Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

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Eric Hooked Up and Meditating

Creativity and Brain Hacks, by Eric Witchey

A few months back, several people suggested that I write more blogs about “your brain hacks.” At the time, I found that sort of amusing because all the writers I know do the best they can with what they have. We are all born with our physiological predispositions (talent), and we all work hard to adapt body and mind to the tasks we value (skill). So, I sort of figured everyone has their own brain hacks. I still do.

Recently, I made a little speech in Eugene, Oregon about how writers can use tempo tools to influence their creative states, idea production, and writing speed. After that speech, a good friend reminded me that I had promised to write about brain hacks. So, I took a look back at my world and my experience and considered what things I had to learn to do in order to write stories.

Here’s the thing. When I teach, I can’t teach things I do but don’t know I do. I can’t teach things that come to me intuitively. I can only teach the things I had to consciously learn. Whether by luck or by some perverse curse, I had to learn a lot. Again, whether by luck or curse, I had to learn to overcome certain physiological limitation of mind and temperament. Many writers do. Mindfulness meditation has been a huge help in overcoming my personal limitations, but that’s another essay.

So, here’s a brain hack I had to learn.

Creativity is a learned skill. It is a verb: to create, created, creates, creating, will create, had created, have created, will have created.

The brain is a pattern matching and inferencing system. It recognizes patterns, cross-references them, and correlates them to experiences. The activity in the brain can be, somewhat erroneously, described as interacting ripples of potential. When rippling troughs meet peaks, they cancel out. When peaks meet peaks, they amplify. When amplified ripples reach a certain threshold, we become aware of the “thought.”

So far, so good. That’s all automagical. We don’t even know it’s going on.

However, many people, writers included, believe without consideration that if the thought they have more-or-less fits the shape of a problem they have, they are done. Sometimes, they are, but my brain was a bit bent out of shape from the start, so I had to learn to express a thought, abandon it, and find another one, and another one, and another one… I had to learn to keep finding new ideas until I found one that would work really well in text in a story that would then be interpreted by the pattern-matching inferencing system riding around in the reader’s head.

Many writers call this “finding the third alternative.” Personally, I wish I only had to find three.

Instead of the normal three, I have to find ten, twenty, fifty.

Enter a guy I’ll call Brian the Brain Guy (BBG). He’s a psychologist who hooked me up to an electroencephalograph in order to study the ripples in the brain during creative activity. I won’t go into the tech or what happened, but I will say that it caused me to look at my creativity tool, my brain, differently than I had. I stopped thinking of it as a piece of standard equipment that either worked or didn’t, and I started looking at it as a tool that could be modified, sharpened, and improved. I learned that it could be trained.

So, I started ringing a bell every time I began writing. That is, I started to type, then I rang the meditation chime, then I continued typing. I typed as fast as I could, and I worked furiously until I fell into that magical trance of creativity called a flow state.

Fast forward a few years, and my brain has been trained to enter flow state when I ring a bell.

Here’s another hack.

I took a page out of one of my teacher’s playbooks and started using a metronome during brainstorming sessions. I start it slow, and I have to come up with an unjudged new idea for each tock of the metronome (an app on my phone now). Then, I increase the tempo. Automatically, the brain that has been delivering an idea per tock at slow speeds ramps itself up to present new ideas at the new pace. For the brain geeks who want to try this, I start out at a tock every ten seconds: six per minute. My fingers can’t keep up anymore at about fifteen per minute. My brain is willing, but my fingers are not fast enough on the keys. Considering that my original, uninfluenced pace was about one new idea per fifteen minutes (and sometimes per week), that’s a huge improvement.

Because when BBG had me hooked up he was observing and measuring particular wave forms, I started paying attention to biofeedback tools for inducing and maintaining those wave forms. This was particularly important to me because it helped me reduce the amount of medication I needed in order to manage the bent brain problems I mentioned above. Back then, it was hard to find such tools. Now, they are freely available on the internet. Here’s a link to one such “entrainment video” I use. Try it. Relax. Just let it run quietly while you are creating.

Don’t let it run while you are editing. Different brain states. Oh, and run it very quietly. The brain doesn’t need it to be loud. In fact, the brain will pick up on it even if you think you can’t hear it. I’m running it right now at volume 1 on my headphones. I have to concentrate on it in order to hear it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbU8rndchsk

Caveat: Some people experience mild dizziness the first few times they listen to a recording like this one.

Finally, I will give away the biggest, best brain hack I have ever learned.

Intuitive writing comes from the subconscious mind. It flows effortlessly through the fingers to the screen or page. It requires no thought, and when we come up for air from successful, intuitive sessions, we have no sense that time has passed.

Conscious writing requires self-aware thought, planning, execution, and repetition. We know we are doing what we are doing, and time drags out like the slow-motion shootout in the Matrix.

Before I give you the big brain hack, I want to say something important. In my personal experience, there is no quality difference between the two modes of production. Conscious, intuitive, or mixed, each has a distinctive, physiological feel. The results of the different creative modes are different in content. However, my records show that, at least for me, the revision time needed to take raw text to a sold story is exactly the same either way. The techniques applied are a bit different, but that’s all.

Okay, here’s the big brain hack.

The subconscious makes use of everything we are exposed to. EVERY FREAKING THING.

The more we consciously understand writing and creativity, the more the subconscious has to work with. People who avoid reading about writing, reading other writers, or studying creativity are limiting the raw materials available to the subconscious. The more we expose ourselves to grammar, punctuation, meta-descriptions of story, methods, processes, and techniques, the more likely those skills are to manifest in our flow state sessions—drawn straight up from the subconscious mind.

My best advice to the writers I meet at the conferences, seminars, and lectures I do is to constantly learn about the craft of writing. Immerse yourself in it. Practice techniques until they become part of the deep self from which dreams flow. Then, let it flow!

-End-

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Story Shaman’s Gift, by Eric Witchey

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Source: iStockPhoto, imgorthand.

The Story Shaman’s Gift, by Eric Witchey

Today, I received a letter from a friend, occasional student, and author. She knows who she is, and I thank her for reminding me of something very important. Our work as writers—our learning, stories, and teaching —are gifts to our readers, to our culture, and to other writers.

Once upon a time, I felt the need to thank one of my author heroes. In my formative years, and later as an adult learning to write, I lived in his stories for many hundreds of hours. Realizing that he was aging and had been very important to my growth as a human being and writer, I decided to send him a thank you note in which I described how I used to hide beneath the blankets of my bed on thunder-rattled nights in Northern Ohio. My military flashlight had a red filter to keep the enemy from seeing me while I read books in the dark. The enemy was my father, who would surely make me go to sleep rather than let me stay up reading until the wee hours. Thunder rattled the windows. Lightning turned my blankets into radiation shielding flashing with the glow of solar storms trying to penetrate my protections. For hours and hours at a time, I lived in the futures of my hero.

Later in life, I studied what he did and how he did it in hopes that one or more of my stories would transport a reader into new worlds in the same way. Later still, when my personal obsession with how stories work in the mind of the reader had fully matured into a need to teach useful craft skills, I returned to his work as an analyst.

When I wrote the letter, I just wanted to express my gratitude. I did not expect him to write back.

Ray Bradbury did write back, and he said two very important things to me. In his exact words, he said:

“When I was your age (mid-40s then), I had yet to write a decent poem or an essay I much cared for. Also I’d never written a play that I enjoyed. But in the following years I finally began to write some poems I liked, some essays, and some plays that were finally produced. It’s a matter of time and love.”

In my mind and heart, I heard:

We learn the craft of telling the tale of our world and the people in it every day until we die, and we give from our hearts until they stop. That is the path of the story shaman.

But, I forget.

Things eat at the soul: fifty rejections between sales, an agent who lied and killed deals, an ego-petty editor who went out of her way to tell me she tossed my requested manuscript in the garbage because she “couldn’t take all the manuscripts to her new office,” another story pirated, a family member dismissing writing as meaningless, another bill that means more time in corporate America, writing students who are proud of having never read a novel, petty writer pissing contests, and an endless march of swirling, chaotic, global self-destructive stupidity.

