My first attempt at a type of poetry called Vilanelle. Here's the definition from Wikipedia. The accompanying picture belongs to Tess Kincaid of Magpie Tales. This poem has been inspired by the photo. I tried to compare the human life to that of a packrat. The same way packrat that lives a short life leaves behind middens that last for centuries, humans leave behind memories. The way packrat builds its nest from things around, we build our personalities from the experiences the world gives us. Our personalities are like our masks that we present to the world and that is what the people remember after we are gone. This post had been posted for weekly prompt for Magpie Tales Mag 74 and Jingle Poetry Week 44 Poetry Potluck- Painting Whispers.
Posted for Haiku Heights: Prompt #51 I know most people post pictures with Haikus. Even I felt such a small post looked odd on the blog and wanted to add a picture. But as they say a picture speaks more than 1000 words. What chance will my poor 17 syllables have against a picture? So decided against it.
There are very few who do not love a good story. I have often wondered what it is that makes a story so fascinating. Then there are good stories and bad ones. Exploring what makes a story fascinating probably can give clues on what are the characteristics of a good story. Extending this further I was wondering if one can develop a framework to evaluate stories as well as serve as a guideline to write good stories.
To define what a story is, I would go right down to what distinguishes humans from other beings. As per me the most distinguishing features of humans are intellect and emotions, the head and the heart. So I would classify stories into two kinds – those that appeal to the head and those that appeal to the heart. Of course a hallmark of good stories is a combination of both. But I would keep these two aspects separate for simplicity of analysis.
Let us start from the top, the head. What is called intelligence is essentially an ability to solve problems. Evolution favored development of intelligence as it enabled man to solve diverse problems thrown up by nature. The brain tries to quickly gather all information available, sifts through, identifies all that is relevant and tries to come up with the most optimal solution based on the available information. As more information becomes available the solution keeps getting more refined. Copulation and eating are pleasant experiences by themselves, even when not done to serve their evolutionary purposes of procreation and providing nutrition respectively. Same is the case with problem solving. It is a pleasant experience in itself even if it has no practical purpose. This is one of the things a good story tries to exploit. It initiates the reader into a problem and slowly releases more and more information that enables him to proceed towards the solution.
A good story of the above kind is like a giant jigsaw puzzle whose size and number of pieces the reader does not know. One of the abilities of the brain is to duck bouncers. So right in the beginning, if one were to recognize that a problem is too complex, the mind decides that it would be prudent to avoid taking on the problem. In many practical cases flight makes a better strategy then fight. So it is the writer’s skill is to trick the reader’s mind into believing that the solution is just at hand. Else he will lose the reader right away. So in the very beginning the writer has to get the reader curious, which is the step of getting the reader to recognize the problem and take it on. To encourage the reader to hang on, there can be a big problem consisting of a series of smaller problems. Solving the smaller problems earlier on in the book can give the reader encouragement to keep going at the big problem. The master story teller has to release one clue after another and the readers must be left gaping for the next hoping that will solve the problem only to realize he has to wait for one more. It is a final balance. If anything is released too early, the problem is solved and reader looses interest. If too much is held back to the last, the reader may decide it is too tough mid way and give up. And finally, it should seem that the reader has arrived at the solution rather than some random solution popping up like a rabbit out of a hat at the end. Else the reader does not get the satisfaction of solving a problem.
Moving on to the heart, we seldom have control over our emotions. The world just plays with our emotions and we just have to stand by and experience them. Stories are one of the means of deliberately creating emotions and experiencing them. Stories describe situations that create a particular emotion. The mind has already associated certain emotions with certain kind of situations and so description of the situation triggers the corresponding emotion. The trick here is to make the mind believe that the reader is actually undergoing the experience that is being described. That is where the skill of the writer comes in. The descriptions have to be vivid and consistent for the reader to believe it is real. This concept is well illustrated in the movie ‘Inception’. The moment mind sees the boundaries of the world the book creates or inconsistencies, it stops believing and the story looses the ability to trigger emotions. That is why the writer has to make every effort to make the descriptions as complex and consistent as possible.
Many writers recognize the importance of keeping the settings sufficiently complex and consistent. But that is by no means sufficient in itself. From a writer’s point of view this exercise is a problem to be solved and weaving an imaginary situation that is sufficiently complex and consistent can be pleasurable. But then that is not sufficient from the reader’s point of view. The reader is looking to experience emotions. He wants to experience intense fear without exposing himself to danger. He wants to feel anger and wreck destruction and seek revenge without really hurting anyone or falling foul of law. He wants to experience the amazement of visiting a distant country or and inaccessible wonder of nature without incurring the expenses and the ardors of the journey. He wants to be part of great deeds of valor and nobility that he may not have opportunity to be part of in the real world. He wants to commit the vilest of crimes and experience sadistic pleasure without the repercussions. He wants to feel intense love and the pangs of loss for an hour and then close the book and get on with life. I can go on and on. But I guess I have made my point. Many stories, in spite of their complexity and consistency, fail to invoke these intense emotions and end up hovering at the emotional neutrality of just another day of the reader’s life. No wonder they fail in spite of the sincerest efforts from the writer.
Now it might seem I am suggesting a story to be either a problem or description of a situation that invokes a particular emotion. But most good stories are a combination of a problem and a myriad of emotions. There is no science around getting the right blend though. That is where writing becomes an art. The writer like any other artist has to rely on his feelings to judge if the blend is right. The final story has to seem real, have a problem that is neither too simple nor too complex and a set of emotions that gives the reader an overall interesting experience. There is no formula or technique for this. But this kind of analytical framework can help a writer avoid basic blunders before this stage.