The Shape of Stories: Part II

The first of the two types of story shapes I want to discuss in this series is what I’m calling narrative weight. I’ll preface this by saying my ideas on this are nascent, which is why they’re appearing on my blog. I’ve always found blogs to be a good venue for test-driving ideas.

So… what do I mean by narrative weight? Simply put, I mean how much or how little attention the narrator of a story is giving to any particular event, situation, setting or emotion. The more attention a narrator gives an element in the story—the longer the narrative eye examines it—the more weight that portion of the story has. The less attention—the briefer the narrative eye examines an element—the less weight that portion of the story has.

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve realized there are two different ways to turn narrative weight into a story shape. In the interest of keeping these posts at a somewhat manageable length, I’ll discuss the first way here and the second way in the next post.

The first way to create a story shape using narrative weight to is to line-graph the story from beginning to end, moving lower on the graph to represent when a narrator is giving an element extra attention and moving higher to represent when the narrator is giving an element less attention. This creates a shape that captures how often a story slows for examination and how deeply that examination pierces. It also reveals how often and for how long a story uses a lighter touch.

As an example of how this would look, I did a quick, narrative weight graph of Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, Manhattan Beach. It’s off the top of my head, but I think it gets the point across. The narrative weight shape of the story looks like this:

Manhattan Beach story shape

Egan is a descriptive writer who takes her time delving into emotions and creating vivid scenes, so most of the novel exists in the weightier realm. In Manhattan Beach and her other works, she rarely crosses the line between weightiness and lightness, although the placement of that line is certainly up for debate. Nevertheless, I think this graph demonstrates how a story’s shape looks when we use narrative weight as the measure, rather than using the Vonnegutian measure of whether the protagonist’s condition is improving or worsening. For reference, the Vonnegutian story shape for Manhattan Beach looks like this:

Manhattan Beach Vonnegut

The difference is clear. And I think envisioning a story’s shape as a measure of the narrative weight’s ups-and-downs can be as helpful for writers as envisioning the story’s shape as a measure of the protagonist’s ups-and-downs. In particular, a story’s narrative weight shape can help us identify whether we’re leaning into detailed descriptions and analyses more than we want or less than we want. After all, narrative weight directly affects reader experience. Weightier elements in a story can be intellectually and emotionally engaging to read but risk being dull. Lighter elements, on the other hand, can be fun and breezy to read but risk being forgettable. A controlled fluctuation of narrative weight can help a story take advantage of both weightiness and lightness without succumbing to either’s negative side.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a story with little or no fluctuation of narrative weight can’t work, artistically, commercially or otherwise. In fact, some stories, when graphed for narrative weight, are flat, existing along one level for the entire narrative.

For example, the narrative voice in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code spends a brief amount of attention on every moment, never slowing things down to examine a particular element for any longer than it takes to get the basic facts across. The novel’s narrative weight shape is a straight line running along the upper part of the graph. There are also stories that run in a straight line on the lower part of the graph. I’m thinking specifically of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which the narrative voice obsesses over every element in every moment, making every page narratively heavy.

For my tastes, a flat narrative weight creates an unenjoyable read, although given the popularity (albeit different kinds of popularity) of The DaVinci Code and Infinite Jest, my preference for frequent fluctuation in narrative weight is obviously just that. A preference. I’m not positing that one kind of narrative weight shape (or one position on the heaviness/lightness scale) is superior to another. All I’m saying is that the shape of a story, as measured by narrative weight, affects the nature of that story and the reader’s experience with that story.

But graphing narrative weight in the way I describe here is just one way to think about narrative weight as it pertains to story shape. There is a second way, which integrates Vonnegut’s shapes. And which I will discuss in the next post.

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The Shape of Stories: Part 1

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to see Kurt Vonnegut deliver one of his famous lectures on the shapes of stories. It was enlightening. And yet, over time, I forgot most of what he said, and even (somehow) forgot the phrase “the shape of a story”—until a few months ago when a critique of my novel reminded me that, yes, stories have shapes.

It’s not that I hadn’t thought about the rising and falling action of my novel; it’s that I hadn’t taken the time to step back and examine the picture of the work as a whole. When I did, I naturally found areas to improve. But I don’t want to talk about my novel. I want to talk about the ways I’ve recently been thinking about shape.

