Juxtapositions: Pulling The Pieces of Your Story Together

“Okay,” a student writes, “here’s a question:

“Given that I am ending up with chunks of interesting information and scenes but not necessarily fitting the original incline, what are some tactics or techniques for figuring out how to fit the chunks together in a narrative?”

This is an exciting question that inadvertently (but not accidentally) taps into the heart of what storytelling is all about. I say “not accidentally” because when you write everyday, throwing yourself deep into a book as this person has done, you are bound to end up right in the lap of the creature, aren’t you? So there she is, with chunks.

Putting chunks together is exactly how to build a story. We contemporary readers-cum-screen-watchers can jump cut from one universe to another, from one point of view to another, from one era to another without pause. We do not need our chunks cemented with smooth transitions, with careful contextualizations, with complicated explanations. Show us the money, baby. Lay your chunks out like cards.

Cards is a great metaphor, in fact, because what matters when you are turning over one card and then the next–say in a game of War or Black Jack in not so much the card itself as its relationship to the card that comes before or after. But once you know the rules of the game, the cards can just be turned, and the story is all in the turning.

Check it: Twenty-One: First card is a five of diamonds. Second card is an Ace. What next? Tap tap: third card is a seven. You’ve either got thirteen or you’re over with twenty-two, yes? Tap, tap: an eight of spades. You’re golden. Lucky bastard. (Note: My Twentyone experience, such as it is, comes from when I was about eleven and attended a conference in Florida with my father. While he went to boring lectures, I hung out with the bartender and played Twenty-one.)

Five; Ace; Seven; Eight. Chunks. It’s the rules of the game that allow the juxtapositions to take on meaning. What are the rules of the narrative game? Things like this: Whatever someone is counting on will not come to pass; when things are looking very, very bad, something is going to turn around; when things are looking very, very good, something is going to turn around; people change, unless they are the kind of people who think they are going to change radically and profoundly, in which case, they will stay the same; actions build and stakes rise, so things can only get better, or worse–they can’t simply repeat, even in intensity; and it always comes down to a choice.

So you place your first card, and we’re looking to see what’s coming next. We know it won’t be the same. Things are going to go up or they are going to go down. We’re looking to be surprised. What expectation does your first card set up? Your next card is going to upend that expectation. Your third card is going to keep raising the stakes. Your fourth card is going to force a choice. Your fifth card is going to reveal that choice. Your sixth card will announce unexpected consequences to your choice.

So how does this related to real-life revision? Annie Dillard talks about the nine-mile hike you take, around and around a long table, when you are revising. You lay out your chunks–on the floor, on your dining room table, pinned to your walls–and you pace, moving them around. You are looking for electric connections, unexpected conversations between the pieces.

Story is about juxtaposition, as David Mamet talks about in his wonderful book On Direction Film, which is really on writing story. He’s using Eisenstein’s theories of collage–the story comes from the uninflected juxtaposition of two images.

A branch cracking. A deer looking up.

A little dog running toward a curb. A giant wheel of a truck rolling forward. Little dog. Wheel. Little dog. Wheel.

See? Uninflected images juxtaposed create a story. Create meaning. There is no narration. No voice over saying, “Poor little dog, if only I had known . . . “

This means: trust your chunks. Don’t smear loads of glue on the back that will seep around the sides and dry into white plastic paste on the construction paper.

When I first apprenticed myself to writing, I was twenty and had just moved to San Francisco. I had a very plain notebook, the kind you buy at a drugstore for a buck, and I filled it with short scenes. Then I read through it and looked for unexpected relationships between those scenes, and by laying them side-by-side, this character becoming that character, another character becoming roommates with the first, stories emerged from those pages.

I thought of this practice as setting up crosscurrents. A story was usually about at least two things, two unexpectedly juxtaposed things, out of which a third–call it meaning–emerged. The tension in story comes where the crosscurrents create suction, movement, a whirlpool.

Try laying out your cards. Shuffle the deck and try it another way. Card by card, lay out the story, until it’s one you’ve never heard before but which you know to be true.

[I am teaching a six-week-plus online / Skype course in Revision (for writers) and Editing (for editors). I am currently offering several holiday specials and discounts. To learn more, please visit my online learning center. I also send out a monthly newsletter with a writing tip. You can sign up to the right of my blog. Thanks! Elizabeth]

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