SHORT STORY MAGIC – Part 3

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Evening Exercise

Construct a character from one aspect of your personality (not the dominant one). Make this trait the main motive force of the character’s feelings and thoughts. If you are shy, for example, construct a character who is much more shy than you. This character should be different from you in most ways-age, occupation, appearance. Now describe his behavior in several social situations, interacting (or avoiding interaction) with several relatives, strangers, his doctor, his therapist and acquaintances.

CoJournaling Exercise

Use the composite character based on one of your personality traits from the earlier exercise and make him or her talk in the first person. Use a voice that is not quite yours but that’s not too alien to you—perhaps your brother’s or sister’s voice, if you can hear it in your head, merged with yours. Now let the character tell us why he or she committed an abhorrent deed. Maybe she seduced a neighbor’s son or didn’t give medicine to her dying mother.         

Basics of a Scene

 Each character  must have a “Goal” for the scene, and an “Action” they are doing.

If the emotion is not something you have experienced yourself use an “As If.”

The Emotional Beat

Whereas description captures the outer world, inner responses in a scene give a reader access to intangible thoughts and feelings.  In an attempt to appear objective, many firsthand writers omit character responses and their writing is spiritless.  Emotions and insights are like the close-up shots in a film.  Without them an audience feels disconnected, at too far a distance…

 In narrative, a beat is the unit of the characters’ state of being which leads to the next unit.  If you studied composition in school, you were taught to write essays and papers by the logical development of ideas.  You were taught to have a topic sentence at the beginning of each paragraph, to develop your main idea, paragraph by paragraph, and to draw a conclusion at the end.  The basic unit of development was the concept of each paragraph.

That’s not how you do it in narrative.  Yes, as in exposition, you want a development of your subject by units.  You don’t want everything to be a blur, a jumble.  But in narrative, the basic unit of development is the beat, not the paragraph.  So you have chapters, scenes and within the scenes, beats.  Each beat is a micro-realization of the state of awareness of the feelings and thoughts of the characters, which evolve beat by beat by beat.                                               

Example:

Return Bout

Jack Lehman

      I am entering a boxing ring, he thought to himself as he walked through the door of the inner office and saw Mr. Samuels at his desk busy about little tasks, all of which were more important than interviewing him. Each of us, in our own way, is showing the other that he has been trained for this moment; but I know something he doesn’t. Only one of us will leave this ring with his reputation intact.

     “Now—Jack Bursey, isn’t it?— sit down, please.” Samuels waved the older man toward a chair in front of the desk. Only when the visitor had been seated did Samuels bother to look up. The room was uncomfortably warm for the first of April and there was the smell of an overripe banana.

     “Before we begin, let me give you a little tip. The format of your resume is outdated, and you have left off crucial dates. Senior applicants sometimes do this in the hope that it will minimize their age. It accomplishes just the opposite. It tells me you think you are too old for the position.”

     The interviewee chuckled to himself. If he had had any hesitation before coming in here, if he had worried he might sympathize in some way with this conceited administrator, those feelings were gone. Good. Let the round begin.

     “Have you actually had any experience working for a high-tech? I don’t see that among all the other ‘achievements’ you’ve listed.”

     “Only one…”

     Samuels looked dismissive.

     “…which you might find interesting.  T.C.P.” 

     Samuels’ head shot up as he said, almost involuntarily, “I worked there.”

     “I know.”

     “You can’t be John G. Bursey?”

     “Oh, but that’s exactly who I am.”

     Samuels’ face went red and a line of perspiration appeared along the top of forehead. Samuels thought the other man’s face looked vaguely familiar. Suddenly, his comfortable, square office seemed to be contracting. He could hear the tick of the battery operated wall clock, the distant rumbling of the ventilation system. On his desk the chrome paper-clip holder, the letter opener, his antique stapler seemed dazzling in the ray of sunlight coming in through the half open window blinds.

     And then he was back. Perhaps Bursey didn’t know anything about that incident at T.C.P. Perhaps he himself was only imagining the worst. Perhaps.

