“I trespass in abandoned houses. I spy on the people who once lived inside, watching them through the telescope of time…”
I stopped going to the dentist around the time I started needing gynecological exams. It was on the waning end of adolescence that first I felt an OB crank me open with a speculum for a look-see. I have a general aversion to exposure; I was, and still am, wary of being peered into. Tender situations are to be avoided, though I know the effort is often futile. (In the dark of the movies, people still hear you sniff.) Still, I attempt to exert control where possible. While I resigned myself to (approximately) yearly pap smears, at the onset of adulthood I bought an electric toothbrush and reasoned I was free of professional dentistry for the rest of my life. The trouble is that dodging vulnerability is ill-advised from both hygienic and artistic standpoints.
Recently, a severe pain emanating from one of my molars trumped my dread of oral examination. We recently moved to Tustin, California, to live with my husband’s grandmother, Helen. I don’t know any dentists in our new city, so I made an appointment with Helen’s dentist. I say I don’t know any dentists, but what I mean is, I don’t know anyone here. I moved from a relatively progressive area where I felt I fit, to a place that’s been referred to as the Orange Curtain. I don’t start conversations with my stranger-neighbors, as I suspect I could become sweaty and upset. I remain indoors and avoid confrontation, as confrontation makes me feel vulnerable.
On the day of my appointment, I’d been working on an essay to send to my MFA mentor. My writing routine is an isolated one. It involves sitting alone at the dining room table. The air conditioner ticks on, blasts cool air into the house, then ticks off. I read and type. Read and delete. Type more and delete. Other than the intermittent gush of the AC, all is quiet. In the back yard it’s so hot that the cherry tomatoes split open, but looking out there from within my controlled climate, I see the glossy hibiscus leaves bat against one another silently and I can almost forget that the earth is roasting.
I spent that morning sitting inside, high on bottomless espressos, conducting a one-sided conversation. My writing was glib and clunky. My wheels spun, but I could catch no traction. This happens to me a lot.
When I arrived at the dentist, the receptionists were cheery and attentive. Bafflingly, they offered tiny bundt cakes at their desk, stacked in a basket, sweating against their Saran Wrap. I approached the counter to announce myself. I asked if the cakes were sugar-free. The receptionist tilted her head and shrugged, “No, they’re just regular cakes.”
“Ah! Delicious!” I said, because my past experience with cake has always been pleasant, and I didn’t want to appear critical of the fact that my new dentist gave out desserts after treating dessert-related cavities. (Was this some sort of test?) I wanted to appear breezy and unafraid.
Very soon I was asked to come back and “relax” in an exam chair. The dental practice was a single room, cut into cubicles like an office. I reclined, half blinded by an overhead exam lamp. The walls of my enclosure were decorated with the languid calligraphy of diplomas. There was also a long black and white photo of rows of students at an English boy’s school. They had fresh but somber faces. A TV in the upper corner was set to Fox News. Two men on either side of a split screen debated the scientific underpinnings of climate change. Behind them was the image of the wall of fire rearing up in northern California.
I was joined by a dental hygienist. I asked if we could switch the TV channel.
“Of course! What would you like to watch?” she said.
“Anything else you have,” I said. She put on HGTV. I looked back into the light, preferring the pain of blinding. The woman clipped a paper bib onto my chest. The dentist entered. He had an English accent. He was fast-talking and chipper.
“Hello, nice to meet you.” We shook hands. “How are you? How’s your day today?”
“I’m fine. I was working earlier. Now I’m here.”
“What’s your work?”
“I was trying to write an essay. It’s not going that well. I’m sort of stuck.”
“Oh yeah? What about?”
“Sharks!” He said, tucking his mask straps behind his ears. The chair vibrated and I was unfolded into a fully prone position. He and the hygienist gazed down at me, which I took as a signal that I should expose my teeth. I shut my eyes and opened. The recesses of my mouth were immediately lined with foam. A straw-shaped vacuum dipped under my tongue. Latex fingers touched my gums, moved my lips aside. A tiny metal pick clinked against the clefts of my molars.
