Stories Are Like Onions

A Story of a Story)

There is an account in the Old Testament of the prophet Nathan coming to King David and relating a story to him. Nathan told of two men: one was wealthy, while the other had nothing but a single sheep. The poor man loved that sheep, though, and cared for it like a daughter. He let the creature eat from his own plate and drink from his own cup.

The rich man had a great deal of livestock, but one day, when traveler came to visit with him, the wealthy magnate saw an opportunity to take the poor man’s sheep and serve that for dinner instead. For whatever reason, he would gladly take all that the other had, if it meant not having to give up any of his own.

When King David heard this story he became incensed, and declared that the rich man would pay for his crime, would even be put to death! Then Nathan revealed to the King that David was the man. Nathan revealed that the Lord knew David’s secret: he had arranged for the death of Uriah, all so that he could take the man’s wife for his very own.

Even without the revelation, this story is compelling for how effectively it fires one’s sense of indignation. The account of a man’s love for his sheep delights us at first, but all of that energy is funneled into rage when another sunders that joy.

But then the story goes from compelling to unforgettable when it is shown to be just one layer in a deeper tale. David has been tricked into betraying his own conscience, and has pronounced the same wrath that will be poured out on him. As a reader there is a deep catharsis to this, a sense of balance, a rightness in the wicked impaling themselves on their own swords.

Fifth Business)

This sort of multi-layered story reminds me of another, that of Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. In a casual moment the story recounts the several key archetypes in a story: a hero, a villain, a confidante, a heroine, and “fifth business.” Then the memory of that offhanded conversation returns multiple times when the reader realizes that the book’s characters are being cast into those exact same roles.

But this isn’t all. The book also discuss Jungian archetypes, and again we realize that the characters of the story fit them perfectly as well, even literally in some cases.

At another point it discusses the value of myth and allegory, and how these fantastical tales are projections of our very real-life dramas. Then, once again, the memory of that conversation returns when we see how the characters’ ordinary lives are replaying the legends of Oedipus, of David and Goliath, and of Gyges and King Candaules.

And so the story is a layer upon a layer upon a layer, and all of it builds to the story’s core theme: that we ignore myth and archetype at our peril. It claims that in the quiet and seemingly mundane things of life there are the seeds of legend, that the stories of gods and giants are not meant merely to entertain, but to serve as signposts to the reality of what it means to be human. If we do not realize this, then we both fail to learn from hte lessons of the past, and we might fail to recognize the truly significant things which are happening to us.

Which, of course, is exactly what happens in the story. For this is yet another conversation that is played out by the characters. Boy Staunton does not remember a boyhood act of cruelty that destroys another. It was too little a thing for him to hold on to, especially when “more important” things like money and politics came into the picture. For his ignorance of the myth and legend lurking in his own life he is eventually killed, becoming a tragic legend to those who knew him, and another layer on top of an already many-layered story.


Especially fascinating is when the upper layers of a story are able to break out of their fictional confines and into the real world. Consider for example the story of The Shootist. This tale exists both as a book and as a film, but it is the film that is truly exceptional for how its themes bleed into the real life of its leading actor: John Wayne.

The story of The Shootist is that of an old gunslinger, J. B. Books, who finds himself at odds with the world changing around him. The days of the Old West are all in the past, technology and civilization have spread everywhere, and the world simply does not have a need for him anymore. Compare this to the life of John Wayne, a man who made much of his career in Western films. He was iconic as the confident, square jawed, no-nonsense cowboy who could never be beaten in a fair fight. But then…Westerns were dying. The times were changing, and like the cowboys he had represented, he was old and being left behind.

It isn’t just that J. B. Books has outlived his time, though, it’s that he’s almost outlived himself. He has a cancer, and he knows he’ll soon be lost, along with all the memories of his glory years. As such, he decides that he wants one final hurrah. He calls out all of the criminals left in town and guns them down in a final blaze of glory. Once again, compare this to John Wayne as well. That man also had cancer, and this would be the last film he would ever make. One last hurrah, and then he passed away three years later.

