The Pitfalls of “Originality”

One of the distinguishing features of modern society is our preoccupation with originality. Giving proper credit to the creator of something is the basis of everything from copyright law and patent offices to anti-plagiarism policies in high schools and universities. Much of this stems from an artist’s desire to get noticed in some way (as well as paid). While this desire is certainly not bad, the quest for originality also carries certain temptations.

In the 1934 book, Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande discusses some of the dangers that often plague inexperienced writers:

“When the pitfall of imitation is safely skirted, one often finds that in the effort to be original an author has pulled and jerked and prodded his story into monstrous form. He will plant dynamite at its crisis, turn the conclusion inside out, betray a character by making him act uncharacteristically, all in the service of the God of Originals. His story may be all compact of horror, or, more rarely, good luck may conquer every obstacle hands down; and if the teacher or editor protests that the story has not been made credible, its author will murmur ‘Dracula’ or ‘Kathleen Norris,’ and will be unconvinced if told that the minimum requirement for a good story has not been met: that he has not shown that he, the author, truly and consistently envisages a world in which such events could under any circumstances come to pass.”

I see this all the time when I ask my high school students to write narratives. What starts off as an interesting story suddenly ends with a “surprise” twist: The starving orphan is actually the long-lost child of the city’s wealthiest citizen; the heroine’s disease is miraculously cured with an experimental drug; or worse yet, “I woke up and realized it was all a dream.” When I point out that these sorts of endings are not very convincing, the students counter, “But I wanted my story to stand out.”

Brande reminds writers that the key to originality is not distorting a tale into something unrecognizable. Rather, it is telling a story from your own perspective. “There is one sense in which everyone is unique. No one else was born of your parents, at just that time of just that country’s history; no one underwent just your experiences, reached just your conclusions, or faces the world with the exact set of ideas that you must have. If you can come to such friendly terms with yourself that you are able and willing to say precisely what you think of any given situation or character, if you can tell a story as it can appear only to you of all the people on earth, you will inevitably have a piece of work which is original.”

Remember what Agnes Mure MacKenzie says about originality in The Process of Literature: “Your loving and my loving, your anger and my anger, are sufficiently alike for us to be able to call them by the same names: but in our experience and in that of any two people in the world, they will never be quite completely identical.” This principle is true regardless of genre, and when you think about it, isn’t bringing individual experiences to life in an engaging and believable way the basis of all good—and original—art?

In the Beginning…

Few facets of writing are as important as an opening line. While every story needs well-drawn characters and an engaging plot, nothing will deter a reader faster than a lousy first sentence—particularly in short fiction. Thus, your job as a storyteller is to hook the audience at the beginning of your tale and give them a reason to keep reading. There are a number of ways to do this, and since imitation is one of the best ways to learn, here a few examples to consider.

Short and Simple

Some writers begin their narratives with simple, declarative sentences. For example, Tolkien plunges us into the world of the Shire and Middle Earth with the line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Likewise, Virginia Woolfe’s opening, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” displays both her protagonist’s commanding personality as well as the author’s own self-assured style.

Here are some other declarative openers that carry plenty of punch:

“The small boys came early to the hanging.” (Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth)

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” (Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It)

“I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one.” (Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men)

“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” (Joseph Heller’s Catch 22)

Conjuring Up Questions

A short declaration sometimes has the effect of plunging the reader right into the center of the action, such as in Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat: “None of them knew the color of the sky.” Or consider Ernest Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber: “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Both of these openings encourage readers to ask questions, and it is these sorts of questions that will coax the audience into joining the author on the narrative journey.

Here’s another opening line that begs all sorts of questions: “When my nose finally stops bleeding and I’ve disposed of the bloody paper towels, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in” (from Richard Russo’s Straight Man). What caused the narrator’s bloody nose, and why is Teddy such a cheapskate? It’s another twenty pages before these questions are answered, but by then, Russo has the audience firmly hooked.

Grand Vistas

Sometimes an author will begin a story with a sweeping comment about the human condition, such as in Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.”

Other writers, such as John Irving, will essentially sum up their entire story in an opening line: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (from Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany). It took Irving several drafts to get this one right, but the statement conjures up a host of questions that are not answered until the book’s final pages.

Who’s Talking?

Consider using your opening passage to establish your speaker’s voice, such as these two narrative gems:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye)

Listening to these two openers conjures up vivid notions about who is telling the stories—which is precisely what a good narrative should do.

What Not to Do

Here’s a real yawner of an opening line from William Paul Young’s bestselling novel The Shack:

“March unleashed a torrent of rainfall after an abnormally dry winter. A cold front out of Canada then descended and was held in place by a swirling wind that roared down the Gorge from eastern Oregon.”

