Tuesday, July 27, 2010

If a Story Opens on Christmas, Somebody Better Die

In our workshop at Tin House, Ann Hood spoke of an important guideline in story-telling: if a story opens on Christmas, someone better die by the end of the story. (She mentioned who had said this, but I didn't get the name down. Maybe somebody reading this post knows?)

She went on to discuss how a story must move from positive to negative or vice-versa. The narrative must "flip." I remember how one of my instructors from grad school, David Payne, used to illustrate this same point. He said, if the flag on the mailbox is up at the beginning of the story, it better be down by the end. So, if you begin with happy, happy Christmas morning, you'd better head straight to a funeral.

Ann gave some examples from her own novels and explained that this principal of story-telling allows her to know something crucial about the ending once she writes the beginning. For example, in The Knitting Circle, the protagonist's hands are empty. A little detail the reader will sail right past, and that's the beauty of rich story-telling: while the reader intuits on some level what the writer's up to, it is artfully subtle. Mary's empty hands point to emotional scarcity and loss in her life. In the last scene of the novel, Mary's hands are full of yarn--she is now a woman of abundance. The literal mirrors the emotional. The story flips.

Ann's novel begins on the down beat and moves to a more positive place. The funeral, so to speak, happens right off and the rest of the narrative builds to Christmas. This if often, though certainly not always, how fiction works. The beginning of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge portrays Henry, Olive's husband, driving alone to work. He and Olive are so separate, physically and emotionally, Olive is literally off the page for that first scene. Yet, the last scene is one of her physically drawing close to the man she falls in love with after Henry's death. This is the movement of the story, the arc. John Updike's Rabbit, Run begins with Rabbit shuffling home from work, stopping to watch some kids play basketball. He's stalling, he's inactive. And while the ending is hardly emotionally positive, it is at least on one level, a flip: now, he's running.

But it's not just the beginning and the end of the piece that makes this kind of postive-to-negative shift or vice-versa; it also happens at the beginning and end of chapters and in scenes. Ann shared with us a revision method she uses: after the draft is completed, she prints it out, then goes through and marks the beginning and close of each scene with a plus sign (+) or a minus sign (-). Next, she looks for any scenes that have the same sign at the beginning and end: these are, she said, flat scenes. There's no change. She then determines if the scene is necessary; it could be the information could be given in summary. Or, if she decides to include it, she re-works it, giving it more emotional range.

It's important to note: the concept of positive and negative is relative to the piece. A positive doesn't really have to be all that positive--as we might, outside of the work think about "positive"and the same with the negative: the scene/chapter/book must simply step up or down, regardless of where it is on the staircase.

There are a million ways to do this, especially at the scene level. It's a mistake to equate positive with happy and negative with sad when applying this. As in the John Updike example, the shift might simply be a change in energy. Or, a change in setting: something as simple as light dimming or the temperature changing. A scene might begin and end with contrasting images or concepts.

Since I've been home from Tin House, I've gone a little +/- crazy, picking up books off my shelf at random and seeing if this holds true. It usually does, though it's not always easy to see it. For example, the prologue to Michael Cunningham's The Hours begins with Virginia Woolf putting stones in her pocket, preparing to drown herself, and ends with a mother and a son standing on a bridge, watching a group of soldiers march by. Even though Virginia's corpse is there, under the bridge, in the water, it's interesting to see how Cunningham uses the image of an excited little boy and his mother in an otherwise completely bleak scene. Similarly, in Kent Haruf's Plainsong, twin boys sneak out in the middle of the night to investigate a mysterious light in the woods and are deeply troubled when they find a teenage couple having sex and arguing.

This notion is timely for me, as I'm working through edits in my novel. My friend Karen had already advised me on this when I bemoaned to her the fact that my editor was calling for "a little more joy." She pointed out that what a story really needs is range. You just can't keep hitting the same notes. And while I think most writers find this range instinctively, bringing it to the practical level is helpful for me. Often, I find I've written a scene that refuses to come to life and I just can't figure out why.

Ever happen to you?


jessica handler said...

I just printed this out for my 'tips from experts' file.

Tracy Crow said...

Yes, yes, yes!!!

Susan, I learned this years ago in a Robert McKee screenwriting course, and began to apply the +/- scene to my nonfiction and fiction, as well. I also teach this technique in my college writing classes.

One thing McKee stressed, however, is that the energy change from + to -, or vice versa, can be subtle, though there must be SOME sort of energy shift. Without a shift in energy, he said, the scene is pointless and should be eliminated.

Susan Woodring said...

Jessica, I would so love to take a peep at that file. What a great idea.

Thank you for linking to this post! I'm glad you found it useful--I just love this. There were so many lectures and little bits of info. that I learned at Tin House where I kept thinking, "This alone was worth coming." The plus-minus system was one of those moments.

I'm sure the TH people are grateful for the plug as well. It really is a fabulous workshop.

Susan Woodring said...

Tracy, yes, she said she got it from a Robert McKee workshop! Amazing how really great ideas travel, isn't it? And how you can apply this across the genres. She also mentioned that while in fiction, the whole of it usually shifts from - to +, while in memoir, which is so often about loss, the shift is often + to -. Of course, she was reluctant to make such generalizations, but I think it's an interesting idea. I've been reading the essays Marjorie Williams wrote about her illness and, at least in those, it really is true. I wonder if you've seen a difference in your own work, writing both fiction and nonfiction?

Tracy Crow said...

Hey, Susan,

I'm not sure that I've ever noticed this trend of +/- in fiction vs. nonfiction, so I'm tempted now to pull everything off my shelf to check. ;)

I'll wager you've been subconsciously aware of energy shifts in your own writing; hence, your obvious success!

Do you have McKee's book, STORY? An amazing craft book for screenwriters, obviously, but as everyone's slowly discovering, a craft book for writers of all genres. STORY is especially helpful to read with a particular writing project in mind. Let me know what you think! ;)

Kathy Waller said...

I think I see what's wrong with the scene I've been working on. Thank you.

I'm going to send a link to this page to my critique partner. We can use +/- to evaluate each others' work.

Jessie Carty said...

I've never thought of trying this. I tend to just write, the little bit of fiction I write, in free write without much thought about things like tension and conflict. Perhaps that is the poet in me who figures out what the piece is about after it is written. I really need/want to take a class on prose writing!

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