Because it is still on my heart from the previous post, I continue my observations on the art of storytelling, especially today. In the last post, I decried the lack of spinning a good tale in the modern era and for good reason. It may be the product of our times in that we crank out stories in the same manner as an automobile. We build them, place them on the assembly line and roll them out for public consumption. We never carefully check for any defects or potentially fatal flaws. All that matters is that we get them out in a timely fashion. While an anecdote hasn’t killed anyone (although they can be an inspiration to, depending on genre), with the lack of a strong coherent plot or characters, that printed book might just as well take up space….just like cars in a dealership.
In the last post it was implied classic television shows and novels utilize the elements of theme and mentioned above, characters and plot. When a writer knows how to use the tools of suspense, dramatic tension and humor, they are assured to keep a reader coming back for more. I can recall even as a teenager most of the books I read or television shows watched where these tactics were used, such as the Twilight Zone or Mission: Impossible. In fact, I tend to focus more on programs of a certain era, preferably the years 1956-1970. If you look closely, the episodes look more like plays, as the viewing public had already been exposed to Playhouse 90 and other themed shows of the past. Of course, not all of them followed this method but the stories that entertained while at the same time made you think, those are the ones to remember.
Which captures your imagination more? The quick, grueling gore filled death of a victim by a maniacal serial killer, or the gripping terror of a killer stalking a victim inside an empty building, slower but every second your heart jumps waiting for the action to occur? For all that literary professionals rant about the downward spiral of the quality of storytelling, it’s the pacing of movement within such tale, and we should pay attention and understand. Yes, no one likes to read a ‘boring’ piece of fiction but take to account how much the reader will gain being led to a place where the payoff of learning the fate of a character pays off, or the viewer who watched seven episodes of The Wire before the confrontation between antagonist and anti-hero creates the ‘wow’ factor they have waited for. This is something I have experienced when listening to other, more knowledgeable writers and have seen on print and screen.
Good storytelling requires both writers and readers to consider the little things. What if that single mother turns in the lost $100 bill to the rich man who lost it? What if that first doctor moves the scalp a tad closely to the left at his first brain operation? Real life situations are often addressed with the characters acting as our representatives. It’s not a case of the Lord, but the question is asked, What Would We Do? If it’s a protagonist we care about, we pull for them to get out of the jam they’re in.
As mentioned last time, the public will always desire a good story and the writers who can deliver them. It’s up to us as literary artists to take the time and rather build a story like a car, build it the way it’s supposed to be in the first place; as a work of art which gets better over time, like a painting. Only the independent minded writer ‘gets it’ and is dedicated to that style of art. They are the storytellers who have a lot to say about the human condition and what we can do to improve it, but at their own pace.
Earlier tonight, I decided to sit down and watch some old shows on YouTube, The Outer Limits and Mission: Impossible. My growing years were spent in front of a television set tuned in to my pre-Fox affiliate station in Los Angeles, (actually, it was Metromedia back then) late at night around this time and seeing these programs. There are some who may not agree, but compared to today, these were tense, dramatic well written and well acted shows. While I agree the monster of the week and ‘how many times can the IMF not get caught?’ wore thin over time, there was something about these series that I enjoyed. They kept me engaged.
Living in the 21st Century, there is an over abundance of media to find stories. My question is whether or not they’re good. Example, as stated in an earlier post, the trend for serialized television shows or novels isn’t new; it makes me wonder what direction the creators are leading the audience. Shows like The Wire take their time with their pacing on the plot, focusing on and developing rich and interesting characters, all with a clear direction (sometimes with a twist or two thrown in) on where the particular season is headed. Compared to our modern programs with a few exceptions, what I see is a lack of focus and lack of a long term plan for the stories being told on air.
Thinking about all this makes me wonder where the art of good storytelling went in this modern era. Nowadays when you pick up a printed book or a comic book or any other literary work, there’s something missing there. I would always go to the bookstore or newsstand to take a look at a book that caught my interest. Before the days of sensational content in media, there were plots and themes that spoke to our human condition, examining how one man’s greed either brought his world crashing down upon him, a woman’s extramarital affair turning for the worse, or even a man or woman in confrontation with nature, their own personal demons, themselves. We don’t see that today or there’s a severe lack of what should be labeled as true storytelling.
Pick up any type of books today, printed or illustrated and you’ll see the lack of character development, weak and unexplainable storylines, and non-existent themes. It makes me wonder if my contemporaries care about what they write about anymore. The loud, bold book covers laced with suggestive content may have an excellent story inside, but it’s hidden within the bawdy image of a woman straddling her legs, or the occasional need in comic books to create an event where the object isn’t to make the reader think about the reason for it and the deeper meaning, it’s used to kill off a favorite hero or villain with the intent of bringing them back at some point. (Case in point; the unpardonable sin of Marvel’s Avengers ‘The Crossing’ back in the mid 1990’s. Birdcage City.)