The little boy with the flashlight, Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, and The Martian Chronicles becomes more and more distant in heart and mind. The value of the life path of tales and teaching becomes hidden beneath ultimately meaningless, superficial modern tugs, tears, and turmoil.

Luckily, I framed that letter from Ray and put it on my office wall. Luckily, I had the father I had.

You see, many years after I hid under the covers reading with a flashlight, I came back home to Ohio and sat sipping scotch with my father. At the time, I didn’t know he would soon die. What I knew was that I loved him and we were having a moment. Thirty-something me confessed my nocturnal transgressions with Mr. Bradbury and others. Fifty-something him laughed and told me that he had known.

Who knew that a red-filtered flashlight made the covers glow from the inside?

He told me that as long as I was reading, he let me stay up as late as I wanted. If I was doing anything else, he made me go to sleep.

For a while, I sat quietly and considered this revelation. Finally, I asked him about school and how tired I must have been after reading all night.

He said, “Do you remember what you did during your days at school?”

“Not really,” I said. “I remember some stuff.”

“Do you remember the stories you read?”

“Every. Single. One.”

He nodded, smiled, and sipped his scotch.

Mind blown. Love. Gratitude. Tears.

This morning, facing this blog, in which I planned to write some intellectual drivel about figure ground recognition and its role in implication in description, I was feeling some resentment because it was interfering with my need to finish the final proofreading and revision of a long, long overdue novel, which I am pretty sure, in spite of kind assurances from my editor, is the worst story I have ever written and which I am terrified to let loose in the world. So, the child within was wrapped in a world-weary adult shell wrapped in depression wrapped in resentment covering fear. My steaming cup of coffee was the only bit of joy in my habitual, daily trudge up to my office.

Entering the office, I glanced at Ray’s letter on the wall. Still there. No change. Yeah. Whatever.

I read emails. Delete. Delete. Block. Block. Delete.

A note of gratitude for my work and help. Huh. Cool.

Okay, my morning suddenly contained two tiny bits of joy—cup of coffee and kind note from an author. I actually smiled. In fact, I got up and pulled down Ray’s letter for a read.

Ray was about love. He was about giving love through story to the world.

In the face of the crazy of the world, the crazy of damaged lives and twisted socialization, the crazy of our demons and destructive cultural constructs, writers tell stories. We write essays. We write poems. It’s about love. It’s about giving the gift of self and perspective to a father who knows the value of a novel, to a troubled child who lives in a wool radiation dome protected from a storm for one night, and to a world in desperate need of empathy and long-term perspective.

From the heart to the heart through words is the path of the story shaman.

Today, I am grateful for my life and all the people in it. Today, I will step through my darkness and arrange the little black squiggles on the white background in hopes that one person out there in our stormy night world has a red-filtered flashlight, a loving father, and an imagination that might help heal the world.

-End-

Creation Creates Us, by Eric Witchey

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Photo Source: iStockPhoto, dschaef

Creation Creates Us, by Eric Witchey

The world creates writers; writers create the world.

On the quantum level, scientists, specifically my brother, Dr. Nick, who is an actual Ph.D. Particle Physicist, say that our perceptions and expectations may actually influence the manifestation of phenomenon. They definitely influence experimentation.

Much has been made of this concept in the fields of science fiction and fantasy. It’s not a new idea. Writers have been using and abusing it since the thirties. However, we rarely step back and think about the concept as a social phenomenon. Self-help gurus twist it around and talk about it a lot. The Secret movement of ten years ago is an example. It touted the law of attraction and the power of visualization, but it forgot to mention the correlation of success with long, carefully considered, constantly focused hard work. It also forgot to mention the long list of ethical, moral, and legal shortcomings of the people it presented as champions of the program.

None-the-less, the long-recognized value of visualization as a predecessor to success has value. Even Olympic athletes work hard to see themselves performing and winning as part of their training. Of course, we also know that if ten athletes visualize themselves on the top slot of the podium, only one of them will actually end up there. That doesn’t mean the others didn’t perform better because of their visualization. It just means that in the end, we, as a people, prefer to recognize dominance rather than contribution and performance improvement.

Hm… I suppose a strong case could be made for visualization manifestation as a trope of fantasy magic systems.

However, I want to talk about Steve Martin.

No, it’s not a digression. I admit, however, that people who know me and my ramblings shouldn’t be chastised for jumping ship now because it very well could be a squirrel I’m about to chase, and that squirrel could end up climbing a tree and laughing at my readers.

But it’s not.

You see, Steve Martin, whom I’ve never met and who, as far as I can tell, is not related to George R. R., has been a part of my awareness of comedy, writing, and film since he first went on stage wearing an arrow through his hat and picking a banjo. His career has spanned decades and gone from early, totally silly stage performance to serious writing and acting that has enriched our culture.

Also, I long ago read somewhere that he likes inline skates. So do I. So, I admire him.

Because I admire him, I paid attention to an obscure interview some years ago. In it, the interviewer asked him how he came up with his particular brand of zany comedy all those years ago in the 70s. His response floored me. He said that as an aspiring comedian, he came up around the angry comedy of the Civil Rights and Viet Nam era. This was the period of comedians like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. Mr. Martin said that during that era, the era of the civil rights movement and protest against unnecessary militarism, military-industrial government corruption, population suppression (Kent State, Watts, and Chicago), and outright political corruption (Watergate), he saw a time coming when people would be exhausted and want a kind of humor that was lighter and more superficial. He invented his stand-up character with the silly hat, over-the-top delivery, and banjo in anticipation of that moment.

The moment came. The war ended. Nixon left office. The riots died down for a while.

Steve Martin leapt to the stage with happy energy dancing like King Tut and yelling, “I get paid for doing this!”

And, once again for people who follow my little essays, we come to the moment when we ask, “What the hell does this have to with writing and quantum theory?”

Right now, we live in the land of the political, ecological, military industrial train wreck we can’t stop watching as it happens. Most of us are sick to death of the endless wars, the obvious political corruption, and the corporate harvesting of our hard-earned money. Personally, I have lost two retirement accounts to corporate corruption, and for five years I fought with the banks to keep my house because I made the mistake of following their instructions in 2009. My trust landed me squarely in the debacle of fraudulent foreclosure scams. I was lucky. I was able to spend many thousands of dollars fighting. In the end. I managed to keep my house. Most did not, but that’s another story.

The point is that I’m not alone. None of us are. We are all just exhausted by the inefficient, ineffectual human stupidity all around us.

We are ripe for Steve Martin.

When I seek a new book to read, my emotional exhaustion means I don’t seek out the latest, greatest somber tome on social justice or personal triumph over childhood trauma.

I don’t seek out the classics unless I’m doing research.

I look for something that will make me smile and laugh. I look for a book that will give me a sense that the world can be right even though I know it is not. More and more, I look for books in which small groups of people, communities, come together to create actual, personal bonds. Better yet, I look for stories that show me those connections and make me laugh out loud.

So, this climate of emotional exhaustion and compassion fatigue is real. We live in it. We know it. We do what we can to fight it. We also, all of us, crave a kinder, lighter sense of life, community, and the world.

This deep, massive, underlying hope is an expectation, a proto-visualization of what could be—of what we want to manifest. As writers, we can give this nebulous hope form and put these visions out into the world as tiny seeds around which a new reality can crystalize.

Steve Martin may have once presented himself as “a wild and crazy guy,” but he also presented a sense of joy to the world, and around that sense of joy, others rallied. As his art matured, what began as silliness became satirical humor. His joy for life became both balm and social reform. It became a sort of call to action that people could embrace because laughing and joining together in common jokes let people address real problems in their hearts, their families, and the world.

Some weekend, when you are set up to binge a bit, walk through the progression of his acts and films. Go back and watch The Jerk, The Man with Two Brains, Roxanne, L.A. Story, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Father of the Bride, and Baby Momma. Watch the movement from the predominately silly with social undertones to the socially poignant with comedic undertones.

Do the same with the tales of Sir Terry Pratchett or with the progress of novels from Christopher Moore, to whom I am forever grateful for the greatest zombie line in all of literature, “First brains, then Ikea.”

