Reservoir Blogs #7 – Plot and Essence for Football Enthusiasts

The strangest image came to me this week as I was trying to figure out a way of explaining the difference between plot and story essence.  For some reason, I thought about sitting in a café trying to explain the rules of football, and in particular Rule 11, the offside rule.  It’s crazy but I imagined it like this:-

There you are.  All you have is a few condiments, a knife and fork and the mint humbugs that came with the bill.

‘Suppose this knife is the opposition goal line,’ you say.  ‘And imagine these salt and pepper pots are the goalkeeper and the last defender.  The vinegar is your attacker and the mint humbug, that’s the ball.’

Now, you engage your fingers as the legs of the man dribbling the mint humbug.  You hastily install the fork as the halfway line because you realise you have to cross it to make most of Rule 11 come into effect.  Your man/finger kicks the mint humbug towards the vinegar (traditionally labelled Sarsons, but that’s another of my ranting blog posts).

‘See,’ you say, ‘the vinegar has run on and got closer to the knife than the condiment, so when I play it to him, the flag goes up.  No, it doesn’t work on the average of their positions, he actually needs to take a step back here, further away than both to be onside, don’t you see?  Unless of course….’

You illustrate by dribbling the humbug closer to the knife and back heeling it to the vinegar who scores on the volley.

‘… if I dash down the wing, get closer to the knife first and then flick it backwards to the vinegar, he’s onside and the goal counts.  Yea!!!  One-nil.’

Your audience is, of course, dazzled by your skills as a raconteur.  But here’s my point:

A few lines in the FA rule book constitute the essence of the Offside Law, just like there is an underlying essence to a story.  The FA rule book does not mention condiments, vinegar or the correct inflation pressure for a mint humbug.  It’s your specific example that has those plot points about tableware.   Indeed even though your story contains tableware, your story essence is all about Rule 11.  Not only that but you could have conveyed the exact same essence in a story about Roy of the Rovers, the 1954 Cup Final, or a Disney cartoon about football-playing animatronics.  The actual characters of your story and the parts they play in it only exist to illustrate Rule 11.  You used them because telling a story through their characters and plot gets the point across to people much more clearly than you could have done by sitting there in the café reading out the dry text of Rule 11.

OK, am I stretching the metaphor too far?  Maybe.  I didn’t get to run round the reservoir this morning; there’s too much snow.  Perhaps my brain isn’t in gear.  I’ll stop now.

 

Oh, and – if I haven’t said it already – thanks for some of the awesome feedback you sent me on my Christmas series.

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Reservoir Blogs #6 – The ‘Was’ That Doesn’t Move The Story

It’s the weekend again and Christmas pudding etc. is still clinging to the waist band, so Reservoir Blogs was back trotting around the local water this morning.  OK, I have to admit, I didn’t quite get around but that was due to mud, not a seasonal lack of fitness or the four extra pounds of flab I’m carrying.

Today – as my heart rate rushed into the red zone – I was thinking once again about something I’d said spontaneously in a Thursday night workshop and only later thought might be quite clever.  Not being terribly clever myself, it took me a while to realise the hidden truth in what I’d accidentally said.  Here’s what it was:

Someone had commented that using lots of sentences with ‘was’ and ‘were’ in them close together slowed the pace down.  The follow up question was ‘Why?’  (Note how I’m overusing the word to make a point!)

My answer comes in two parts (and I think this applies to all conjugations from the verb ‘to be’, but I’m going to use ‘was’ as my model).  ‘Was’ in a sentence either creates a statement about a static state of being (as in ‘Fred was a man’, ‘Jean was beautiful’) or, if it appears in an imperfect tense construction (as in, ‘it was raining’, ‘he was running’), it denotes a state of continuing action.  In either case, there is no change implied within the verb and no change created by the sentence. It describes a scene but it doesn’t move the scene forward, so – although you may need such a construction once in a while – having a bunch of them in quick succession creates a very static unchanging image in the reader’s mind.

Now – as I ran this morning – I started to worry that I might be reading too much into the verb form, if it is ever in fact possible to read ‘too much’ into anything, so I have followed up my Thursday explanation with some thought experiments.  Maybe this is just the way my mind works, but I’ve tried to picture the sentence ‘he was running’.