Perhaps my thinking is a bit old school, but there’s a reason why folks continue to watch shows like the original Outer Limits and Mission: Impossible. Good storytelling lasts over time whereas today’s storylines…..can anyone tell me which will last over time? Today, the art of storytelling only exists to create or generate ‘buzz’ and then becomes recycled for the next round. Nothing profound or reflective at all. Then again, maybe when it comes to literary art forms in the 21st Century, it shouldn’t. Had Shakespeare worked for a corporation back in his day, we would never be treated to the philosophical depths in all of his plays and that lines such as ‘To be or not to be’ would wind up on a few t-shirts and coffee mugs all for a limited time only.
Even though people have been spoon-fed to accept less than stellar works, there are a few who crave the return of good, solid storytellers with fully developed characters, plots and themes with some meat to satisfy the intellectual palate. As a writer, it’s my duty to give that to them each and every time by doing the research, revision of rough drafts and having a clear direction on where my tale should go. That version of writing is identifiable and appreciated. In the case of watching my favorite programs in the past, also very enjoyable.
It has been nine years since I’ve lost my grandmother. Over the course of time, countless others have moved on to eternal life leaving a trail of tears and memories for the families and friends that remain. This week has been especially difficult for a sweet woman I knew personally is not with us anymore and has gone on to the Lord. We’ll all have our personal and final meetings with Him one day.
Part of being human, clothed in this robe of flesh is knowing the undeniable and inescapable fact one day we will leave it behind. One day reader, you and I will and must die. When I look at all the greatest writers who’ve ever lived, the one thing they have in common is that they’ve met their destiny in the dust. For us, it’ll be the same thing. No matter how poignant or soul shaking their works might have been, their legacy is confined between the pages of a book written, essays lost in a flood of words inside volumes, their pens at rest.
The woman I knew wasn’t a writer, but her chapters of life were just as engaging. Her daughters who I know quite well and pledge my support to help any way I can, share their mother’s smile and enthusiasm for life. Every church meeting I attend, she would be one of the first members I’d stop by and say hello, even sharing a hug with her. She was a very special woman, friendly and full of joy and light. Occasionally she would ask about my books or other projects I had coming up. It never dawned on me of her own personal health battles she faced, nor did she wanted them to stop her. She was an awesome lady and this world is a little less better because she’s not with us any longer.
We all have one life, and amid the multitude of conspiracy theories, rumors of ruthless plans from governments or world powers, the unjust laws ruining the conscience of our land, at some point we have to focus on what’s really important, the interpersonal dealings with family and friends in our own lives. We have a tendency as a society to forget about that. All I know these two young women aren’t concerned with Russia or the G-7, climate change or the 2014 or 2016 elections. Their mother is gone, none of that matters right now. None of it does when you really reflect deeply on these issues.
With family - any family, biological, church, extended - the loss of a person you’ve grown close to and meet on a constant basis is hard to take once you return to your familiar spot, look in their direction and realize they’re never coming back, ever. The fact you will never see them again should humble our souls in knowing one day it’ll be our turn. One day, we’ll take that last journey into the ground, our flesh reunited with the earth that spawned it. So as a reminder to self, it is profitable to spend each day with those we meet and perhaps even disagree with from time to time with respect and love. For when that moment comes, if bitterness or any negative emotion is the last thing you shared with them…there is such a thing as a burden of guilt. No one wants that, even over the most petty and trivial of things.
Like my grandmother, this woman is now in the Lord’s hands forever. Our main goal in life should be to make sure we’re firmly in His as well.
“Logic is an enemy and truth is a menace.”
That quote belongs to Mr. Rod Serling in his introduction of the Twilight Zone’s “The Obsolete Man” (June 2, 1961). It is a chilling tale of a man facing death in a world void of life and emotion. Judged for simply not following the will of the unseen, oppressive State, a man called Romney Wordsworth has only a few short hours to live. His punishment? He simply doesn’t fit in the brave new world he belongs to.
Wordsworth is a librarian, to which it is implied libraries in this despotic, technological society have no place in it. Neither does the State believes in God, to which the Chancellor quickly dismisses the notion The Creator even exists. The Chancellor represents the State, the cold heartless enemy that must resume control at all costs, even to make the multitude devoid of all reason.
This is a world without books, for the State has made sure the citizens of this society have no need of them. The Chancellor claims Wordsworth (irony, yes? See below) obsolete and offers him a choice of death, to which Wordsworth agrees - under certain, unpredictable conditions.
