‘West’ by Carys Davies

I don’t usually do reviews. I have to get really, really excited about something to bother reviewing it.

2pm on a sunny Bank Holiday Saturday I sat in the garden with Cary Davies’ novel. 4pm, I was released from her magical spell. Done too soon. Done too soon.

Did I say I was a fan? OK, I’m a fan. If you don’t know her previous work, go immediately to https://www.carysdavies.net/read/ and check it out.

To be slightly more objective about what I’m raving about here, Carys Davies is the author of two award-winning short story collections, which have shown her to be the supreme craftswoman in the form, a writer’s writer. Her prose is crisp, filled with imagery that always hints deliciously of a hidden world that lurks behind the confusing veil of the visible. Twist endings that redefine the real meaning of her stories in the last few paragraphs seem to be her speciality. Both ‘The Quiet’ and ‘Miracle at Hawkes Bay’ are destined to be classics. But she produces work slowly, her previous efforts little more than pamphlets and spread over half a dozen years. Her publishers probably wondered if she’d ever muster enough words to create a novel.

Enter ‘West’, a thin offering more like a novella, but containing the bold sweep of an epic. The rich Carys Davies prose is right there from the off. In true Clint Eastwood style, our pioneering hero leaves his ranch and daughter in search of monsters thousands of miles into the wilder west. He takes up with native Indians and scatters his wealth and wits along the trail, while his daughter waits and pines, increasingly endangered by her own flowering into womanhood. She no longer has a father to protect her. Is this what it’s really about? No, of course not. This is a Carys Davies novel! Cowboys chasing monsters would be far too simple. It’s about love and loss and what people will do in search of meaning. It’s better to travel in hope, thinking great thoughts, than sit home waiting for old age and death.

I love this book. It’s too short, but I guess I can read it more than once in a long afternoon.

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Reservoir Blogs #8 – Models of Narrative Structure

So, the waters of Northamptonshire finally receded far enough to allow my weekend jogs around the reservoir to recommence and, with them, comes the opportunity to review some fundamental thoughts about story structure.

It took a while, but yes, I still think I’m right: all models about structure (Hero’s Journey, Three Act Structure, Four Act Structure, Propp’s Analysis of folk tales etc.) can be condensed into a time line and four plot points:

  • Stories start with some exposition and an ‘Inciting Incident’ – a glimpse at something new/odd/threatening/ challenging. Let’s call that ‘II’.
  • It takes a while for the hero (male or female) to accept that they have to tackle the problem/ accept the challenge. That’s the bit from ‘II’ to Plot Point 1 (‘PP1’). At PP1, the hero grasps the mettle and gets on with it.

Note: If you take the Exposition and the Incident together, you’ve got what some people call the ‘premise’, though the way some people define ‘premise’, it might include PP1 as well.

  • From ‘PP1’ to Plot Point 2 (‘PP2’), it seems like the hero is succeeding. But then the real bad guy(s) turns up and it ends in a crisis at PP2:- the hero gets beaten, humiliated and left in a heap.
  • From ‘PP2’ to Plot Point (‘PP3’), it emerges that the hero didn’t really understand what they were fighting/facing; they rethink. By ‘PP3’, they are ready to change their life/approach/belief system. The ‘essence of the story’ centres on this emotional change.
  • From ‘PP3’ to Plot Point 4 (‘PP4’), the hero is doing what is necessary to prepare to test their new found belief/life attitude/resolve etc.
  • At ‘PP4’, they are validated/proved correct (or occasionally proved wrong). The test they face is a thinly disguised rerun of the ‘PP2’ debacle, except that the enhanced hero produces a different result. The rest of the story is a rounding off/celebration of victory (or occasionally, the mourning of defeat)

BUT WHAT IT’S REALLY ABOUT

If the above simplification is right, i.e. this is how all story models are structured, the next question is ‘why?’. The best answer I can come up with is that what we’re creating is something like a ‘Thought Experiment about Character’.

This is how I think about it. We are putting the hero character in a particular situation because we’re interested in what happens. We like to validate our values and beliefs in ‘extremis’, but we wouldn’t really like the things that happen to heroes to happen to us, however heroic they seem by the end. Fictional heroes are useful (and safe) substitutes. We can check what makes him/her succeed and fail in our chosen test, thus validating a ‘truth’ in our minds and we don’t have to leave our armchair, fly through space, or tackle alligators to do it.

I’m a scientist at heart, so I can tell you how this experimental stuff works. I learned scientific method from an early age. You do an experiment under fixed conditions, you change one thing, you do the experiment again and you observe the difference in the result. “Ah-ha,” you say in your post-experimental write-up, “I can now come to a conclusion, because the difference in the result is clearly down to the one single, controlled change I made in the conditions.”

In narrative, we first test an ‘unchanged’ or ‘unperfected’ character. Failure occurs. We force a single change in the character and test again to see whether the change now helps him/her to succeed. Bingo! We know what really matters in that situation. It’s that one thing that turned our hero from a loser to a winner.

It becomes my ‘inciting incident and four plot point’ structure like this:

1) I explain the nature of the experimental set up (Premise= Inciting Incident and PP#1)

2) I show you that the results are negative with the character in his unchanged state (PP#2)

3) I change one component part of the character (behaviour, beliefs, value system) (PP#3)

4) Now in the changed condition, I repeat the experiment, achieving a different result. Hence showing the effect of changing the character (PP#4)

There are, of course, many possible types of Thought Experiment involving character, but let me suggest a couple to fully illustrate the theory:

• A Belief is Justified (i.e. a belief held by the main character, or formed by them in the course of the narrative, is tested and validated). This one’s common in those good vs evil narratives. The hero has to commit himself/herself to moral goodness before succeeding. Think of Luke Skywalker. He has to believe in the right side of the force before he can defeat the evil empire.

• Desire and Need are Matched (i.e. a desire expressed by the main character, or modified in the course of the narrative, will satisfy the character’s real need.) This one’s common in Rom-Coms. The hero starts off pursuing one thing (the apparent love of their life) and ends up realising it’s someone or something else (more worthy) they really love. Think ‘When Harry Me Sally’, or maybe even ‘Pretty Woman’.

A Bit Of Success To Report

I’m delighted to report that my short story,  ‘The Walker’, has won this year’s ‘Words With Jam’ Short Story Competition.  Yes, it’s true and just to prove it, you can read the story on the ‘Words With Jam’ site (http://www.wordswithjam.co.uk/search/label/Competitions).

The story is an odd one, I must admit, written in the second person (thank you, Junot Diaz and Tama Janowitz for that inspiration).  I think it’s probably like Marmite – you’ll love it or you’ll hate it, but take a look and see what you think.

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.

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.