Are you kidding me? A weather report? Wake me when it’s over. (Believe it or not, this book has sold over three million copies. But then literary quality is not always a prerequisite for commercial success. Look at Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer.) Now there’s nothing wrong with beginning a story in the throes of a howling snowstorm, but writing something that sounds like a script from the Weather Channel’s teleprompter is probably not the best way to go.

The bottom line is this: If you want people to read your story, it’s important to capture the audience’s attention from the opening line. Put the reader in the middle of the action, or provide them some questions or ideas to ponder. Quality screenwriters know this rule well, and if you’re writing a short story or a novel, the same principle applies.

So, I’ve shown you a few of my favorite opening passages. What are some of yours?

On The Subject Of: Crafting a good opening

As part of our ongoing thematic initiative, for the next two weeks the blog posts will discuss the topic of “crafting a good opening”.  After that we want to pull in another one-word exercise set, so we need some more word ideas from you, our fearless readers.  Post your word suggestions as comments on any of the blog entries this week or next and we’ll choose one of them upon which to spin.

Now, on to the meat of the matter!

By opening, we are not just talking about an opening line, but rather the initial elements that the writer puts forth to draw the reader in (or viewer as is the case with screenplays).  By all accounts, for a full length screenplay, the writer has just 10 pages (which equates to approximately 10 minutes of screen time) to hook the reader and be deemed worthy of further consideration.  Fail that first test and the screenplay hits the rubbish bin.  By necessity, the shorter the piece, the shorter amount of time the writer has to make their mark.

We also chose the word “crafting” deliberately.  For this writer, engaging openings do not fall out of my brain fully formed and ready to take on all challengers.  For short stories and the like, I definitely spend a majority of my rework time in the first two paragraphs, tweaking, poking, prodding, kneading the words into something onto which I hope the reader will grab.

One of my favorite openings is from one of my favorite movies of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Within a few minutes we are introduced to the main character in his preferred element and given insight into many of the qualities that will serve him well in the story to come: resourcefulness, self-reliance, multi-discipline expertise, quick thinking and, oh yeah, a fear of snakes.  Given that Raiders was a modern take on the action serials of a generation before, it’s no surprise that thrills are abundant immediately, but that we also get a healthy dose of character exposition at the same time shows the craftsman at work.

Creative Writing Exercise: “Gasket”

A friend of mine is something of an expert on the history of prostitution. Over the years, he has amassed quite a large collection of books on the subject, particularly the role that brothels played in the expansion of the American West. Whenever we are traveling around Arizona exploring old ghost towns, he’s a ready source of entertaining stories and clever bits of trivia (like the origins of the word “poon-tang,” for example). However, at least as far as I can tell, his knowledge of prostitutes is purely academic.

I first became aware of the world’s oldest profession while growing up in a small Indiana farm town. As a kid, my only exposure to anything even remotely resembling a prostitute came from watching T.V. westerns, such as Miss Kitty on Gunsmoke or those friendly gals from The Cheyenne Social Club (a film starring Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Shirley Jones. Yeah, that’s right—the same woman who would one day become the matriarchal caregiver to the Partridge Family). In those old shows, it’s hard to imagine that such flamboyantly dressed dancehall girls would ever be intimate with a dirty, stinking cowboy. But then again, no one ever said entertainment was supposed to mirror reality.

My encounter with a real prostitute happened when I was about eleven years old. At the time, there was a boy living next door named Brian whose family epitomized the 1970’s drug culture. Brian was two years younger than me and the only boy I knew who smoked; he could also blow really cool smoke rings and roll his own cigarettes. He was a chubby kid who spent his summer days running around the neighborhood shirtless and shoeless. Brian and his mother had been renting the big blue house across the alley for about two years, and during that time, their household had expanded to include his mom’s brother, Roger, and several of Roger’s friends. It was Roger who had taught Brian to smoke, along with several other vices he would acquire over the course of his brief young life. Roger moved in shortly after Brian’s dad was sent away to prison to serve a five year sentence for selling hard drugs.

It turned out that Roger’s stay was precipitated by his recent dishonorable discharge from the army. No one, including Brian, ever bothered to ask why Roger had gotten out of the army a year and a half early. All we knew was that one day he showed up at Brian’s mother’s door with a G.I. haircut and a nasty attitude. Brian’s mom gave Roger Brian’s room, which meant that Brian was now forced to sleep on the downstairs sofa. So while Brian’s mother worked two jobs to support the household, Roger and his buddies sat at home drinking beer and smoking pot.