Are these comedic writers created by their times? Are they creating their times? Are we, as writers, manifestations of the larger consciousness of the world around us, or are we creating the world around us by providing centers around which new visions of self and culture can be organized?

What we visualize can clearly influence our ability to perform. What we manifest in story can clearly influence the visualizations of the people around us. So, does our today’s project bring both salve and escape from our fear, anxiety, and fatigue? Can it? Can it be funny and provide insight and solution that creates a new world?

By all the muses, I hope so. Just for today, I hope my world includes something silly—something that makes me smile and laugh. I hope that my writing influences reality—creates an opportunity for others to visualize a better world in which people can look at one another’s differences, smile, and laugh because we all know we are all hurting and, in the end, we are all in it together.

-End-

Postscript: For people who are interested in taking a March 30th full-day class in Corvallis, Oregon from someone who does a very good job of manifesting humor and social consciousness, check out this link to a seminar offered by Willamette Writers on the River:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-nuts-and-bolts-of-writing-and-selling-short-stories-tickets-21469413594

 

OMG! Stories are Fractal, by Eric Witchey

Fractal Star

Computer Generated Image – A Mathematical Fractal Structure. Source: ClaudeLux from iStockPhoto.

OMG! Stories are Fractal

by Eric Witchey

One of the amazing things the human brain does is follow complex stories and derive satisfying meaning from them. The mind perceives and matches patterns, and it conflates those patterns into ever larger patterns.

Walter Kintsch, a researcher working in text recognition, understanding, and cognitive science long before his department decided to call him a professor of psychology and neuroscience, described this conflation as “chunking.” We now take the term for granted and abuse it in many incorrect contexts, but that’s another story.

Human beings can, in effect, see both the forest and the tree at the same time or separately. We can see “those three trees over there” even though they are in the forest. We can see “that stand of Cedars and Douglas Fir.” We can also see all of the above as the forest as a whole. We can even see a whole bunch of forests as the Pacific Northwest conifer biome.

On the language side of things, the same concept means we can see a little black squiggle and think, “letter.” We can see three letters as a syllable. A couple of syllables become a word. The words become phrases. We collect phrases into clauses, clauses into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes.

This goes on and on: scenes to sequences; sequences to movements (acts); movements to stories (novels). We can even accumulate a satisfying group of novels into a series we can hold in our minds (Please, George R. R. Martin, finish yours. You once made me write a novella overnight. I know you can do it. Okay, I know it’s not the same, but please do finish).

This week, an interesting meme has been making the rounds. A group of mathematicians did a statistical text analysis of famous stories. They concluded that stories contain fractal and multifractal patterns.

Article title: The World’s Greatest Literature Reveals Multifractals and Cascades of Consciousness.

I read the article because I like linguistics and cognitive science. When these things touch on story, it always catches my eye. You see, as a writer I’m a little bit broken. It’s not enough for me to just tell the story. I have a financially unhealthy obsession with understanding how and why the story worked to create an experience in the heart and mind of the reader.

So, I read the article.

Then, I started laughing out loud.

Here’s why. Story tellers from the dawn of time have not only known what the mathematicians just discovered, they have been manipulating it and making use of it consciously since the first Shaman told the first instructional hunting tale by the light of a campfire.

A good story is made up of smaller, interwoven good stories. Additionally, a good story depends on the reader’s experiences to work.

I’ll explain further by first providing a couple of definitions of the term “fractal.”

Google definition: a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractals are useful in modeling structures (such as eroded coastlines or snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, and in describing partly random or chaotic phenomena such as crystal growth, fluid turbulence, and galaxy formation.

From the Fractal Foundation: A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.

Now, a multifractal is, in essence, groups of fractals that interact (are woven together). I’ll add that any use of the term fractal in our current cultural zeitgeist must include a reference to recursion and to the Mandelbrot Set, which is a set of numbers that, when applied through a function, can be placed in an algorithm that calls instances of itself in order to create an infinite geometric pattern made up of instances of itself.

Google the two terms: “fractal” and “Mandelbrot Set.”

You find millions of hits that include graphics of the classic example of fractal geometry. For the lazy geeks among you, here is the Wikipedia description of the Mandelbrot Set.

The Mandelbrot set is the set of complex numbers c for which the function f(z)=z²+c does not diverge when iterated, i.e., for which the sequence f(0), f(f(0)), etc., remains bounded.

My first exposure to the idea was in Jeffery D. Yetter’s basement in the 1980s. Jeff was an accomplished microchip engineer at Hewlett Packard in Ft. Collins, Co, and for fun in his spare time he explored various computational concepts. One, and this was around ’82 or ‘83, was the new fractal geometry that scientific computers, of the type to which he had access, could demonstrate by plotting out the Mandelbrot Set. I won’t go deeper into that experience in this blog post. It is important only in that it had a strong impact on my understanding of human pattern recognition.

For now, I’m just saying that the human pattern matching brain’s fascination with the construct is not new. Review M. C. Escher. Chase the concept of the chambered nautilus through art and geometric history. Hell, just read up on Dante’s cosmology, the Rosicrucian Rose, Free Masonry, or the Knights Templar. You can follow the history of the fractal rabbit hole all the way down into the next rabbit hole, ad nausea. Go for it.

The point here is that this “discovery” amused me on two levels. First, the scientists didn’t discover anything. They merely found a new way to plot a known phenomenon. Second, they speculated that their plotting method might be used to automatically categorize stories into genres.

That second one really cracked me up. It might end up as fodder for a whole series of articles on the nature of genre and the mathematicians’ misunderstanding of the concept.

Here, I’m more interested in exploring the idea that a story is an instance of stories, which are in turn interwoven instances of stories.

One of my many teachers, and in some ways one of the more influential, is a man named James N. Frey. Jim introduced me to many important things. One of them was Lajos Egri’s seminal work on play writing, The Art of Dramatic Writing. In that book, Egri suggests a concept he calls “premise,” which he goes on to show can be used as a controlling tool to help determine the course of a story.

Frey demonstrated the use of this tool to me over and over. I was pretty thick. It took me a while. Even so, he probably saved me ten years of failed trial and error as a writer. I’m not as smart as some of my peers, so I had to consciously learn things they took for granted—like how to tell a story.

My early understanding of the concept let me work it as a sort of statement of purpose for a story. For example, the entire play of Romeo and Juliet could be characterized in a premise of the form: X leads to Y. The form is important. A premise, in this context, is not just a concept or idea. It is more of a conclusion that is proven by the story.

Yes, we could come up with a dozen possible arbitrary fillers for X and Y.

Examples:

  • Love leads to suicide.
  • Romance leads to death.
  • Early adolescent romantic obsession amid family rivalry leads to rebellion, despair, and suicide.

Hopefully, you can see why the last one is more useful as a tool for describing what might and might not belong in the play—and that is what the tool is for.

By either defining or coming to understand a “premise” of this type for a specific story, the writer can test the contents of a story to determine if elements in a draft belong, should be revised, or should be cut.

Yes, that’s a simplistic description. A more robust explanation is not the point of this post. As did Jim, I teach week long seminars just to show people how to use this apparently simple tool quickly and effectively while engaging in story development or revision.

The fun part today is that this form of “X leads to Y” is one characterized aspect of the fractal geometry of story.

Each movement of the story (often called an act) is made up of an instance of the formula. If not, the reader has trouble tracking and conflating the myriad details of the story in a way that allows them to grasp the overall power of the experience.

So, Romeo and Juliet breaks down into movements (acts) like this:

Note: I use the term movements for novel writing reasons I won’t go into here. Romeo and Juliet is a play. Textual stories and plays to be acted on a stage are different in important ways when a writer is thinking in terms of development. For example, a play does not have, strictly speaking, a point of view character. The audience views all the characters on stage simultaneously rather than viewing the staged story through the internal, filtered experience of one character.

