Charity by Charles Baxter (Fiction Breakdown)

It’s been months since I’ve posted any news. But for those at all interested, I’m alive and well. I believe I am nearing the time at which I will be more consistent with my blogging, as it is something I enjoy greatly, though once I return I am afraid it will probably be a weekly practice rather than daily. I simply have other obligations.

For this entry, I’d like to share a breakdown of a short story I read just yesterday. This kind of breakdown is something that was introduced to me by one of the faculty in my MFA program, and if this feels a little too MFA-ish than it’s probably because it is. For those who enjoy dissecting fiction, for those who seek to understand why it works, and why it is or is not fulfilling, read on.

I’ll start with this graphic I created (I apologize for the resolution):

Charity by Charles Baxter (BASS 2014)

 

Base Situation:

The story starts with Quinn newly arrived in the United States after some time spent in Ethiopia. While he was squeaky clean before he picked up some type of contagious arthritis, and though he’s in some trouble now, he still thinks he’ll find his way out. That’s where he is physically. Emotionally, he’s optimistic about his boyfriend whom he met while abroad. They are separated by distance.

Initial Event (or Inciting Incident):

This puts the story in full motion–sure you could argue that the inciting incident is Quinn’s contraction of the arthritis, but that’s summed up so quickly in the piece, I don’t see the story starting until he runs out of painkillers and has to visit a drug dealer in a shady bar.

Conflict:

The visit to the drug dealer spawns conflict, as Quinn doesn’t have money enough to pay for the painkillers he needs to feel human. As a result of this he mugs someone in the middle of the night. Once he takes the painkillers Quinn understands how much shit he’s in.

And this is where the whole story goes sideways–the reader hasn’t actually been in Quinn’s PoV at all. We’ve been listening to someone named Harry tell the story of what he’s been able to put together of what happened to Quinn. Oh, and Harry is Quinn’s boyfriend. So Suddenly the reader takes a step back and there is another. . .

Initial Event (or Inciting Incident):

. . . but this time the inciting incident spurs Harry on within the story, because quite suddenly, Quinn disappears.

Now, I think this is what makes this story tick. Both Harry and Quinn feel like very real, very complex humans because we see an inciting incident for both of them, which makes readers think about inciting incidents for everyone in a fictional world. Stories are happening everywhere and this piece hints that inciting incidents aren’t isolated. The whole world is ruled by cause and effect.

S0. When Quinn disappears Harry takes up the story in his attempts to find his beloved. We get a scene of Quinn when he was well, and why Harry falls in love with him–important backstory. Because we’ve already seen Quinn fall, this flashback is in place of the rising action of the story. It builds tension like few backstories I’ve ever seen, because we feel and see the love Harry has for Quinn and we want Quinn to be okay.

Climax:

In response to Quinn’s Disappearance Harry goes and confronts the drug dealer that Quinn had gone to see. It’s a tense moment because we don’t know how the drug dealer will take to a gay man asking questions–but in due course we find that Harry is pretty bad ass.

Critical Moment:

Following the drug dealers tip, Harry finds Quinn completely out of his mind near the river. This is a critical moment because it is in this moment that Harry realizes that Quinn is a different person than the one he fell in love with. He wishes Quinn was his old self, but he suspects that’s impossible.

Falling Action:

Harry returns to the drug dealer and beats the him up for what he had done to Quinn–getting him addicted to painkillers. Then Harry takes Quinn to Seattle and gets him on his feat. At this moment readers wonder if Harry can learn to love the real Quinn; the one that exists now.

Resolution:

Quinn attends meetings for addiction. He and Harry talk all the time. Harry has Quinn over for dinner and Quinn says some things that make Harry realize that Quinn doesn’t believe he’ll ever be good or whole again. There’s no “recovered” from something like this just “recovering” forever.

Quinn brings it full circle by invoking an Ethiopian toast, by upending a drink on the floor. Harry does the same–the toast is one that is given to signify leaving the past behind. For the two characters here, it signifies leaving their old selves behind–and once and for all, Harry understands he can’t ever go back to loving Quinn.