Are you supposed to make eye contact with the dentist, I wondered. One benefit of the vaginal exam is that there’s no expectation to look into the doctor’s eyes. They’re occupied with jacking your vagina open like a flat tire, and you’re busy pretending you’re anywhere else. But the dentist’s face was about a foot from my own when he said, “I think they should all be killed.”
I raised my eyebrows. I examined his eyes, which examined my teeth.
I gulped, “Huh?”
“I think all the sharks should be killed. They’re a total menace. No good for anything. Do you know there are beaches where people are too scared to swim? That’s just crazy. I say, shoot the sharks.”
“Also the bears. And mountain lions. And wolves. Hikers are getting attacked on the trails. Why should they have to fear animals when they’re trying to enjoy nature? They should be rounded up and killed.”
My arms twitched at my sides, but I dared not move more. The dentist was dragging a pick across my teeth. The sound was like a saw in my ears.
Did his cheekbones bunch into a smile under that mask? No joke was detectable. I looked to the hygienist. Her gaze was steady, her lashes straight and unfluttering. I was a prisoner at the hate parade. A tool began to whir. I felt it touch my tooth, and the whir became a piercing whine.
“You know that dentist who shot the lion?”
“People really turned on him. He had to close his business, you know. I don’t have any problem with hunting. But I think these Safari hunts are missing the point.”
I allowed myself to hope “the point,” as he conceived it, would redeem him somehow, would prove I only misunderstood him. I was instructed to close my mouth around the hygienist’s little vacuum. I felt it draw all the moisture from my mouth, then all the air from my lungs.
“What they should do is let prisoners loose in the wildlife park. Then they should arm them and let them pick each other off. That’s fairer. And it would alleviate incarceration expenses.”
I might have blacked out a little.
The dentist worked on me for about forty-five minutes. During that time, unencumbered by an interlocutor, he filled the intimate air with his voice. He gave a scene-by-scene synopsis of Dances With Wolves, starring Kevin Costner. This, after asking his hygienist if she had ever seen it, and seeing her shake her head no. He waxed admiring on the subject of Field of Dreams, also starring Kevin Costner. He asked me if I liked it, and when I nodded (as much as possible without jostling the sharp object in my mouth) he said that it was weird that I liked it because it was a men’s movie. His proof? It had not made his wife cry. He proclaimed his disappointment in the movie Wyatt Earp, (again, Kevin Costner). He spoke at length about the gunfight at the OK Corral (Did I know it did not actually take place at the OK Corral?). He grew almost solemn when he praised the film Tombstone, where Val Kilmer portrays Doc Holliday, the eloquent dentist and deadly six-gun shooter.
I looked from one set of eyes to the other. I peered straight into the light and absorbed his confounding soliloquy. Whether or not what happened in the chair classified as a conversation is open to interpretation. It was an exercise in listening; the result of being temporarily freed of the ability to interject.
The light above me switched off. The throb in my sore eyes abated. He was done. The dentist left the room. My mouth was dry when I closed it. I stood, a little wobbly. It was awkward to be standing in the room, eye to eye with the hygienist, who had seen all my teeth and my gums, who had peered under my tongue and onto my stage-lit face for almost an hour. I felt strangely close to her.
Stranger still, when I saw the dentist at the reception counter—when he smiled and said “Good luck on your essay. I’m sure it’ll come out all right!”—I felt peculiar closeness to him. It’s true, he delivered verbal violence with uncanny calm. But in the midst of his speech, I found myself imagining that somewhere inside this semi-deranged Englishman there lived a boy who loved earnest myths of the American West. Who watched exotic, hairy-wristed gunfighters and earnest, stubbly Midwesterners and felt his lusty young heart beat. Who, discovering his penchant for science, considered how Doc Holliday could be a dentist and a daredevil, and felt the limits of his life recede. And when his adult mind lapsed into that liminal childlike space, he imagined he toted a six-gun rather than a sickle probe.
It’s a stretch, I know. This is the dream I had while I was forced to listen longer than I’d wanted. The dentist and I both picked careers that permit a one-sided conversation. But I should know better. What do we learn when we prattle on in isolation? What might we learn about others when we prostrate ourselves before them? What might we learn about ourselves? Sometimes we learn that we have HPV. (No, not me. This friend I have.) Sometimes we are told, reprovingly, that we are lucky we have very sound teeth. People also say some hateful shit. We can’t avoid exposure if we plan to understand, let alone write about, human beings with any nuance. If we are going to manage a credible response—an essay, a poem, an interpretive dance, a marching song—we need to settle in for a long listen. It might be hot, but we need to step outside.