There are small elements of the film that further blur the lines between J. B. Books and John Wayne. Books takes comfort in the presence of an old friend, played by James Stewart. Stewart was a former co-star in previous John Wayne films, and agreed to this last project together as a favor to him. The horse that Books rides is played by the exact same horse that John Wayne had ridden in six other films. They even changed the name of the horse in the film to be the same as in real life. And what does the J of J. B. Books stand for? John.

All of this combines to make a movie that pulls on the heartstrings for two completely separate reasons. Or is it for two reasons that are wound together inseparably?

In my mystery story I have introduced a former detective who is hiding behind a bevy of unanswered questions. Even as he tries to unravel the knot of an unusual suicide, his partner is going to be trying to unravel the knot of his friend. On Thursday we will tease at those tangles a bit more, though of course we will have to wait until the end to see the entire mystery laid bare.

Update on My Novel: Month 4

For August I said I wanted to work on the blog each day, but at the very least wanted to reach 20 days. When all was said and done, I finished the month with 19. It really hurt to get so close but not quite make it. More positively, though, for the last two-and-a-half weeks I faithfully did my writing on every single weekday.

As I’ve thought things over, trying to work on my story during the weekend just doesn’t work for me. Perhaps it does for some people, but for me it doesn’t. Moving forward I accept that I will only be working on this Monday-Friday and not on holidays. That means for the month of September a “perfect” work-month would be 20 days, and that is going to be my commitment.

Before describing what I accomplished during August, I need to explain a little bit of how I craft a story. I personally like to use three levels of detail for my outlines. The first is just an extremely brief set of bullet points, one for each major arc of the story. It reads a lot like an elevator pitch.

When I have that first layer feeling just right, then I move on to the second. For that I expand each of those arcs and now detail all of their subcomponents. So in the first layer I might say the explorers make a camp out in the wild and test different crops to see which one the island can produce best. In the second layer I add that during this period Clara grows more bold, at least until she breaks her mother’s brooch and becomes weighed down with guilt…etc.

In the third layer I am detailing out all of the individual scenes that will happen. I explain who will be present, what their motivations in that moment are, and what the resolutions will be. After the third layer is complete all that remains is to start writing the actual drafts of the story.

I like this approach, but one issue with having three separate layers is keeping them in sync. Last month I shared how I had remolded the middle of my story after discovering significant structure changes that it needed. That remolding was done on the third, most detailed level, which changed it so drastically that then I could not find how to attach it back to the final act as described by layers 1 and 2.

After struggling for a little bit, I realized that for August’s work I just needed to take this structural overhaul down to layer 1, and rework the ending at that simplest level of detail. Then I percolated those changes up to layer 2, and brought it to completion as well. In August I got both of those done, and also started updating the final act of the third layer. My hope for September is to finish that update, and finally get back to the first draft of my story. I’ll let you know how it turned out one month from now!

Secret Messages

One of my favorite things in stories is when the dialogue is multilayered. As I said in my post last Thursday, this sort of dialogue always comes with an obvious meaning, the literal definition of the words being said, but beneath that is a second meaning, or in some cases even a third. Think of a spy film where the villain and hero meet in the middle of  crowded ball. The villain implies bodily harm through a veiled threat and the hero laughs it off with a witticism that ends in a code phrase meant for fellow agents who are listening in over his earpiece.

Or what about even blunter dual-messages that crop up in many romantic stories? Here the two main characters are very obviously confessing their love for one another, but for tension’s sake are pretending to discuss something else entirely. No one is fooled, nor indeed are they meant to be.

“There you are Miss Dotty, the plumbing is all fixed. Seems a few things just got built up and needed to be let out.”

“Oh thank you. Yes, I suppose that is my way. I just hold in too many things which I ought to be expressing out…in my plumbing, that is.”

“Yes, well, we all do. Sometimes we need another sympathetic heart to come and help us open up…to flush out our sludge, that is.”

“Well I’m sure you wouldn’t ever care to know about my sludge Mister Donny.”

