Every writer is subject to the influences of their time, influences that shape their work in some way. From Stephan King’s brand of horror—which he’s said was influenced by the pervasive fears of the cold war — to the oh so mannerly and delicately choreographed plots of Regency era literature, a reader can feel the spirit of the author’s era. I think that’s why I love H. G. Wells and his manly adventurers whose waistcoats and stiff collars are never out of place despite the monsters and hazards that beset them, and they always have time for a full service tea.
Covid is the strongest influence on us at present, changing behavior at a really basic social level, and I am eagerly anticipating how that will be reflected in contemporary fiction. Each genre presents a host of different affects to play with. How will full dress PPE impact the mystery and crime genre? With my mask in place, my sunglasses on my nose and a cap on my head, I am hard to recognize. Add gloves to that, and I don’t have to sweat over fingerprints. And if you’re not short and a touch chubby like me, it would be easy to quickly blend in with the (6 feet apart) crowd and make a smooth getaway. Does anyone want to get near enough to grab a suspect?
Science fiction, viewed through this lens, might use the long-lasting effects of a worldwide pandemic in interesting ways. The population has been decimated, but the disease is at last eradicated. Does the population retain a fear of personal distance? Does it become ritualized? Do they formalize ways of washing their food, like futuristic raccoons? Has public dining or public attendance at an event become distasteful, and if it is replaced, what with? That could be really fun.
Fantasy always gets a lovely reality pass. That’s part of why we love it. Fantasy isn’t required to reflect anything about the real world. But again, every writer is working through the lens of their own reality and all these new behaviors and social concerns are bound to be reflected somehow. Maybe it’s a race of creatures that are forever shunned—The Cooties. You can’t ever get close to them or they will sicken you, but the hero requires the help of those outcasts and so the taboo has to be overcome. It could be that a virus has been locked in a magic cave and as the ultimate weapon, it must be guarded by the heart of a dragon. The influence of this pandemic will be in there somewhere.
Then there’s Romance! I am especially eager to see how this genre deals with our current reality. One of the hallmarks of Romance fiction is its timeliness. We never tire of boy meets girl stories set in the shared here and now. These are tales that reflect our contemporary social and moral norms with the clarity of a mirror image. How will masks and gloves and 6 feet apart influence a love story? How will a chance meeting play out? Is love at first sight possible?
I have complete faith in Romance authors to create inventive and realistic approaches to this current social reality. I haven’t come across any yet. I may not have looked hard enough, but if you know of a romance in the time of Covid, I hope you’ll share it with me. I can’t wait to read it.
Writers are accustomed to thinking about writing with a 3-Act structure, often shown as an incline plane of action rising gradually throughout the story towards the climax. But another way of looking at stories is their shape based not on action, but on the rise and fall of the protagonist’s fortunes—good or ill.
As I understand it, the notion of these story shapes was first proposed by Kurt Vonnegut. Inspired by his research into stories from various cultures while studying anthropology at the University of Chicago, he discovered common patterns of the fortunes of the protagonists. He found that there is not one universal pattern, but several designs, just as the rise and fall of volume and intensity give shape to different styles of music. These shapes cross cultures and time periods to create the stories we love to read and retell.
To visualize these shapes, he used a simple graph. The vertical axis, or what he calls the G-I axis has good fortune at the top and ill fortune at the bottom. The higher on the vertical axis a character is, the happier they are. Conversely, the lower they are, the more miserable they are.
The G-I axis is bisected by a B-E horizontal axis. This takes the story left to right from the beginning (B) to the, uh, well Kurt Vonnegut has various ideas for what the E stands for, but let’s just call it the ending. It looks a bit like this:
Interestingly, his theory was proven when researchers at Washington State University and the University of Vermont did a computer analysis over 1700 stories. (https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20180525-every-story-in-the-world-has-one-of-these-six-basic-plots ) Text-mining of these stories revealed six basic story shapes, most of which Vonnegut had already described. They graphed each, renaming Vonnegut’s G-I axis to “sentiment scale.” They found that each of the 1700 stories conformed to one of these six shapes:
Our protagonist begins high on the sentiment scale but, by mid-story, finds themselves in low ill-fortune. But, don’t despair. Good things follow, and by the end of the story, our protagonist is once again up in the good-fortune range. This shape is often found in mystery stories and adapts well to the three-act story structure we’ve been taught.
This shape has the main character begin on the lower end of the sentiment scale, but then they rise steadily throughout the story to the upper portion of the G-I axis by the end of the story. An example of this is the story of Little Orphan Annie who starts out as an orphan in a miserable workhouse and becomes the ward of the extremely wealthy Daddy Warbucks, or the story of another orphan, Oliver Twist. Everyone loves a happy ending.
