Friday, November 29, 2013

Act Two-and-a-Half

"No story ever really ends, and I think I know why. " 
George Macdonald

In fiction writing, stories often start with "Once Upon A Time..." and end with "The End." In between, they often have a traceable plot, a predictable framework they are built on.  It's called “three act structure,” and it works like this:

Act One is the set up. 

"Roberta lives with her grandmother, helping care for her elderly great-aunt, until one day she finds a map of the farm that shows her grandfather’s treasure hidden under the barn, along with some unreadable marks in a cipher of some kind. Roberta, who has never known her grandfather and yearns to know about her family, starts spending her afternoons digging holes in the unused stalls. But then, she realized that there is a mysterious stranger in town who is also looking for the treasure. Now, she has to find the treasure before he does."

Act Two comes after the main character is committed to the story. It is the building up, the raising of the stakes, the development and the drama. 

"Roberta, by this time, is determined to find her grandfather’s treasure, find out what it is, and keep it safe, all before this threatening stranger can steal it. She hears her grandmother having a conversation with someone late at night, but doesn’t know who. Her grandmother refuses to discuss the map, and finally, exasperated by prolonged questioning, burns it. Roberta is now unable to access whatever information was in the coded message. She is furious at her grandmother and they refuse to speak to each other. Rather than giving her more information about her family, the treasure is pulling what little family she has apart. And her digging about in the barn is getting her nowhere. The stranger in town has not been heard from or seen in a week. She is near giving up one night, when she looks out her window and sees someone moving about by lantern light in the barn."

Act Three contains both the crisis and the “denouement” or winding down. It’s where everything comes together and where the rubber hits the road. 

"Roberta sneaks out of her room and into the barn, where she watches a strange man with a copy of the map poke around the barn. She returns to the house to find her grandmother’s shotgun, and confronts the stranger with it. As they talk, the stranger reveals that he is actually her uncle, her mother’s brother and her grandmother’s son. Grandmother, who disapproves of both her husband’s “treasure” and her son’s desire to uncover it, has not spoken to him in years, and burned the map to keep him from getting it. He was able to find another copy hidden by his father and now, having decoded the message, is following the instructions to find the treasure. Roberta and her uncle are lifting the box from it’s hiding place what Grandmother walks in. A family fight ensues, and everything comes out. It turns out that Grandfather’s treasure was books, books that he wrote about his wild adventures as a young man. He buried them in the barn with a treasure map as a game for his sons. But after he died, Grandmother was terrified that reading the stories would make the boys want to leave home and travel the world, so she hid the maps and discouraged searching for them. Everything is tidily wrapped up, explained, and ends in family reconciliation."
The End.

Real life isn’t like that. In life, Act One can be interrupted by a sudden and unexpected crisis whose set-up was “off-stage” and unseen. So that Act One is disturbed by Act Three or even Act Four of some completely different story instead of tidily following into Act Two. The stranger in town comes three weeks after Roberta finds the books, and comes straight home to confront his mother. Roberta and her grandmother patch up their relationship over the course of years, including Roberta's husband and children in the saga. Very few things happen at convenient or dramatic times, and when Roberta sneaks out her window it is not at midnight to confront a stranger in the barn with a shotgun, but after lunch one spring day just to see if it could be done if she ever needed to do it. 

Sometimes a book that isn’t true mimics the trajectory of a true story. Stories like The Swiss Family Robinson and Mrs. Mike weave in and out of people and events and stories, tracing the path of a life and ignoring three act structure. One one hand, this can make the story feel disjointed and a little unsettled. On the other hand, often the story feels far more true than stories that tie off neatly. Because in real life everything doesn't tie off neatly, because no story ever really ends.