You see, I’ve come to believe Vonnegut’s conception of story shape is incomplete.

For Vonnegut, a story’s shape captures the ups and downs of the protagonist(s). These ups and downs he renders as a line graph, with each up movement representing a moment that makes things better for the protagonist and each down movement representing a moment that makes things worse for the protagonist. It’s elegant in its simplicity and quite instructive in the ways it allows us to compare the shapes of similar stories (Vonnegut famously noted that the classic version of Cinderella has the same shape as the New Testament.)

Nevertheless…

Whether things are getting better or worse for the protagonist tells us nothing about how the narrator is portraying the bettering or worsening and nothing about how the characters are responding to the bettering or worsening. Those two factors are an important part of a story’s shape. I call them narrative weight and lyrical elevation. And in the next few posts, I hope to explain what I’m thinking. Because I love thinking about stories.

Stay tuned…

To Quotation Mark or Not to Quotation Mark

If you read a lot of fiction–particularly literary fiction–you’ve no doubt read stories and novels that don’t use quotation marks for dialogue. I’ve seen this described as pretentious and/or annoying but, as a writer who has forgone quotation marks on more than one occasion, I believe it can be a highly effective technique… if used in the right kind of story.

So, what’s the right kind of story for quotation-mark-free dialogue? I’ve developed a theory. A theory that began when a fellow writer questioned why in the world I was writing a novel with lots of dialogue and no quotation marks.

We had just workshopped my opening chapters and a few people had noted that one character was occasionally phrasing things in the same voice as the main character. The fellow writer suggested that my lack of quotation marks may have been the cause of my voice-drift and that, if I were to adopt the standard dialogue punctuation, I would be more focused on making sure each character spoke in their own voice.

My fellow writer was on the right track. The voice-drift was definitely related to my choice not to use quotation marks, but not in a cause-and-effect manner. Rather, they were both coming from the same narrative choices. The problem wasn’t that I was being inattentive. It was that I hadn’t yet refined (or figured out, really) the POV and narrative voice of the novel.

Before this fellow writer’s comment, I hadn’t thought about why I’d chosen to go quotation-mark-less (it had simply felt right). I think I told my fellow writer that my choice had something to do with “destabilizing the reader,” which was just me trying to b.s. my way out of a question I couldn’t answer. Nonetheless, the choice, I knew, wasn’t wrong. It just took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t wrong and what that meant for the POV and voice of my novel.

The theory I developed is this: the closer the POV is to the moment-by-moment internal workings of a character’s mind and the more a narrator is concerned with expressing the lived-truth (rather than the pure facts) of the story, the better a no-quotation-mark story works. I came to this conclusion for several reasons.

In regards to POV, the closer a story is to the inside of a character’s head, the more unfiltered it should feel. If you think about how we experience the world, what people say and how they look and the emotions we’re feeling are all jumbled together. Removing dialogue quotes can help create the sense of this unfiltered experience. Everything flows together.

As for the “lived-truth” aspect, the removal of quotation marks removes a sense of factual certainty. Dialogue and summary of dialogue combine together in a way that can’t happen with the hard-stop of quotation marks. Are the characters actually saying those exact words or is the dialogue more of an emotional interpretation of the words being spoken? A narrator who mainly wants to present what seems true to the character doesn’t care about appearing factually accurate. But the more a narrator wants to say “this exact thing happened,” the more useful quotation marks become. They feel definitive. More like a transcript than an interpretation.

In the case of my novel, I was moving toward an extremely close 3rd-person POV in present tense. The narrator basically sits inside the character’s head and is giving the reader the character’s interpretation of events rather than giving a direct description of events. At the time of the workshop, I hadn’t come close to perfecting this POV or voice. But figuring out why I felt going without quotation marks was right helped me get things a lot closer to where they needed to be.

I know this theory is incomplete (and surely flawed), but I find it useful, particularly in revision when I’m getting a better sense of what I’m trying to do. As writers, we always want to find ways to heighten the effect of a story. What we do or don’t do with quotation marks can play an important role in that.

On Not Publishing

It’s been years since I’ve published anything. I even went two years without updating this blog. This wasn’t planned. It was a slow, barely noticeable derailment. But like all derailments, I’m left to look back and ask, how the hell did that happen?

