Cinderella Revisited: The prince speaks

Have you ever been disappointed in a book or movie, but not been able to say why?  This short intro to storytelling might help you figure that out. Revised from an earlier, ever evolving post.

At the center of any story is at least one conflict. A person can be at conflict with him- or herself; a town can be in conflict with a corporation or a bully or a plague; every relationship, ever, has experienced conflicts, small and large.

Of course, not every conflict is interesting.

Universal storytelling truth 1: Well adjusted, happy people do not make interesting fiction.

Sometimes conflicts are completely inside one person’s understanding of themselves. Take Ellen, for example. She’s been obsessed with the granddaddy of a trout her father could never catch. Woman vs. trout? Or maybe there’s something else going on here. Maybe Ellen has a hard time of letting go of relationships, has regrets about her last conversation with her father, or is having second thoughts about shipbuilding school.

A place can be at conflict with nature. A town and a river; a farmstead and a drought. A conflict can be very obvious and in-your-face (he loves her but she loves somebody else) or very subtle (can he face the truth about himself?).

Universal storytelling truth 2: The conflict on the surface masks some larger conflict. “I want you to pay my parking ticket” might really be “I want you to accept responsibility for me and everything I am.” “You never take out the garbage” might be “I’m angry at you for messing up my life and I’m going to make you pay.”

Universal storytelling truth 3: Good storytelling is about many conflicts, small and large, layered together in interesting ways A conflict only works if the two parties are truly equal in some way. It might not look on the surface to be the case, but they are.  A woman incapacitated in a wheel chair, unable to feed herself, hardly able to talk, can be a powerful presence in the life of a young, healthy daughter.

Power takes many forms.

Universal storytelling truth 4: Conflict moves. The power in any relationship is not static; it shifts back and forth, and the friction is what moves the storytrain forward. This is how tension is created. This is why the reader turns the page.

Take for example the classic fairytale of Cinderella, and her story arc. But where do you start? Here’s a way that works for me: I sit down with the primary characters and ask them some questions, the most basic one of which is simple: an interview.

Me: Hey, Cinderella! What’s important to you at this point in your life? What do you most want, right now?

Cindy: I’d like a pretty dress.

Me: And why do you want a pretty dress?

Cindy: Because my step-sisters have pretty dresses. You need a pretty dress to go to the ball.

Me: So, go out and get yourself a dress.

Cindy: I have no money, and my stepmother won’t give me any. And anyway, I have all this housework to do.

Me: It sounds like your stepmother is a bitch.

Cindy: It’s all my father’s fault for dying.

So we started with the dress, but we ended up with a lot more. The bottom line is that Cindy’s life has been miserable since her father died. She misses him. She’s furious with him. She feels powerless in the face of her stepmother’s cruelty and stinginess. And she’s not especially smart or willing to think. So that’s one main character. We know quite a lot about Ella of the Cinders now, but we don’t know the stepmother.

Another interview will be necessary.

Me: What is your name anyway? I’ve never heard it mentioned.

SM: Of course not. Of course you’ve never heard my name. It would be inconvenient for me to have a name, then you’d have to think of me a a person. My name is Georgia.

Me: Georgia, can you tell me what you want right now?

Georgia: Yes. I want to be free of this house and responsibility for these teenage girls. They’ll drive me to drink. My own two are bad enough, but then there’s Henry’s girl. Married a week and he drops down dead, leaves me with this old junk of a house and his kid. I can just see myself in twenty years with three cranky old maids whining for more bonbons and Manolos.

Me: So really what you want is…

Georgia: I’m so angry I don’t know what I want. I’m so angry that every time I look at Cindy I want to pinch her. She looks just like Henry, you know. I’ll tell you one thing, I won’t keep her here unless she’s willing to earn her keep. I need all my energy to find husbands for my two, or I’ll be stuck with them forever. Wait, I know what I want. I want to open up a kiosk at JFK. Perfume and makeup. I’ll get all free samples, and I’ll look good all the time for all the pilots and businessmen who go through the terminal. I’ll find a healthier husband. One with a lot of money, but no kids.

