May 4th, 2008

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Beauty and the Beast

Today I finally found one of the "mystery plants" in bloom.  I had suspected it was in the milkweed family, but its leaves are very different from other milkweeds and milkvines in the area.  It's wavy-leaf milkweed vine, Funastrum crispum.  Though it's listed as a vine, I see it mostly as a short forb that develops twining tendencies only as it comes into flower. 


The inside of the outer part is a soft brown in our plants, but in the images at the wildflower research center, a rich maroon.  The flower parts in the center are pale shell pink.

The beast today is a new leaf-footed bug--thousands of them were all over the "grass yucca" (my name for it, not the right one) in the west grass.   This is the eastern leaf-footed bug, Leptoglossus phyllopus, with its neat white "belt."  The individual bugs are ugly enough, but there were masses of them--piled three deep in places--among the yucca flowers--and that was definitely ugly.

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

About books: Story

As time permits, over the next few (durations not specified) I'll be posting some thoughts on Story, some ideas on what makes books "good" or "bad" in various ways, some thoughts on the craft of writing outside of Story, and how writers can use both good and bad writing to improve their own. 

Well over 2000 years ago, Aristotle set down his observations about effective storytelling in the Poetics.  When I first read it, in college back in the '60s,  I had already written a lot of poetry and fiction.  Not very good poetry and fiction.  So although it was assigned to our class for other reasons, I read it from the viewpoint of the aspiring writer.  At the same time, in Greek class, we were reading the great Greek works--Homer, of course, and Sophocles, and I made (not very effectual) stabs at Euripedes (whose Bacchae I loved in translation) and Pindar.  Later, when someone told me about the "skeleton plot," I recognized it as Aristotle's observations on successful story-telling, updated. 

Aristotle noticed that the audience responded best to certain elements in plays--interesting, compelling characters (royalty, he said--but now we find others interesting too) who had a flaw that interfered with their ability to deal with the problem facing tragedies, the flaw caused the catastrophe, working out from character through logical consequences in the plot, and in anti-tragedies, the flaw was overcome with a resulting "eucatastrophe."   Whichever ending, tragic or triumphant,  had to feel "right"--had to evoke, in the audience,  the awe of justice done, and the pity (for tragedies) or  joy (for triumphs) appropriate to the climax.  That release of pity and awe, he thought, was the great gift that a perfectly told story could give.

In modern terms--an interesting but imperfect character is faced with a problem and eventually (but after reverses, all of which must "fit") either overcomes the difficulty through his/her own efforts, or is "sunk" by his/her own incapacity, his/her own "fatal flaw."   Aristotle also recommended a "unity of place and time"--this imposed by the nature of theater, because audiences will start chatting to each other out of boredom if you try to cram too many changes of time and place into the same performance (though Shakespeare showed it could be done...)   In modern storytelling terms,  this means starting where the story starts, and getting right into it--not dragging a reader/listener through a long drawn-out introduction.

Remember--Aristotle did not spin a literary theory out of his own imagination, the way Plato did for The Republic.   He was an observer; he collected data.  What he saw was that one way of telling a story worked for the audience--and others didn't, or not so well.    Modern research in neurology, backed up by clinical observation, is that humans are hard-wired in a way that makes classical story-telling work across age groups, cultures, languages.  Some cultures like tragedies--the hero (and maybe everyone else) dies.  Some like happy endings--the hero always comes out alive and saves the day.  Some like a mix.  Some like the problem (whatever it is) to be permanently solved, destroyed, gone forever.  Some like to leave menace in the finale--maybe the hero got away *this* time,  but the monster is still in the woods, so you children be careful.  But the basics--one or more characters readers/listeners want to find out about, a problem that must be engaged,  the struggle (successful or unsuccessful) to do that, using the character's own strengths and weaknesses, and an ending that feels "right" in terms of the character, the size of the problem, etc.--are part of what makes us human.

So when I'm talking about the essentials of Story, this is what I mean: without character, without plot, without a problem, without  the motivational glue that holds them don't have a Story.  You may have an anecdote, or a character study, or a problem in search of character and plot--but not a Story.