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
— Gustave Flaubert
For the past few months, I’ve been investigating what it means to “slow down” in order to support and deepen a viable creative practice. I’ve looked at adjusting rhythms of transport and control, and a new way of listening. This month, I want to address sanely (safely) approaching difficult narratives.
Antioch’s Creative Writing MFA includes an explicit focus on the pursuit of social justice. That means a lot of writers in the program, including myself, explore narratives—personal and otherwise—ripe with catastrophe. These might involve abuse, bigotry, racial and/or gender bias, or flagrant crimes against humanity. It’s cruel and awful stuff, which challenges our equilibrium. Or it ought to.
In order to swim in these pools (meandering among metaphors) and find something useful to say, it’s a good idea to shore up that equilibrium in whatever ways we can, including planting ourselves in communities of like-minded fellows, and developing a strong sense of what we are hoping to accomplish. This is what I mean by finding and claiming a safe place from which to work.
What does finding a safe place—what Flaubert calls being “regular and orderly in your life”—have to do with slowing down? Well, for the purpose of this series, I’ll define “slowing down” as any practice that demands our consideration and conscious, thoughtful choice in the interest of deepening our work.
An appetite for trouble
The world is not a particularly safe place, and for those of us who—by virtue of history or sensibility—do swim in the perpetual potentiality of catastrophe, there is no illusion, even, of safety.
I was raised in a home ruled by the impetuous violence of unnamed mental illness. We never knew when things were going to blow up. The experience of mother-love was married to constant danger, which infected the family fabric. Even with parents long-gone, we sisters still walk the world in fear that our essence will get eaten—most likely by one another—if we ever dare to let down our guard.
The nature of our home life created in me an appetite for trouble. I sought serial boyfriends who had suffered psychotic breaks, done terrifying things. I spent years in Israel-Palestine during the Second Intifada, took deep dips into the Holocaust, had a big job in Rwanda twenty years (a.k.a. five minutes) after the 1994 genocide. I choose to live in Downtown LA because the sad stuff on Skid Row is right there on the surface, not simmering underneath.
Yesterday morning, 4:30 a.m. I was wide awake at my desk in the home I share with my husband, Marty, and dog, Billie. We’ve lived here nine years, by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my toppling nomad life.
Marty and Billie were fast asleep in the nook at the opposite end of our loft. It was pouring down rain outside, streaming down the windows. Big, gracious, sloppy drops in this time of terrible drought.
It was early enough in Downtown LA to be quiet enough to hear the rain falling, punctuated by the occasional car or truck ripping into the thick wetness of Main Street below. There were faraway sirens and the click-click-click of Billie’s nails on the concrete floor when she realized I was up, pranced in from the bedroom, and curled up on the red rug at my feet.
Safety in community
Yesterday was Day Two of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. I took the whole day off, despite looming deadlines and massive amounts of work as yet undone. I was greedy. The day before, I had discovered an unexpected sanctuary in the basketball gym where Ikar, the Los Angeles synagogue to which I belong, meets to worship. It’s the first synagogue to which I have ever belonged. Outside the home I’ve made with Marty, it is my first sensed sanctuary. Time spent in that gymnasium with that community, I realized after Day One, is precious time where I-who-has-never-felt-safe, feels safe.
Facing what is incomprehensible
There was nothing cozy or coddling at Ikar’s Rosh Hashanah service. Rabbi Brous’s sermon challenged us to face our collective human inclination to zone out in the face of terrible events. We wake up for a moment to reports of a school killing, a racially motivated mass murder, the photo of a dark-haired three-year old in a red shirt and shorts lying on the beach. The boy seems to be asleep but, no, Eylan Kurdi is dead. Drowned when Eylan’s father Abdullah, in the effort to get his family safe—out of war-torn Syria to Canada via Turkey—could not save his wife Rehen, or his son Eylan, or five-year-old Galip. The waves on the Mediterranean were too high and too fierce for their small boat to endure, and Rehen and the boys could not swim.