Because people live on and stories continue, and, even after death, the story isn't over.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Wages and the Gift

Auschwitz, Germany, 1944

The thought came again, like the relentless washing of waves crashing against a rocky beach, flooding my brain and freezing my fingers.
God hates me.
My heart was pounding. I looked up into Major Braun's cold scowl.
"What's wrong with you, Kohn?" he barked. "Pull that --------- lever!"
I could see the suspicion in his eyes. They had no use for men who snapped. I shoved my mind away and swallowed hard as I pulled the lever down, as fast as I could, slamming it against the stone wall.
The familiar hissing sound filled the room as gas rushed into the room next to us. I could hear gasping cries as the tightly packed prisoners, mostly women and children who had been told they were to take a shower, succumbed to the deadly gas. Then all sounds ceased, except the hissing of the gas through the vents.
"Shut it off," said Major Braun.
I obeyed the order mechanically, pushing the lever back up. My jaw was clenched so tightly that it hurt.
A few moments passed, then men were sent to clear the room for the next batch. Over 150 bodies, packed in as tightly as possible. Mothers, babies, sisters, brothers.
God hates me. I shook my head, but the thoughts would not go away this time. I didn't cause their deaths! I was just obeying orders.
I pulled the lever.

Then, like a ghost from my childhood, I heard my mother's voice.
"I don't care if it wasn't your idea! You helped, so you are responsible." I was twelve. My older brother suggested throwing a rock through the schoolmaster's window. I did. When my mother found out, she scolded, and then told me, "Now you go over there and pay him for the broken window. Then come back here and ask God's forgiveness. You're sorry, I know. Go make it right."
My hand dropped from the lever. I couldn't make it right. Even if I refused to obey my orders, it would not save a single life.
God hates me.The next group of prisoners was being loaded into the shower room. The Major told me to get ready.
I could see myself as if from above the compound, sitting at the controls staring at the lever, surrounded by gray concrete and drab green uniforms.
My hands were shaking. I clenched them at my sides.
I could pull the lever again. 150 more lives. Dead in that shower room, gas hissing from the vents.
God hates me.I could refuse. It was not to late to stand up and walk away. It would mean death. The crack of a gun. Blood spreading over my uniform, my body limp on the ground. There was relief in the thought.
"...then ask for God's forgiveness. And the next time..."
My head dropped into my hands. It was far too late, but I had to try.
"God, if you can forgive me," I stammered through shaking lips, "I beg your forgiveness. I have nothing to give you, but..." My voice trailed off and a feeling of grief filled me. My life was over. I could give Him nothing but my death. "Please forgive me," I repeated.
I took a deep breath. A feeling I barely remembered washed over me.
A feeling of lightness. I felt as if I could dance on the wind.
"Are you listening to me, Caro?" Major Braun's voice was harsh and strident. "I said pull that lever!"
I had strength, I had courage I didn't understand. I stood up and faced the Major.
"No," I said. "I won't do it."
My world exploded, the Major yelling, the other soldiers questioning, another officer explaining. My detachment surprised me. I didn't care what they said.
"They are subhuman. They need to be removed for the greater good!"
"This is murder," I responded. "I won't do it anymore."
"Then we'll put you in there with them," the Major shouted.
I think he expected me to beg for mercy, but I didn't falter. Two soldiers grabbed me and pushed me out of the room, down the hall, and into the shower room.
The door slammed shut with a clang. I was pressed in with a mass of bony, starved bodies. Their dull, sunken eyes regarded me emptily.
I helped do this.
For me, the thought of death was an escape. Not from the guilt. For some reason I no longer felt guilty, just inexpressibly sad. Escape from a life with what I'd helped do always in my head. I envied these people for their innocence.
The hiss was louder in this room than the other. As the strange smell filled the air there were some cries of surprise, of fear. Then silence as the air grew black.
I couldn't breathe. I couldn't stand. I fell to the concrete floor with the others.
As the swirling darkness gathered around me, for the last time the thought came.
God loves me.

