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Old Thursday, April 01, 2010
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When most people consider how to tell a story, they think in terms of plot and character. While these are often the
most visible aspects of a story, there is an underlying foundation of principles that support a well-told story. These
principles could be compared to a house foundation. Without a solid foundation, the other effects of the house, its
"character and design," cannot be fully enjoyed. In the same fashion, the principles of storytelling are also mostly out of
sight, but the effect of badly laid story foundation has effects just as damaging as a badly constructed house foundation.

The purpose of this essay is to lay out the principles, that well-constructed literature will contain, in a manner that
they can be considered individually. The principles can also be understood as a unified piece of rationalism that offers an
overview of what well constructed literature consists of, and how it is written. Understanding these principles should be
able to help a reader to distinguish between well-constructed literature and what tries to pass as literature.

Literature is a world where every character, every action, every element has meaning and purpose. This is what makes
literature fundamentally different from life. Life offers facts that don't necessarily have a clear purpose, meaning or
outcome; events that generate emotional states that have no clear purpose or fulfillment; or events that captivate the senses,
but not in a meaningful, dramatic, or fulfilling way. Real life, then, can be chaotic, or appear to lack a desirable purpose
and meaning. For example, we don't marry the love of our life... or we do, and then things can go terribly wrong. Or the
one we love is taken from us by a freak accident. Or we work hard but don't get the rewards we desire. Even worse, the
rewards may go to someone who appears to be completely undeserving of the reward and honour we've worked to attain.
So real life can be painful, unpredictable, or even wildly rewarding, but in spite of our best-laid plans or efforts, we can
never clearly predict the outcome of any action or actions. Most people, then, have a need for something that gives
meaning and purpose to the events of life. This is what literature will do. However, the beautiful thing about literature is
that it may do this, or it may do the exact opposite. It may leave issues or conflicts unresolved, forcing the reader to bring
their own experiences and understanding to it, in order to make some meaning of it all, and reach that fulfillment again.
Personally, I prefer this type of literature as it forces me to think and reason about the book. Therefore, literature that does
not give meaning or purpose to the events of the story, in order to leave the reader with questions, is considered to be well-
constructed literature too.

Literature offers an experience of life that has meaning and purpose, by taking life-like characters, issues and events
arranged around a central issue, and moving them to a state of resolution and fulfillment. A story thus fills a basic human
need that life can appear to have a discernible meaning, purpose and outcome that can be experienced in a direct way.
Because a literature usually resolves and fulfills the issues and ideas it raises, it can create a fulfilling, complete experience
of any state of human emotions or thoughts. But for this state of fulfillment to occur, the author must create a story around
a dramatic issue a reader desires to experience, or can be led to desire to experience. So a story is written around a dramatic
issue a reader desires to internalise and experience. This is why the author must, first of all, understand the human need for
a fulfilling story, and how a story will meets those needs. For only when literature engages and holds a reader's attention,
by what a story is about at its deeper level, will it be perceived as compelling. Therefore all literature must revolve around
some issue that arises from the human experience. To feel alive, to experience states of love, honour, courage, or fear,
doubt, or revenge. To feel a part of a world, even if it is an imaginary one. To feel the freedom to explore new worlds or
simply to experience a fulfilling state of senses, intellect, or feelings in an outcome of events. To experience insights into
life we might not see on our own, or see deeply. The book Lives of the Saints, by Nino Ricci, for example, is a story not
literally about its title, but about the nature of the people situated in a small town in Italy. Thus, when readers enter its
world, they are led to experience something deep and fascinating about another people and culture. The reader is exposed
to an experience that may expand their horizons and that they can internalise and thus experience within themselves.

Whether the overall movement of a story is simple or complex, the various movements of story elements must be
understandable and of enough consequence that a reader desires to internalise the story's movement to fulfillment. Thus,
characters that are not in conflict over shaping a story's course and outcome, are not tied into its movement, and a reader
may struggle to internalise and assign meaning to those character's actions. Such characters can appear to be unclear and
unfocused, and without meaning and purpose. The result is that the reader may set aside that story. Even when a reader
can't consciously identify why the story "feels" false, false movement confuses them and make it difficult to internalise the
story. What the story itself is about is what should give birth to the characters, and assign meaning to their actions. The
action and events of a story, then, should be arranged in a way to make a clear, and dramatically potent, movement toward
the story's fulfillment. For example, I was unable to understand what the whole story, Guerrillas, written by V.S. Naipaul,
was about. The actions in the story did not seem to express any deeper purpose the story might have had. Therefore, it is
an important tool to be able to write a powerfully affecting story and be able to lay out what such a story is about at its
foundation level.

