Posts Tagged story

What Writers Can Learn From “Jingle Bells”

I suspect most people in the United States are familiar with the Christmas Carol “Jingle Bells.”  In fact, it, no doubt, is one of the most familiar carols ever in the US.  One particular verse, actually the second, caught my ear many years ago, but just recently I realized how well and how intricately that verse had been put together.  There are a few lessons we writers can learn from that verse.  First a little background on the carol.

“Jingle Bells” was written in 1857 by James S. Pierpont for a school choir to sing on Thanksgiving, not Christmas.  (As far as I’m aware, he wrote both words and music.)  He originally entitled it “One Horse Open Sleigh,” words we’re familiar with from the first verse, though nowadays we call it by the first words of the refrain, “Jingle Bells.”  Mr. Pierpont actually penned several verses, most of which are not sung anymore.  The modern tendency is to sing only the first verse and refrain, though sometimes the second verse is added.  It’s that second verse I want to concentrate on.  Here it is:

“A day or two ago,
I thought I’d take a ride,
And soon Miss Fanny Bright
Was seated at my side.

The horse was lean and lank,
Misfortune seemed his lot,
He got into a drifted bank,
And then we got upsot.”

This verse is interesting because it tells a very short story which is (almost) complete within itself.  No words are wasted.  An interesting historical context—and I’m speaking entirely within the verse, having nothing to do with any of the details of “Jingle Bells,” or the other verses—is presented in the first line, “A day or two ago.”  It sets the time factor—relatively, if not absolutely—right up at the front.  It, and the second line about taking a ride, get us directly into the action without unnecessary words.  At this point, we are aware from the first verse “Dashing through the snow,” that we are in winter, and riding in a “one-horse open sleigh.”  That’s not given in the second verse, one point of critique.

The narrator is not named in this little story, but one other character is named, so we do have a character we can relate to.  I suspect that most people assume the narrator is male, and the name “Fanny” certainly suggests the rider is female.  At this point, we can visualize the two of them riding in a one-horse sleigh down a snowy road with bells attached to the bobbed tail of the horse.  All seems well.  A nice outing on a cold winter’s day.  Can’t you just feel the wind on your face?

But the plot thickens, and the author introduces the required tension that holds the story together.  Got to have conflict or at least tension in a story.  The characters have to be in danger.  Something has to happen.  Otherwise, the story line falls apart, and all we have is a simple account of the incident.  We’re given a good description of the horse, that it is “lean and lank,” enough to allow us to visualize the animal in our mind’s eye, but no more than necessary.  It wouldn’t add any thing to the story to know what color the horse was, or its age, or gender, or whatnot.

Then we learn “Misfortune was his lot.”  Now, like in any well-constructed story, we’re given a hint at the eventual climax, but just a hint: “Misfortune seemed his lot.”  So tantalizing.  A horse with a tendency to having bad luck.  Something’s going to happen.  But what?  Like any well-constructed story, every word, every line, every sentence, is necessary to the plot.  If it’s there, it must be essential.  We dread to know.  What will it be?

Finally the climax, “We got into a drifted bank” and “got upsot.”  (An old term for “upset.”  Fell over.)  That’s the end of it.  That’s all we need to know.  The story is done, the end is clear.  Whether the characters (including the horse) were injured is not known, and really, that information isn’t necessary.  The story ends at the end of the action, and no further words are necessary.  The author left it alone.  Do the same with your stories.

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Space Opera: A Definition

I have had, over the past 20 years or so that I’ve been trying to write science fiction, and on one or two occasions, to answer the question, “What is space opera?”  It’s a fair question given that space opera is the type of science fiction I write, and that it is probably the most popular subgenre of the overall class of science fiction literature.  The most common variation of the question has to do with the word “opera,” not so much the “space” part of it.  Most people, even those who don’t read or write sci-fi, are aware, to one degree or another, that sci-fi takes place largely in outer space.  That concept is so well ingrained in the popular consciousness it needs little further commentary.

To try and answer the question, let’s look at “space opera” itself.  In his excellent introduction to the space opera anthology, “Infinite Stars,” Robert Silverberg reveals that the phrase was coined by Wilson (“Bob”) Tucker, an early science fiction writer, in 1941.  He derived his term from the older term “soap opera” which arose in the 1930’s to refer to long-running dramatic radio shows (starting on radio and continuing into television) often sponsored by soap manufacturers, and from the similar term, “horse opera,” for low-budget westerns.

