Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Gift

Last night I watched a wonderfully complex, dark comedy in which Cary Grant tried to murder Cecil Kelloway and Mildred Natwick so he could inherit an old airplane and an airport. They, in turn, were trying to cheat him out of his helicopter. The plot was full of marvelous comedic twists, including a poisoned Thanksgiving turkey, and a window seat in which people hid, always overhearing things they weren’t meant to hear.

Don’t strain yourself trying to remember the name of this movie, because it all happened in my head. I dreamed it.

Before I started writing seriously, the only time I had these complicated, lucid-at-the-time, make-no-sense-later dreams was when I had dental work. A couple of post-root-canal Codeine tablets, and I was ready to pack my bags and and take the next train to Hollywood.

As the plots in my books have been come more complex—at least, I hope they are becoming more complex—more of my dreams have taken on the aspects of old movies, often in black-and-white, and I tend to favor British actors. Okay, so Mildred Natwick was from Baltimore, but Grant, AKA Archie Leach was from England, and Cecil Kelloway from South Africa, so two out of three isn’t bad.

Every writer has had the experience of someone saying to them, “I have this wonderful story. I’ll tell it to you, you turn it into a book, and we’ll split the profits.” Except, when they do tell it to you, it’s not a story. At best, it’s a screamingly funny anecdote or a heart-bending tale of woe, but it’s not story. What’s the difference?

Story is plot. Beginnings, middles, and ends: a progression along what’s glibly known as the story arc. Tension. Twists and turns. Rising and falling action. Characters who have a life-changing event. Seemingly unrelated elements strung together in a way, which not only make sense the day you finish the book, but contain hidden gems. Good stories resemble those pop in your mouth candies that had a brief popularity when I was a child. Days or weeks after you finish it, a good story suddenly bursts forth with a little surprise, as you remember a line or dialog or an event and suddenly understand the story in a whole new way.

Story is also voice. It’s the cadence and rhythm, the choice of what to include and what to leave out. At one time I lived near the Appalachian mountains, an area with a rich tradition of oral storytelling. Going to story-telling festivals was fascinating, particularly one workshop where five story tellers all told the same story, a common “Jack tale.” If you’re not familiar with Jack tales, they all involve a young boy named Jack, who goes on a quest and, with a magical helper—like say, some magic beans—triumphs in the end and wins his heart’s desire.

Anyway, five storytellers, two men and three women, all told an identical Jack tale. Except that they were far from identical. Sure, the story elements were the same, but each teller’s voice was different. In this case, literally different, involving different postures, accents, rhythms, choice of words, and way that the story teller interacted with the audience. I came away feeling as though I’d heard five different stories.

Being able to make story is a gift, and not everyone has it. Some people have it in different ways. A friend of mine who is a musician, dreams in musical sequences, which I find both intriguing and downright scary.

Wherever this gift comes from—even if it’s in wonderfully wacky dreams—I’m grateful to have even a tiny part of it. If I can nurture that gift, help it set down roots, pass on even a tiny part to someone else, all the better. Go little story, go!

Writing quote for the week:

You can always fix plot—you can’t fix voice.
~ Barbara Peters, editor, Poisoned Pen Press

1 comment:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

What a wonderful post, Sharon! I'd go see your movie in a heartbeat. And how eloquently you describe the process and the nature of story and voice. I'd say I have some of the latter two gifts, but not the one of illuminating them the way you just have.