One more interview. 

Me: We never really get to hear much from you during the story. What are your goals for yourself by the time it’s all over?

Prince: Look, I have to get married and produce an heir. And you know, this royalty business isn’t easy. Every day it’s something else: supermarket grand openings, new bridges  to be christened, speeches made to Young Mothers Against Violence in Fairytales, the list goes on and on. I need a wife who can help me with all this. Somebody organized, who can prioritize. And who won’t ask me a lot of questions.

Me: Really, that’s all you’re hoping to get out of this ball? A wife-business partner-mother-of-your-heir?  If that’s the case, let’s imagine for a minute that the fairy godmother comes to you. What would you ask her for?

Prince: You’ll laugh.

Me: I will not. I promise. 

Prince: I want to go to college to study medieval German literature. You know, old those old Norse myths. Brunhilde and the Nibelungen, can’t get enough of that stuff. I want a library card and a peaceful life so I can read about Siegfried and Loki for days at a time.

Me: Um. So you don’t want to be a prince at all?

Prince: Hell no. But a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.

So now we know three of the characters. We understand why Cindy and Georgia are in conflict. The underlying anger, the resentments, the dashed hopes.  Of course, unless we decide to give Cindy a backbone and a real personality, we’re going to have to inject another element to even out the playing field. We’ll have to bring in fairy godmothers or good witches or something to make up for Cindy’s insipid self.

If we pursue the story as traditionally told, we now have the option of continuing on past the marriage vows. And things don’t bode well. Insipid Cindy is going to end up with a husband who really wants a social secretary — something she has no training for — who will give birth once in a while and otherwise leave him alone. She’s a little dim, but she’s not going to be happy for long. And Georgia will have the last laugh.

Unfortunately, this interviewing of characters isn’t as easy as it might look. Characters aren’t always forthcoming. You can’t just ask the character what they want; you’ve got to figure out why they think they want what they say they want.

One tool you can’t do without: patience. This is not something that will happen in a hurry.

So now you’ve got the core of the story, and the story arc comes next. The basics:

Almost always, a satisfying story has three basic elements: conflict, crisis and resolution of the conflict. This is true of stories on a screen or stage or on a page. Think of: Romeo & Juliet, Terminator, Moby Dick, Emma, Clueless, The Help, The Time Traveller’s Wife.

With those points in mind, have a look at this simple schematic of how tension and story arc work together is adapted from Janet Burroway’s classic text on writing fiction, now in its sixth edition (click on the image to enlarge).

 

If you study it, you’ll see how power moves back and forth between the forces of good (Cinderella) and evil (the Stepmother). Kinda like capture the flag, but without the flag. You can take any novel or movie or play or episode of television and look at it in these terms to figure out how it’s structured (or where the narrative begins to lose its rhythm).

One of the movies I sometimes use when I teach this stuff (specifically because it is seriously flawed) is Notting Hill. If you think through the points above and try to fit that movie into this schematic, you’ll see where it goes wrong. An important point: sometimes a novel or a movie goes wrong, but you forgive it because some other element you truly admire (the acting, the cinematography, something) convinces you to overlook the flaw. But the flaw is still there, and figuring it out will help you with your own writing.

———

You could sit down and think up conflicts all day long. When I taught creative writing I had a little store of games that generated conflicts where you wouldn’t expect to find one. What conflict could there possibly be between a grandmother and a kitten? Between a soccer coach and the old deaf lady who is his neighbor? If you’re starting with a new character or a character you know very well, you still have to figure out the underlying conflicts — both the bigger and the smaller ones.

Good, balanced, healthy people in happy situations are sweet, but boring. You want to be related to them, but you do not want them populating the only novel you’ve got to keep you busy on an eight hour flight.

heartburn, and the digestion of feedback

Kurt Vonnegut

Question: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.