~by Sara-Anne Leavitt
September, 2011

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Moods and Raindrops

“Pray don't talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.”
Oscar Wilde

Weather may not be a very original conversation topic, in and of itself, but when writing, describing the weather sets the scene in a way that instantly correlates with emotion. Weather is mood. Here are some examples:

         The sky was gray and gloomy and constantly dripping. It was the kind of weather in which old people complain of depression and rheumatism, and young people make faces at the sky and stay home by choice. It was cold and damp and even the small fire in the huge fireplace seemed like a hopeless attempt.
        "Atrocious," Mr. Frederick said around the pipe clenched in his teeth. He was staring out through the drops covering the window at the grey sky and grey moor. "How long has the weather been behaving in this unacceptable way?"
       His son Mark didn't look up from the book he was reading by the fire. "Over two weeks," he said shortly.
       "That's what I thought," Mr. Frederick mumbled. He turned away from the window and pulled his old red dressing gown around his shoulders. He shuffled away in the direction of the kitchen and a hot cup of tea.


  The snowflakes were white in the light of the street lamps, swirling and drifting down into the street to join the snow that was already heaped up on houses and frosting the empty branches of the trees. The couple walking along the street were so bundled in scarves and overcoats and hats that they would have been unrecognizable even to freinds. The girl threw her head back to catch a snowflake on her tongue. The young man with her smiled, but took her arm to hurry her along.
      "Come on," he said. "We don't have time."
      "I know," the girl said, but she stood there a moment longer, staring up at the sky where thousands of white flecks were whirling out of nowhere.
      Ahead of them the sound of a train whistle echoed through the snow. The girl took a deep breath of cold air that tasted like snow and hurried after her brother.

You could also write something where everyone is happy to see the rain because there has been a drought, or a scene in which the snow is threatening instead of peaceful. In any case, the way you describe the weather, and the weather being described, can set your scene almost by itself. It's also fun to write about! I love thunderstorms especially. Lightning and thunder are like Drama Mix: just add water...

Monday, November 18, 2013

Book Review: The Chief Mourner of Marne

"There is a limit to human charity," said Lady Outram, trembling all over.
"There is," said Father Brown dryly, "and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity."
G.K. Chesterton, The Chief Mourner of Marne

Gilbert Keith Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown is an amateur detective, an inconspicuous and simple little English priest who somehow manages to get mixed up in more murders and thefts than the average Scotland Yard police inspector.
Father Brown's adventures are recounted, in five collections: The Innocence of Father Brown, The Wisdom of Father Brown, The Incredulity of Father Brown, The Secret of Father Brown, and The Scandal of Father Brown. The story I'm talking about is in The Secret of Father Brown, and it's called "The Chief Mourner of Marne."
It involves a dark castle and a reclusive nobleman, an old tragedy and a terrible secret.
Many years ago, James and Maurice Mair were cousins, brought up as brothers. James Mair, the elder and the Marquis of Marne, practically worshipped Maurice. The story is that Maurice died in a sudden illness and James, heartbroken, broke off all communication with the world, including his fiancee, and left the country, traveling for years before coming home to shut himself in his family castle and, apparently encouraged by priests, became a religious hermit.
When Sir. John Cockspur, a newspaper man, hears the story from the General and Lady Outram, old friends of James Mair's, he determines to write it up in his newspaper as a scathing representation of the way the Church ruins people's lives. Mr. Mallow, a young friend of the Outrams, hears the story at the same time and is shaken by the allegations against religion. He goes to see his friend Father Brown and recounts the story, telling him that Cockspur intends to write an anti-clerical article about it.
Father Brown is unwilling to allow his creed to be so slandered and goes to see General Outram, who, he suspects, knows that there is more to the story. He points out that in a tragedy, a man would be more likely to turn to his fiancee for comfort, not break off the engagement. He reminds the general that Maurice Mair was buried without a funeral, rather hurriedly, perhaps even secretly. And James Mair instantly left, you might say fled, the country. There's more to the story than the General told his wife.
Of course there is more to the story, but I'm not telling either. Mysteries are much more fun to read when you don't know what's going to happen next. The Father Brown mysteries are extremely well written, engaging, and thought-provoking. I highly recommend them.
My favorite part about this and the other Father Brown stories, is Father Brown's attitude towards the culprit. While he never condones the crime, often times he almost sympathizes with the criminal, trying to bring the thief or the murderer to repentance. In the Chief Mourner of Marne, Lady Outram chastises him for his seemingly cruel and unforgiving attitude towards the Marquis of Marne. But when she finds out the whole story, she shudderingly says that there is a limit to human charity. Someone else says that he wouldn't touch the sinner with a barge pole.
"We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction," Father Brown says. The Church has not condemned a man to live alone, buried in the past, for the remainder of his life. Instead, the Church is the only place where such a "vile thing" can find forgiveness. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Making Anything