Last week, the image of Eylan on the beach flashed across all our screens, suddenly waking our collective empathy to a crisis that has been ongoing for the past four years.
Faced with the dead boy on the beach, the world woke up and said, Something must be done. Some stingy Western states finally opened their doors. Ikar arranged to partner with a Catholic hospital in Germany, which offered to house hundreds of the hundreds of thousands who need housing. That is not nothing.
And then we—the collective we—will go back to sleep.
A sense of impotence
We go back to sleep because when we see the image of tiny Eylan, one in many, many millions of Syrians who have fled their homes, when the veil lifts on the too-widespread hatred that inspired the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, when we become aware of the entitled police killings of people of color, we feel utterly paralyzed, impotent. There is the immediate outcry, but ultimately we sense there is nothing we can do, and that is too much for our poor psyches to handle. We have no idea what to do with the information we have been given. We have no place to file it. Sleep seems safe. Of course, it is not.
Strength in purpose
During one of the times I was in residence in Israel, I was invited to perform a solo play at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. They gave me a private VIP tour of the new galleries in which, as with many things Israeli, there was no gentleness, no filter, no effort to slowly introduce newcomers to the full Holocaust narrative. Rather, my guide deposited me in the first room, and bam. I was face-to-face with twenty-odd videotaped survivor testimonies, all rolling at the same time, each describing unimaginable horrors. On the walls were gruesome facts, figures and images. I could not take it in. After about ten minutes in just that first gallery, I was hyperventilating, saying to myself, No No No. Out loud. It was just me and that poor clueless guide. She didn’t know what to do. I asked for the ladies room, ran out the gallery door, down the long hallway, past the many more galleries I was expected to visit that day. I threw open the doors into the courtyard at the end of the hall. The cool autumn air. I fell to my knees and I wailed.
I compare that experience at Yad Vashem with the full year I spent in the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Collection (the Hole) in the basement of Doheny Library at the University of Southern California. I was there doing research for a play I was commissioned to write for an event that would mark the official opening of the archive.
In that basement, I had a job to do. It was my responsibility to bring forth from the archive’s morass of documents and ephemera a story that had never before been told. The process of reviewing the narratives cataloged there was excruciating, indeed, but I knew why I was there. I had a purpose. I wept, and I stayed, and I applied every writerly tool I had to the work at hand.
The safe place for me in the face of that deeply difficult material was my sense of purpose, intention, and craft, along with the responsibility I felt as an artist hired to bring forth from awful narratives a story with which an audience would be able to engage.
The material itself, unsorted, evoked impotence. All those people were dead; there was nothing they could have done. There is nothing we can do.
Making story: from impotence to agency
In the Hole, I discovered I’m allergic to impotence. Trained as an actor, my whole identity is grounded in doing things—preferably impossible things. My job on this planet, as I understand it, is to identify and fiercely pursue an objective. Besides, if we succumb to the sense that we are impotent, we give in to perpetrators who have—historically, in every crime, big or small—begun their bad work by making victims believe they were powerless.
And there’s no way we’re going to do that.
The very making of story shatters impotence, offers the reader a realm in which they have agency. And we do have agency.
We makers of story have a job to do. We stand as witness to terrible things. We take them in, chew, swallow, digest, metabolize, sort through for details and meanings that resonate, all the while knowing none of it will ever make sense. That level of cruelty will never make sense.
Which brings me back to the notion of safe place and Flaubert’s counsel (to artists, specifically) to keep our lives “regular and orderly,” that our work may be “violent and original.” To me, that means having the discipline to accept the sanctuary of a safe place, a like-minded community, a clear purpose, in order to be able to do the rough work we are called to do.
With our feet planted firmly in that ground, we can afford to tear things open—write bloody—without endangering our own fragile equilibrium, the platform at the edge, from which we stand as witness.
Shana tova = good year.
I’m in therapy for an abusive relationship, but I spend most of my weekly fifty-minutes cracking jokes for my psychologist. A few weeks ago she pointed out that I laugh whenever I reveal something that hurt me. “When your boyfriend shoved you, how did you feel?” she asked. “One time I kneed him in the balls. That was rad. That time felt good.” I smiled, evil-laughed—buhaha. According to her, that response missed the point.