From the obvious example, our protagonist begins very low on the sentiment scale, but then rises to a high good-fortune point—only to have it snatched away. Despite being once again in the lower portion of the G-I scale, the protagonist’s despair is not as low as it was. As the story progresses, the protagonist moves back up again to the top of the sentiment. (You have to see Vonnegut describe this one and others on YouTube below.)
This shape is just the opposite of #2. The protagonist begins in the upper range of the sentiment axis, but who falls into poverty and despair. A simple tragedy.
If you know the Greek myth about Daedalus and his son Icarus who escaped from the island of Crete by flying with wings made of feathers and wax, it won’t be hard for you to envision this shape. Starting around the midpoint of the G-I axis, it rises into good fortune, then falls into the ill fortune range before falling further to the bottom of the G-I scale (when the wax melts because Icarus flies too close to the sun). Not a happy ending.
Named for another Greek tragedy, this pattern falls (as Oedipus wanders toward Thebes, killing Laius along the way). But then it rises (when Oedipus defeats the sphinx, becomes king, and marries the queen with whom he has several children and plans to live happily ever after). Oh, but our protagonist is not destined for a happy ending. The story ends with a plummet to the low ill-fortune range (when Oedipus discovers Laius was his father and he has married his mother—who then kills herself. Oedipus puts out his own eyes). A less than cheery shape.
I must confess that I was surprised that every one of the stories studied fit in one of these six shapes. But Vonnegut tells us about two more shapes.
While he tells this shape is boring, he also says it often can be found in primitive cultures. There is, however, one Shakespearean classic that employs this shape. Things start low on the sentiment scale, stay low, and end low. Can you guess which one this is? See the video link above to get the answer.
And one final shape Vonnegut offers for your consideration—one we don’t often see—where the protagonist starts at the bottom . . . and goes down. Which story is this? Here’s a hint: Kafka!
All this brings new meaning to the question: What kind of shape is your story in?
Begin by writing the complete story—beginning to end—the way you truly imagine it. Write with precision honesty without the fear of hurting anyone.
When done writing, evaluate what you have created. It is in the editing stage where you will objectively be able to decide how to share the story publicly without hurting anyone. If the finished story is meant to be fiction, you can go back and make sure physical identifiers that link to nonfiction people (like a skull tattoo on the left arm above a knife scar) are changed to protect the innocent or the not-so-innocent.
If someone has inspired you to recreate their character in a fictional world, rest assured your depiction of their internal thoughts, feelings, and motivations won’t be the tipoff that the character is loosely based on this real person; it will be the physical attributes that you choose.
Most people don’t recognize themselves in someone else’s writing unless they are told the character is modeled after them or the physical facts are eerily the same: age, body build, hair color, scars, name, physical location, profession, relationships with others, or facts from exact encounters are replayed in the work.
If the story you are telling is meant to be nonfiction, you have a different issue. In a biography or a memoir, you need to tell the truth as you know it, but you must also share your truth in a way that can be formally substantiated by the research of others. If you are afraid you might hurt someone by telling the truth in your work and you are naming names across your work, you need to consult an attorney before publication because hurting feelings may result in a lawsuit.
Cue dramatic music:
Deep Voice Over: The names in this story have been changed to protect the innocent.
That’s a start. Every writer works from what they know — even if they’re writing about elves and spaceships and unicorns. Our own experiences are what we draw on to launch our imagination. And it’s the real-life situations that often give a writer the rich soil for a gripping tale.
Just write the story. When you’ve laid it all out, step away for some distance then read it with fresh eyes to spot what might be so obvious as to be hurtful. If you find the narrative is obvious, even though it is based loosely on family and friends, then consider what the compelling idea is in this tale. What was the single most gripping element that made you want to write about it in the first place? Take that compelling idea and re-write from that prospective.
Or just start with that single compelling idea rather than with the cast of friends and family. Stories have a way of charting their own course and it’s very likely, that with that shift in perspective your story will be unique enough to withstand the scrutiny of sensitive family and friends.
I have used family and friends for inspiration in many of our books. For the most part if I didn’t tell the individual who inspired me, they did not recognize themselves. If I did tell them I was going to do it, most of them were thrilled.
Then there came a time when I happily told my sister I had used our age differences as the foundational inspiration for my story. (she is fourteen years younger than I am and we were born on the same day). She was thrilled–until she read the book. She asked, “Is this really what you think of me?” To be fair she was the bitchy, beautiful sister accused of murder, and I was the smart but downtrodden attorney who saves her.
It had nothing to do with real life other than the span in our ages. Still, when she asked that question, I understood that there was a difference between inspiration and hitting close to home including the perception of hitting close to home.
The answer was, no, the character in no way was my sister. Their physical characteristics were the same, not their character.