“On the contrary, Miss Dotty, I have never felt so alive as when scrubbing out your vile filth.”

“Oh Mister Donny!”

“Miss Dotty!”

Well that is more than enough of that. Moving on…

Obviously there can be clever wordplay in these verbal acrobatics, but I wish to focus more on the more subtle examples, ones where the dual meaning isn’t being said from one character to the other, but rather from the character to the audience. And if audience members have not been paying attention, they might very well miss out on that hidden message entirely, meaning it comes as a reward only to the observant.

An example of this would be the oft-repeated phrase “recalled to life” in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Most every reader is going to pick up on its initial meaning, that of a man condemned to an age of imprisonment finally being “exhumed” back into the real world. However that phrase is also a motto for the entire novel, and it is entirely possible to miss out on some of its incarnations. There are the long-forgotten injustices and cruelties being recalled into sharp clarity via the barbarity of the French Revolution. There is the man condemned to the guillotine and then rescued from it. There is the man who lost his soul, then found it again in an act of selflessness. And in that same man there is his literal death, and then rebirth in a legacy that will live on forever.

There’s another excellent example of dual-meaning in the film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The very last line of the film is “no, this is for me,” by which a customer indicates he does not want the book he is buying to be gift-wrapped. On the surface that is pretty clear. He is keeping the book for himself and therefore doesn’t need it wrapped, the store clerk won’t give his pronouncement any second thought. The audience, however, happen to know that this book is in praise of the anonymous Stasi agent who spared the author when he was under surveillance in Eastern Germany. The audience also knows that this man purchasing the book is that same Stasi agent, and that his entire career was ruined by that decision to spare the author, a decision he made for no other reason that that he felt that the author was a good man.

Now that simple pronouncement of “no, this is for me,” is referring to the fact that he is the one to whom this book has been dedicated and thus it is literally for him. It is for him also in the sense that this is the legacy which he has earned by his sacrifice, the reward for his suffering. It is for him because he has earned it, a gift that needs no more wrapping and concealing. For such a short sentence, it is impressively loaded with meaning and a very fitting conclusion to the entire story.

Before closing, I thought I would try and tackle the question of why does this sort of multilayered communication stand out to us? Why do we judge it as something “good” when a story incorporates these elements in a thoughtful and effective way?

Well first off, I feel that this is a subset of an greater multilayering principle that improves every aspect of a story, including dialogue. After all, we all know a character is flat if they only have a single dimension with no conflicting principles, and I have mentioned in a previous post that as much as possible we should strive for scenes that progress more than just a single plotline at a time. Characters and scenes and dialogue that are multipurpose, that advance more than one idea at a time, are by definition more complex, more difficult to achieve, and therefore more impressive when done well. Something about our human nature sees beauty in complexity, and incorporating it is an excellent way to engender goodwill for your story.

The other reason why I think we gravitate to these sorts of layered dialogues is because they are tied to a pattern of social behavior we all partake in: that tendency to say things while meaning something else. After a certain age we have all learned to not say things directly, for better or worse. To put it kindly we have speak with nuance and suggestion, and to put it more unkindly we have are manipulative and passive aggressive.

We engage in this game whether we are in love and trying to tease the other person into disclosing their feelings before we do, or whether we are in hate and trying to disguise a barb that we can claim was never our intended meaning. Across the whole spectrum of emotions we have become masters of saying things and meaning things, and doing so separately from one another. It’s amusing, then, that sometimes we have a hard time incorporating this extra dimension into our writing. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to force things that we forget we can do it naturally. If you’ve struggled with this sort of layered dialogue, see if you can just get out of your own way and rely on your basic intuition.

On Thursday I will post a short story in which I try to build up an example of this sort of multi-layered dialogue. Admittedly this is a daunting task to me, at this point I have a general outline of the story I want to do, but don’t actually know the details of my dialogue yet. Hopefully I’ll be able to take my own advice, stop stressing about it, and just let my natural multi-dimensional self shine through in my writing.