This is the way I see it: if we don’t laugh, it’s just sad. I learned that from my father, who was once attacked by a woman with a garden hoe and went on to name this the Crazy Hoe Incident. We don’t laugh to minimize the seriousness of a situation; we laugh to alleviate the pain, make it bearable. Humor is how I rally. It’s how I navigate conversations with my mother when she wants to know why I don’t want to have a bridal shower one day. It’s easier than saying, currently I feel terribly alone, and my self-esteem fluctuates between unreasonably low and totally shot, and frankly I’m not great at relationships (see: therapy). I fear she awaits a marriage that is unlikely to happen. If one reads between the lines of my deflections, they’ll discover vulnerability. The meaning and substance hasn’t changed, only the delivery.
And so, I am a comedy-enthusiast. Netflix curated for me a list of stand-up acts, as I’ve all but given up on movies. On solo-date nights, I treat myself to an improv show at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. I read books written by comedians. I don’t think of comedy as lowbrow; in fact, I’m offended when humorous authors aren’t accorded the literary world’s approval stamp.
Humor, I believe, is as effective a tool and as difficult a form of expression as anything else. Ultimately, humans seek pleasure, and writers hope to entertain, to arouse and sustain a reader’s interest. We have stories of suffering that must be told, and humor is a viable conduit. Comedy helps readers connect with characters; comedy helps readers swallow uncomfortable or painful truths.
In 2012, comedian Tig Notaro experienced a rough few months that culminated with her walking onstage at the Los Angeles comedy club, Largo, and addressing the packed audience: “Hello. Good evening, hello. I have cancer, how are you?”
The timeline preceding that night went like this: In March, Notaro collapsed while filming the movie, In A World, and at the hospital a doctor discovered her insides were inflamed “beyond recognition.” She tested positively for C. diff, an infection of the intestinal tract that causes bacteria to eat away at its victim’s digestive system.
Notaro was released from the hospital a week before her 41st birthday. On March 24, her mom sang to her in a voicemail and expressed her desire to visit California. Two days later, Notaro received a second voicemail, this time from her stepfather. “Your mother fell last night and it looks like she’s not going to make it.” She didn’t.
On June 24, doctors discovered a lump in Notaro’s breast. She underwent a mammogram and eight days later was diagnosed with stage two cancer that could potentially spread throughout her body. The next night, Notaro performed the standup set at Largo, one Louis C.K. later deemed “truly great [and] masterful.” When Notaro asked the audience of the show whether she should change up her material, quit talking about her dead mother and cancer diagnosis, they responded with a resounding no. “This is awesome,” one man shouted.
Psychologist Alex Lickerman wrote in Psychology Today that humor is often considered a mature defense mechanism (compared to a psychotic, immature, or neurotic one) and helps one endure trauma. Lickerman considers laughter a defense against despair because “it diminishes or even eliminates the moment-by-moment suffering we might otherwise experience as a result of a traumatic loss, which actually makes it more likely we will make it through a trauma unmarred.”
Maybe that’s why David Sedaris jokes in The New Yorker that his sister’s suicide is ultimately inconvenient because “you can’t really say, ‘There used to be six [kids]’… it just makes people uncomfortable.” Or why Nancy Mairs laughs at her handicap in an essay called “On Being a Cripple.” Mairs begins the essay with an incident in which her movements in a bathroom stall unbalanced her, and she fell backward and landed fully clothed, legs splayed on the toilet seat—“the old beetle-on-its-back routine.” Disabilities are hardly a laughing matter, but Mairs’ sense of humor gives readers permission to laugh with her and at their own disadvantages.
Almost two years ago I wrote an opinion editorial about slut-shaming. The topic is a personal one for me. When I was eighteen, my boyfriend told me that he felt ashamed of me because I was a slut—I’d slept with other men before him. Never mind that he’d had four times as many sexual partners. Never mind that he had been unfaithful. “Slut” was thrown around often—to win an argument, to guilt me, to prove his superiority over me—and I spent years apologizing for my sexuality. When I set out to write this particular essay, I understood the gravity of slut-shaming and its effects firsthand, but abuse is heavy and discussing it is difficult. I opted to write comedically, using a man’s Tinder profile that said, “Nice guys don’t like dirty girls,” as my angle into the subject. The use of humor in the essay accomplished two things: there was new distance between me and my painful memories, and the topic of abuse was more accessible for readers.