You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding:

Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed;

Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this.

Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start revising? You show it to a wider range of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*  You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing:

You have a good eye for detail.

I liked the way you built tension around the police interview.

There’s a certain raymond carver feel to this, were you reading him while you wrote?

On the way out the door a woman who writes obituaries for the paper says: I really liked the scene with the dog.

So you put the story away for a month, and then you take it out and read it again. You remember the rule of thumb: if one person makes a specific criticism, take note but don’t do any editing. If two people dislike the same scene, make another note. Three people have exactly the same problem with your story? Get out your pencil.

You come to the conclusion that the bit about the dog is good. In fact, it’s the only thing that works at all. So you delete everything but the scene about the dog, and start from there.

This cycle could repeat itself a hundred, a thousand times. At some point you have to trust your own instincts and send the story out to magazines and journals. That process may go on for years, too, and mostly you’ll get photocopied no thanks letters, but every once in a while you’ll get something encouraging and insightful. For example: The story about your uncle’s dog was funny and moving, and I liked it very much. But it’s not right for us here at Mechanics Today.

So you got a little stamp happy, sending the manuscript out. It was worth it for this note. And you’ve learned something: only submit to places that like the kind of story you’ve written.

I once went to a reading by Charlie Baxter at the Shaman Drug bookstore in Ann Arbor. I haven’t been in touch with Charlie for a long time, but at that juncture we were acquaintances, I guess you’d say. So I went up to talk to him before the reading and he was standing there with a copy of his just-published short stories in his hand, and he was making changes. In ink. I was shocked. Um, I said… um, now? Right now?

And he said: it’s always right now.

So people reading along silently as he read aloud were stymied now and then. I saw one of them check the edition and printing information, but of course nobody would interrupt a reading to ask if he really meant small? because on the printed page it said asked. Nobody put this question to him, because it was his story. His story, his call. However. The only writer I know of who actually revised a lot of stories and then published them again is Louise Erdrich. It was an odd move, and much discussed at the time.

So how do you know if you’ve gone over the top, or if the story is any good, or if the scene works? You want to know when you are done. Here’s the answer. Some clever writer (does anyone know who?) put it in plain words:

It’s all a draft until you die.

Uncle Peter’s Eloquence

Rather than get into a long essay on erroneous use of terms for language (the temptation is great, but I will resist), I will simply state an observation: it’s never a good idea to try to convey variation in spoken language in terms of spelling. The best (and maybe the only) way to make this clear is by example. Take a look at this exchange from Gone with the Wind. In this scene, there is an elderly black man named Peter, a slave, and he’s upset with Scarlett.

“Dey talked in front of me lak Ah wuz a mule an’ couldn’ unnerstan’ dem—lak Ah wuz a Affikun an’ din’ know whut dey wuz talkin’ ’bout,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “An’ dey call me a nigger an’ Ah ain’ never been call a nigger by no w’ite folks, an’ dey call me a ole pet an’ say dat niggers ain’ ter be trus’ed! Me not ter be trus’ed! Why, w’en de ole Cunnel wuz dyin he say ter me, ‘You, Peter! You look affer mah chillun. Te’k keer of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ‘ ’cause she ain’ got no mo’ sense dan a hoppergrass.’ An’ Ah done tek keer of her good all dese yars.” “Nobody but the Angel Gabriel could have done better,” said Scarlett soothingly. “We just couldn’t have lived without you.”