  • The premise for the overall story: Early adolescent romantic obsession amid family rivalry leads to rebellion, despair, and suicide.
  • Act I Premise: Early adolescent romantic obsession leads to frustration, anger, and new obsession.
  • Act II: Frustration, anger, and new obsession leads to romantic connection and joy.
  • Act III: Romantic connection and joy leads to fear, frustration, near despair, and slight hope.
  • Act IV: Fear, frustration, near despair, and slight hope leads to anxiety, concern, and grief.
  • Act V: Anxiety, concern, and grief leads to despair and suicide.

The five premises combine to demonstrate, complete, or build the overarching premise.

Inside each act are scenes. The scenes can also be characterized in the same way. One act is made up of a list of “X leads to Y” statements that allow testing of scene content to see if the scenes cumulative add up to the premise statement for the act.

In writing short stories or novels, movements are made up of scene sequences. A scene sequence is a group of scenes that culminate and an emotional/psychological shift in character from which recovery to a previous state is not possible.

Now, because story is emotionally and dramatically fractal, an instance of story can be made up of instances of stories. That is, Romeo and Juliet is made up of five acts, each of which is dramatically similar in form to the overall story. Each act is made up of sequences, each of which is dramatically similar in form. Each sequence is made up of scenes, each of which…

I hope you get the idea.

The article talks about multifractals. That is, they describe a sort of tangled fractal geometry. Consider for a second that a piece of flash fiction can be one small scene. At the same time, it can be a full story. It can be a complete set of conflicts and results. It is both forest and tree. Now, consider that multiple flash pieces can be combined to create sequences, movements, and even novels. Each piece can stand alone. Each piece can interact with other pieces on various levels. All can combine, be chunked, in ways that cause the reader to experience layered (multifractal) story. Writers just haven’t been calling the structures they work with by that name.

Ah, but we aren’t done quite yet. The thing that the mathematicians, statisticians, computer scientists, and cognitive scientists who discovered this new method of plotting out the multifractal organization of story content right down to the sentence level have missed is that the textual patterns they are plotting are actually the presentation of “chunks” that trigger the reader’s emotional reaction to content.

Notice that the act level premise statements for Romeo and Juliet are of the “X leads to Y” form, but X and Y are emotional states rather that events or actions.

Stories are about how people change and the consequences of those changes for the characters (or lack of changes in the case of tragedies). The reader automatically compares and contrasts the consequences in the story against their experiences in the real world. From that, the reader creates their sense of the significance they take away from the experience of reading the tale. In fact, the reader is constantly subconsciously testing their world against the world of the characters.

Nobody gets goosebumps, tears, or an ear-to-ear grin from reading a story they can’t compare their experience to on some level.

Over the years of practicing craft and teaching, I’ve marveled at this relationship between character emotional change and reader emotional states. I’ve also had to come up with a way of describing it in order to help writers develop and control stories. In 2005, I published a concept in an article in Writer’s Digest. It’s the ED ACE concept. The emotionally fractal nature of story really begins to pop out when examining story through the ED ACE filter.

The idea is that ED ACE characterizes the emotional logic the reader must be able to follow in order for a story to maintain dramatic continuity. All the elements of ED ACE must always be available to the reader either explicitly or through implication by the text. ED ACE works like this:

  • Emotion drives
  • Decision, which drives
  • Action (including speaking), which generates
  • Conflict (the opposition of wills), which results in a new
  • Emotion

The interesting part to me as both a writer and a teacher is that this pattern recurs in direct correlation with possible premise statements. It also recurs as instances of itself. That is, you can describe an entire novel with it. The C in that one novel-level ED ACE cycle then expands into ED ACE cycles that describe the movements. The C in each of those ED ACE cycles then expand into ED ACE cycles that describe the scene sequences that make up a movement. The C then expands into…

The sequence continues, as you would expect of a fractal tool.

While a pyramid graphic would be a better presentation because each level has an increase in the number of elements that make up the level above it, here’s what it looks like in a list. Each of the following elements can be captured by use of an ED ACE description:

  • Book Series
  • Novels inside a series
  • Movements inside a novel
  • Scene Sequences inside a movement
  • Scenes inside a sequence
  • Conflict sets inside a scene
  • Conflict inside conflict sets
  • Dialectic sets (emotional tactical changes (a.k.a. beats)) inside conflicts
  • Dialectic pairs inside dialectic sets
  • Sentences inside dialectic sets (though this is not always applicable).
  • Syntactic/pragmatic tension inside sentences

Generally speaking, development or analysis of story is a little more emotionally messy. After all, we are talking multifractals. I’m fond of pointing to the opening scene of Snow Falling on Cedars for an example of how these structures can be nested (entangled) effectively. However, selling a story doesn’t require that such nesting take place.

Also, the usefulness of the tool is limited once you get below the Dialect Pair level. However, the dynamic can be demonstrated, though not always, below that level. At that point, it is more useful to think of the patterns in terms of emotional resonance and contrasts rather than actual, full ED ACE cycles. Of course, if the ED ACE cycle is understood down to the dialectic pairs level, then the emotional/psychological states of the characters are also known. Word choice, setting decisions, background content, and even sounds can then be chosen based on those known emotions and what the writer wants the reader to feel.

At this point, people tend to think I’m nuts.

Well, yes.

Still, look up the Poe’s 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he describes the development of “The Raven” and having starting with sounds of grief and despair before building upward to the completion of the poem.

I’m nuts in a good way. Once you’ve finished reading this, try out the tools described below on “The Raven.”

The point here is that scientists have “discovered” a relationship between the reader’s experience and the dramatically fractal nature of story that writers have been aware of and taking advantage of for, literally, thousands and thousands of years.

Still not sure they have rediscovered one of the spokes of the wheel? Google “Fractal Storytelling.” The term, fractal, arrived on the scene in the early 80s, but the concept in story development is ancient. The spokes of the wheel have been repackaged and rebranded, but they still contribute to its roll.

Yeah, sure, Eric. Whatever. But what does that mean in terms of writing my story?

It means that many hours of trial and error can be managed in a way that lets us take advantage of the reader’s mode of organizing story in their mind. It means we can look at how story is processed by the reader, how emotional change is critical to that processing, and how the logic of emotional change is managed dramatically and collapsed into layers of ever larger generalizations.

With that knowledge, we can determine whether a line, a dialectic pair, a set, a … are contributing to the reader’s process of understanding emotional change within story.

So, what did the statistical analysis described in the meme article discover? Nothing? No. They discovered a method of demonstrating mathematically that these structures exist. They showed that stream of consciousness writing includes “idea cascades” that demonstrate a sort of fractal domino effect the write engages in while writing. They demonstrated that mathematicians can have fun thinking deeply about story structure. Now, they need to hook up a few folks to an EEG or tuck them into an MRI machine and read to them to see if they can find a correlation between emotional responses and the multifractal peaks and troughs their graphs show.

I’m running out of time and space, so I’ll demonstrate the above by providing an excerpt from a handout from a class I teach. The excerpt describes two layers of a silly little father’s day story I sold to Daily Science Fiction in 2014. The following example was written up for a seminar I taught at the WordCrafters in Eugene conference in 2015.

Here’s the gratuitous plug link for good folks doing good work:

http://wordcraftersineugene.org/

Try out the following techniques. Play with them. Break them. Let me know how it goes. My apologies in advance for the incomplete nature of the instructions below. Please keep in mind that the text was pulled from a 300 page book that accompanied the on-site lecture and exercises from a week-long seminar.

While the excerpt below describes prototyping a short story, the tool becomes much more useful as the tale becomes larger. For convenience, I have also included the actual short story at the end of this post. I’m not claiming it is a great story. In fact, its simplicity lets you see the patterns functioning. In a great work of literature, the patterns might (or might not) be intertwined at a level that would require computer statistical analysis for discovery and exposition.

Note: The except below includes a concept from an article I did for Writer’s Digest Magazine, the Irreconcilable Self. That’s a topic for another day.

Nested ED ACE Paradigm for Fast Prototyping

No two stories start at the same point in a writer’s process. Sometimes, we see an image. Story grows from that. Sometimes, we feel a character’s problems. Story grows from that. Sometimes, we know the climax, and story grows from that. Sometimes, we suddenly understand a climactic moment or a darkest moment or the emotional power of a turn of phrase that haunts us for days before we sit down to write. Story can grow from any of those.

