clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Friday, December 28, 2012


You' seen them : the grinding stones used to make flour for the last three or four thousand years. They're all over the place. Little towns take them from the riverbank put them in parks as history illustrated.

The mill is an unusual place in that it usually had two foundations. It was a building around a building  to keep the vibrations of the grindstones from shaking the larger mill apart. Turns out, making flour is a rough business.

I mention all of this because I am struggling with the two foundations of a story - the inner conflict which has to be managed and shown to the reader in a way they can piece together, and the outer conflict which prevents our character from ignoring his inner demons.

A story you want to read has two foundations in a sense. There is the protagonist's inner conflict and the larger plot-driven conflict. I've done well at the latter and poorly at the former. I've always done poorly at the former. Until I decided to become more serious about the little stories I write, I ignored much of the inner conflict completely. Now it feels almost like learning to write from scratch to provide any insight at all into the internal motivations and desires without being heavy handed.

I've never thought about the "why." I have always allowed plot to drive the story and lived in literature little removed from the action-suspense novels of the 70's which dominated the best seller lists. The writers of these got better with time and their characters did develop rich motivations. Mine have not.

When I would read Hemingway, the stories in my eyes had more to do with the "what" than the "why." I never cared about the "why." I never really developed any sensitivity for it. I moved on from literature to other professional pursuits and left this particular revelation undiscovered and - in the years which have passed - somewhat atrophied.

I wrote an essay years ago about Beowulf as a character which examined the seeming illogical bent of his actions. It was more cute than clever but was done in a lively tone. I enjoyed writing the piece. It was the last time I can say that I seriously examined the conflict and motivations of a character rather than the larger plot conflict. I argued how we could assign by inference any number of motivations and conflicts to the inner working of Beowulf but they had such poor supporting evidence in the text that all of them were allowable. We readers impressed our own motivations on the hero as none was provided to us beyond the description of the "what." The "why" was in our own minds.

Now, I see this glimmer suggested my own construction dilemma which has followed me even to this day : I have been inattentive to a rich internal conflict in my characters and thus they are wooden pieces moving about as set-pieces on wheels through the plot of my play, my stories.

I must end this practice and it is proving difficult for me. The story and the character: I need to be attentive to both.

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