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Try This: The Soapbox
Don't neglect a third aspect of storytelling
First a hat tip to Suzy Vitello…
In workshop decades ago Suzy told me that she pictures herself as three different people. There’s Suzy of the present moment. There’s Suzy of three days ago. And there’s Suzy of three days into the future. This concept gave her perspective whenever out-sized events happened in her life. When something too good or bad occurred, she could choose to be either the past Suzy or the future one.
The Suzy of three days ago had no idea this event was looming. The Suzy of the future had acclimatized to the event. It was only the current-time Suzy who suffered in the immediate face of the event.
Since she told me this strategy, I’ve also used it as a way to be with (usually terrible) events. It evens out the rough spots and helps me see life as a continuum instead of isolated disasters.
That’s something the best fiction does. It gives us a character’s methods for coping with life. It cognitively reframes the world for two hundred pages and allows us to try on and wear this fresh perspective for a short time. Ho-hum fiction might give us only a bold “horizontal” plot.
The horizontal of the story
This is the chain of events, the and then and then and then. This is the “recording angel” that walks us into a scene and documents the action in clear terms. It can get boring fast unless the author can ramp up the vertical aspect of the story.
The vertical of the story
This is the emotional and psychological progress of the story. If the reader is emotionally engaged with the character(s) then that investment will give the horizontal plot greater importance. For instance, we like Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby but we’re smarter than her because we’ve been allowed to see how she’s being manipulated by Satan worshipers. We see her suffering and bullied by the healthcare providers, and that’s the escalating vertical. In March of 1967 when Rosemary was weeping in pain and skeleton thin and screamed, “I won’t have an abortion!” Well, pretty much the whole world was thinking, “Girl, you need to have an abortion.” Our love of Rosemary allows us to tolerate the Devil-rapes-girl-to-conceive-Antichrist horizontal of the plot.
This is how Tom Spanbauer explained the horizontal versus the vertical of a story/book. What Tom didn’t discuss was the philosophical platform of a good character.1 In effect, the ways a character could rationalize and justify being who he or she is.
This shouldn’t be a huge part of the book, but it’s important. Fight Club would not have worked without Tyler Durden stepping up on his soapbox and giving a couple short bombastic speeches. Short is crucial, otherwise you risk becoming Ayn Rand, whom I enjoy in small doses, but… damn, those long speeches! Besides, a short, pithy statement that people can quote is infinitely stickier than a 12-page gallows speech.
Here, let me thank you for your patience. I needed the last seven days to lay out the next new book and shuffle the chapters and improve the pacing and look for plot holes. There was a massive plot hole, which the editor almost caught, and it feels great to fix such a big flaw before someone else points it out. What I can tell you about the new book is that it involves a few hired killings. What helps sell the crimes is how the assassin justifies the actions. He’s been taught that human beings are merely cleaning devices. The population explosion was engineered to provide more people who could inhale the asbestos from 9-11 and sieve the mercury and heavy metals from the sea. Our livers and fatty tissues collect all the muck and viruses, and the only thing people really do dispose of properly is our own bodies. The polluted bodies of common people — warehouses of toxins and viruses — are land filled in the elegant graves of cemeteries. Thus leaving the world cleaner and safer for the elites.
That, that’s a very, very small part of the novel, really just an aside, but it’s the “soapbox” idea I expect will stick in people’s head. Without it, I’ve written just another hitman novel with antics. I hate antics. Without Tyler Durden’s wild speeches Fight Club would be a book of antics. Antics. Is. Not. Enough.
No, to really work a story/book should include a strong horizontal series of plot events. It should include an escalating vertical of emotion and psychology. And it should include a modicum of coping stuff. Worldview. A philosophical platform, as it were.
In the same way that writing consists of three elements:
A good story should have loads of good horizontal, a lesser amount of vertical, and a smidgen of the character’s unique worldview.
Did I mention that worldview/philosophy need not be true? It only needs to be true to the character. If it’s useful and well stated, the reader will adopt that worldview just as I adopted Suzy Vitello’s concept of herself as three people.
You want to give the reader useful information, but not just recipes for gun powder. Or methods for removing stains. Give them a fresh, useful way to perceive their existence.
Another example, while writing the novel Pygmy I strayed too much into antics. The voice was solid. The flashbacks to the character as a child were touching. The foreground plot was active and brutal — an anal rape in a Walmart? But without a worldview, Pygmy would never come alive for me. Then on a train halfway between Berlin and Hamburg it hit me: If a deity created us and loves us, it must be agony for that deity to eventually have to kill us. Therefore, Pygmy justifies his violence by believing it will ease the deity’s pain in killing him (Pygmy). In fact the deity is looking forward to someday killing Pygmy. In effect, Pygmy is doing God a big favor by being such a violent psycho.
I still recall the moment that idea struck me on the train. Without it, the novel would never have found its full form.
In summary, a good plot isn’t enough. An engaging character isn’t enough. You’ve also got to propose a small idea that the reader can adopt.
A note to Desiree. I’ve emailed you Allan Amato’s email address and a short introduction. Please let me know in Comments if there are any problems. I hope your sitting is a blast, and that you get terrific pictures. Allan is a genius.
Tom did discuss Big Voice versus Little Voice. Little Voice is the recording angel that describes stuff. Big Voice is the commenting element that can make unified field observations. In books like In the City of Shy Hunters Tom does use characters to philosophize, but it’s an element we never discussed in workshop.