Is this the world we’re heading towards? A world where the printed (and perhaps digital) page will in itself be ruled obsolete?
Rod Serling’s scripts are known for focusing on the human condition, the tragic flaw of it. No matter how we seek to improve it by whatever manner it may be, we often leave out the most important element of all; the ability to be humane. The Obsolete Man is a perfect example. Wordsworth is seen as a lone survivor, the last bastion of conscious in an unconscious world. Even his very name recalls the poet Henry Wordsworth and his quest to discover the reality of truth, a gnawing, disturbing feeling in Man’s consciousness reminding him of the limitation and mortality of the species.
We can go on, but if you’ve seen the video there is no need for us to go further. As always, this episode of the Twilight Zone may as Mr. Serling said in a promo from the previous week, “it may chill, it may provoke, but we’re rather certain it will leave a mark.”
Side note: Perhaps Mr. Serling channeled the works of one William Wordsworth, an English poet who wrote the following lines concerning truth taken from The Prelude (Book Nine, Residence in France).
Then doubt is not, and truth is more than truth,--
A hope it is, and a desire; a creed Of zeal,
by an authority Divine Sanctioned,
of danger, difficulty, or death. http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww295.html
Posted first on the Chatmon’s Books blog.
In my downtime from publishing books which I haven’t done in over a decade, I’ve been revising my old novellas and short stories preparing for the day when I can release them one by one. During this time, the landscape of storytelling has changed. Before, a novel would feature one stand alone story with a strong character involved in a challenging situation which the plot has him or her succeed or fail. Nowadays, there is a shift towards more serialized storytelling in which the character deals with an issue in the plot, only to see it’s grounds for a much larger storyline set up over several books. Think Game of Thrones or Harry Potter.
For example, Robin Hood would have easily dealt with the Sheriff of Nottingham in the pages of a single book and that would be the end. In these modern times, there might be a call for an author to produce a series of novels of Sherwood Forest where that might be the theme and overall storyline featuring on the adventures of Robin, Friar Tuck, the sheriff, Maid Marian and even a rookie bowman encouraged to join in the fight. Taken another way, there might be novels written of the past of Robin Hood, his many clashes with the sheriff and even his protege taking up the cause of robbing from the rich and giving it to the poor. Before anyone claims ignorance on my part, I can admit there has been serialized novels in the past if one has read any of the Clancy or Ludlum books. The latter I haven’t read but have been told many times by my customers who stopped by the mobile bookstore I used to operate. However, this is not the point of this entry. Creators have the right to focus or expand on a story they see fit. It has to be said when it comes to supply and demand, should an individual writer go this route?
I write this because I’m sure questions like the one above is what a new or aspiring author would ask when they’re starting for the first time with the manuscript they built up enough courage and focus to write. Personally, it is up to that author to write a series or stand-alone story however they see fit without having to conform to the industry’s ‘standards’. The literary journey can be a lonely one at times, but with their ears filled up with so many voices of advices and rules, watching every precaution and warnings from veteran writers, it is easy to see why an aspiring author would hesitate in producing their work. Look, no one can write like J.K. Rowling and come out with a Harry Potter series. Perhaps the aspiring author is a bit like Alexandre Dumas - only writing enough creative content to produce a Three Musketeers or Man in the Iron Mask (it should be said that Dumas did write the Four Musketeers, but that sequel was as far as he went, to this author’s knowledge anyway). The point is that producing a series or stand alone novel has to be the discretion of the aspiring author. If they have a long term storyline for their characters, or if it’s centered around a theme taking course over several books, they should do it. Even my wife who has written one novel, is working on a sequel but she doesn’t feel obligated to develop a series of novels based on her characters unless she wants to. It’s her decision, not held by a traditional publisher or agent, it’s all hers.
Of course, we all love to follow trends as writers in this business so we honestly feel what works for Author T will work for Author X, Y, Z. Not every formula for success or recognition is the same. Just because a favorite author is writing a series, an aspiring author shouldn’t feel pressured to follow after their idol. Again, it is the author’s discretion to determine what types of stories they want to write about and whether or not they have the vision to see the long term, all-encompassing storyline that will keep their fans anxious to buy the next book when it comes out. This trend isn't limited to books; it's also displayed in current movies and television shows as well. Faced with this changing landscape in storytelling, an budding writer can feel they have to keep up just to 'stand out'.
Aspiring authors shouldn’t bow down to ill-perceived peer pressure, they should create independent works that captures an audience. A writer should write a tale they should enjoy. If it takes place within a single book and goes no further, it’s perfectly acceptable. There is a world of readers who yearn for good stories, and if it takes only one novel to fill that need, so be it.