Mar 24

Fiction and Nonfiction Both Need Subplots

A good short story, personal essay, poem, or memoir captures the texture of life. The most celebrated memoirs are those which tell more than one story. For example, in Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life we read about the boy's education and conscience, but also about the bad second marriage his mother is trapped in, and how she is changing, doing things formerly out of character, like campaigning for JFK. These experiences happened during the same period. They were parallel.

Wolff could easily have written the entire memoir about his youthful self and how he learned to lie and fight. He could have written a fine memoir just about his mother's life. Either one would probably have been swell. But these in reality were intertwined, and Wolff wrote them that way.

What this appears to accomplish:

1) More accurately depicts the boy's exterior reality (events, conversations, his stepfather's behavior, friends and schooling and lessons learned)

2) More accurately depicts his interior reality. We all live more than one life at a time. In fact, at least two: the life that people can see and the one they don't. I've read (dull) stories and essays delving deep into an individual's emotional life that never indicate that this character or person has a job, or siblings, or a loan to pay off, or a best friend who isn't a dog, or a political opinion, or a goal.

Fiction and nonfiction have this in common: To capture the texture of real life, the work needs a subplot or more than one narrative thread.

You can see this on television, say, on The Simpsons, when the main story is about, for example, Homer, but a secondary story is woven in about two other characters. If you look for this, it is absolutely everywhere. That's because having two or more threads captures the texture of life.

When your creative prose seems dull or flat or thin or like "weak tea," it's usually because it has only one facet or thread. A secondary or parallel story, or "subplot," is a lot of work for the writer and requires skill. It is a large part of what makes superior fiction and creative nonfiction. You can spend years in creative-writing courses and never once hear about subplotting, or why subplotting is as basic as the "main story." I have, however, heard a poet say, "A poem should always be about two things." Poets get it.

Prose writing is a little different. After you have learned how to develop and play on one thread, attempt to add another to the piece you are working on. Don't worry about how well or poorly you do it at first. I said it's a skill and that it's not easy.

Mar 05

Using "Dialect" in Poetry and Prose

Maybe you remember Chico Marx, playing a "stage Italian," repeating, "Gets your tuttsi-fruittsi ice-cream," or that cringe-worthy moment in Dirty Harry (1971) when the black character is forced to say, "I gots to know," or when you want to mock a "mick," saying "Sure and begorra, me sainted mother raised me on the Em'rald Isle," and so on.

In writing workshop this is often called "dialect," although technically the English language has only one dialect -- "Pidgin" English, now rare, spoken in the South Seas -- so what you really mean is "accent." But call it what ye will, matey, arrgh, a little goes a long way. Your model for doing it correct-like is Mark Twain. Mid-19th-century American "Southwestern humorists," Twain's forerunners, wrote comic novels about backwoods characters, their texts all misspelled to convey the sound of their speech. From the author George Washington Harris:

Hit am an orful thing, George, tu be a nat'ral born durn'd fool. Yu'se never 'sperienced hit pussonally, hev yu? Hits made pow'fully agin our famerly, an all owin tu dad. I orter bust my head open agin a bluff ove rocks, an' jis' wud du hit, ef I warnt a cussed coward.

It's fun to write, but the irregular spelling makes these texts viciously hard to read. Twain's genius was to let his characters use vernacular speech, but tone the author's artifice way down:

He kept me with him all the time, and I never got a chance to run off. We lived in that old cabin, and he always locked the door and put the key under his head nights. He had a gun which he had stole, I reckon, and we fished and hunted, and that was what we lived on. Every little while he locked me in and went down to the store, three miles, to the ferry, and traded fish and game for whisky, and fetched it home and got drunk and had a good time, and licked me.

These days we worry about being accused of stereotyping. So if your speaker or character has an accent and you absolutely must use it (knowing that it conveys the character's social class and locale), let the character use one or at most two instances of it. Your readers will "get it," keep it in their heads, and won't have to decipher misspellings. Example: "He wrote me from overseas. I have a box of his letters. I saved ever one." That character never again uses her "accent" throughout the whole novel. You can really trust your reader with this. Twain proved it.