What you’re talking about is even more delicate. You are going to be exploring actual things that happened to you and your family. If this is an honest memoir you need to be ready for the fallout. If this is fiction, you’ll need to be very skillful when you write to navigate the hurt feelings—or worse— that might arise. Ask yourself a) is this book is necessary to your well-being and b) if you are strong enough to face any and all consequences that will come with writing it. You are the only one who knows the answers.
Ooooh *eyes widen* “awaits gossip*
I think the only way to do that is to write under a pseudonym and don’t tell them about it. People aren’t always as stupid as we hope they are. They’ll figure out it’s them in no time!
Ever wonder what industry professionals think about the issues that can really impact our careers? Each month The Extra Squeeze features a fresh topic related to books and publishing.
Amazon mover and shaker Rebecca Forster and her handpicked team of book professionals offer frank responses from the POV of each of their specialties — Writing, Editing, PR/Biz Development, and Cover Design.
August’s from A Cabin in the Woods features a short short by Christopher D. Ochs. Christopher’s foray into writing began with his epic fantasy Pindlebryth of Lenland. Several of his short stories have been published in the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and Bethlehem Writers Group anthologies and websites. His latest work, If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep , is a collection of bedtime reading to inflict on naughty children.
His current projects include: a YA urban-fantasy/horror novel My Friend Jackson; a short story in Firebringer Press’ last anthology in their Middle of Eternity series; and the next installment of the Pindlebryth saga.
Christopher says, “The following is semi-autobiographical. I leave it to the reader to determine how much of this tale is true.”
I don’t particularly believe in ghosts, though there have been several curious incidents in this house over my lifetime.
Nothing frightening, mind you, nor anything remotely harmful. If anything, the unseen forces-that-be have been nothing but helpful.
The first instance I clearly recall occurred during my junior-high school years. I was raised the classic latchkey kid. Both parents held down two jobs, so yours truly was responsible for closing up the house before heading to classes.
That spring day, I woke up looking out the open window above my headboard at a sky filled with roiling clouds still deciding whether or not they wanted to rain. By the time I finished dressing for school, Mom and Dad had already slogged off to their crack-of-dawn work shifts.
Dashing out of the house, I was halfway through my shortcut across our neighbor’s corn fields, when I heard the rumble of thunder. On its heels came the realization I couldn’t remember if I had closed my bedroom window.
With a grunt of exasperation, I made a U-turn back for home. Sure enough, my second-floor window was wide open. Ready, willing and able to let the impending squall soak my pillow.
I had sprinted halfway up the stairs when I heard a bang, loud as a gunshot, reverberate from my bedroom. Once I summoned the courage to enter my room, my jaw dropped in bewilderment. The old warped double-hung window–which would normally require my full weight to close–was firmly shut, fierce raindrops pelting its glass panes.
Then there was the time years later, when I returned home long after sunset, tired from work and a laundry list of errands. Both my arms were crammed with fully-loaded grocery bags as I fumbled with the lock and shouldered the door open. I wasn’t two steps into the dark and deserted house when all the kitchen lights snapped on.
With the odd sensation of being watched pressing in on me, I proffered a nervous “Thank you very much?”
The lights flickered in response. I could almost hear the house chuckle.
These humorous but unsettling episodes continued, though with less frequency as the years rolled by. Eventually they stopped entirely–or perhaps, they merely escaped my notice–as responsibilities and drudgeries crowded most everything else out of my life. Adding events like the passing of my parents, the transformation of neighbors’ cornfields to townhouses, and other milestones kept my attention firmly planted in the world of the mundane.
That is, until I discovered an old family heirloom–a county map, penned soon after my ancestors and hundreds of other immigrants had formally established my hometown and surrounding boroughs. The yellowed parchment document, complete with an antiquated county seal, depicted Iroquois trails that were already centuries old by the time the colonial-era deeds had been drafted.
The paths snaked along the ridges of the local offshoots of the Appalachian mountain chain, including a few thoroughfares that wended their way through the new and burgeoning county. The map’s legend declared that the indigenous peoples–the Lenni Lenape, Delaware and other members of the Iroquois nation–had “rights in perpetuity to sole and unhindered access to the mineral fields atop and in vicinity of Jasper Mountain, for the purpose of fashioning arrowheads and other baubles likewise; to deliver said freight without impediment, toll or tax along the footpaths documented herein.”
I was overcome by an unsettling sensation that the house was looking over my shoulder, when I learned the map indicated the footpath connecting Jasper Mountain to the Appalachian Trail formed my estate’s western property line.
Barely a week had passed since finding the map, before I found unmistakable signs my unseen helpers had resumed their work. On the other hand, maybe I was simply paying closer attention.
Like the instance when a limb from the locust tree my father had planted close to the house had fallen. Carpenter ants had eaten away at its core, and the massive limb finally snapped under its own weight, coming to rest harmlessly on open lawn nowhere near the tree’s trunk. By all rights, left to gravity and a windless night, that moss-laden battering ram should have crashed straight through my bedroom ceiling.