The interesting thing, at least to me, is that no matter where a story starts, stories end up containing textual and dramatic patterns of success that readers rely on in order to draw meaning and emotional impact from the words on the page. Those patterns of success tend to appear in many, many stories.

While not all stories include the same textual and dramatic patterns of success, some patterns of success appear so often that they have value as planning tools. One, three, five, and seven act structures are patterns that appear over and over and receive conscious attention during story development. The concept of an act is a pattern of success. Christopher Vogler’s characterization of The Hero’s Journey is a dramatic pattern of success that is made up of many smaller patterns of success. The characterization of story structure as status quo conflict, inciting incident, rising action, climax, and dénouement is a useful, dramatic pattern of success. Another pattern of dramatic success is basic scene structure described as an establishing moment that displays scene agendas and is followed by interaction of opposing wills that lead to one of four possible dramatic outcomes (Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure) such that the outcome ends the story or drives the next scene. Dramatic dialectic in dialog is a pattern of success. These patterns of success can be descriptive, but they can also be used as tools during development.

All of these meta descriptions are patterns of success that we can point to over and over in the stories we love. In and of themselves, they don’t cause a story to be good. However, ignoring the fact that they repeatedly appear in successful stories is a mistake. They contribute even if they don’t guarantee success in the mind and heart of the reader.

So it is with ED ACE.

If ED ACE is a functioning, fractal dramatic meta description tool and story drives the hidden irreconcilable self to climax/resolution, then it should be possible to describe traditional story dramatic development as a recursive exposition of ED ACE. In other words, if I can describe a story at many levels by using ED ACE, I should be able to design a story at many levels by using ED ACE.

Before trying to develop a new story, test ED ACE against an existing story to see if it is truly descriptive on many levels. In the “Describing a Story” section of this document, the process has been applied to a short, short story.

Describing a Story

The following is a description of a short story that sold to one of the more popular online science fiction magazines. Each table represents an ED ACE cycle in the story. The level numbers designate layers.

The nature of a project will change the way the numbers are used. For example, a piece of flash fiction may only use level 0 because the entire story is one, short conflict set. A short, short might have three conflict sets in one scene, like “Vincent’s First Bass.” In that case, 0 represents the overall story, which is only one scene. 1 represents the conflict sets within the scene. No additional layers are really needed. However, a novel might use all of the following:

  • 0 overall story.
  • 1 movements
  • 2 scene sequences inside a movement
  • 3 scenes inside a sequence
  • 4 conflict sets inside a scene
  • 5 conflicts inside a conflict set
  • 6 dialectics inside a conflict

The following sequence of tables represent a set of descriptive tests for “Vincent’ First Bass.” The level 0 table is a shorthand description of the overall story. The level 1 tables represent the conflict sets.

In the case of “Vincent’s First Bass,” the theme connected to Vincent’s Irreconcilable Self (IS) is self-acceptance. Vincent does not know he needs to reconcile his belief that he is loveable with his belief that he is isolated from love. He does know that he wants to please his rarely seen father. His efforts to please create greater strain on these irreconcilable belief positions. The strain grows until he is forced to resolve this irreconcilable self (I.S.) by fully embracing an aspect of self he has denied. That resolution provides solution and delivers the acceptance he craves.

In essence, Vincent’s distress forces him to discover a suppressed superpower. For me, that makes the story easier to write than a story demonstrating a more subtle development of IS. However, the descriptive process is the same regardless. This story just makes it very easy to demonstate.

The Lajos Egri overarching premise might be, “Confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, and a desire to please lead to family connection, confidence, love and respect.

0 (Level) Label: Vincent’s First Bass.

Overall Story.

Emotion Confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, desire to please
Decision To fish with Dad.
Action Fishes.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. Dad.; V vs. self.
Emotion Confidence, love, respect.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 1

Standing.

Emotion Confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, desire to please
Decision To stand.
Action Stands.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Uncertainty. Insecurity. Fear of embarrassment.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 2

First Cast.

Emotion Uncertainty. Insecurity. Fear of embarrassment.
Decision To Cast.
Action Casts. Fails.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity. Certain of judgment by others.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 3

Second Cast.

Emotion Worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity. Certain of judgment by others.
Decision To try again.
Action Tries again. Fails
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Even worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 4

Third Cast.

Emotion Worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity. Humiliation.
Decision To try again.
Action Tries again. Succeeds.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Relief. Renewed confidence.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 5

Reasoning.

Emotion Renewed confidence.
Decision Share with Father.
Action Shares with Father.
Conflict V vs. Dad.
Emotion Confusion. Uncertainty.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 6

Retrieval.

Emotion Confusion. Uncertainty
Decision Reel.
Action Reels. Follows instructions. Invents term.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. Dad. V vs. self.
Emotion Relief. Acceptance. Pleasure.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 7

Fight Fish.

Emotion Relief. Acceptance. Pleasure.
Decision Fight fish.
Action Fights fish.
Conflict V vs. Fish (E).; V vs. self.
Emotion Fear. Insecurity. Frustration.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Climax/Resolution

Climax Catch.

Emotion Fear. Insecurity. Frustration. Fear of embarrassment.
Decision Fight.
Action Fights.
Conflict V vs. Fish (E).; V vs. self. Revelation.
Emotion Confidence, love, respect.

Finer levels of expansion are possible but not as useful for prototyping such a short story. For example, it is possible to describe dialectic pairs and beats in terms of ED ACE, but that level of detailed analysis is rarely useful during early prototyping.

If the tool is descriptive as an analysis tool, then perhaps it can be used as a design tool. Consider your story. If you can fill out the ED ACE paradigm at any level, then you can begin to imagine and manage the relationship of that level to other levels.

Note, however, that it is important to be sure of the level at which you are working. Crossing levels during use of this tool will result in confusion. The tool functions horizontally but not vertically across levels. That is, apply it to the novel as a whole or to the movements in order, but don’t attempt to apply it in a way that includes both the novel as a whole and the movements at the same time.

Before Beginning

Before beginning an ED ACE fast prototyping session, the author needs to know the answer to a key question. The level of depth at which the question is answered isn’t as important at the beginning. Later, as the process of development continues, the author will either create or discover finer and finer levels of detail. It is, however, important that the author answer the following two questions before trying to prototype the story:

  1. Who is the story about?
  2. What is the deep personal identity issue of which that character is at least partially unaware that will change (or not change if a tragedy) and allow them to experience life differently?

Often but not always, the main character, the person the story is about, is the character that:

  • changes the most,
  • has the most to lose on a personal (and identity) level,
  • is in the position of decision that will cause the greatest impact on others, and
  • represents the thematic heart of the story in terms of success or failure within the structure of the tale.

When fast prototyping, the author does not need to know how the character connects to the above list of dramatic functions. The author needs to know on some level that the character does connect to some, or all, of the dramatic functions in the list. The author also needs to know the character’s name, the expected core theme, and the character’s deepest internal limitations—their Irreconcilable Self. The irreconcilable self is the answer to the second question posed above.

It is possible to engage in this type of fast development without knowing the theme and IS. The prototyping process can be useful in finding the theme and IS. Once they are found, the process often begins again.

Fast Prototyping Process

While this process can be used as an analysis and diagnostic tool during revision, the purpose of this document is to present it as a development tool. The process described below presents a normal sequence for quickly developing core story elements prior to composition. That said, there is absolutely no reason that the process could not apply after composition of a discovery draft. In that case, it would be a tool for clarifying the discoveries in order to determine which bits of spontaneously composed text serve, or do not serve, the story.