You’d think there was action in that, right?  But wait a minute, when I close my eyes, I don’t see a guy running from right to left or left to right, I see a man centred in my imagination going repetitively through cycles of arm and leg movements.  There’s no real change implied by the sentence.  He was running before the sentence began and he’s still running at the end of it.  However, if you give me, ‘He ran,’ I see a guy who was not running at the start, but moved from point A to point B as the sentence unfolds.

Am I weird or unusual in this?  This is one I’d really like comments on, because we might be about to discover something profound about how different people react to text.  Try the mental experiment and post a comment to tell me what your mental image shows you when you read these two sentences:

  • He was running.
  • He ran.

Tell me what’s different about the mental picture that comes to your mind.  (It would be really weird if the person you saw doing the running changed between the two sentences, so if that happens, definitely note it down in your post.

Oh, and thanks for some of the awesome feedback you sent me on my Christmas series.

Review of My Christmas Story

Some people emailed to ask me for a complete list of the parts of the ‘Pride, More Pride and Quite a Lot of Extreme Prejudice’ story I serialised over Christmas.  They were clearly either too drunk or too full of turkey to keep up.  But now they are full of remorse, regret, indigestion tablets and Paracetamol, I thought I’d better be nice to them:

 

 #1 Pride, More Pride and Quite a Lot of Extreme Prejudice,

#2 Lessons in Economics and Theft

#3 A Question of Lost Anatomy

#4 A Dickens of a Problem

#5 The Possibility of a Saviour

#6 A New Hope

#7 Think Simple, Stupid, It’s About Oil

#8 The Special Relationship

#9 Title Sponsors for a War

#10 The Cold Hard Truth

#11 I Had That Dream Again

#12 The Epilogue

The Epilogue (#12 of the Pride Series)

The final part and epilogue of ‘Pride, More Pride and Quite a Lot of Extreme Prejudice’ 

