Angie is reading a book by the guy on whom they based “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” I’ve read neither book nor seen the movie, so this is a second-hand anecdote and second-hand commentary, but I thought it was worth sharing. Apparently, this world chess champion learned the game starting at the very end point: only two kings and one pawn left on the board. While most people learned a lot about opening strategies, he learned the core of the game, so that when he got down to the hardest part, he was in familiar territory. This also stripped the game to its essentials, and he studied how the king moved, what the king could do, and likewise, the particular abilities of the pawn.
Since we are constantly talking about structure in our household (not the kind of structure that assures you the right amount of clean laundry at the beginning of the week, alas, but the kind that gives your novel or your screenplay a spine), it struck Angie that this was a great metaphor, this idea of stripping a game down to its core. And the core of a novel or a screenplay? The structure. The plot/ story.
Here is an example of the problem with talking structure while mother two toddlers. We were driving over to Whole Foods (product placement in a blog? could I get paid for this?) to go shopping, and I was trying to give her E. M. Forster’s distinction between story and plot (from Aspects of the Novel).
The king died and then the queen died is a story, said I blithely. The queen died and no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was due to grief over the death of the king.
Angie did not think much of the story version. That’s just two events, she said, and all across Oxford Street we argued about it. Because Forster is brilliant, and I wanted her to get it and him and his brilliance. Just as we were turning left up Dwight, I remembered something. Wait, wait, I said, interrupting her third argument against Forster’s distinction. I got it wrong. It goes like this: the king died and then the queen died of grief is a story . . .
It so happens that that very corner of Oxford and Dwight is the one and only place in my life where I ever turned the wrong way down a one-way street. In my defense, I was a very new driver distracted (as we all fear new drivers are) by my friends and the general hilarity of being sixteen and looking for something scintillating to do on a Friday night in a college town where you’ve lived all your life. See the very first photo I’ve appended to a blog, below.
These days my excuse is the fact that I am very often forced to choose between sleep and reading, writing, that sort of necessary-to-living activity, and as a result, I am a wee bit tired.
That said, my children are inspiring to me, even as a writer. Charlie, for example, is obsessed with the “‘puter,” and has thus far typed nearly seven pages in about a week. All of us could be as productive if we’d sit ourselves down (ideally on the lap of someone who thinks everything we do is genius) and play around on the keyboard.
Summing this all up:
(Please note: the colon comes first and by force must be followed by something, which I will now invent, ideally before Charlie’s random dialing on the telephone reaches China . . .)
Get to the core. What is your story about?
Nurture a passion for typing, a pleasure in the miraculous appearance of each new letter in response to the prompting of your very own fingers.
If you can’t win an argument, keep at it until some new evidence occurs to you (or you invent it).
If you are struggling with a manuscript, keep at it until some new evidence occurs to you (or you invent it.)
If you wish you were older and less giddy, keep on keeping on.
“Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” — Will Rogers
If this meandering blog doesn’t satisfy you, let me offer this in addition: I am teaching a free class on dialog on Feb. 26 (Thursday) be tele-conference. Check it out at my online classroom community and then shoot me an email if you’d like to join us. There will be another one on March 11 (Wednesday) on rising action. Come to one or the other, or sign up for 4 or 12 weeks of my life-changing technique class and get both additional classes for free. Malvina Reynolds sang, “Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.” Technique classes work much the same way.