  1. Start anywhere, but define Character until IS is clear.
  2. Once IS is clear, define top level ED ACE for whole story (See Romeo and Juliet example).
  3. Note that linear design is not the goal. Departure and return to tool is acceptable at any time for any reason.
  4. Define I.S. and the climax that results in or from I.S. resolution. Answer these questions:
    1. Does I.S. resolution drive the climax (death and rebirth followed by renewed focus and directed behavior)?
    2. Does the climax result in I.S. resolution?
  5. Brainstorm E steps by largest structure to smallest. Book before act; Act before movement; movement before scene sequence; sequence before scene. Feel free to fill in D, A, C notes as you go, but the real juice here is the E steps because they will let you brainstorm cooler D, A, and C content later.
    1. A Note on Emotional Anchor Points: Once the IS has become clear, it can be very useful to identify key changes to the character’s psychological and emotional makeup that must take place in order for the character to arrive at their moment of transformation. If climax comes either as a result of transformation or at the moment of transformation, then knowing these key moments of emotional change allows the writer to manage the emotional logic of the story and the construction of the scenes that will lead to the changes in a manner that appears to be organic to the reader.
  6. Evaluate each scene-level E step for veracity and power for intended audience.
  7. Find core moments (from whatever paradigm you prefer or from any mix you prefer: Hero’s Journey, Screenplay Structure, Darkest Moment, etc.).
  8. Brainstorm compelling scene moments that create and exploit the E elements of those moments.
  9. Brainstorm and fill in D, A, and C for all scenes.
  10. Speed write anchor scenes without revision.
  11. Reconsider scenes and test for believability of character emotional states and choices.
  12. Throw away material that does not work.
  13. Reimagine new material (brainstorm again).
  14. Fast writing.
  15. Repeat any steps at any time as needed. Normally, steps 4-14 are revisited a number of times. Steps 8-14 are revisited more often. Steps 12-14 are revisited most often.
  16. Once “finished,” the same process can be used to address flaws after beta-reader feedback or while in editorial cycle.

Vincent’s First Bass

Eric Witchey

Sold to Daily Science Fiction in February of 2014. Printed as a Father’s Day Story

 

“Go ahead,” his father said. “Stand up.”

Vince was a Vanderpender ninth-grader, and he’d seen flat-bottomed punts in his art history courses. Not that he liked art history. He was a math boy, but he’d seen pictures of men fishing from boats like his dad’s.

He and his dad had started rowing before sunrise. Now, they floated on glassy water in a back bay of Oleanta Lake in the rolling hill country near the Ohio river. Wisps of steam rose off the water, and a bird somewhere made a really spooky cry. At least his father told him it was a bird. A loon, he’d said. Vince wasn’t sure if the name was a joke or not. The cry sounded crazy, and he supposed someone might have named a bird that made that sound the loon.

“It’s safe,” his father said.

He nodded. The boat moved if Vince moved. He could feel it. It was action-reaction—simple Newtonian physics. He should be able to compensate. The variables were known: his weight, height, angle of lean, center of mass, the friction coefficient of the surface area of the bottom of the boat against the lake water.

“Fish are waiting,” his father said. “Daylight’s-a-wastin’, and they won’t wait forever for us to pluck ’em out’a the lake.”

His father? Vince barely remembered the man. He was weather-tanned and tall, broad like a weight-lifter but dressed in his olive green game warden’s uniform. He was a myth, a wild country legend that Vince’s mother despised.

Feet braced wide for a better center of gravity, he slipped his blue-jeaned butt forward off the front bench of the punt. Knees bent to create springs to absorb movement, he managed to stand.

“Good.” His father sat, hands on oars, making casual, micro-movements to steady the boat. “It’s really just physics,” he said. “I hear from the school you’re really good at that stuff.” His father handed him a fishing rod.

Vince managed to nod without falling out of the boat.

“The reel goes on the bottom,” his father said. “Open faced-reels hang down below the rod for balance.”

Vince let the reel drop low. The stem that held the reel to the rod slipped in between his fingers.

“Don’t worry, son,” his father said. He let go of an oar and adjusted his cap. “I’ll teach you what you need to know.”

Vince was sure he looked like a rank beginner. He hated looking like a beginner in front of this man, which was pretty silly since they’d only just met. But his father was a Fish and Wildlife warden, and for the first time he could remember, he was spending time with his father like other kids. Of course, he’d seen the look in his father’s eyes in the eyes of kids at school and in the eyes of other kids’ fathers. The look said it all. Vince was a geek.

“The rod is a spring,” his father said.

“Cool.” Vince heard the shake in his voice. A spring, he thought. Knowable variables. Algebra. No worries. He measured the length and taper with his mind’s eye. He bounced the tip to test material tensioning against the weight of the bulbous gold and fluorescent gold lure at the rod tip.

“Let a little line out,” his father said.

He bounced the tip again. The bright lure bounced. The silver, oval plate spinning on its side tinkled and flashed in the morning sun. No line came out. He tried to pull the line out.

“No,” his father said. “Throw the bale, Son.”

“The what?”

“The wire around the edge of the spool.”

Vince nodded. “Oh.” There was a rigid chrome wire around the edge of the reel. The line left the spool and slipped under a little guide on that wire. “Do I throw the whole rod?”

His father laughed at him.

Not good. Hot embarrassment burned his face. He should have said no when the lawyer came to Vanderpender for him. It was a moment of decision. He had created the wrong universe with his decision. He should have picked the universe in which he went to the chess tournament in New Mexico, but some other Vince was in that universe now.

“Sorry,” his father said. “You’ll learn. Try to relax. Hold the rod in your right hand and lift the bale away from the face of the reel until it clicks.

He listened. He did exactly what he’d been told. The bale clicked open, and the lure dropped like the lead weight it mostly was. It hit the bottom of the punt and made a metallic clank. Vince wanted to melt away and hide from the steady eyes of his father. “Sorry,” he said.

“No need,” his father said. “That’s supposed to happen.”

“Really?”

“Yup.”

He searched the tanned lines of his father’s face for signs of suppressed ridicule or judgment. All he saw was joy and confidence.

His game warden dad said, “Now, crank the handle with your left hand.”

He did. The bale snapped back over the reel face and picked up the line. The spool turned, and the lure lifted from the bottom of the boat.

“Stop.” his father said.

Vince did. The lure hung a foot or so off the rod tip. Vince started to feel a little confidence. He thought he was getting it. A counterweighted lever: reel underslung, fulcrum at his wrist, tapered fiberglass spring, eighteen inches of eight-pound test monofilament with plus or minus 3 percent elasticity and a two ounce weight dangling like a pendulum.

Manageable variables.

The boat rocked.

Vince almost lost his balance. It was a lot to keep track of: rod, reel, line, boat, balance. . . The equations danced in his head, but he managed to keep the numbers clean and ordered.

“It’s okay,” his father said. “My fault. We were drifting near a submerged stump.”

“We could crash?” Vince asked. “And sink?”

His father laughed again. The laugh echoed off the Ohio hills. The weird bird trilled it’s eerie response. “Bump and maybe rock,” his father said. “Even if we had a hole the size of a basketball in the bottom, the boat would float. The seats are full of buoyant foam.”

“Do I cast now?” Vince had once seen a guy cast while clicking through YouTube channels. The title of the video had been, “Surface Tension,” and Vince had thought the video was about molecular cohesion. Instead, it was about a man who went fishing after a fight with his wife.

“Yeah,” his father said. “There’s big bass in these stumps. With a little luck, you’ll pick one up.”

He swung the rod tip back and let the pendulum weight ride its arc. He felt the rod-spring load. He calculated the rate of load and the point of maximum arc. He pushed the rod forward against the maximum loading to increase the loading. He snapped his arm forward and let the rod tip unload.

The weighted lure came forward, swung fast around the rod tip, and spun in a fast eighteen inch circle around the whipping tip. The lure went nowhere.

This sucked. He was sure he had done the calculations right. The weight should have pulled line out and gone approximately thirty yards in a rising twenty degree arc over the plane of the water’s surface.

“Try again,” his father said. “This time get ready for your cast by hooking and holding the line with your index finger then throwing the bale.”

Vince nodded. He considered tossing the whole rod into the lake. He could probably get away with it. His father wouldn’t know it wasn’t just a stupid kid’s accident. Instead, he opened the chrome wire covering the face of his spin-caster. It rotated out and clicked into place. The gold and fluorescent lure dropped to the punt bottom again.

His father chuckled.

