|August 2012||December 2012||February 2013||August 2014|
Some months ago, I read a rather sad and disturbing piece about a professor of Creative Writing at an English university (not Oxbridge). This fellow opined that his discipline was basically useless, because while prose style could be taught and learnt, he did not believe that anybody could teach the idea of story.
I think it was Ursula K. LeGuin who said something rather similar, if less fatalistic, on the other side of the pond. She said that in working with young would-be writers, she found that while many of them had an excellent grasp of style and mechanics, not one in a hundred had a feel for story – what made a good one and how to construct it.
I find this very odd. Perhaps these modern and sophisticated people have not had the advantage of being mired in ignorance and tradition as children, as I had, or (a much better example) G. K. Chesterton. We were fairly steeped in stories when we were small, and nakedly unsophisticated stories, too. There are more lessons for fiction writers in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ or ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ than on many a university campus. Since it seems unfair that wealth and education should be so unfairly disadvantaged, in comparison of poverty and stupidity, I shall offer to share my widow’s mite with the world.
A story (said I, in my most foolishly sententious tones) is a machine for communicating What Happens Next. A successful story is one which makes the reader, listener, or viewer care What Happens Next, and stick around with bated breath awaiting the outcome.
To demonstrate these propositions, I enlist the help of that celebrated storyteller, Kermit the Frog:
Here we see all the crucial elements of a good story in their most basic and unadorned form.
1. We have a character (Kermit) who wants to accomplish something, and is taking action to do so.
2. We have an expectation of how the thing is to be accomplished (the What Happens Next machine).
3. Things go wrong. What actually happens next is not what was supposed to happen next. Our character becomes unhappy and frustrated, but perseveres. We like and admire him for keeping on in the face of adversity. More to the point, if he gave up, he would never get to see What Happens Next, and neither would we.
It is important, at this stage, that what actually happens next should bear some kind of relevance to what we expected to happen. If it doesn’t, we have lost the thread of the story. To take an even simpler example than Kermit’s, we expect that two and two will make four; but even this can go wrong. It can go wrong in a way that naturally lends itself to a story: ‘Two plates and two plates only make three plates, because it was too many to carry and I broke one.’ It is the wrong answer, or an unexpected answer, but we can see how it is related to the expected one. Or it can go wrong in a way that is purely arbitrary, which is the death of story: ‘Two plates and two plates make – oh, look! Squirrel!’
Eschew the latter.
4. Eventually, we have a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes this will be what is called a Happy Ending. In this particular case, it is a tragedy with an O. Henry twist, as Kermit winds up losing his radio to the very machine he created to switch it on.
But there is no doubt that the story is concluded. The ‘slingshot ending’ beloved of modern littéraires, which leaves the outcome firmly in question, is a monkey trick, a piece of over-elaborate hackwork. It worked once – in ‘The Lady or the Tiger?’ – when the whole point of the story was to startle the reader with an intriguing novelty. It was never likely to work again, except on persons who had never seen the trick done the first time; for novelty was the only thing it had to offer. Sometimes the trick will work as a joke ending, if the setup has been sufficiently complicated to keep the audience from expecting it. The film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels had such an ending; but the ending was also a sight gag, and perfectly fitted the style and theme. It would have been disappointing to see the lead characters succeed, for they were bumbling fools who had never done anything right so far; it would have been heartbreaking to see them fail, for they were likeable bumbling fools. Better to go out with a laugh, by leaving them literally hanging in mid-air.
The art of storytelling, say I, can be divided into two parts. One is figuring out what actually happens next, and how it is in conflict with what was supposed or expected to happen. This is largely a matter of plotting; though it can be done in picaresques, and vignettes, and other plotless works – which is why story and plot are not the same thing. The second part is causing the audience to take a lively and abiding interest in finding out what happens next, so they will not put the book down, change the channel, or bury a battle-axe in the skald’s unworthy skull. That is a matter of Art, and too long for Kermit to go into.
Maypo, one of the 3.6 Loyal Readers, expresses concern, for which I am thankful to him and to God:
I hope that your recent blog silence is due to a focus on writing that pays the bills rather than (my fear) another setback in health. I pray for the former.
Unfortunately, I have been under the weather in a rather literal way. We have had about a week of temperatures below zero Fahrenheit, and the decrepit building I live in has wonky heating and no insulation to speak of. I had a cold when the weather turned bad, and have been fighting in these circumstances to keep it from becoming bronchitis.
On top of that, the good and gifted Wendy S. Delmater, my principal alpha reader, has had bronchitis at the exact same time, and has been entirely unable to help me get my scattered ducks into the same yard, never mind in a row. So the first half of November, for me, has been about as unproductive as it possibly could have been. I am very sorry.
The November issue of Sci Phi Journal is now available from major ebook retailers for the trivial price of $3.99 in Federal Doshes. Get yours today, just a click away!
However, if you wish to throw rotten tomatoes at the author of ‘The Making of the Fellowship’, please don’t throw them at Amazon, Smashwords, or Castalia House; they will miss the target and only make a virtual mess. Throw them here instead.