But what about the “opera” part of the phrase?  What does space opera, as I was once asked, have to do with opera?  My feeling is, nothing, and it’s kind of misleading to label space stories “opera,” as though there was some connection to the musical genre.  I don’t know why soap got connected with opera, and I can’t really imagine, since the two are so different.  Possibly it refers to the fact that soap opera or space opera tell a story, as does opera.  But space opera could just as easily be “space stories,” or “space novels.”  I say forget opera; just look at the story.

The connection to opera also fails due to the fact that in opera, the most important element is the music, not the story.  Operas are designed to present music.  With a full orchestra and singers, and tenors and sopranos and altos and bassos, and usually a chorus to fill out other vocal characters, opera presents music in all its forms and styles.  It’s the reason for the production’s existence.  As a result, it has little in common with outer space stories.  (I have no doubt, though, someone will eventually write a real “space opera,” set in outer space or on another planet.  But still, the music will be the foremost aspect of the production.)  Granted, opera does tell a story, but the music is the overriding factor, not the story.  The music is everything.  In fact, some stories in opera are rather thin, not much more than a vehicle for the “Bel Canto,” the “beautiful singing.”  Some operas, such as Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, are magnificent in scope and production, (they can be five to six hours long) and tell a great story, but in the end, it’s the music, both vocal and instrumental, that make the opera.  We don’t go to an opera to see a story; we go to hear the music.  Conversely, we go to see Star Wars to experience the story, not simply to listen to the music.

So, what does music have to do with space opera?  Nothing.  Forget about it.

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Getting Started

Are you having trouble thinking up a good plot for your next story?  There are many ways of doing that, of course, but here’s one way writers have used for years that can result in a story (any type of story: novel, short story, flash fiction, whatever) that will keep readers turning the page.  Take any sort of everyday story line—going downtown, flying in an airplane, running a routine mission in special ops—and change one or a small number of details to a point where the story becomes extremely unlikely in today’s world.  That’s the operative word, here: unlikely.  I’m not suggesting you write science fiction, don’t go that far.  Just make one or a few small changes that puts the story in the realm of the improbable, or incredible, or even strange and unbelievable, something that makes the story unique, something that puts it in a one-of-a-kind category.  It won’t take much, changing a few details may work.

For example, let’s take the classic novel Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.  The story is about a whaling captain, Ahab, who lost a leg to a white whale and vows to revenge the loss.  Melville, who spent time at sea in a whaling ship, knew what he was writing about.  It’s not too unlikely that there might have been whaling captains at New Bedford in the 1800’s who lost limbs to whales, and wanted revenge.  That’s understandable.  And there might really be white whales (probably albinos) out there, but what Melville does is juxtapose those two unlikely possibilities.  He puts two improbable situations together to form the basis for a classic novel.  Either one alone would be unlikely to result in the tension necessary to carry the novel, but together they work.  They’re small changes in the otherwise staid life of a New England whaling town to be sure, but that’s all it takes to make a great story.

Perhaps another example will illustrate what I’m talking about.  Take the movie, “Rocky.”  The first one, the one that started the franchise.  Rocky Balboa is a small-time boxer, nowhere near heavyweight contender level.  Yet Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the script, added one small, highly unlikely change to the story of Rocky.  Stallone has the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, pick Rocky out of nowhere to fight the champ.  Why Rocky?  I don’t know, and I doubt that any self-respecting state boxing commission would ever approve such a fight.  The match-up is too one-sided.  Rocky himself even admits he could get hurt.  And Apollo Creed would never have any way of knowing that Rocky would turn out to be such a worthy opponent.  But that one little change, however inconceivable it might be, makes for a very intriguing story, and spawned a well-known series.

In short, a small change in the direction of a story toward the highly unlikely, can transform an otherwise regular, drab event into a tale that holds the reader’s or viewer’s attention, and produce a fascinating story.  I’m sure you can think of other examples.  Like William Shatner on that airplane in the Twilight Zone episode.  A funny-looking apparition on the wing of an airplane?  Hardly.  Yet, it works.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s this funny green light shining through my window.

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