Characters in a story operate to make the story's movement visible and concrete, in a way that engages a reader's
interest. The author, then, needs to be able to make the subtle distinction between what their story is about on that deeper,
foundation level, from what is at stake for their characters and what they need to do to set up their plot. When the author is
clear about how their story fulfills the reader's needs, what the story is about, and its plot, they still must be able to create
characters that act powerfully in the "moment." All characters in well told stories must have strength of purpose. Whether
the issue is love, greed, revenge, compassion, hate, or jealousy, a character must be willing to confront and overcome
whatever obstacles the story places in their path. Weak characters offer the reader no reason to internalise the story; and
because their actions are weak and unfocused, the reader literally has difficulty internalising the actions of such characters
and assigning them meaning. The writer must create characters that will act forcefully when confronted with the need to
resolve the conflict in the story, in a favourable way for themselves, or for their allies. The characters, for which the writer
has not fully considered their situation and how they would respond, are truly weak characters, no matter how powerful
they might appear when considered separately.

In order to hold a reader's interest, the author must be able to write powerfully in the "moment." Proficient writing
creates a compelling sense of being in the "moment" of the action being described. In order to effectively do this; the writer
must perceive what is at stake in the story. When this is understood, the emotions and events that drive a story's characters
will become clearer. Keeping that in mind, the character's actions, when viewed individually, should be active, bold,
dramatic and direct. This will ensure that the reader's interest is held. This ability to create scenes or characters that exist
powerfully in the "moment" is one of those issues of writing that separate good writing from bad. If a writer is able to
create an experience deeply and powerfully felt by a story's characters, and a reader is able to internalise those dramatic
actions, the writing style may be considered quite exceptional. When writers fail to understand what their story is about at
its essence, and how that drives their characters, they can also struggle with this issue of how best to describe the elements
of their story in a way that brings it to life. Instead of describing characters and actions and issues at the heart of their
stories, they describe characters and events the reader doesn't "feel" are relevant. Or they describe such characters and
events in a way that fails to generate a dramatic quality of moving a story toward its fulfillment. Therefore, in the book
Guerrillas, it is either the fault of V.S. Naipaul's, for not writing effectively, or it is my fault for not being a good reader,
that I did not understand the story.

A writer must also be clear about how to arrange the elements of a story for the full dramatic effect. For example, in
order for the introduction of a story to be effective, the reader should not be told of the situation, rather they should be
shown by what happens. So the story, in its arrangement of its elements, should set out what is at stake in the story; what,
of any consequence, is at stake for the story's characters, not to mention its readers; and what would fulfill the story. The
deeper level of drama in a story then is in the arrangement of its events that create a pull on a reader's attention and interest,
and offer a reward for that interest and attention: a deeply felt fulfillment of the issue, whatever it may be.

Well-constructed literature will contain a plot that makes visible and concrete the movement of the story in a way that
its action is dramatic and potent. A plot good plot will take the character's concerns and intertwine them with what's at
stake in the story itself. So to achieve their personal goals, which readers desire to internalise in order to experience the
drama of the outcome, a character must act perseveringly, in a way that advances the story. In turn, they may be blocked,
just as resolutely, by other characters that desire a different course or outcome for the story. However, to describe a story's
plot is not the same as describing what a story is about on its foundation level, what the story is actually about. For
example, consider Lives of the Saints. On the surface, this story might appear to be about a family, in a small mountain
town situated in Italy, trying to leave the ignorance and superstition of their village and trying to reach America. But on the
story level, this is a story about a clash of values and ideology in a small Italian village, and about self realisation of a
young boy who grew up there. We can readily internalise this story because it is about the universal human experience of
self-realization. The plot, the movement of the story, is just a means to this end.

Well-constructed literature, then, can be analysed by understanding these principles of storytelling. By exposing
the reasons why we desire stories, and how well-constructed literature can meet these needs that we bring to it, I sought to
reveal what well-constructed literature will contain and how to identify it. During the colloquies, I struggled with a
definition of good literature. However, I came to the conclusion that well-constructed literature is not necessarily good
literature, and vice versa. So, instead of trying to conclude what good literature is, I decided to tackle the idea of what well-
constructed literature is. It is important to remain aware of the fact that good literature is many things to many people.
Different people will try to reach a different type of fulfillment. In my opinion, it is impossible to judge or define good
literature, one may only attempt to judge or define what well-constructed literature is, as I hope to have done here, in this
essay, for you.
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