity now to add convictions to your list, for stories you've not yet written but would like to write. What is it the world needs to be shown? What do you want to prove next?
Sharing these lists around the circle can be an eye opener. An exercise to follow the sharing is to swap convictions. Try to write stories to prove what other people's stories set out to prove, have others try to prove your convictions. This process can help you to look at your work from a fresh perspective. Have you been going about proving your convictions in the best, most efficient, most appropriate way? An important result of these discussions should be test the strength of your convictions, to test your resolve. Are your stories proving what you think needs to be proved or are you just following some convention without giving the matter much thought?
One way to test how conventional or how experimental your stories are or could be is to draw up a little chart to show how conviction, resolution and genre are related in each case. Usually these three story elements are closely linked. Take the rise and fall plot; it's often associated with the moral/conviction: 'the harder they come, the harder they fall', or else 'pride cometh before a fall'. The resolution of the rise and fall (or rise and fall and rise or fall and rise and fall) plot depends on covering the greatest distance between the trough and the peak of a career. Against expectation, the protagonist ends the story on the throne or ends the story in the gutter. Conviction, resolution and genre are closely related because a genre is a writing structure premised on particular assumptions about human behaviour, social obligations and potentials, right and wrong; it's designed to show a particular picture of the world and to prove to the reader how things ought or ought not to be. A certain kind of resolution belongs to a certain genre. Tragedies don't have happy endings.
A genre structures the world in a certain way but that doesn't mean writing
in a particular genre is stuck with only one possible conviction and only one way of resolving conflict. Consider in your own stories (and in those of others around the story circle) how changing one element would alter the others or open them to new possibilities. Back to tragedy. What kind of a story would Macbeth or Hamlet or 'Pyrmaus and Thisbe' be with a happy ending? With a happy ending, these would not be the stories we know, but perhaps there's a great new story waiting to be thought of just by making this simple kind of shift. Of consider the rise and fall story that ends - against expectation - with our protagonist becoming an office worker and living a quiet life unnoticed in the suburbs. (The Last Emperor almost fits this bill.)
Story type tends to match conviction and resolution in a clichÈd way, that is, in a way that is easily predicted by the reader. Should we be worried about clichÈ? Yes and no. Let's have a look at some very common clichÈd convictions. Here's a short list of some old favourites. They're in proverbial or aphoristic form. Will all of them serve as convictions?
don't judge a book by its cover
no pain no gain
no free lunch - i.e. everything has a price whether you can see it at the time or not
every action leads to a reaction
you can run but you can't hide
nobody knows you when you're down and out
truth will be revealed
love conquers all
trust is earned
evil comes to those with evil thoughts
idle hands do the devil's work
where there's a will there's a way (or if you try and try you'll succeed at last)
These convictions seem very corny listed like this, but in practice it's surprising how difficult it is to write a story which doesn't prove a corny or clichÈd conviction. Think through the last few stories you've read or seen on video/TV. The clichÈs don't worry you because you don't notice them. You don't notice them because they're usually not made explicit. As a writer though, you have a duty to know what you're doing, to know which ideas you're promoting, which way you're asking people to look at the world. Remember that conviction needn't be the most important aspect of a story. A clichÈd conviction is only really a problem when you find yourself proving something you would rather not prove if you had taken the time to think the matter through.
Before we get to the serious ethical business of challenging proverbial wisdom or trying to do something better than clichÈ, look again at the list above and you'll see that some of these convictions may have a more basic problem than merely being a bit corny. Some of them won't work. They won't work either because they're too broad to have any application to a particular story or else they're tautological (i.e. they're circular, not really saying anything [e.g. 'if the world was different, it wouldn't be the same].) Think back to the If? test we applied to convictions in Chapter 5. A conviction that works should be able to be expressed as a reversible if? then? statement. So from the list above, you could say of 'love conquers all': 'if you get in the way of love you'll be conquered.' Yes, that's ambiguous but it will work as a conviction. Likewise, 'trust is earned', could give us: 'If you place your trust in those who haven't earned it, you will be betrayed.' Remember, no equivocating: there is no maybe or could be when it comes to conviction. But consider 'every action leads to a reaction'. This won't work because it's too obvious and it's too general. In fact it amounts to a logical principle with very wide application; for instance it can apply in the making of stories in general. We should recognise it as the principle of motivation: 'what happens in a story happens for a reason' = 'actions lead to reactions, reactions are caused'. It's not uncommon for the apprentice story maker to 'discover' a principle of fiction (especially one learned last week) and then try to write a story using this principle as a conviction. It's not uncommon but it doesn't work. It is however a good sign that the fundamentals of the craft are being absorbed.
The majority of problems which trouble beginning story writers are because of weak convictions or the lack of a unifying conviction or because of drift between two or more perfectly good convictions in a story. Regardless of length, a story needs one conviction and that conviction needs to work logically and to be allowed to work throughout the story. Characters can have their own convictions and the differences between those convictions can be an effective source of conflict. Episodes - or stories within the story - can prove convictions different from those of other episodes, but a work as a whole is unified by the presence - however visible or invisible - of a single workable conviction, one which the whole of the story proves. Remember, conviction is the hidden arrow which hits its target in the story's resolution, to show the reader what the whole of the story proves.
