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How to Find a Plot (and Humor) with Repetition

11 Mar
Teddy Wayne's humor piece, "On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Human Who's Turned Into a Dog," appeared in the Shouts and Murmers Section of the New Yorker. Wayne is the author of two novels and many fictions like this one.

Teddy Wayne’s story, “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog,” appeared in “Shouts and Murmurs” in The New Yorker. Wayne is the author of two novels, most recently The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.

When working with plot, we tend to think forward: what happens next? But sometimes that’s the wrong question. Occasionally, we should think of plot as if we’re telling knock-knock jokes to a 4-year-old. You finish one, the kid shouts, “Again, again,” and you ask yourself, “How can I possibly tell another?”

Comedy writers understand this question perhaps better than anyone. Repetition is part of the genre. The challenge often becomes about how long the writer can stay with an idea.

Teddy Wayne uses this kind of repetition in his story, “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog.” It appeared in The New Yorker‘s “Shouts and Murmurs” section, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

When we break the story down by its sections, it’s clear how Wayne is repeating and modifying the same idea. Here is each section, summarized:

  1. States the premise (transformed into a dog) and the medium (Facebook).
  2. Introduces a problem with the medium: People “like” things without reading them, forcing the narrator to restate the fact that he’s turned into a dog.
  3. Introduces another problem with the medium (People expect to laugh at Facebook posts), which causes a problem for the narrator because they be laughing while he starves to death.
  4. Introduces another problem with the medium: Facebook moves on without you.
  5. Introduces another problem with the medium: Facebook attachments are weak, and so people will unfriend you if you ask too much of them.
  6. Begins to accept the limitations of the premise: The narrator’s a dog, and he won’t try to fight it.
  7. Accepts the medium: The narrator posts about non-dog topics.
  8. Fully accepts the premise: The narrator becomes a dog in mind as well as body.
  9. The payoff: The narrator finds a way to make dog life work for him and deactivates his Facebook account.

This summary reveals the clothesline that the funny stuff has been hung from. Without this structure, the writer doesn’t have the space to riff.

So, how does this structure work?

While Wayne seems to be writing about a single idea (dog transformation), he’s actually writing about two ideas: dog transformation and Facebook. It’s the latter that turns out to be the most important. If you reread the piece, you’ll see that the narrator repeats the dog premise over and over without many changes. The dog stays in the house. What changes, then, is his reaction to the limitations and problems posed by Facebook. (This is similar to what Will Ferrell does in his famous Saturday Night Live skit about the man grilling at a backyard party and yelling at his kids to get off the shed. The premise doesn’t change: the kids stay on the shed. What changes is Ferrell’s reaction to the medium: his inability to shout loudly or angrily enough to get his kids’ attention.)

As a result, the story is less about a guy turning into a dog than it is about trying—and failing—to communicate something important via Facebook. The story is funny, though, because it’s about a guy who’s turned into a dog. If it was a cry for help from someone with a more realistic problem, the story might become a tragedy, not a comedy.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a structure for a comic story, such as often appears in “Shouts and Murmurs,” that focuses on repetition. We’ll use Teddy Wayne’s story “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog” as a model:

  1. Find a premise. Your character discovers something that needs to be communicated. The premise can be absurd (man turned into a dog) or realistic (kids climbing on a forbidden shed). What’s important is making the need to communicate urgent.
  2. Find a medium. You need a method to communicate: phone, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, yelling, cup and string, Morse code, tapping on the prison wall, the “telephone” game of speaking across a chain of people.
  3. Brainstorm the limitations or expectations of the medium. Will Ferrell was limited by the distance between the grill and the shed. Wayne’s dog is limited by the ways that people interact with Facebook. The story’s tension (and humor) are produced by the ways that the medium is ill designed for the premise that must be communicated.
  4. Isolate and challenge those limitations. You can do this in real time (the character tries to communicate but fails) or as a reaction to what happened (character tries again after failing, as Wayne’s dog does). You can introduce new limitations, one after another. Or, you can let the character challenge the same limitation in increasingly strenuous ways (as Ferrell does in his skit). In this case (or, perhaps, both), the tension and humor result from the ways that the attempts to communicate push against ideas of acceptable behavior in the society in which the story takes place.
  5. Undermine or negate the premise. As your character challenges the medium through which he/she is trying to communicate, the tension will rise with each challenge until a logical endpoint appears: the character will ultimately succeed in communicating or fail and suffer the consequences. Once that end presents itself, set it aside. That’s not the ending for you. Instead, you want to surprise the reader. This is often done by undermining the premise. Ferrell wrote many “Get off the shed” skits, and, in most of them, his kids walk up and he realizes that he’s been yelling at the wrong people for no reason. Thus, all of his shouting has accomplished nothing and been for naught—except our entertainment. In Wayne’s story, the dog makes a fortune off of his story and deactivates his Facebook account so that he can get some work done on the film script. Thus, in both examples, what was urgent turns out not to have been so urgent. So, think about your premise: what would make it not urgent? What would make it cease to be a premise? You’ll come up with some obvious answers and some less obvious ones. Play with them to see which is the funniest.

