Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Going to see the rooster: on meandering in short stories

As I've said on this blog before, I'm a fan of Werner Herzog. That is to say, a fan of the more recent, oddball documentaries, as well as of Wild Blue Yonder, and not so much of the weird, freakish, screaming-in-white-makeup, German expressionist whatever. Call me a philistine.

Anyway, as I've also said, what I like best about Herzog is the way he allows his storylines to meander. In the middle of telling what seems to be an urgent story, he'll often allow the camera to linger on a field of waving grass or a waterfall. These moments provide no information about plot or character, or even necessarily about the setting, of which we've already seen plenty. Herzog just finds the motion beautiful and therefore worth recording.

One of my favorite moments in all his films occurs in The White Diamond, a documentary about an engineering team in Guyana trying to build an airship to fly above the rainforest canopy. It's a dangerous undertaking, as an engineer who attempted it previously crashed and died. But as all this tension builds, Herzog keeps hearing from one of the local team members about his rooster.
I should've had my rooster here with me for the world to see. His name is Red. He has five wives, five hens. So, I get five eggs every morning. Yeah, my rooster's good.
We begin to realize, with Herzog, that he cannot not go and see this creature. So, in the middle of their thrilling tale, they take a day to film the rooster. And he is, indeed, a fine rooster, though he does not appear, to the untrained eye, exceptional in himself. What makes him exceptional is how much his owner loves him. And that love, in some tangential way, is part of the story.

I've been thinking about this moment particularly as I write a new short story. It's always seemed to me that meandering is permissible in novels, but not stories. You don't have enough time. A novel--if we can switch to an other animal metaphor for a moment--can be like taking a long walk with a not-very-well-behaved dog (i.e., your imagination). You and your dog/imagination can wander off the path, stop and stiff the bushes, pee on something, chase something, bark at something, and still get home in reasonably good shape. But a story, I've thought, is an arrow you shoot at a target. Beginning, middle, end. Wham. Everything in service of the relentless forward motion-otherwise, you miss the mark.

Yet the stories I love best, just like novels, don't fly straight and narrow. They, too, meander. Perhaps not as often, or for as long--but they, too, wander off the path to examine something the writer (via a character or the narrator) is irresistibly attracted to. They pause, lurch, and restart, delivering surprising, not completely necessary information. They have an odd, lumpy shape, rather than the dreaded Freytag pyramid.

So here's your permission slip, from me and Werner, to ditch the pyramid. Whether you're writing a novel or a story, I say: go and see the rooster.

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