Other literary virtues exist, and are important in creating a written Story...but none of them are sufficient without the essentials.   Vocabulary, spelling, grammar, syntax, prosody, pragmatics, metaphor, all the rest--excellent tools to have in your toolbox, but by themselves are heaps of words, not Story. 

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

About Books: first critical interpolation

If you accept that Story has the essentials in the last post, then one way to judge a work of fiction is by its adherence (or non-) to the classical elements.

Did the main character(s) interest you, pull you in, and contain enough complexity for the plot (flaws and talents, all of which are shown as operational in the plot)?  

Did the main character face a problem of appropriate seriousness/difficulty  for that story, and grapple with it himself/herself? 

Did actions have logical consequences?

Did the plot sequence correctly (causes before consequences)?

Was the final outcome satisfying, in the sense of completion/justice/congruence with character? 

There are other ways to judge fiction, but since Story is part of fiction, a consideration of how well the Story worked should be part of any critical discussion.  Use of language, "sensawonder" ideas, and other considerations should not replace recognition of Story's central position in fiction.
woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

About Books: Characters I

This will overlap, but not replace, the essay on my website about character creation:
Some of you may have read that; some may want to, for the bits that aren't repeated here.

When Aristotle told the writers of his day to use kings or queens as the protagonists, he knew that audiences would respond to interesting characters...just as today, people *still* read about the British royal family, and the modern equivalent, "celebrities."  If you or I  trip and break an ankle, the world doesn't care--papparazzi aren't following us around--but if Oprah or Hillary or the Pope does so, it'll be on every news report and all over the tabloids.   We are hard-wired to attend to newness/change/differences: exotic works (and thus, in SF, aliens.)  But these aren't the only interesting characters...there's a sliding scale between the names everyone knows and a lot of people want to read about (unauthorized biographies of the famous do sell)  and characters so dull that they kill the book.  Somewhere between Emperor of the Universe and the bore who puts everyone to sleep is your protagonist.  

Let's start at the bottom and get that out of the way first.   Uniform characters (all good, all bad) are boring.  They're well-rounded in the bad sense, like a greased ball bearing--they don't give a plot anything to cling to.    You can use them in minor positions, in the same way you'd use a banana skin--for a more complex character to trip over--but not as protagonists. 

The more average, ordinary, "flat" a character is, the more work you will have to do to make readers want to live with them...the more you will have to show that the character has the potential to surprise and excite.  Some readers, finding a housewife, salesman, teacher, etc. in the first paragraph, will be remembering not only the dull stories in which that kind of character didn't have a plot to work with, but also the people he or she considers uninteresting.   You can use an ordinary/average person as a protagonist, but you need to establish, quickly, that this person has the potential to respond in an extraordinary way and that you're going to toss him/her into the briar patch.   On the plus side, readers easily empathize with ordinary characters, and find the character's struggles believable precisely because he/she starts out with no great abilities.  

The more extraordinary (in ability, social position, political power) the character is to start with, the more easily he/she will 'hook' the reader just by being extraordinary, but you will have to work to show that the character is capable of believable struggle and can actually fail.   So establishing the weaknesses early on prepares readers for this possibility and makes it more believable when your telepath who can read the enemy's mind 500 miles away can't tell that her boyfriend really loves her.   This is why stories of extraordinary people often start when they were less extraordinary, but there are clues to the reader that more is coming. 

The easiest character to make both immediately interesting and believable in conflict  is the "sandbur" type--with a lot of plot-grabbing traits at all levels of awareness, and all levels of unusualness between average and extraordinary--ambitions, fears, talents, handicaps, moral qualms, animosities, attachments, etc.  Not all of these need to show right away (in fact, the shorter the story, the fewer will be exposed to view) but this gives you a lot of potential for motivation and response.

(more to follow, but probably not today)

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Beauty of the earth...

I made it outside again today, as far as the grass garden.  Here are a few of the beauties...the first is a striped snail.  I don't know if it's native or not, but I've always thought it was beautiful, and it doesn't seem to damage the native plants enough to worry about.   The lavender flower's an obedient plant--they like wetter years better, but we still have a lot of them in the dampest part of the grass garden.  And the bird's a blue jay, of course.  Ours are skittish, so this is the best picture I've ever gotten of one.