Standup comedy is not unlike writing prose, in that each comic has a shtick, a persona, similar to that of an author’s distinctive voice. Tig Notaro tells jokes deadpan—she takes her time, lets stories unfold slowly. Opposite of that is a comic like Demetri Martin, who veers away from personal stories and tells joke after joke with little to no build-up. In the comedy special, “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend,” Mike Birbiglia tells from start to finish the story of his relationship with a girl named Jenny. It’s heartbreaking, as love stories can be, and hilarious, revealing at the end a true change within himself, the narrator.
Had I the know-how, I’d advise you on what works, what doesn’t. I can make suggestions: include an element of surprise or comparisons that create incongruities, follow the rule of three, truth and irony are funny, timing matters significantly, and for whatever reason ‘K’ sounds are funnier than other sounds. But comedy is an imperfect science. The first advice a comedian would offer is this: go to an open mic night. Try out the jokes you found funny—you’re always your first audience—and pay attention to how the crowd responds. Take the jokes to your therapist, keep a journal of every time she leans her head back laughing and slaps her knee.
In a seminar on writing comedically at last December’s residency, Erin Aubry Kaplan concluded with this: “Comedy implies life is a performance. It is meant to be laughed at.” Hear, hear.
I recently taught a month-long intensive workshop called “Write Your Screenplay in Four Weeks” at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. I’m always struck by how much I learn about writing as I share my own process and watch others develop their own. All my collected rules of writing come into play not only when I sit down and write myself, but also when I teach other writers. From micro to macro, there are patterns of pitfalls and common mistakes, and over time I’ve developed habits to avoid them, which I now like to share with others. Some of the most important of these habits are in learning and applying story structure.
19. Using Polarity
I believe the rules that govern electricity also govern our lives in more ways than we may ever be aware of, and yet our language points this out with many words. For instance, the words we use to describe relationships and situations between people are inherently electrical.
“He has magnetism.”
“She is attractive.”
“There’s tension between them.”
“He is a powerful man.”
“She has a certain energy.”
“He was in charge.”
“I was repelled by him.”
We are electrical beings living in an electrical universe. Drama is the applied use of tension. Tension, power, electricity are created by magnetic force of opposing poles. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler, devotes an entire chapter to the use of polarity in storytelling. Conflict, like magnetic energy, is attractive and draws the reader in.
As you conceive of a story, situation, or scene, think in terms of polarity and opposition.
Opposites attract. The man who is afraid of water ends up on the boat. The unemployed man who hates children ends up finding the only job in town teaching kindergarten. The man, who selfishly wants only to win, gives up the chance of winning for a higher purpose. Character polarities create journeys that engage the reader of a book or the audience of a film.
I wrote the movie Glory Road for Disney based on a true story, and in it I created and honed the character of Don Haskins, a man who wanted nothing more than to win. When he gives up the chance to win in the biggest game of his life, because his black players had suffered so much racism that he felt there were more important things than winning, it is the most moving moment in the film. Character journeys follow these paths of reversals, opposition, and polarity. And character journeys—the lessons, the changes—are what make stories compelling.
Polarity and reversals not only make a story satisfying, they follow an almost inevitable path. A man who has hubris and must be taken down. A man who is oppressed must rise and gain his freedom. The poor man who has nothing becomes a rich man. The rich man loses his fortune. The man who takes his life for granted ends up valuing it deeply.
Stories are about change. The greatest change that happens within a character is the move from one opposing side to the other. If you are looking for drama and a satisfying conflict that draws in the reader or audience, think in polarity terms, pull people in opposite directions, and you will create a compelling story.
20. The Three-Act Structure
What is structure? Structure is all around us. Structure is the matrix in which we live. Structure defines us and confines us. The definition of the word structure includes the action of building, arranging things in patterns, plant structures, soil structure, arrangement of particles, economic structures, and personality structures. Structure orders our language, our thinking, our lives. We live inside buildings we call structures where we live structured lives. We may indeed be “trapped” inside structure. It certainly seems that structure is life.