     “But that was then, and this is now,” the job candidate smiled.

     “Yes, yes, of course.”

     “Though…” The older man let the word hang in the air, and for Samuels the room again began to spin. “…I would feel a bit more comfortable sitting in your leather chair behind your desk, rather than in this vinyl, reception room chair.”

     “Yes, of course.” Samuels smiled as if the other had made an interesting though irrelevant observation.

     “No, I mean it. We will now switch positions. You will sit where I am in this molded plastic abomination, and I will sit where you are.”

     The younger man looked in astonishment as Jack Bursey rose. The man was serious. This was ridiculous. But… Samuels slowly got to his feet.

     “Now that would be stupid, wouldn’t it, young man?” the man’s eyes bore into Samuels.

     They both sat down. End of the first round.

     “Let me tell you something about myself that’s not on that résumé. It’s also why I’m here today,” the visitor began as if the two had met seated next to each other on a long, evening airplane flight.

     “Look, Mr. Bursey, I would like to hear what you have to say, but I just don’t have the time right now. If you are the John G. Bursey of T.C.P., you are way overqualified for this job anyway. No. You’re just not right for this position. Thank you for coming in. It has been an honor, as they say. Your time is valuable. Thank you. Good day.”

     “Being president of a large corporation can be anti-climactic in a way.” the phlegmatic older man pressed the tips of his fingers together and briefly closed his eyes. Samuels swallowed. This was not going to be quick or easy.

     “When you start a company you work eighty hours a week, doing whatever job you have to in order that things are done and done right. Then to sustain growth you suddenly realize that you have to bring others in to take over. The same one-man drive that got the company off the ground at the next stage starts to work against its success. So you delegate and try not to micro-manage the folks you have given responsibility to.”

     Samuels said nothing.

     “All of a sudden you’re dealing with board members and investors instead of people who do the real work. They ensconce you in a corporate headquarters downtown with a polished conference table and view of the city skyline. But the company is you, as much as a son or a daughter is you. And when someone betrays that, passes off some corporate resources as his own. Borrows against those resources…”

     “Listen, Mr. Bursey, I had my problems too. I had a daughter who was sick, a wife who was unhappy, debts.”

     “Even if he gets caught and to save face the company covers for him and lets him leave as if…as if he had done his job.  No, it still hurts years later. And when you retire and have nothing else to lose, you think, why not clean up the little affair? Why not see justice is done after all? Even if it is a small thing. Even if it doesn’t matter to anyone at all except to that person who listed his T.C.P. experience so prominently on his résumé that he got an even better position at another high-tech firm.

     The older man sighed.

     Jeffery Samuels felt as if he had aged 20 years in the last three minutes. His vision was blurred and his ears suddenly felt blocked with wax. He tried to sit up straight. He could smell the acrid odor of perspiration through his new Men’s Warehouse suit coat.

     “What do you want?” Samuels’ voice was barely audible.

     “I want the job.”

     “But why? Surely you make much more from your retirement plan and your stock options than this basic position could ever pay?”

     “Not that job. Not the one you have advertised. I NEED JUSTICE. I WANT YOUR JOB. You see, Samuels, I do covet your leather chair.”

     After a moment Jeffrey Samuels began breathing again. Wait a minute, he thought. What can this guy do. He can’t make me resign. There is nothing on my record that indicates any wrongdoing. This is all a hoax. I fell for it, but I don’t have to. I’m not down yet, and I am certainly not out.

     “All this is very interesting, Mr. Bursey, but entirely beside the point. I have no intention of giving up my position and, even if I should, there is no reason in the world that you would be hired to fill it. We have one opening and I am sorry to say that you are not a candidate for it. You’re just not right for this position. Any further discussion is out of the question. Please leave or I will have my assistant call Security and they will escort you out of these offices.

     End of the middle round.

     The other man smiled but did not move.    

     “I’m serious, Bursey, go.”

