MemberApril 27, 2020 at 5:41 am
Wow, there’s so much great stuff happening here since I last logged on!
I appreciate the addition of the tragedy resources, @thesurrealari, as well as the Pulp Fiction breakdown! Dissecting the stories we love is, I think, one of the most useful things we can do as writers. If we can figure out the moves that made those stories “work,” we can adapt those moves for our own writing.
It’s like taking apart a complex piece of machinery to see what makes it “tick” – and lucky for us folks have been doing this for a long time, and we can look at an abundance of models (story circle, hero’s journey, hamatria-peripeteia–anagnoris, chiasmus, incremental perturbation, etc.) to give these moves names. Giving something a name, as it turns out, is one of the first steps of figuring out how to do it.
If I can hop on the question @KrisBurgos raised, I personally LOVE a tragic ending. The stories that sit with me the longest are often the ones that really mess me up in some way, lol. I think it’s important to note that the story circle is not just for happy endings – a change doesn’t have to be positive, it just has to be earned.
I think a lot of this comes down to reader experience. How do we want the reader to experience the story? What do we want the reader to feel?
To address the Barthelme question, @thesurrealari, I would add that a lot of “literary fiction” short stories tend to be less plot-driven while still being entirely complete stories. In that way, it’s hard to compare this genre to the genre of most comic books; that said, I think there’s something to learn from them. What makes a story like Barthelme’s “The School” feel complete and impactful is not necessarily the events that happen, but the journey the reader goes through while reading. It’s the same reason I think Lydia Davis still writes what I would call “stories” even though so many of them are only a paragraph (or a sentence) long.
A definition I have found useful is Barth’s incremental perturbation (I’ll attach some files for anyone down for this uber-nerdy rabbit hole). He defines plot as “the incremental perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a complexified equilibrium.” Which basically means, you start with something that is somewhat normal but unstable, then little by little turn up the temperature until you hit boiling, and, upon boiling over, reach a new status quo that results from the consequences of the boil. (Barth is much more eloquent – I’ve attached the original essay and a summary for anyone interested).
This definition allows us to view things like Barthelme, like Lydia Davis, like the famous “For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn” (attributed to Hemingway), as stories, even though they, as you pointed out, eschew traditional story structure.
This is all to say that I think you can do whatever the f*** you want, as long as you do it with intention, and as long as there is some kind of impact on the reader. Because if a reader reads something and feels nothing, what was the point?
It’s figuring out how to affect the reader the way we intend to that’s the real puzzle of writing.