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2004-03-06 1:20 PM
What is and isn't story?
I recently critiqued a short comedy film at a web board I sometimes hang out at, and I thought the following might (or might not) be a useful addendum to my post there. It's taken from a handout I wrote up for my students at the Green River Writers Novels-In-Progress Workshop. I revise or add to it each year; maybe at some point it'll be a how-to-write book.
6. It's hard to understand what's your story and what isn't.
Ted is six-one. He comes from a small town in Michigan, about fifty miles from Detroit. He has one sister, Theresa, who married Ted's best friend, Walter. On a Wednesday morning in July, Ted walks into a bar with his dog, Rex. Rex is a retriever, but, interestingly enough, has never been good at retrieving; when the gun goes off, Rex looks at Ted and barks. He has a little nick out of one ear.
The bar Ted walks into has been there for sixty-five years, having gone through a series of owners, openings, closing, and depressions major and minor. In the summer of 1962, Fabian once stopped in, sweaty and irritated because his bus had broken down on the frontage road, and his bass player was stoned senseless, and they weren't going to make it to Ronkonkema in time for the Up With People concert. The bartender, Steve, whose father was a bartender before him in this same place (Steve says a prayer for him every morning), says in a gravelly voice, "Hey, we don't allow dogs in here. There's a sign outside, but apparently you missed it. I need to get a new sign, but I've been busy with the tax audit. It's like a guy can't even make a little money without the government taking it away." Steve's father had been the bartender on duty when Fabian had stopped in. He'd had tax problems, too.
Dogs are related to cats if you go back far enough on the evolutionary chain. Sometimes Ted thinks he can see a little feline genetic influence in the way Rex can sometimes become aloof.
Ted smiles the same smile that got him a free beer last week. But that was a different bartender. And a different bar, now that he thinks of it. He was already drunk that other time. He points at Rex with the stump of the second finger on his left hand, the hand that's not holding the leash. He lost the finger last year in a lawnmower accident, and he bought Rex right around that same time. "This is a talking dog," he says.
I won't go through the whole joke. (The dog looks up and says, "DiMaggio?") But here's the point: Everything in a joke is there because it has to be there. Too much stuff, and the setup/punchline relationship gets blurred. Nobody knows what they're supposed to be paying attention to; the joke isn't sharp; the audience's attention wanders. They get bored. The punchline doesn't punch. Nobody laughs. On the other hand, too little information, like this:
This guy has a dog. The dog says, "DiMaggio?"
...doesn't make enough sense to be funny. It's the same punchline--but it has no context, and therefore no setup.
So when you're telling a joke, you have to keep in mind, "What is this joke about?" People who don't tell jokes well don't know how to do this.
Similarly, when you're telling a story, you have to keep in mind, "What is this story about?" You don't need to cut every little thing that doesn't directly move the plot, but you do need to be aware of where you're going. If you're not someone who outlines in advance (I'm not), then you need to think about this during your rewrites.
One reason I don't read your synopsis until after I read your partial manuscript is that often, there's stuff in the synopsis that hasn't quite made it into the manuscript. While you're working on your synopsis, you're forcing yourself to think about what your story is, so the synopsis will sometimes have more direction than what ends up on the manuscript page. (It will also explictly state things that ought to be in the manuscript but sometimes aren't, such as the gender of the narrator. If I read the synopsis first, I have "he" or "she" in my head already, and may miss the fact that in the manuscript, it's 60 pages before we get that information.) And in case you were wondering, I don't care at all about the résumés. My assumption is that you want to write as well as possible, so I work with whatever's on the page, not with your accomplishments or lack thereof. How your last twenty years were spent has no bearing on how I approach your fiction. If I see something I think I can help with, I help with it. That's the whole deal.
Anyway, back to what's story and what's not. If you can't identify how a certain piece of dialogue or description moves the story, it's probably just decoration. Decoration is important. It's why a Christmas tree isn't just some dead bush somebody dragged into the living room--but it's the easier part, because a lot of it is just a matter of taste. In these critiques, I try to concentrate on structural, functional elements. There's still a degree of taste there, but there are also things that simply do or don't make sense.
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