As portrayed with eerie accuracy by John Belushi in The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash.
The word faith means trust. It means remaining true to your oaths, true to your beliefs. It means remaining true to what reason has shown you, even during moments of deep and irrational emotion that threaten to introduce doubt where doubt is not logical.
There are only two types of people in the world: Those who believe in false dichotomies, and penguins.
—Anon.; hat tip to Mary Catelli
Mind you, this is itself a fine example of a false dichotomy. Penguins are notorious for their habit of seeing things in black and white; especially other penguins.
Sensation is, after digestion, the Second Way of knowing. When we eat something, we incorporate the matter without preserving the form. When we sense something, we incorporate the form without preserving the matter. Otherwise, when we stop to smell the roses, tiny little roses would grow in our brains and the thorns would give us headaches.
Read all about the Animal Soul on Mr. Flynn’s blog:
Thanks to my 3.6 Loyal Readers for your kind remarks. Comments, as always, are more than welcome.
The story so far:
The Food of Demons
They set out at a brisk trot, hurrying to put the hill-country behind them before they could be ambushed again. But those same hills delayed them; the road kept doubling back, chasing its own tail. An hour’s hard riding took them little more than a mile, as the crow flies, from the place where Lim died. In that bleak terrain, the enemy’s signals, one band of Taken shouting to the next, travelled faster than horses.
‘If the demons want this place,’ said Revel sourly, ‘I say we let them have it.’
‘It was green and pleasant when I was young, Surin,’ said Jandi. ‘There were such deer in the hills then, a hunter would give a season of his life to catch one. All gone now. They fled at the touch of this winter.’
Revel glanced up at the livid sky. ‘So would we, if we had any sense. How do they work this weather, anyway?’
‘All of Anai asks the same question, Surin. Had we such lore, we could fight them without help. This only we know: wherever the demons go, the sun is hidden and the snows follow.’
Another keening cry rose and fell, closer this time. ‘How far to the Cleft of Bones, Jandi?’
‘Not far, Surin. The river lies just beyond that ridge.’
Ridge, thought Revel, was hardly the word for it. A sheer face of cracked and weathered rock barred their way northward, impassable except where the road passed through a narrow notch and over the storm-scoured crest.
‘They’ll try to stop us.’ The Badger pointed at the notch. ‘There or nowhere.’ [Read more...]
Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian. The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard. He does not judge Christianity calmly as a Confucian would; he does not judge it as he would judge Confucianism. He cannot by an effort of fancy set the Catholic Church thousands of miles away in strange skies of morning and judge it as impartially as a Chinese pagoda.
It is said that the great St. Francis Xavier, who very nearly succeeded in setting up the Church there as a tower overtopping all pagodas, failed partly because his followers were accused by their fellow missionaries of representing the Twelve Apostles with the garb or attributes of Chinamen. But it would be far better to see them as Chinamen, and judge them fairly as Chinamen, than to see them as featureless idols merely made to be battered by iconoclasts; or rather as cockshies to be pelted by empty-handed cockneys. It would be better to see the whole thing as a remote Asiatic cult; the mitres of its bishops as the towering head dresses of mysterious bonzes; its pastoral staffs as the sticks twisted like serpents carried in some Asiatic procession; to see the prayer book as fantastic as the prayer-wheel and the Cross as crooked as the Swastika.
Then at least we should not lose our temper as some of the sceptical critics seem to lose their temper, not to mention their wits. Their anti-clericalism has become an atmosphere, an atmosphere of negation and hostility from which they cannot escape. Compared with that, it would be better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another continent, or to another planet. It would be more philosophical to stare indifferently at bonzes than to be perpetually and pointlessly grumbling at bishops. It would be better to walk past a church as if it were a pagoda than to stand permanently in the porch, impotent either to go inside and help or to go outside and forget. For those in whom a mere reaction has thus become an obsession, I do seriously recommend the imaginative effort of conceiving the Twelve Apostles as Chinamen. In other words, I recommend these critics to try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages.
—G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
(Paragraph breaks added for convenience in online reading. —T.S.)
Issue #2 of Sci Phi Journal is now available for preorder on Amazon.
The issue features John C. Wright and other mighty fine writers. Your Obedient Servant had the honour to contribute an article, ‘The Making of the Fellowship: Concepts of Good in The Lord of the Rings’.
You will note that Yr. Obt. Svt.’s name appears first in the list of contributors on the cover. This is not because I am a Very Important Pundit, but for a much more valid and compelling reason: aesthetics. The contributors’ names are stacked to form a neat pyramid on the page, and mine, being shortest, gets to perch on top.
They called me mad at the Academy. Even the other madmen called me mad: they said I was doing it wrong. ‘Tom Simon is no name for a mad scientist,’ they said, and they pointed and laughed. Yet my name comes above that bounder Ben Zwycky, for my name is one letter shorter than his! After all those years of suffering at the end of alphabetical lists, he plotted to come first in this; but I have foiled him! Revenge! Muah-hah-hah!