Vince’s face warmed. He avoided his father’s gaze, instead he looked away and off across the misty pond. Cold, wet air filled his nostrils with the smell of algae, muck banks, and the surrounding forest. This wasn’t his world. It was all wrong. He sniffed and blinked back tears. He’d made the same mistake twice.

“I’m sorry, son. I should have said to pull your finger in tight. Like this.” His father reached up and wrapped a large, calloused hand around Vince’s small, pale hand. He positioned Vince’s hand and finger. “Like you’re squeezing a trigger so the line doesn’t fall away.”

Vince reeled in his line. He pulled his finger tight against the line. He threw the bale again.

“We need to get out together more,” his father said. “Too much time in those math books makes you forget how to explore possibilities. If everything is by the numbers—all formulas and figures, physics and calculations—you start thinking you have to have a right answer every time. It’s just not true, Son. Some things don’t have right answers. Some things, you have just have to feel to really understand.”

Vince set the tip of the rod back. He flipped it forward. He pointed his finger at his target. The line released, and the lure arced out over the lake. He said, “Twenty degrees. Three meters of rise. Sixty meters of travel.” The lure splashed down.

“Perfect!” his father said. “That was perfect. You’ve been practicing.”

“Conservation of angular momentum augmented by the spring loading of the fiberglass tip resulting from momentum. The lure weighs 2.5 ounces, according to the package. The tensile strength of the line is 8 lbs. The thickness is negligible. Elasticity is maybe 3% over three meters. The coil friction in unwinding is a primary variable in achievable distance and must be weighed in a function against the acceleration imparted by unloading the fiberglass spring.”

His father stared at him, his olive green cap high on his forehead. “What?”

“Formulas and figures, Dad. A right answer.”

“Uh-huh.” His father recovered a bit. “Maybe there’s math for that cast, but there’s no math for the brain of a fish.”

“The Rule of Very Large Numbers. Chaos Theory and I suspect a certain amount of quantum synchronicity could be applied.” Vince grinned. Fishing was starting to make sense.

“You’re saying you can tell how to catch a fish using math?”

“I’m saying that if a person really needed to, he could probably figure out where the fish are and when they would bite by knowing a lot about where the fish aren’t and when they don’t bite.”

“I have to get you away from your mother and her damn boarding schools before you’re ruined,” his father said.

Vince was confused. He thought he’d done it right. He cranked his reel, and the bale locked shut. The rod tip dipped, and Vince jerked his arm up.

“Easy, boy. Take it easy. That’s just the lure hitting bottom. Water’s not deep here. Only about ten feet. Just reel the lure in.”

He nodded. He reeled. The line cut a V-shaped wake in the water.

“Feel the tip bumping? That’s the lure action, son. You want that. Reel too slow, the rod tip gets quiet. Reel too fast, and the lure spins differently. You need to get the lure to look like a fish moving along with a gimp fin.”

“Point five revolutions of the crank per second. Spindle rotation is 3.5 RPS. Tip bob at 2 BPS.”

“BPS?”

Vince grinned. “Bobs per second. I made it up.”

His father actually laughed at his joke.

The rod tip pulled hard. It went down almost to the water.

“Lift the tip.” his father said.

Vince lifted the tip of the rod over his head. He felt the deep drag of something heavy on the line.

“Okay, now reel enough to keep the line taught but not enough to drag the fish in.”

“How big is the fish?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then how do I know how hard to reel?”

“Feel it in your hands.”

“How?” Vince was frantic. He had no math for this. His numbers left him, and the line was darting to one side, the tip following. He tried to reel, but the rod bucked in his hand. He lost his grip on the crank.

The V slipped sideways one way, then the other. The bent rod tip followed like it was alive.

“Feel that?” his father asked. “You have to feel the fish now. Keep the tip high. Lead him.”

“How!? Where!?”

“It’s a big fish, boy. A damn big one.”

Vince recovered the crank. He reeled. He felt the pull of the fish, but it didn’t mean anything. It was just pull. His reel clicked. Line dragged out against the gears of the reel.

“I’m reeling, but the line goes out.”

“Good. That’s good. Just keep tension on the line.”

“The line’s still going out.”

“The drag is set to let a big fish pull without breaking the line.”

“How strong is the drag?”

“I don’t know.”

Vince didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all. There were too many variables, too many possibilities. If he lost a big fish, his father would laugh at him again. He couldn’t lose the fish. Couldn’t!

The fish darted left hard.

“Keep him out of the logs!” his father called. He pulled on the oars. Vince almost fell. He lifted the tip to the right as high as he could. His mind raced. He wanted to see the fish, to know what he had hooked.

The answer came to him in a blinding flash, a white hot thought born of the need to see his father smile. It wasn’t Newtonian at all. It was a probability alignment problem. Quantum geometry. He had to force the correct configuration of line, rod tension, and fish movement. He might be able to create a synchronous probability point and access universal potentials.

He lead the fish with the rod tip. He didn’t have time to crunch the numbers. A perfectly correct answer would take years and computers he didn’t have. He had to approximate, to find the configuration. Odds were stacked badly against him. The dark energy rip expansion death of the universe had better numbers than him landing this fish.

He had to try.

“Feel it,” his father yelled.

Of course, he thought. His father understood fishing—could feel it. So could he.

The rod tip dipped. The fish turned. The boat twisted. The line made a sound like a piano wire breaking.

A universe Vince did not want to live in was about to be spawned by his failure. Vince’s mind raced, searching for the feel of the thing, the way of it, the moment of solution.

He found it in a white-hot flash of understanding, and the sound of the loon bird stopped. The tiny lapping of waves against the side of the boat went silent. He and his father stood on the still deck of the punt. The line went out from the tip of the rod to the surface of the water. Tendrils of motionless mist hovered in the silent air. Breeze-driven ripples stood in long wave lines, motionless, even where interference effects cancelled or amplified the intersecting wave forms. Fifty feet from the boat, a large-mouth bass hung in the air, frozen, surrounded by motionless water spray and refraction rainbows.

“What the Hell?” his father said.

“Hold this,” Vince said. He handed his father the rod. “Keep the line tight. Don’t let the rod tip dip.”

His father’s mouth gaped. Still, he nodded and took the rod.

Vince stepped out of the boat and walked across the surface of the lake to the fish. He carefully unhooked the bass then walked back to the boat. He put the bass in the five-gallon paint bucket they had brought for their catch.

“Okay,” he said, “Give me the rod.”

Silent, eyes wide, his father gave the rod back.

Vince gave the reel a sharp crank. The rod tip snapped upward. The line streaked up out of the water, slicing a line of spray across the surface of the lake. The lure shot back toward the boat, a steaming red-hot streak. It hooked his father’s cap and dragged it right across the boat and into the lake. Hat, lure, and lake boiled and steamed.

“What in Sam Hill?!” His father put a hand to his bare head.

“Sorry, Dad.” Vince reeled in the cap.

“Holy Mary and Joseph!” his father said.

Vince unhooked the warm, wet hat and handed it to his father.

The mist twisted. The ripples rolled. The weird bird called out across the empty lake.

He’d done it. Vince inhaled a lung full of the fresh, lake air. He’d caught his first fish, and his father seemed impressed. Finally, he looked in the bucket at his fish. It was a big one. Maybe six pounds. The fish thrashed it’s tail and splashed water up out of the bucket.

“You got it,” his father said. “It’s real.”

“Did I do it right?” Vince asked.

“You walked out there and got the fish.” His father pointed out over the water.

“I did okay?”

“How?”

“I didn’t do it right?”

“What did you do?”

“Are you mad at me?”

Vince’s father dropped his oars and let them float free in their oar locks. He twisted his cap to get the water out. He put the wet hat back on his head. “No, Vince. I’m not mad. I just don’t understand what you did. It all happened so fast. The sun must have gotten to me. I could have sworn you walked out on the water and picked up the fish. Hell, it looked like the fish just waited in mid-jump for you to come and get it.”

“I was afraid it would get away,” Vince said.

“So you walked out and got it?”

Vince nodded. Embarrassed that he hadn’t done what his father had wanted. “How was I supposed to do it?”

His father looked at the fish in the bucket. Then he looked at his son. “Boy,” he said, “You did it exactly the way you were supposed to. I just didn’t know you had it in you. I’ve never been more impressed by anyone or anything in my whole life.”