“Fuck it, you can’t do this,” Marcie said, flinging my pages across the table. “I, like, love you, your stuff, but… Jesus… Fuck!”
She always had a negative first reaction to my wilder ideas. Usually, she came around, but no before an ‘F’ fest of gigantic proportions. Usually, I had the advantage of talking to her over email, Instant Messenger, or – if absolutely necessary- the telephone. Here my American agent and I were face to face, and she was swearing at me… loudly, not because she was shouting, but just because she was loud.
People on adjoining tables were starting to stare. We were eating at a pavement café just off Covent Garden. The place itself was very monochrome and very French, apart from the London taxis and buses gas-guzzling their way at five miles an hour past our table. Their noise was not quite enough to drown her profanity. She lowered her voice.
“Look, I sold your last book, but…  I mean, you’re talking about my homeland. Nobody’s going to be happy reading about a President losing track of his John Thomas department. That’s, like, the worst kind of un-American. We set up committees to investigate that sort of thing.”
Given the attack on every single value or institutions the Western World holds dear, a one-balled President seemed a strange thing to get fixated on.
“It’s satirical,” I said.
“It’s suicide,” she said. “It doesn’t even make sense. He wakes up and his balls have… what? Just disappeared?”
“There’s a mystery theme to it,” I suggested. “And besides, it’s just the one, not both.”
“Oh, Christ! That makes me feel better.”
“You told me to court controversy. You said I’d sell more.”
She shook her head and smiled. “Reparations?” she said. “’It is a dream to bring back to the least privileged in our society that which was so cruelly taken from them. Plymouth Rock is not a confectionary, and you cannot eat it, even when it lands upon your head,’ as Malcolm X said.  Are you fucking kidding me?”
She had a Russian fur hat perched on top, which seemed odd, because a) it was a beautiful spring day and whilst it wasn’t California, it wasn’t Siberia either, and b) not even a wisp of hair was showing anywhere.
Gathering myself, I tried to rationalize my literary position. “I thought, you know, with Obama being on his way out now, I could do a story about him not being there, a kind of alternate reality. Then we can look back in four years and see whether it’s turned out like I say.”
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” she said, “whatever happens, we’ll still have a President with cojones in the plural come 2020.  Even if it is Clinton II.”
A waiter in a stripy top interrupted the conversation. He stood expectantly, pad and pen in hand, hoping to take our order.
Marcie smiled, dropped into a calmer register and began a five-minute explanation of exactly what she wanted and how she wanted it. She was only ordering vegetable crudités, but specific crudités, in a specific size and order.
Of course, her visits to these shores were infrequent and relatively brief. She hadn’t cottoned on that food in British restaurants comes as it comes. You can’t rewrite the menu on a whim. I noticed that the waiter was taking nothing down after the second minute and settled for ordering a Caesar salad without trying to specify anything optional.
The waiter went away, head bowed. I couldn’t figure out why Marcie was so fussy. She was thin as a stick and with her fur hat, she looked a lot like a Q-tip dipped in ink. She never ate more than half a mouthful of anything she ordered, or so she said. In her past life as a model, she claimed to have not-eaten in some of the world’s finest eateries. Perhaps she just liked the pattern food made on the plate.
While I pondered the issue, Marcie stared at me across the table. Without warning, she said, “I could live with him being a cockroach.”
I nearly choked on the mouthful of bread roll I’d just bitten off.
“Then you’re, like, aping a great grotesque image from the classics,” she explained. “Kafka’s Metamorphosis. There’s no undertone about sexual potency. And if you get, like, banned in fifty-three States, we say it’s art. It worked for that guy who cuts up animals with a chainsaw. The religious freaks burn copies, the Aryan Brotherhood sends you death threats and, if we’re lucky, we get a murmur of protest out of Washington. Kerr-Ching!!”
“I can’t write seventy thousand words about a Presidential cockroach that doesn’t speak. Dialogue would be difficult.”
“Kafka did it.”
“Kafka was a genius, OK, besides which his cockroach didn’t have to command the free world.”
“Point taken,” she said. She regrouped. “I liked the Yeses, though.”
“Thank you… good,” I said.
“How about if you started him out with three?”
“He’s already got three yeses, Marcie, didn’t you read it?.”
“No, three balls. I’m thinking out of the box here. I’m trying to save you. Publishers want the opening chapters pronto and I can’t send this out the way it is.”
“Thank you,” I said again without really meaning it.
“A spare, you know,” she persisted. “Do the math – three minus one. He’d still have an appropriate number for presidential office. All those implications about un-American impotency go away.”
I couldn’t fault her logic.
“Think about it,” she urged.
“I will,” I promised.

< — The End —>

 

If you don’t know what the hell these two are talking about, you’ve missed the story in eleven parts (where were you?):

 #1 Pride, More Pride and Quite a Lot of Extreme Prejudice,

#2 Lessons in Economics and Theft

#3 A Question of Lost Anatomy

#4 A Dickens of a Problem

#5 The Possibility of a Saviour

#6 A New Hope

#7 Think Simple, Stupid, It’s About Oil

#8 The Special Relationship

#9 Title Sponsors for a War

#10 The Cold Hard Truth

#11 I Had That Dream Again

 

….. And happy 2016!!!

I Had That Dream Again (#11 of the Pride Series)

Part Eleven of ‘Pride, More Pride and Quite a Lot of Extreme Prejudice’ (see previous part):