"You can make anything by writing."
C.S. Lewis

God must have had fun when he created the world. We, the people he made in his image, get so much pleasure out of making things, out of writing and crafting and building, it must have been a joy like no other to build flowers and waterfalls and design the cell and sculpt atoms so that hydrogen and oxygen made water. Then to release everything he had made to live on its own, reproducing itself.

We can't make live things. Everything we "create" is destined, for moths and rust. Books included. But in writing we come very close to creation. We can make things that live. People and mountains and valleys and even entire universes. We can even make things that, to our knowledge, have never existed. Aliens and glowing swords and hobbits. 

We can make worlds. We can create places where animals talk, men fight with swords, and the land is always beautiful. We can make up languages, mythologies, and create horrid slimy creatures that live in dark places and are obsessed with one possession. 

We can borrow from ancient times, from real life, and other people's imaginations. We can melt things together, pull things apart, rearrange and reconstitute, add our own ideas, come up with new things, and produce something that is ours and ours alone. 

We come up with amazing things.
From boys that fly to priests that solve mysteries. From children having fantastic adventures to an old man caring for his wife even though she can't remember him anymore. Retelling old stories, creating new ones, telling true stories, creating myths. 

We can make anything by writing. And it's so much fun!

Monday, November 11, 2013

Name, Please

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I've never been able to believe it. I don't believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.” 
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

I love names. I like unique, creative, names, I like foreign names, I like old fashioned names. My father (and probably many other people) doesn't understand my feelings about the names of my characters. He feels that I would make like easier for both my readers and myself if I changed Brogan to Bob and Sonja to Susan.
I'm sorry, I can't. A Sonja is not at all the same person as a Susan.

Susan is a middle-aged woman who works in the office during the week and goes running on the weekends. She has straight, cosmopolitan, respectable hair. She is dependable, charitable, and a Democrat.
Or maybe she's a English schoolgirl. In that case she belongs to C.S. Lewis.

Sonja is Russian or maybe Scandinavian. In whatever setting she is in, she is a rebel. She is a part of the resistance during World War Two, or she is the only person who will talk to that one girl at school. She is a spy or a journalist or the first woman doctor. She doesn't care what people think. She is determined, intelligent, and she walks her own path.
Sonja is not Susan.

Nor is a Brogan anything like a Bob.
A "Bob" is an older man, American, who probably owns a motorhome and watches the Superbowl on TV. Or Bob is a young grocery store clerk, amiable, ambitious, and enthusiastic. Someday he will be the Fred Meyer's store manager. Bob is suburban and average.

Brogan, on the other hand, may be in his fifties but he is still as fierce and intense as he was when he was younger. It's hard to believe, but he's even more stubborn now than he was when he was fifteen. He's been fighting the "cursed English" all his life and yet they still pollute his Irish homeland. He wears skins and homespun and his shoulder length dark hair is rough and tangled. He's the chief of the clan and if his son ever measures up to his expectations, he will in turn become chief and take his turn in fighting English oppression. He may kind of know that the fight is hopeless but he will never give up.

Brogan is not Bob.

(If your name is Bob or Susan, I apologize. Your name does not really define you. You can be intense, Irish, stubborn, rebellious, or Scandinavian. You can give other people the opportunity to see "Bob" and "Susan" as very different people.)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Everlasting Souls

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."
C.S. Lewis 

Traveling is a great opportunity for people watching. Airports, jets, foreign countries no matter how familiar...they're all an opportunity to observe the beautiful, horrible, amazing world and everyone in it.

