Okay, folks: this is where my ego gets really out of control. (Muse: You mean it wasn’t already? Me: Quiet, you slut! SMACK!)
There’s some debate (meaning, I took a random internet thread and inflated it in my mind to encompass the entire writing-o-sphere) over whether certain authors are in fact writers, or storytellers. The idea of telling an engrossing, compelling story is by no means the same as having a knack for tying together a string of delightful words, that tantalize the reader. There’s a lot to love about both skills and a lot to dislike about the lack of either skill. A lot of authors seem to be able to do one without doing the other well. Some are accused of not being able to do either.
Maybe it’s just anecdotal but it seems to me that the storytellers favor novels and those with magic syntax favor the short story. I have my own nasty opinions about why that is but without being a complete snot by saying it outright, I think the respective lengths play to those strengths. A longer story allows for a more complex, more in-depth plot. A shorter story can make use of dazzling imagery, evoking some captivating thought in the reader that would probably be diluted in a longer work.
Sure, sure, there are exceptions. Nabokov demonstrated outstanding control of his language through the entire length of Lolita. Though I may be the lone voice in the wilderness here, I thought the plot was basically dumb and Humbert a completely unlikeable douchebag (I’ll cover characters a few installments from now). Yes, yes, I get the concept of unreliable narrators. Still hated it, despite the pretty wording, which I agree was of enviable quality. And I see some short stories with incredible plots – plots that haunt me from the dark bowers of night as I try to decode and absorb them. To me, these are the exceptions that prove the rule.
If I had to categorize myself, I think I am certainly in the vein of being a storyteller more than a literary writer. Fancy command of the language is impressive and I wish I could do it better. But to me, the essence of a story is "Then what happened?" Without that, is it a cohesive story – or is it just a vignette? A character study? An exercise in mental masturbation? (Or if reading Laurell K Hamilton, the real thing?) Nobody is going to remember my writing skill – and those that do, will question my intelligence, sanity, and probably bladder control. But I would like someone, somewhere, to read one of stories and yell, "Now that’s entertainment, baby!"
A story has a beginning, middle, and end. I’ve had people throw that Hemingway nonsense about baby shoes at me, as an example of a story. If you don’t know the anecdote, Hemingway responded to a challenge of writing a story in under ten words. He puked out, "Baby shoes for sale. Never worn." And the women swooned, and the poets gnashed their teeth at Papa’s genius. Rubbish, says I. That’s no story. There are more questions than answers, there are no characters, and there is no context. For crying out loud, the old chestnut about combining religion, sex, mystery and royalty into a concise story was 10x more entertaining ("My God, I’m pregnant," said the Queen. "Who’s the father?") If you disagree with me on this, then please press ALT + F4 now. No, seriously, don’t …. but do beat yourself in the head with a whiffle bat for a few minutes. I want to read why Character X has a problem, how they cope with it, and Then What Happened.
(Did anyone really beat themselves with a whiffle bat? I hope not … but I would still have to laugh.)
In one of my peer groups, I recently reviewed a story that was everything a literary writer could hope for. The imagery was brilliant. The emotions were raw and incredible. The heavy context of the characters’ fates was palpable. But it had plot holes one could push a manatee through – plot holes akin to suggesting that mankind had doomed itself by forgetting two thousand years of science overnight, without any attempted explanation as to why. When I wrote as much to the author, the response I got was (no shit) , "Thank you for your review. But I disagree; this story doesn’t need a stronger plot."
Words fail me. For once, my smart mouth had no response. As The Man said, a complete failure to communicate.
This is the start of my series on how to construct a meaningful plot. I can hear you thinking, "What makes you qualified to do so?" Not a damn thing, so take it all with a grain of salt. Take it with a shaker of salt, as you should with all my blog posts.
This doesn’t have to be a one-way conversation. If I am in error or taking a narrow view of this, tell me. Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me I’m high. Tell me I’m a Nazi tool. Tell me Humbert was a Nazi tool (please do). Whatever, just tell me what you think … persuade me through the power of, er, persuasion.
Next up, Part One – The Plot itself. It’ll be up later this week, pending my motivation and the aforementioned bladder control.
(By the way, as I write this, I ‘m listening to parts of George Harrison’s album Gone Troppo. Golden Earring and Eagles on deck. Sigh. Today’s music is so much sluice through the waste disposal grate.)