Remember, your goal is to create a structure to riff within. The structure is essential to the humor, but it’s not funny in and of itself. The way that you play within it will be the source of the humor.

Good luck!

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How to Use Repetition in a Story

9 Jul
Matthew Salesses' story "In My War Novel" was a finalist at HTML Giant and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

Matthew Salesses’ story “In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

One of the greatest novels you’ll ever read is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Many of the stories/chapters use repetition (the title story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” and “The Man I Killed” are good examples). Because the book is so good, thousands of admiring writers have probably tried to imitate its style, and almost all of them have found it impossible. But here’s a story that uses repetition successfully: “In My War Novel” by Matthew Salesses.

“In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is built on two pieces of repetition. In the first, the narrator repeats the phrase, “In my war novel…” In the second, he keeps returning to an idea laid out early on: “These are the things I know about my wife” and “When my wife left me…” Both pieces cue the reader into the narrator’s obsessions—and in a story like this one, those obsessions are the story.

Here is an excerpt that states those obsessions clearly:

“The hell with those famous wars. I would write about the Korean War. I would write about the Korean War to show that I was Korean and also to rub it in people’s faces. Nobody knows anything about the Korean War except Koreans.

In the time before my wife left me she said I was 100% American. In fact I was 100% Korean, but then my mother didn’t want me anymore, so she left me at the orphanage. When I was 3 I was sent to America. So what does that make me?”

Many writers might avoid using repetition because it seems incompatible with plot. After all, how can a story move forward if it keeps repeating itself?

Matthew Salesses’ answer is to work within a loose plot structure. He lets us know from the opening two paragraphs that the narrator’s wife has left him but that they’re not divorced and that she’s kept his last name. The rest of the story essentially answers the questions any reader naturally asks: Why did she leave him? Why didn’t she divorce him? Why did she keep his name? These questions don’t have simple answers or answers. It’s difficult to look back at their marriage and point to a clean, linear progression of failure. Instead, there are bad periods and good periods, times when both parties are trying and times when they’ve become disconnected. As a result, the marriage plot of “In My War Novel” is ideal for a story using repetition. The pressure to trace a clear storyline isn’t as strong. And, when we reflect back on events, our thoughts tend to move in circles—and so a story about reflection lends itself to strategies of repetition.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try using repetition, with “In My War Novel” serving as a model.

  1. Choose a basic plot to work within. Salesses uses the story of a failed marriage (in a way, it’s a version of the old star-crossed lovers plot). The key is to choose a plot that doesn’t require a step-by-step, chronological explanation. Possibilities include any story of failure or success (business, relationship, parenting) or any story that tries to explain a general circumstance in the present day by looking back over a vast time period (How I became rich, poor, sad, happy, imprisoned, outcast, exiled, embraced, or famous).
  2. Choose one or more obsessions for the narrator or character. Ideally, the obsession should tie in to the plotline. In Matthew Salesses’ story, the obsessions are central to that character: why did my wife leave me and why don’t I have a clear identity? In “The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien, the narrator keeps revisiting the wounds on the body of a man he killed. In “The Things They Carried,” also by Tim O’Brien, the story returns to the items carried by the soldiers and, ultimately, to those items’ emotional as well as physical meaning. In both those stories, the obsession is central to the characters’ situation. Their days are spent killing people and carrying stuff.
  3. Begin writing paragraphs that begin with some version of an obsession. Salesses tends to begin with variations on the phrases “When my wife left me…” and “In my war novel…” O’Brien, in “The Man I Killed,” often begins with the phrase “The man I killed…” Use the paragraphs to examine the obsession from as many different angles as possible. For instance, what would the character/narrator’s parents or wife or husband or kids or friends or coworkers or boss say about it? What does the obsession look like in private, in public, with particular people? What does the obsession look like during the morning/afternoon/evening/night?
  4. Write as many paragraphs as you can for each obsession.

