Monday, April 4, 2011

Story Notes for the Unexpergated Baby Shoes Story

I have challenged you all to write a story based on Hemingway's six-word story "For sale, baby shoes. Never used." Yesterday I posted my entry in that challenge. I hope you will enter.

Yesterday's story "The Real Unexpurgated Story of the Baby Shoes Which Were Sold Unused," is a rough draft, and now that I see it done, I am sure I will play with it more.

It was inspired by O. Henry. I was going for his overall style of an old-fashioned told story, as opposed to a modern "scene" type story. Most people haven't read a lot of O. Henry. They know the most famous stories, the masterpieces of irony like The Gift of The Magi. However, he wrote a lot of stories, and while they all made good use of irony, one of my favorite kinds of his stories were the ones which were kind of a precursor of the "shaggy dog" story.

The Shaggy Dog Story is a kind of bad joke. It's usually a long rambling story which is all just a set up for a really awful pun for a punchline. I don't know that O. Henry ever wrote an actually pun-driven shaggy dog story, but he often wrote long stories which were a kind of red herring for the conclusion, which was swift like a punchline.

O. Henry wasn't the only one to tell such stories. They were pretty common in the hey day of short fiction, really. Modern short fiction styles don't accommodate them so well. I think the reason is because this kind of story has to be a told or narrated story, and modern storytelling demands more "show, don't tell" scene-making.

These stories almost always start with a more modern type scene which sets up the story, and someone remarks on something curious -- like a broken piano in a saloon, the scar on an old man's thumb, or a three-legged dog. The stranger asks about it, and is told a long rambling and colorful story that runs all over the place and may even seem to have nothing to do with the original question, until you get the end, where it ties up in some unexpected way. Sometimes it's even a kind of afterthought. The rambling story took you far away and concluded itself, and then you find out that odd detail happened in some incidentally related way.

Garrison Keillor often uses this technique in his Lake Woebegone stories. I even once heard a lecturer at a writers conference use it unintentionally -- which is kind of an important story because I learned so much from his mistake.

He was trying to illustrate to us how important structure is, and he thought he would illustrate it by first telling a boring story. The only problem is that he was a natural story teller. So he started telling us about this trip to some city, and how he ran into an old friend and he went to visit them on their farm, and they had a horse and sleigh, and they went out driving through the woods and talked about some things and ... well, it rambled. It was also fascinating. He had us on the edge of our seats.

And then he revealed that there was no point to the story, it was just a bad version of the Robert Frost poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."  He finished up his presentation by reading that poem to show us how much better it was to have structure.

Although that's always been my favorite poem, his reading of the poem was completely anti-climactic. Instead of being bored with his first rambling version, we were all lost in the story he was telling. When he brought us back to the point, we were jerked back into reality and, well, he didn't make his point about how much better structure was.

It took me years to figure out what the lesson of that incident really was. All I knew is that he had mesmerized us when he meant to bore us.

Eventually I put that together with storytellers like Garrison Keillor and P. G. Wodehouse and O. Henry and Damon Runyon and Donald Westlake, and I finally figured it out.

The lecturer, like those authors, was a practiced bullshitter. He was a guy who could tell stories all day long in the bar to younger writers. Or rather maybe I should say he could pull your leg all day long. He could tell yarns about anything, about his trip to the conference or about his childhood dog or about the clerk at the hotel. He had told so many stories in his life that he instinctively told them well. Even when he didn't have a point, he naturally just handled details in a way that they connected up and it felt like he had a point.

And that was the lesson:

When you have a point, you have a structure. I've heard Garrison Keillor do it a million times, and it's in every O. Henry story. Remember how I mentioned that every story must have tension and then release it? The tension of the O. Henry pre-shaggy-dog story is that it has a point, and you can't see what it is until you get to the end. And all those rambling details in the middle do connect up, and do lead somewhere but you can't see where.

Only a practiced bullshitter can pull this off. You have to tell a lot of stories, so many stories that you can't not tell a good story.

So that's the inspiration for this story about the baby shoes. It seemed to me, if you were going to reject the obvious meaning of the Hemingway story, then you had an odd occurrence to spin an unlikely yarn around -- which means you're halfway there to an O. Henry story.

I want to tell stories like my heroes.

So in honor of that lecturer whose name I've long forgotten, I leave you with the Muppets, and Fozzy Bear's attempt to raise the tone of the show by reading "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." (Which is also the explanation of why I always sing that poem to the tune of Fernando's Hideaway.)


Kathydid47 said...

The brilliance of the muppets is that you can totally see where they're not going. The frenetic energy spent and it matters not because they never had any goal to begin with! I totally love them!

The Daring Novelist said...

The Muppets are passion personified. They all have goals. They may not be sensible goals, but they have them. And they are not to be dissuaded from them.

That is the stuff of drama.