     “Oh, I’m leaving, but I think there is one last little piece of information you should know. It’s just a small detail. Maybe it will matter to you, maybe it won’t.”

     “What. For God’s sake tell me and get out.”

     “It’s just that T.C.P. has purchased this company.”

     Samuels stared at the cherubic-faced little man. Was he actually wearing a plaid lumberman’s jacket over his shirt and tie?

     “That’s impossible. I certainly would know it if that were true.”

     “Not necessarily. You see the take-over was kept relatively quiet. Part of the deal so insiders wouldn’t start buying up stock beforehand. But by tomorrow it will be in the papers. And by Friday you’ll be out looking for a new position. This time, I dare say, without such sterling references. For, besides feeling that little wrongs should be set right, I know that people do not easily change character. If someone were dishonest in one position they probably would be dishonest in the next.”

      That wasn’t completely true of Jeffrey Samuels.

     And with that Jack Bursey slowly pulled a cigar out of an inside pocket and rose from his chair.

     “How can I put this?” he said turning one last time toward Samuels. “You’re just not right for this position. That’s it. Samuels, you’re just not right for this position.”

     As soon as the door closed, Jeffery Samuels went to the closet and took out his two attaché cases. He was not guilty of fraud, as he once had been, but there were certain irregularities that he would not want anyone looking into. For example, advertising job positions that did not exist to keep looking busy and important in his position as Head of Human Resources. The current owner might never suspect, but his old employer would be only too ready to investigate. He would clear out the contents of his desk, max the company credit card and head for California. The hell with it. By the time they caught up with him he’d have assumed a different identity or be dead. Since his divorce, things had been slowly deteriorating for him anyway.

     As Jack Jackson walked past Samuels’ receptionist and headed to the bank of elevators, he pulled a packet of matches out of his pants pocket to light his cigar. He’d been a mail clerk at T.C.P. when the real John G. Bursey had still been its president. Now Jack was retired. In those days he’d delivered mail to Jeffery Samuels in-box. Four years, without so much as a “hello” from Samuels—the same person whose name he’d recently recognized as contact on a help-wanted ad. Once this Samuels had yelled at Jackson in front of the old mail clerk’s fellow workers for dropping a letter as he hurried about his rounds and Samuels had later gone out of his way to insure the Jackson hadn’t received a necessary raise. That had been ten years ago. Jack Jackson would be the first to admit that he had never been very fast. But he was resourceful, kept his ear to the ground and wasn’t above whiting out dates and re-photocopying an old Bursey résumé he’d Xeroxed long ago. Jackson never forgot Jeffrey Samuel’s vindictiveness. Now he could.

     Jack Jackson left feeling like a champ.

 

Something Must Happen

The prime test of whether you have a story or not is that you find in every completed story an explosion—muted, perhaps, delayed sometimes, or completely shattering—something which explodes and thus changes the status quo. Somewhere, either at the beginning, middle or end, there is an explosion in which all parts of the whole are expelled from an existing pattern—the lives of the characters are jolted from their rhythm, chaos is produced in their universe, and out of this upheaval, “that kind of person going through that kind of experience,” the creative skill of the author must find or imply some sort of solution. Thus the writer, before he or she begins to write, must anticipate, and comprehend this explosion, and then, without being guided by anything but his own inner logic, create—or suggest—new order from the old. An explosion can be many things, the breakup of a marriage, the beginning of love, the death of an old man, each can create its own chaos, provide its own solution.

Explosion may be used in three ways. One can begin with the explosion. It may begin with calm and existing order, proceed with rising intensity to an explosion at the center, working back to a new order at the end—which is never quite the same as the old. Or one can withhold one’s ammunition to the very end, as in Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery, when the stoning begins and the full meaning of the preceding ages bursts upon the reader, who is then left to reassemble the parts for himself.

     Once you start to write your story, the next important thing is to finish it. Writing is as simple, and as difficult as that. An incomplete story is no story at all, while a piece of writing with all its faults can be a story if brought to some related end. There is no substitute stage in one’s development as a writer for finishing what you have begun.

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