Like the creation story in Hesiod’s Theogony states, as well as the Bible in Genesis: form—(or structure)—came out of the void—out of chaos. Structure is the antithesis to the void and to chaos. Structure is life and creation.
We live in a three dimensional reality, with a fourth dimension being time. This is how life is structured. It’s the physical reality of how things happen on this planet. We move through space on a timeline. This is the nature of stories: the moving of characters through three-dimensional space over time. The structure that helps us navigate this timeline in a story is the three-act structure.
Richard Russo recently spoke at Antioch about his writing process, and he mentioned that he applies a three-act structure to almost everything he writes. The three-act structure is a pattern of beginning, middle, and ending, the key component of any story.
Screenplays are ruled by the three-act structure, and I have come to be so familiar with it, that I automatically order any story I hear into a three-act structure.
Every screenplay begins in Act I with an initial need/problem/task/goal. By page 10 an inciting incident triggers the mechanism for initial change. By page 30, the end of Act I, life changes into a new direction as a result of decisions about how to handle the changing need/problem/task/goal. Act II is all about what happens on the journey to meet the need/problem/task/goal. And it leads to Act III in which a crisis resolves the need/problem/task/goal, and we see that the journey has changed the character in the process.
As mentioned before, that change is often found through applied polarity. At the end of a story, the initial need will have changed, or was never a need, or was answered in a different way. The initial problem was really an opportunity, or never a problem at all, or turns out to be a different problem. The initial task is met, or not met as circumstances have changed. The initial goal is achieved, or not achieved, but now has new meaning.
The three-act structure does not apply in every case of writing, and there are writers who write against convention in order to defy structure. Even then, by the act of writing against convention, they actually validate the convention.
Applying the three-act structure with polarity in the arc of the main character(s) will help you tell your story in a way that appears deeply ingrained in the very fabric of our lives.
21. Story over Situation
I often see that young writers of screenplays will pitch a concept and never make it out of situation, which means they will need to find the story along the way. A situation is a static event, which might include dilemma and conflict, but does not actually go anywhere. A story is a situation with an element thrown in that causes the narrative to propel forward into change.
A strong story will have movement and structure. A situation doesn’t move.
A harried man, who always drives everywhere, can’t find his car keys.
A harried man, who always drives everywhere, can’t find his car keys and is forced to walk across the city, appreciating it for the first time.
A young man treats girls badly.
A young man who treats girls badly wakes up one morning turned into a hot young woman, and has to experience first hand what guys like him are really like.
A prejudiced man resentfully lives in a neighborhood in which the presence of foreigners has taken over.
A prejudiced man resentfully lives in a neighborhood in which the presence of foreigners has taken over, but when he is drawn into the conflicts of his foreign next-door neighbors he begins to bond with them and ends up sacrificing his life to protect them.
Notice not only how stories are agents of change, but how they also move between polarity and opposition, and have three sections, three acts.
I call these components “story logic.” I have come to see story logic everywhere in life. In writing true stories, I have interviewed many people about their lives, and researched so many figures in history, that an astounding pattern becomes evident to me. People’s lives move along predictable story patterns. Psychology, karma, destiny; they all have an algorithm. The ability to understand story structure not only helps me in my writing, it also helps me navigate life. There is something reassuring about that. I always say, “Give me a beginning and I can tell you the ending.” All it takes is an understanding of the rules of change, polarity, and the rhythm of three acts.
All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois
The following three poems are from the collection Roger That. Click on the page below to view poems as a slide show.
Jenni B. Baker is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Found Poetry Review. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in more than three dozen literary journals, including DIAGRAM, Washington Square, BOAAT, Quarterly West, Nashville Review, and Swarm. Her Oulipo-generated chapbook, Comings/Goings, was released by Dancing Girl Press in 2015. In her current project, Erasing Infinite (http://www.erasinginfinite.
com), she creates poetry from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, one page at a time. She is currently collaborating with composer Patrick Greene on a classical song cycle based on the Erasing Infinite series, set to debut in Chicago in 2016.
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