It’s true that what you write will likely have no forward momentum. It won’t resemble a story. With a strategy like this one, revision becomes key (though, to be honest, it’s necessary for all stories). After you’ve exhausted your ideas (not just after a day but perhaps a few weeks or months of writing), you’ll need to go back and scramble the paragraphs into coherent sense. You’ll need to discover the story and, perhaps, add connecting tissue between the paragraphs. If you reread “In My War Story,” you’ll see those bits of tissue, paragraphs that don’t begin with either obsession.

Basically, you’re starting a story that may take a year or more to finish. That’s fine. It’s good. It means you’ll always have something to work on.

Have fun.

Narrating a Crime Scene Investigation

23 Apr
Steve by Marcus Pactor can be found online at this journal and also in his new collection of stories, vs. Death Noises.

“The Archived Steve” by Marcus Pactor can be read online at Timber and also in his new collection of stories, vs. Death Noises.

Literary fiction could learn a lot from the TV show CSI. If that claim sounds absurd, consider this: The show does not follow a traditional plot structure. No episode can be summed up with the old saws “Stranger Comes to Town” and “Character Goes on a Trip.” Those plot lines are present in the show, but they occur quickly—usually, within the first two minutes—and serve only to introduce the true story: the investigation, which consists almost exclusively of people standing around, talking to one another. Sounds pretty cerebral, right?

The problem with most detective shows is that their investigations have the same emotional impact as piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. The detectives remain untouched by their work. In a literary investigation, however, the characters are forever changed by the information they uncover.

A recent story that illustrates the dramatic potential of an investigation is “The Archived Steve” by Marcus Pactor. It appears in his new collection vs. Death Noises, and you can read it online at Timber.

How the Story Works

Here is the story: Steve is dead, and the narrator is searching through the items left in his apartment. With each discovered item, the narrator begins to piece together the story of Steve’s death. A show like CSI would maintain its focus on this search and puzzle solving. But the focus of “The Archived Steve” shifts away from the corpse and onto the man searching the apartment, a man who will learn that he is partly culpable in Steve’s death. The story, then, becomes about the emotional consequences of his investigation.

So how does the story work? While its premise may seem disconcerting at first—some readers may be thrown off by the matter-of-fact listing of evidence—the story does not plunge into the evidence without purpose. The first paragraph makes clear that the narrator’s goal is to “correct that fool doctor” and his autopsy report.

Aside: I’ve mentioned this idea several times on the blog, and it bears repeating. It’s important to give readers a sense of where the story is going. There are many ways to do this. For more examples, check out these exercise based on Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” Owen Egerton’s chapter “Nativity,” and Stacey Swann’s story “Pull.”

Once Marcus Pactor establishes the direction of the story’s investigation, he quickly sets it into motion, offering and explaining evidence. Notice how the type of evidence changes, moving from the concrete (“technological equipment and books”) to the more abstract (“Steve’s Inverted Pyramid of Suffering”). As this shift occurs, the reader requires more explanation from the narrator, which leads the narrator to insert himself more fully into the story. As a result, the pronouns begin to change halfway through the story. The words “we” and “I” appear more frequently as the story becomes the narrator’s, rather than the corpse’s.

What begins as the search through items left in an apartment becomes the story of a man’s growing sense of guilt and failure.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use “The Archived Steve” as a model. Just as Marcus Pactor’s story focuses on items rather than the dead man who left them behind, let’s create a story from the things that our characters pull in their wakes.

  1. Choose a mysterious premise: someone has disappeared, someone has died from undetermined causes, something has been stolen, something has gone missing.
  2. Put yourself into a room where the person was last seen or where he/she spent a great deal of time—or the room where the item went missing from. What is in the room? Make a list. Be exhaustive.
  3. Now that you’ve created the items, give yourself an investigative goal: to sift through the items in order to find/figure out X.
  4. Begin explaining the relevance of each item to the missing person or the connection to the missing thing. Keep in mind your goal. What clue does each item offer you in your effort to reach the goal?
  5. If you find that explanations of certain items tend to veer unexpectedly or slide into unexpected tangents, that’s great. Follow those tangents. Just as a true crime investigator leaves no stone unturned and follows every tip, you should follow every trail that your subconscious provides. Keep in mind: you’re uncovering a story just as your narrator or character is uncovering a crime. Give yourself permission to explore.

Have fun and good luck.

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