There were people going to Dubai, South Africa, and Thailand. There were Americans, Asians, and Indians. They were all dressed differently, speaking different languages, from different cultures, different climates, different worlds.
All going somewhere different.
And yet they were all the same. All mothers or fathers or sons or daughters. Brothers and sisters and cousins. Waiting and working, walking or riding and carrying bags and making sure the children get on the subway. Tired and stressed out, excited and happy. At their best, at their worst. Loving or hating, searching for God or running away from him. Immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

I saw a young Arab couple working together to take their tiny baby through customs. They didn't want the baby to go through the scanner. But the mother was dressed in the full headdress and black cloak and she wasn't about to get a pat-down. Nor did they want to hand their child to a TSA official. So she handed the baby to the dad, and he took the baby through the other side while she went through the scanner. I assume he got a pat down on the other side. They were so cute, seemingly so ordinary and yet so unusual.

Sometimes I love people. They're friendly and thoughtful and unpredictable. They're beautiful and whimsical and eccentric. Everyone is unique but they all are the same in the best ways. 

Sometimes I hate people. They're selfish and obnoxious, they talk all the time or they refuse to talk, they're ugly and boring and they're all exactly alike in the worst ways. 

But no matter how I feel about them at the moment, every person I come across is an immortal. Eternal. They will live forever and their life in eternity depends on their life here on Earth. They are all searching for answers, for love, for truth. Some of them have found it, some only think they have found it. Some of them have found it and decided they don't like it.

Some of them may see it in me. Am I showing them light and truth even when surrounded by darkness and lies? Am I showing them love when all I feel is revulsion? (You are so mean. So stupid. So ugly. Why are you bringing four cats on the plane with you? Your clothes don't fit right. Your clothes are immodest. You're wearing too much make-up.) That may be what I see when I look at people. That may be what anyone would see when they look at those people. 

But those are not just people. Those are the bodies of everlasting souls.

You are so fragile. So misinformed. So unhappy. Do you know what is really important in life? Your clothes and make-up don't matter. The way you are acting, good or bad, doesn't matter. You are destined for eternal death or everlasting life. It is your choice to make. What can I do?

Monday, November 4, 2013


He is the last person you expected. Of all the people who have made their mark, however faint, upon your life, he is the one that you were sure you would never see again. He is handsome, as he has always been, but his air of disinterest keeps you from making spider’s webs of dreams. He is only buying a pot, a tiny ceramic one that looks like it wouldn’t hold a lichen plant. It is meant for doll’s houses, and yet he cannot be meaning to play dolls. You think perhaps he is buying it for some daughter or young sister. You open the cash register mechanically, your fingers so used to their job that you do not have to think about it as you take his money and ring up the change. The rain on the roof is a soft drumming as you put the pot in a little brown paper bag and he says hello as you make the sale.
“You’re doing pretty well,” he says, looking around the tiny shop with the air of someone appraising it. You nod politely.
“Yes, business has been good.”
You both are silent after that, there seems nothing more to say. But the shop is empty and the day has been slow, and you want to have a conversation, with anyone. The fact that you once knew him is not as much of a deterrent as you would think it to be, not on a day like this. You draw a face in the dust on the counter.
“A present?” you ask, handing him the paper bag. 
His eyes fall and he hesitates. 
“You might call it that,” he says. 
“Most little girls buy it for their doll houses,” you tell him, hoping to make him speak further, and he takes the bait.
“I’m not getting it for a doll house,” he says. “It just reminded me of something and I thought I’d buy it.”
“I’m glad you came in,” you say, not yet sure if it’s a lie or not. “It’s been a while. Is your family well?”
“They’re all fine,” he says. “And yours?”
Your father’s health is failing, and your mother snaps every day. Your sister, once your best friend, ignores you more than anything else, and your little brother smokes and sneaks out at night to the wrong side of town with the friends he should never have made. And yet you wear your false smile and say,
“They’re fine.”
He nods and picks up his little bag. “I’ll see you later,” he says.
“Are you moving back here?” You hope your tone is casual. You are not sure what you want him to say. He hesitates.
“Yes. For a while, at least.”
He goes out, and the little bell on the old wooden door jangles. A moment later there is nothing but the sound of the rain, and you sigh and sit down on the little red stool behind the cash register.