The latest instance of helpfulness was thankfully far less life-threatening. It was a windy fall day when my dog bolted out of the house to pester the mailman. I gave chase, still in my bum-around-the-house sweatpants. A stray gust banged the door shut behind me.
My heart leapt into my throat once I realized I had left my keys on the kitchen table, and the door was set to lock behind me. With my recalcitrant puppy in tow, I returned to the house, upset with the predicament I expected to find. I could only shake my head and smile at my invisible helpers, come to my rescue once again.
The deadbolt, which could only have been operated with the key in the lock, had somehow extended itself, preventing the door from closing completely.
I suppose some would attribute these events to poltergeists or other denizens of the afterlife. Other might dismiss them as quaint tall tales. As for myself, I prefer to believe the gentle spirits of Nature, who guided the lives and culture of the countless indigenous peoples before me, still favored this locale.
But how to repay their longstanding kindness?
When I got around to replacing the rotting tree that nearly did me in, I found entangled in its roots a cache of pristine jasper arrowheads. Lost or forgotten by some long-dead traveler, their points were still sharp enough to pierce a deer’s heart. Despite my knowing they would command an impressive sum from any number of collectors, something bid me do otherwise.
Finding a secluded grove overlooking Jasper Mountain’s babbling brook, I reburied my discovery.
Back in my kitchen, I mused over my evening tea. Had I had performed a noble deed, or something unquestionably foolish? With a maudlin sigh, I wondered if I might never again be visited by my unseen helpers.
The lights flickered in response.
The house was still—so quiet and somber after Gran’s passing—but Kiri refused to turn on the TV or crank up her earbuds just to fill the silence with trivial sounds. She wanted to catch the memory of Gran’s voice, to hear that mischievous laugh again. Within that nothingness, the faintest of snuffles echoed in the hallway outside Gran’s study, where Kiri was reviewing for a test.
Putting her Econ book face down on the desk, she stepped close to the hall doorway and listened.
There it was again. Snuffle, snort.
Unnerved—she was alone in the house—Kiri poked her head cautiously around the door frame to look down the hall. Empty.
With a small sigh of relief, she walked down the hall and into the dining room to check there. The room was cramped not only with the eight-foot dining table, but also a sideboard, a corner cabinet and a large breakfront. She’d eaten many a meal in this room, with her Gran and, in the years before his death, Gramps presiding. Now both were gone. Despite the bulky furniture, the room felt empty, lifeless.
Scanning the area, Kiri noticed a small figurine on the otherwise cleared table. She picked it up. About six inches long and four inches high: An antelope with its feet tucked neatly beneath it, two short, thin horns, and large deer-like ears. It seemed to gaze at her with dark glistening eyes.
“Where did you come from?” Kiri addressed the object, turning it over.
Oribi, a small African antelope, the label affixed to the bottom said.
Kiri’s gaze wandered to the breakfront. In addition to Gran’s delicate china pieces with their faint blue cloud pattern, the shelves held a few other figurines: an impala and a gazelle, their horns much longer and more curved than the oribi’s.
Gran had a thing for antelopes even though she’d never seen one outside of the Philadelphia Zoo. “To be able to run with that grace and speed,” she told Kiri. “It must be an incredible sight on the savanna.”
Africa had been on Gran’s bucket list, but the Fates had another idea: cancer.
Kiri put the oribi back in its place, with the others, and closed the breakfront section. It had been a month since the memorial service and her parents’ decision that Kiri could live at the house, but how she missed Gran.
As evening came on, she cooked herself dinner, washed up, and went back to studying. Her class final was in two days.
Deep in thought on volume discount pricing theory, she was startled by another noise from the hallway.
Once again, Kiri followed the noise to the dining room, and there sat the oribi figurine, back on the table.
She picked it up, but this time, she carried it with her to the study. Clearing away a few papers and notebooks, she put the figurine under the desk lamp. How odd. Its head was turned now, instead of looking straight ahead. She ran her fingers along the antelope’s ceramic neck but could feel no place where it could swivel.
Two hours later, Kiri yawned and stretched. She had finished her review. She closed her laptop and textbook, and reached to switch off the lamp. The figurine had vanished from the desktop.
This time, Kiri jumped to her feet. What the—?
In the pool of light from the lamp stood the quavering image of an oribi—at about two feet high, it was the size of a medium dog, but with thin legs, small hooves, and no horns. Ethereal, the doe nuzzled Kiri’s thigh.
Then the realization hit her.
“Gran, is that you?” Kiri knelt and put her hands on either side of the creature’s face. It made no move to pull away, only looked at her with those same dark glistening eyes. Was that a hint of a smile? A moment later, Kiri was once again holding the figurine.
That night, she nestled the ceramic piece next to her pillow and dreamed of running fleet-foot across a sea of grasses under an equatorial sun.
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