You’ll note that the author attempts to portray Peter’s speech by playing with spelling. The idea being, I suppose, that he doesn’t speak English as it is written (something nobody does, by the way, unless you happen to be having a conversation with the ghost of somebody who lived in the 15th century). The author feels it is important to make the distinction between Peter’s speech and Scarlett’s…. why? Because he’s a slave, and she’s a free white woman of means? Because he is uneducated and she is … a little more educated? Let’s approach this differently, by rewriting the passage:

“They talked in front of me like I was a mule and couldn’t understand them — like I was an African and didn’t know what they was talking about,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “And they call me a nigger and I ain’t never been call a nigger by no white folks, and they call me a old pet and say that niggers ain’t to be trusted! Me not to be trusted! Why, when the old Colonel was dying he say to me, ‘You Peter! You look after my children. Take care of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ’cause she ain’t got no more sense than a hoppergrass.’ And I done take care of her good all these years.” “Nobody but the Angel Gabriel cudda done bettah” said Scarlett soothingly. “We jus’ couldn’t have lived without you.”

I haven’t changed the dialog one bit — I’ve only changed the spelling. In Peter’s case all the grammatical points of his speech are maintained, such as the invariant use of third person singular verb forms (‘he say’). The distinctive lexical items remain, too (hoppergrass) and the syntax (”I ain’t never been call’). If it’s important to portray his speech, then this passage does it by means of lexical, grammatical and syntatic variations without resorting to spelling. Uncle Peter’s eloquence is still there.

I’ve done to Scarlett’s dialog what the author did to Peter’s — I changed the spelling to approximate how she would have pronounced the words. The result? It’s amusing and condescending — the misspellings seem to indicate something about her intelligence, or her illiteracy. The lesson here is simple: don’t play with spelling unless you have a really good reason. Playing with spelling will almost always work as a trivialization of the character, and that’s never good. If it’s important to portray dialect, do that in other ways.

To be clear, this is not the only thing wrong with the novel. Oh no. I’ve considered the novel in more detail elsewhere, and brought down the anger of the masses on my head, so right now I’ll just point you to this post by Justine Larbalestier.  which covers the basic issues, both about the movie, and about reactions to the movie.

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Dear Editor

I’m at that crucial juncture where I’ve got more than half a book done and I need serious input from my editor, except I can’t ask her. My experience has been that it’s a very bad idea to get the editor involved at a crucial juncture, no matter how much you might actually need her. Because the editor is the one who bought the book; s/he went to the editorial board and publisher and pitched the book you wrote, sold them on it, fought for the money, and presented the package to you (or better said, to your agent). So the editor has a vested interest in the book, and cannot be objective. It’s also just plain hard to send a half manuscript to somebody who has ventured their reputation on your ability to write the damn thing when you’re feeling fragile.

Here’s what the cover letter would look like:

Dear Editor:

Why did I ever think I could write this book? Better asked, why did you think I could? Because here I am more than half way through it and nothing seems right. The characters strike me as insipid and unbelievable, the plot sucks, and I can’t write a harmonious sentence to save my life. Obviously I’m done writing, forever.

PS thanks for the great advance.

Possible responses, as I imagine them:

Dear Writer: Crickey, you’re right. It is crap. I see no hope. Send back the advance, today. With 5% interest.

Dear Writer: This is the most beautifully written, funniest, most insightful and moving piece of fiction I’ve ever come across. It’s finished. Here’s a million dollar bonus and a first class plane ticket to come to Manhattan so we can celebrate.

Dear Writer: It needs more (sex/violence/insight/character development); now don’t bother me until you fix it.

Dear Writer: Stop whining and get back to work.

None of this is what I want to hear, really. There’s no editor in the world who can tell me what I need to hear, which is something along these lines:

Dear Writer: Breathe deep. You’ve done this before. You’ve done this many times before. You can do it again. I’m not going to read what you sent because you’re not really ready for me to read it, are you? I thought not. I have total faith in your ability to pull this off. What you need right now is a massage, and an afternoon with a good book and a box of chocolate. Tomorrow you’ll look at this manuscript and know what’s right and, if anything, what needs to be fixed. It will all happen. And if not, you have two advanced degrees and lots of other interests, right?

Towards the end there my inner demon editor got hold of the keyboard again, but that’s the general idea. In a nutshell: you’re alone when you write, and you have to live with it. Pardon me while I go try to gather my senses and see if we have any chocolate in the house.