How can one be sure a conviction is workable, and is working in a story?
Here's a more thorough test to apply. A conviction should be:
logical (and for instance not tautological)
able to be proved
notionally able to be disproved
Most importantly a conviction should be worth proving, and that means that your conviction is something you should have thought about and decided to prove in and with your story. Imagine your big story consists of three smaller ones, each of which proves a different conviction. Let's say Story 1 proves that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, Story 2 proves that there's no gain without pain and Story 3 proves that love conquers all. What conviction could the big story be proving? 'If you don't fight you lose' would work. 'The truth will set you free' would work. There are many other possibilities. Bear in mind that a conviction could be workable but not working in your story. The key here is to remember that the whole of your story proves its conviction. The trick in the story with parts is to allow the rhythm of convictions - those of characters, those of the minor stories - to play out so as to not undermine the conviction which gives the work its structural unity. A story may deliver many ethical messages, may ask its reader many useful questions, but it still needs to be unified - beginning to end - by a single conviction, one proven by the story's action.
Let's return briefly now to the question of clichÈ and the imperative that your story's conviction should be one worth proving. Some corny convictions are expressed with the moral force of an imperative. Here are a few examples:
don't fight the tide (or go with the flow)
one good turn deserves another
a friend in need is a friend in deed
it's better to help others than to help yourself
Again, children's stories are more likely to make explicit this kind of 'teaching'; stories for adults generally hide it. Some convictions fall into the category of wishful thinking. 'The truth will set you free' might be an example of that kind. There are many:
sincerity will bring success
honesty is the best policy
with faith anything is possible
This is a very important kind of wishful thinking; it's the kind that keeps civilisations and individuals going, sometimes it keeps them afloat in a sea of troubles and doubts and deep cynicism.
Proverbs and clichÈs, corny old wisdom, the wishful thinking most people take for granted: these vary interestingly across cultures and so are useful to discuss in the story circle. In the convictions of stories we meet the basic assumptions a culture holds about how life ought to be, how one ought to behave, what's right, what's wrong, what's possible or acceptable and what's not. Discussing conviction not only helps you to negotiate and to create stories of a kind you would not otherwise have thought of, it also helps you to reconsider and to prioritise your own beliefs. This kind of discussion helps people to respect each other's beliefs and to learn how and why others believe and think the way they do.
There's no need to be afraid that your story might have a clichÈd conviction. There is a need to understand what you're doing. The responsible writer may not be able to control all of the effects her story will have on its reader, she still needs to know what she is trying to prove. Don't be afraid of clichÈs, instead ask questions of them, challenge them. A story with a clichÈd conviction is not necessarily a boring or clichÈd story. That's because the conviction need by no means be the most important thing in the story. Only rarely will you want it to be the most obvious thing.
How to challenge convictions, clichÈs, the deep assumptions of a culture? This isn't as difficult as it sounds. For a start, proverbial wisdom is often self-challenging. Aphorisms often have opposite numbers; they can be reversed: 'Look before you leap' but 'he who hesitates is lost'. 'The truth will set you free' but honesty is pointless with those who won't believe you, 'don't cast pearls before swine.'
Let's look at how some of these proverb could be challenged in order to create new and less clichÈd convictions. 'Look before you leap' could become 'Feel the fear and do it anyway'. 'One can't help casting pearls, at least choose the swine carefully.' Those ideas might become clichÈs too, if it were to become too popular. A clichÈ is merely an idea outworn through over-use. In principle, no idea is immune to this fate. It's often the best ideas and the best expressions which become over-used in this manner. Perhaps the most ironic expression of the sad fate of the great idea is in Robert Frost's 'the road less travelled'. It's become a ten lane freeway for anyone who wants to promote an idea as different. The ten lane freeway's now a clichÈ too. Still it is possible to make a difference and there are more challenging and less clichÈd convictions. Here are some examples:
If you seek perfection you will lose your uniqueness
If you show the world a faithful mirror do not expect to be thanked
Humans will always lose in the end whenever they fight nature
If you soil your own nest then expect to live in filth (If you don't take care of nature then don't expect nature to look after you.)
Silence is not always golden
Don't be too sure whose story you're in
It's usually tedious when the characters in a story begin lecturing each other about how the world ought to be. Action speaks louder than words and so it is better if the action of the story proves what the story has to prove, it's better if the story speaks for itself. This business of showing and proving doesn't mean that the story should leave the reader without doubts. On the contrary, one of the best things any work of art can do is to make us look again at what seemed familiar and known and fixed forever as the way things simply have to be. One of the best things a story can do is to reveal the clichÈd assumption behind the thinking we don't even think about. Do you really want to prove to children that the darkness is dangerous or that strangers are? Do you really want to teach girls to be passive and submissive, boys to be dominating, just because that's how the world seems to be and that's the way most stories show it must be?
Use your craft and your art as a story maker to throw a question mark around the world and the assumptions which keep it going. Ask: whose world is it? Is this the right place? Is this the model we ordered? If the function of the story is to make people look again at the world around them, to make them think again about what's wrong with that world, about how it could be fairer and better, then perhaps Socrates' old clichÈ is one of the best convictions you could prove: 'the unanalysed life is not worth living.' With every story you write, ask yourself: 'Why am I telling this story? What am I trying to prove?'