Here’s the truth: as a war, the Middle East is not a winnable war. It’s a losable war. It’s a war in which it’s possible to make everybody lose and still there won’t be a winner.
For Frussterer, the one-balled President, opinion polls were showing a confusing discontent. It seemed to be a disease, and not just in America which was always far ahead in being pissed off; everywhere else across the West was surfing the coattails of the vibe, just as they had done so dutifully with Levi Jeans, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Starbucks Coffee. Things got better and better and people weren’t happy about it. Politicians, like Frussterer, who had delivered wealth, found it hard to understand. Hadn’t they done what they’d been asked, and yet people became nostalgic for their unenlightened past, like Adams and Eves regretting the apple?
Upon investigation, the implicated fruit was but a simple electrical device, manufactured in smaller and smaller versions until the question of how many might fit in how little space became like the number of angels that might dance on the head of a pin.
Digital television, telecommunications, the computational engine, all developed into playthings for the home thanks to these miraculous dancing angels, while the world that had expanded gloriously at the hands of Victorian explorers shrank to a pluperfect image that could be viewed from the average living room.
It should have been heavenly, what with all the attached wealth…
But here’s the rub, the mistake, the same problem that befell all other Adams and Eves when biting things that fell from trees disguised as heavenly gifts:
It is easier to be rich when news from the starving continents takes weeks, crawling disfigured across the globe and, if it arrives at all, comes in the form of befuddled prose. Technology makes the enjoyment of wealth more stressful.
In his hour of need, Professor Daville rides back into the White House, wheeling herself through the corridors to the briefing room where she refers the assembled brainstormers to the options they wrote up several months before.
“Maybe we picked the wrong target,” she says, pointing to the board.
Her audience look at each other, glances going from face to face in a sequence that reflects the power structure. The Yeses work up to a furtive glance at the boss to ensure that he understands – or appears to understand – the strapline of Daville’s logic. She appears to be suggesting invading somewhere else, some second division oil producer who would fall over more easily.
“You know the mistake we made the first time,” she says.
“Tell us,” urges Frussterer, keen to get to what he would call ‘the bottom line’. ‘The bottom line’ is still an important concept for modern politicians, something they must always appear to approach, but never touch or cross.
“We tried it on with someone who had more religion than we did. Wars work not just on who’s got the biggest guns, but who’s got the biggest reason to die. Enemies with reasons to die are hard to defeat unless you kill them all, and killing them all is hard when you have a press core and no spiritual mandate for genocide.”
“So what’s your solution?”
“Get yourself up a head of steam and invade Africa,” she says. “They’ve got oil. Not as much as the Middle East, I agree, but they have been so busy trying not to die, they’re weak and unorganised and they’ve got nothing much to die for. Should be a breeze by comparison.”
The room holds its collective breath. The Yeses try to look positive. Nayshore sure tries not to look uncertain.
“All we need is a fucking good excuse,” adds Daville, and smiles. “Actually, it doesn’t have to be that good. But this time we need to be the idealists. It needs to be a crusade. We not only get ourselves some oil but reaffirm the religious scaffolding of America and the ascendancy of our Christian values.”
“Give our high schools something they can teach and get behind?” Sicanto suggests.
“Exactly,” the other Yeses agree.
They all see the potential for multiple wins from such a strategy, but after half an hour of brainstorming and head racking, the assembled presidential council of Twenty First century America have brainstormed their way to a disappointing list of ‘F—ing Good Reasons for a Crusade.’
“Excuse me for not writing the word,” says Professor Daville, patrolling the carpet in front of the whiteboard, “us black folks still have a problem writing ‘f*ck’ in the White House even as bathroom graffiti. ‘Course, saying it’s OK. Let’s see now. Let’s unpack the Weapons of Mass Destruction angle some more.”
She points to the first idea in the list. No one responds.
She says, “Difficult to sell Africa as the land of the mad scientist. Even if they don’t let our inspectors in, it’s more to do with being unwilling to pick up their bar tabs. The only international threat posed by Africa is its incubation and export of various diseases…” She hesitates. “Maybe there’s an angle there if it comes to it, but I’m struggling to feel the required religious fervour coming from a medical issue. What about this one?”
She points to number two – an existing civil war. “Some civil wars in Africa are so old they can be regarded as the nation’s stable state.”
“Any side will do,” adds Javitz, today’s leading Yes. “They all look the same.”
“We could arrange for the fighting to accidentally spill over a few borders until we get the war we want,” says Sicanto enthusiastically. “Then we could go in on the humanitarian peace-keeping ticket.”