That’s my breakdown of this story–if you are interested in reading it you can find it in The Best American Short Stories 2014, edited by Jennifer Egan. It’s full of great stories, and a couple duds, but what collections aren’t? If you have anything to add, please, leave a comment and I’ll respond promptly.

Happy reading.

A.

9/3/2015 Linked and PoV

Within my novel, which is a series of novelettes, are bridges between each novelette.  Until recently these bridges were written in the second-person PoV i.e. “you wake up, stretch and crawl out of bed.” Now, obviously this is a problematic literary device in many ways. Readers typically reject being told what they do, and, more so, how they feel–even if the You character is specified to be an actual person other than the reader. In an attempt to serve the novel rather than my own literary eccentricities, I’ve rewritten these bridges in the third person PoV i.e. “He does this, he does that.” Not only this but I found myself adding great swaths of backstory for my protagonist, who turns out to be something of an anti-hero, unintentionally.

Wow. I had no idea what this characters, what this guy, had been through. I mean I know he had a tough childhood, but he was seriously emotionally abused–completely on accident. But he was also sorta a weird kid to begin with.

I find relating each bridge thematically to the novelette before it a perfect way in which to guide me in this revision process. So, I think a great rule, or at least guideline, is, when revision and noticing the lack of verisimilitude, if you just re-read the chapter or story, that chapter or story will actually let you know what happens next. It will feel right when it is connected thematically and emotionally. I think that’s what I’ve been able to accomplish in the last week, and it’s been extraordinarily satisfying. Sometimes writing through something only gives you more things that don’t fit. Sometimes you have to read your way through it, and stop trying to think critically about technique and craft. That’s what I’ve found, and thus far, it feels right.

On Endings

I have been working on my novel for a little over 2 years. Those of you who have been working on your novels longer than I, may scoff. After all, the average novel is said to take nearly 5 years, while some authors, like Susanna Clark, someone I hold the utmost admiration for, took 10 to complete her book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, though in fairness that book is over 1,000 pages long.

What I’ve been struggling with over the last couple weeks is an ending. Sure, you can look up the prescribed rules of how novels should end–Writer’s Digest actually has a step by step guide, which probably isn’t horrible advice for a linear novel. But my novel isn’t linear–indeed, I’m unsure if it will ever qualify as a novel in general, as it’s a collection of novellas all packed together, sharing themes, ideas, timeline, and the references to some characters. Between each story is a bridge that links them all together. There is a character within the bridges that has his own arc. So finishing off his story is somewhat difficult. It’s quite Kafka-esk, theater of the absurd, kind of stuff.

So here are the elements of an ending I need to remember.

1: Don’t introduce anything new.

Don’t introduce a new theme, new characters, or a secret about one of the main characters unless it’s been hinted at already. Everything in the ending must have been seen or referenced earlier in the book.

2: Hero as catalyst.

The protagonist must be the catalyst for the change. Or, I believe, at the very least, react accordingly to whatever has happened. This could mean taking initiative. Then coming to a larger realization concerning the nature of his/her world. This can also be seen as the hero, or protagonist, growing internally.

3: Change for the better:

I don’t agree with this completely. I don’t like fairy tale endings. I don’t like Disney characters who are better at the end of the story for whatever reason. A story about a man who is through with his term of service in the army isn’t going to renew his contact after nearly being killed a bunch. . . Behind Enemy Lines. That was a poor attempt to show how cool the army is.

There does need to be change, but it doesn’t always need to be an end, to be an ending. Instead, I think, to show something has changed and now the character will push off from here into new territory, is enough. Stories only end when someone dies–and even then their story continued in the form of the people who loved them or were effected by them during their life. So I have a difficult time putting any kind of absolute on an ending. I think for an ending to work something needs to have irrevocably change for the characters at hand. If this is established, and then a new ground state acquired the story can end and the reader will fill in the blanks of what happened next. These open ended endings are always my favorite. They are the kind that spark conversation among friends and reading groups. They are ambiguous to the point where people will agree to disagree how the protagonist came it and where they are going. Think Birdman! Freaking love that movie.

That’s enough for now. Until next week, keep writing. I know I will. Would love other peoples ideas on endings if you have time to start a little discussion.

A.