Being young, Brian and I took these events in stride. But one day while we were playing catch in the front yard, we noticed an unfamiliar car pulling into the driveway. Out of the car stepped a young woman we had never seen before. She was very pretty, with a petite body and a hint of Asian features about her eyes and cheekbones. It was clear from where we stood that she wore no bra under her tight-fitting t-shirt, although she didn’t seem to notice us looking at her. In fact, she seemed to stare right through us and the two other guys who were helping Roger work on his car in the garage. Roger walked over to the girl and whispered something to her. Then they went up the steps and into the house. “Why don’t you go to NAPA and get head gasket for the El Camino,” shouted Roger to one of his friends through the screen door. “We’ll finish the brakes this afternoon.”

A little while later, Brian wanted to go up to his room to get a different baseball mitt, but one of Roger’s friends stopped us at the bottom of the stairs. “Roger’s going to be busy up there for a while,” he said. Like most boys our age, we understood the mechanics of the sex act if not the motivation, yet a situation like this was entirely new. We went outside and stood underneath Brian’s second story bedroom window. We said nothing, but soon we heard the unmistakable sounds of moaning and the squeaking of bedsprings. Brian and I stared at each other for a moment. Then, like primitive aborigines who are fearful of what they do not understand, we picked up some stones and hurled them at the side of the house. Roger came to the window and yelled at us to stop, and soon one of his buddies chased us away.

A short time later, the girl emerged from the house. Her eyes looked distant and sad, yet she managed to give us a quick smile as she got into her car and drove away. I often wondered what would compel a girl like her to give herself over to the likes of Roger and his ilk. Perhaps she was unable to reconcile her mixed parentage in a town made up almost exclusively of W.A.S.P.S. (After all, the Grand Dragon of our state’s chapter of the K.K.K. lived in the neighboring county.) No doubt she was driven by desperation. Was it the same feeling of desperation that ultimately led Brian to take his own life a few years later?

It was not until my senior year of high school that I would once again encounter a professional Working Girl in a situation that I call, “The Jamaican Shoe-Swap Proposal.” But perhaps that’s a story for another day.

A Tisket, A Tasket

Image via Wikipedia
“A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow …,” the soft baby voice singing came to a stop.  Madison turned, looking up at the woman seated nearby in a lounge chair.  “Miss Terry.” The little blonde cherub pronounced the name as “Terwy”.  It had been endearing the first time. Now it was just plain annoying.

Terry glanced up from the Sunday paper.  “What?”

“I forgot the next word.”

“Gasket,” Terry said.

A questioning frown covered the young girl’s face.  “Gasket?  Is that right?”  

“Positive.” Terry knew it was wrong, but lying to the child was somehow deeply satisfying, irresistible actually.  

It was early spring and the day was warm enough to make the slight breeze heavenly. Reading under the porch had been peaceful and relaxing until the neighbor’s daughter appeared like a meerkat on the rise of earth that separated their adjoining backyards.  Terry had been tempted to warn Madison away by telling her there’d been a recent pesticide application and it was too dangerous to walk on the grass. It was her most effective maneuver to keep the pesky little rodent from invading her yard.  But, since it was the beginning of the season, she didn’t want to overuse her primary weapon for maintaining her solitude.

Terry had made the mistake of being friendly when the couple and their three kids moved in a little less than a year ago. Their two older children were boys and neither of them had one iota of interest in a middle aged woman. She became invisible as soon as she admitted she had no children, not even a dog they could play with.  All she had to offer was a crotchety old husband.

Madison had been different. The four year old had taken an immediate interest in everything about Terry.  Her flowers, her house, the mailbox with the painted bluebirds.  The child’s obsessive behavior reminded her of the squirrels from their previous residence.

Their old neighborhood was full of towering trees and squirrels. Frank had trained a threesome to accept pecans from him, holding out the nuts with his bare hands. They’d rest one little paw on his finger while quickly grabbing the pecan with the other paw and then scurry up a tree.  It was cute at the beginning. They nicknamed the critters Gopher, Digger and Big Balls. The frequent feedings soon led to their entire backyard looking like a mine field with holes dug to bury the nuts. It was amusing until the day that Big Balls appeared next to Terry as she was planting a bed of bulbs. He was standing upright on his haunches, front paws square on his hips, his posture signaling he expected to be fed. When she couldn’t shake the little beast, she retreated to the safety of the house. But the bugger followed her, flinging his body against the aluminum door. That was the last of Frank’s nature experiment.

Terry listened as the child sang the modified nursery rhyme. “A tisket, a tasket, a green and yellow gasket.” 

She chuckled, wondering how old Madison would be when she finally discovered she’d been duped.