Vince beamed. He reached in the bucket to touch his fish.

“Can we let it go, Dad?”

His father grinned at him and nodded.

Shocked, Vince looked at his father. “If you like. I mean, I just did what you told me. I was afraid I’d lose him. You told me to just feel it.”

“Son, you’ve got a feel for it you didn’t learn from your old man, and if you’re willing, I’d sure love to learn it.”

“Sure, Dad.” Vince lifted the bucket and let the bass slip back into the lake.

-END-

Writers Talk to Strangers, by Eric Witchey

FlatTirePhoto Source: dzika_mrowka via iStockPhoto

Writers Talk to Strangers by Eric Witchey

Recently, I wrote an essay in this space about a walk by hugging. Now, I’m writing about the value of talking to strangers. Over the years I have learned that other people’s stories mix with my own experiences to create the power behind my best fiction. The more I try to insulate myself, the flatter my fiction becomes.

How does that fit with our culture of “stranger danger?”

“Never talk to strangers,” my Mom said.

I was maybe four or five.

How many moms tell their children that? How many photos of people focused on newspapers, tablets, and cell phones have we seen? There they are, grouped together and not looking at each other on busses, trains, planes, and streets. In fact, we have so completely internalized this experience that when someone does look at us, we think something might be wrong with them—unless they are very attractive. Isn’t it odd, that their attractiveness makes any difference at all? Ah, but that’s a topic for another essay.

Many years ago, I attended the Writers of the Future seminars in Hollywood. I am forever grateful for that experience. While there, Tim Powers and Algis Budrys sent their students out onto Hollywood Boulevard on a quest to find a total stranger and interview them about their lives. The goal was to get more than the merely superficial, “Hi, how are you. What’s your name? Why are you in Hollywood?”

It did it. Luckily, I was perhaps more prepared to do it than some of my friends. My life at that point had included things like living under a bridge for a brief period, hustling for meals, selling crap door-to-door, schlepping 2x4s, too many drugs, living without food, hitchhiking across the country a couple of times, putting myself through college, and more. All of those experiences included the humility of seeking to connect to people I had never met in ways that would allow me to survive. So, I shook off the pesky film crew that had been sent to follow me around, and I found a well-dressed young man sitting at an outdoor café table reading the want ads. Beside him, he had the kind of well-worn, stuffed backpack that marked him as what we now call “homeless.”

When I was homeless, it wasn’t called that. It was called “transient.” I much prefer that term.

Anyway, the contrast of pack, clothing, and want ads told me he had a story. I asked to sit down, bought him a coke, and just listened. He had a story, which I won’t record here. Rather, I’ll just say that it was epic and heroic. From his story and my own experiences in life, I built a bit of fiction called “Wheel of Fortune.”

Though “Wheel” hasn’t appeared in print, I have actually sold the story twice.

So it goes.

Over the years, I have taken pleasure in the stories of strangers when I can. From them, I have generated a number of powerful tales. I listened to the tale of a man who painted a room for me. He was sixty-eight and had spent 40 years in prison for murder, an act he freely admitted to. I came to like him. That’s another story. The point is that I listened to him. I even transcribed some of his experiences from a journal he kept while living through prison riots. He was very grateful. His memories were, in his heart, his legacy. I agree.

I listened to the tale of a man who travelled the roads of America with his thumb out. He was on his way home to marry his pregnant girlfriend, a woman who had sent him out during her pregnancy to get his adventures in while he could. I have often wondered how their story turned out. She had some guts, and so did he. I admired her courage because she knew what he needed and sent him out to do it when others would have tried desperately to cling to him. I admired his because he was on his way back to her in a situation where lesser men would have just disappeared.

Wonderful stuff for fiction, there.

I listened to a recovering addict who had lost everything, meaning millions, to his ex-wife, lawyers, and bankruptcy. Like the murderer, he owned his actions and choices, and he loved his dog and his new, simpler life managing a trailer park.

Then, there was the man who wanted to create a railroad museum. He had hope even though he was dying. An old friend had given him a home as a night watchman at an abandoned industrial park. There, he dreamed of his museum while his health failed.

The list of hopes and dreams and lives goes on and on.

But sitting still, encouraging, and making a safe space in which another can tell their tale is not the only kind of listening a writer can make use of.

Yesterday, in a downpour that was something special if an Oregonian calls it a downpour, I was on the way to my bank. In the parking lot, I saw four women trying to change a tire. My first instinct was to offer help. That’s how my father trained me. I shook off dear old Dad.

I was in a hurry. After all, a computer crash and lines down had put me a week behind in my personal goals and responsibilities. I had this essay due at midnight. I had clients to serve. I had my own business to attend to in the bank. Their flat was none of my business, right? They should have bought better tires. They should have Triple A like me. They should… blah, blah, blah, selfish, egocentric blah.

Ah, thank God for Dad. His voice reminded me of the time I took shelter from a similar cold, winter downpour. I sat shaking under an interstate overpass in Wyoming curled up in a damp sleeping bag with my equally chilled and whimpering dog. A kind couple saw us, stopped, and gave us a ride all the way to Iowa. We were headed from Idaho to Ohio for Christmas. We took turns driving and sang Christmas carols. Nobody had a cell phone or a tablet to stare at.

At the very least, I could offer the unused umbrella I keep in the back of my car for when I go rain-soft and indulge my Midwestern self instead of manifesting my pride as an unbrellaless Oregonian.

The umbrella is a special, high-wind umbrella, and the winds were high. The women welcomed it in spite of the fact that they were Oregonians. Once I had handed it to the eldest of the four and mansplained how to hold it to take advantage of its special features, two of the women decided I wasn’t “strange.” The third, I suspect, only spoke Spanish. The fourth was busy with lug nuts.

Since they had relaxed a bit, I took a few breaths to check out the situation. They had two jacks, one lug wrench, and a soaked, working floor pad placed to protect their clothing. The flat tire rested solidly on the ground, and the youngest woman was trying her best to loosen the nuts.

I said, “Wow. You’ve done this before. You know what you’re doing.” For those who don’t understand how I knew this, it was because she was loosening the nuts before lifting the car. She was using the mass of the car to provide leverage. The young woman stopped, turned to me, made real eye contact for the first time, and said, “Yes.”

We had a short moment of silence, then she made a decision and said, “But I can’t get the nuts to break loose.”

“Can I try?”

She nodded.

We traded positions. The problem was that she had neither upper body strength to pull up nor the body mass to press down to break the lug nuts free. I had both—okay, well not really. I had the mass, but I didn’t tell the four women that. We’ll just keep it between us.

Once I had broken the nuts free, she loosened them up. I jacked up the car for them. Then, when I saw that they had the problem well under control, I left them with the umbrella and a couple of my tools and went to do my banking. When I came back out, I provided moral and physical support to their efforts until they were finished. All they needed from me was one tool and my body mass.

While I was driving away, the youngest woman, the one who so clearly knew what she was doing, graced me with a puzzled look. I smiled and waved and left. We never exchanged names. We never talked about anything other than her car. She and her friends will tell their version of the tale, which is, of course, different from mine.

On my end, I have new story material about the rain, the cold, the umbrella, and the fear of a stranger approaching. The story, when I write it, will include combined anxieties and reliefs. It will include surprises and uncertainties. It will include confusion and reconsideration of the whole idea of “Don’t talk to strangers.” The story will include kindness and, if I can figure out how, statistics about how truly safe we are and how community is interaction rather than homogenous reaction to perceived threats. If I’m lucky, I might even manage to generate a little hope by displaying how listening to people is sometimes paying attention to what they do and how they do it before interrupting them and showing them how they should do it. We’ll see.

The important bit for me was that I reminded myself that the walk-by-hugging had value. It reminded me to spread the joy and pay attention to the tiny, unconsidered fears that stop me from interacting.

Stories live all around us. Everyone has many. Over the years, I have learned that other people’s stories mix with my own experiences to create the power behind my best fiction. The more I try to insulate myself, the flatter my life, and my fiction, become.

-End-