Here’s what I can use for an excuse:

  • I’ve been working on a novel for four years
  • What short stories I have written I haven’t submitted to more than a handful of journals
  • All those journals have been highly competitive
  • I’ve been busy raising two kids
  • I’ve had twice as much paying work than I used to, requiring twice as much of my time
  • I waste too many hours on Twitter
  • I waste too many hours thinking/talking about politics
  • I have a lazy streak

All of that’s true. But none of it’s right. None of it gets to the root of why, after publishing at a good clip for a number of years, I’ve released nothing since 2015. The real reason is this:

It wasn’t a derailment at all. I simply stopped worrying about my eventual death.

That sounds somber. It’s not. The thing is, I started writing late. Or at least late for the youth-obsessed publishing world, which likes to reward writers for being great while still being young (the 5 Under 35 award comes to mind).  Since I didn’t start focusing on my fiction writing until I was 34, I felt I needed to play catch-up.  After all, there was still a chance for me to get on a 20 Under 40 list!

But then I turned 40.

And it seemed I had crossed a great and wild river. I would never be a young genius. And that was freeing. Instead of focusing so much energy on publishing, I focused it all on writing the best fiction I can possibly write. Not that I wasn’t trying to write well before. But, now, I don’t worry about when I might publish a piece; I worry about how good it will be when it’s published. And by good, I mean lasting.

I want to write something people will read in 100 years. In 200.

Maybe that’s impossible. Maybe that’s beyond my talent and skill. But it’s what I think about when I write these days. And I have been writing. I’ve been writing a lot. Maybe soon, a story of mine will appear in the world again. Maybe my novel will too. I’m excited about the work no one has seen. I think it’s some of the best I’ve ever done.

 

There Are Literally No Words for Trump

The first president I remember clearly is Ronald Reagan. And what I remember is that he was a crook and a liar and a heartless bastard.

I’m not sure who told me this. I probably overheard it from friends of my parents during routine political discussions. But no matter where I heard it, I spent many years certain that Reagan was one of the worst things to ever happen to America.

At least until the Gingrich revolution, which, of course, was going to end civilization. Although, wait, no, the buffoon George W. Bush was the real apocalyptic threat. He was evil. He was Hitler. He was going to stage a coup and claim a third term with the help of his four horseman: Cheney, Haliburton, Diebold and Rove.

No, wait, no, there’s worse. The Tea Party is ripping apart the very fabric of the universe, shredding the laws of physics so the Koch Brothers can build thrones out of the bones of the 99% and force-feed the survivors Monsanto until their souls dissolve into piles of collateralized debt obligations.

Okay, I may have gotten carried away in describing the exact nature of the criticisms. But it is true that, for as long as I can remember (and I’m middle-aged, mind you), the opposition has been a grave enemy and something to fear, and often hate.

The exact same dynamics have, of course, been at play on the right for just as long. A peek into the way many conservatives speak about Obama will reveal a shit-stream of fear and hate roiling with such frequent comparisons to Hitler that the slur has become weightless, part of the miasma.

You can even see this rush-to-demonize happening in intra-party contests. A small but vocal percentage of Bernie Sanders supporters spend countless hours online portraying Hillary Clinton as some form of corporate-powered Kaiju beating the poor with bags of Goldman Sachs money. Meanwhile, hard-line conservatives are regularly portrayed by their harder-line Tea Party opponents as traitors to cause and country.

Over the last few decades, we have become increasingly incapable of reasonably criticizing the failings of our opponents, or appropriately defining the stakes in front of us. Every opponent is the WORST human being to ever live. Every election is the difference between American ascendancy and the End Times.

That’s not to say important things haven’t been at stake or that certain leaders haven’t been less than beneficial for the country. But it is to say: we’ve wasted all our words.

Now we have no way to describe the force that is Donald Trump.

Both sides have exhausted our language in an attempt to portray the other side as evil. Now our vocabulary is bare, our metaphors exhausted, our dire warnings dead on the road. There is nothing we can say about Donald Trump that hasn’t been said about far lesser threats. And that means there’s nothing we can say that will make his supporters pause and reconsider. Why would they pause at warnings they’ve heard all of their lives about every other politician?