“Yes but Guys, this is same-old same-old,” Daville complains. “That’s how we got into the Middle East and look how that’s turning out. We were pretending to save them and we started killing them; they blew themselves up and they out ‘preachy-ed’ us. We’ve ended up looking like a Godless hoard and our Commander-in-Chief’s lucky he’s still holding onto his last ball. Sorry, Sir, but in the spirit of calling a sphere a sphere, this is part of your manhood you need to hold onto.”
Frussterer shifts uneasily in his chair. He feels the need to adjust his crotch, but fondling himself at this moment might blow what credibility he still has in the eyes of his staff. Instead he looks at the back of his hand disconsolately.
“Anti-Semitism,” says Daville moving her solitary finger to the next idea on the list..
“I think that was mine,” says the unsure Nathan Nayshore. “No African nation ever seems to have a Jewish leader.”
No one else stands up to salute the idea, but Daville smiles encouragingly.
“Good, good, religious intolerance has worked before,” she agrees. “I mean, that was what the original crusades were about, but that was, you know, Christianity on the line. I don’t know that we can get the same bandwagon rolling for Jehovah. Look how long America took to get into WWII, and even then we got in on a technicality. Someone sank our ships, boo-hoo. It’s not like we were getting that worked up about gas chambers.”
“Why don’t we just assassinate someone important and say ‘they’ did it?” Javitz suggests.
“That was the plan with Kennedy and look what happened,” says Nayshore. “The illiterate lame-brain misread his cue card and shot Jack instead of Jackie. All bets on Cuba went off the table.”
“Besides I don’t think we can claim there’s enough cohesion in Africa for the whole of the continent to enter into a conspiracy. Much as I’d like someone to shoot the Vice-President, I think assassination by a foreign power is off the table. No, none of these float my boat,” says Daville.
She considers the completed list. This negative spirit breaks the rules of brainstorming, but they’ve begun to exhaust the creative process.
“What about if we went back to looking at simply buying it?” suggests Javitz.
“Africa?”
“It can’t be worth much. Think of the medical liabilities we’re taking on.”
“We’d never afford it, even if the land came for a dollar.”
“Sure we would. All those drug monopolies they’re struggling against are ours. We’ve protected those guys’ patents for long enough; they owe us. We’d get discount.”
Daville shakes her head. “Apart from getting Alaska from the Russkies on a lowball bid, there’s not a lot of real estate trading between nations. We have to have a reason to take this military, and as we’ve said, it needs to be a crusade. Are you hearing me, fellas? A Crusade.”
“How about oppression of women?” Sicanto proposes. “Africa’s not exactly nice to the ladies – all that tribal voodoo and disfigurement. I see a PR angle we could play to.”
“Men never go to war for women,” says Daville, “not unless they look like Helen of Troy.”
“Isn’t there an African supermodel we could hire for a day or two?”
“This is hopeless,” moans Frussterer.
Everyone nods in agreement. But then…
“I have an idea,” says someone.
Everyone swivels around to look. It’s Tiffany, the pretty intern who’s been transporting the coffee tray in and out of the room at regular intervals.
“Go on,” says Sicanto, the third of the Yes triplets, embracing the contribution since he knows – as they all surmise to a greater or lesser degree – that the intern’s embrace regularly takes in the President himself and while they might have his ear, her lips whisper to something far closer to the axis of his thinking.
“What about restitution and reparations?” she says.
“What?” say the others.
“Well,” she says, “everyone’s always on our case about repaying money to the blacks because of slavery. No offence, professor.” She nods reverently at Daville.
“Tiffany, my dear, I don’t see how back pay for our dispossessed brothers and sisters helps us get oil,” says Frussterer, visibly frustrated.
“Well,” says Tiffany. “I was just thinking that if we’ve got all these unhappy citizens whose ancestors were illegally removed from Africa…”
“Yes?”
“Yes?”
“Yes?” go the Yes triplets.
“…aren’t those citizens entitled to their share of the mineral resources that were in the ground at the time of their abduction? By now, everything that’s left must be theirs.”
The room is struck by what can only be described as silence, since no one speaks. Instead, the collective brains machinate upon the possibilities.
There is history to be distorted here, real history that packs an emotive punch. Those speeches of Dr King and Malcolm X suddenly offer a clear and present opportunity, where once they seemed only a clear and present danger (at least, according to J Edgar’s CIA). The people around the room are just about old enough to remember, or remember from their school history books, the energy of the Civil Rights movement. Could that really save them now?
“Brilliant,” declares Daville, and the front wheels of her chair pop up in the air as she makes a rapid and triumphant turn. “Mr President, you have to do your civil duty and stand up for the rights of the black man in this country.”
Frussterer closes his eyes. Yes, he can see now. He opens them with new inspiration, fervent hope, the divine message received:
“I have a dream,” he says.

….. To be concluded: on the 5th Jan