Meghan Ward’s post this week on her blog, Writerland, got me thinking. She asks readers about favorite TV shows, names a few of her own, and mentions how good TV can teach “valuable storytelling techniques.”
When I was in grad school, one of my fellow TAs showed his Intro to Fiction Writing class an episode of The Brady Bunch to illustrate the importance of conflict, crisis, resolution. I don’t recall which episode it was – Jan’s allergy to the family dog? Marcia’s getting braces? Greg’s being grounded after driving when Mike told him not to? – but it doesn’t matter. Looking back on the show I watched every Friday night (what a lineup: next came Partridge Family then Room 222 and The Odd Couple, and once my parents allowed me to stay up till 10, Love American Style), I remember how tightly those plots were constructed: the conflict introduced right away (Jan starts sneezing, Marcia gets metal mouth), ratcheted up to a crisis between commercial breaks, and all resolved at the end, Carol and Mike talking it over in bed, she in her flouncy nighty, he in tailored PJs.
Not the stuff of James Joyce or Alice Munro, but a good place to start. Next week I’m co-teaching a weeklong fiction intensive at UC Berkeley Extension. I’ve been reading the manuscripts and, intriguing and detailed and full of imagination as they are, considering how best to hone in on the basics every story needs.
In reminding my students, of course, I’m reminding myself. The essentials of craft – imagery, characterization, setting, point of view – are tools we can sharpen and hone, over time wielding them to best effect. But as its core, a story needs conflict, and conflict comes from desire.
I learned the word “anhedonia” in grad school, when one of my professors railed against the then- (and still-) popular strain of stories about narrators who thought and spoke and acted, traveled in a specific time and place and made intelligent / ironic / humorous /deadpan / lyrical observations, but didn’t exhibit desire. They thought a lot – too much – but they didn’t want anything.
That was the point, we who wrote those stories argued. We were writing true to life, and who didn’t feel anhedonic from time to time? The story’s point of emotional numbness seemed part of its accuracy, its relevance. We had graduated past The Brady Bunch. We had literary aspirations.
Greg wants to pitch for the Dodgers. Jan wants to be voted Most Popular. Greg and Marcia both want the attic room as their own bedroom. The more I’ve taught fiction, the more I’ve learned the helpfulness of what, in 30 minutes (less commercials), can feel a tad formulaic.
Consider the unnamed narrator in Joyce’s story “Araby.” We know what he wants as soon as he describes Mangan’s sister standing in the light. Or the “savage brat” whose determination not to open her mouth (and show the doctor her diseased tonsils) fuels William Carlos Williams’ wonderfully taut story “The Use of Force.” Anders, the world-weary jerk of a book critic in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” is past all desire at the beginning of the story – ah, but then his cynicism gets him shot, and what beautiful longing opens up, redeeming him and creating one of the most satisfying short stories I know.
If you don’t know these stories, go find them. Each one will take you only 10 minutes to read, all three in a half hour. Just the time, come to think of it, of seeing what happens after Don Drysdale praises Greg’s pitching.