Trump is an existential threat to the character of our nation. He has no respect for the dignity of the office he’s running for and no interest in protecting the Constitution or following international law. And by allowing the space for white-supremacists to move freely within his movement, he is giving power to a dangerous element that threatens the well-being and lives of millions of our citizens.

He riles up fear and hate in a way that is truly comparable to Hitler. And yet that analogy is useless. It won’t convince a single Trump follower to reassess because we’ve rendered the analogy meaningless. Indeed, everything I said is meaningless to anyone who is predisposed to support Trump. It’s all been said before, and said louder, and said with more rancor and spit.

When we overuse our words, we choke out our ability to speak truth. For the first time in my life, there is a real monster rising within our political system. But we’ve already named a thousand lesser threats monstrous. What do we call Trump? How do we find words that hold any meaning? Where are the words that will stop him?

After We Stop Playing God

I’ve written three novels. And by “written” I mean I have taken three novels to the point where I was confident enough in their quality to send them out in an attempt to secure representation. But this isn’t about the process of submission. This is about relating to a novel once we are through writing it, once we’ve stopped being the godhead of the world we’ve created and start observing it from further away.

My first two novels are gathering digital dust in the “dead projects” folder on my computer. I long ago stopped sending them out. In fact, I stopped sending them out pretty quickly in the process. Neither ever went out to the quantity of places it usually takes to find representation, let alone a publisher.

Why did I stop so soon? Because the novels died for me.

When I explain this in conversation, I usually say “I decided that neither was a novel that really captured what I wanted to write.” A lot of people nod, a bit glassy-eyed, probably thinking my words are just a way to make my failure to get the books published seem less failure-y. But it wasn’t about other people’s opinions (I can handle rejection for far longer than I gave either novel). It was about what the novels meant to me. They were like sweaters I’d knitted for months only to discover that the arms were too long and the neck was too tight. I wore them around for a while because, damn it, I’d spent a lot of time on them. But there’s only so long you can be choked by your sweater before you set it aside and make a new one.

Of course, I’m now mixing metaphors. I initially described a novel as something that can live or die. Clearly, the problem with my first two novels was deeper than the way they “fit” me. Yes, it’s true, they didn’t fit well (there were parts of both I never got to work in the ways I wanted them to work). But the real problem was: they didn’t stay alive.

This happens to me all the time when I read novels. I might enjoy a novel while reading it, but after I put it down, it dies, leaving little but memories of plot points or well-written passages. That doesn’t mean the novel isn’t good or can’t live forever inside other readers, just that it stopped living for me.

I don’t want to put a book into the world that feels dead to me.

But why did those novels feel so dead? Usually, a novel stops living for me because the plot was engaging but there was nothing that pierced me deep. For more literary endeavors, the death is usually due to the opposite problem. There’s plenty of depth—exploration of big ideas that I find important and meaningful—but no real consequence, no heat that scars me.

Is it that simple for our own novels? Did my first two novels cease living for me because they failed to pierce me and/or burn me? I wish I had an answer. But I don’t. Not fully.

What I know is that writing this newest novel felt different. I was in a much deeper fog during its creation and particularly during its revision. And my own thoughts on the world changed during the course of the writing. It’s not that I didn’t learn anything during the writing of my first two novels; it’s that neither novel bothered my sense of my place in the world like this novel bothered me.

I don’t know if that means the new novel is a better novel. I’m sure a good agent/editor could improve it in ways I can’t possibly see. But I have to say: I do like its chances. If nothing else, I’m going to give it a much better shot to find its place in the world.

Coming Out of the Revision Fog

Six months ago, I spent two weeks at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. I had the joy and privilege of working with Alice McDermott. Her advice sent me into a six-month long revision of the novel that I’ve been working on for the last two years. I don’t think I’ve ever been so deeply engrossed in a revision. Other than my family and my freelance clients, I ignored everything and everyone until I finished the scrubbing every metaphor and adjusting every comma.

Now, the novel–THE SKY CONTINUES BEAUTIFUL–is making its way out into the world, seeking some love. And I’m stumbling out of the fog and getting back to all the things I’ve been ignoring. Like this blog.