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beard
As always, this post contains spoilers, and should be under the ...



Stories have internal and external struggles. Yesterdays story, and today's, seem like there is no external struggle. Van Pelt's story is about a guy bringing home the girl he thinks he wants to marry to meet the parents. We've all seen this story before, and it's important that I mark this:

One: The story can hang on a quotidian structure
I tend to overthink plot, and try to draw these dazzling puzzle-like journeys and plots. My detective, Murdock Collins, in one story needs to find out who is trying to kill his client. He goes off first simply trying to prove that someone is trying to kill his client. I have him going all over the place. External plots can be simple. In fact, the simpler the external plot, the more space there is for the internal plot.

The complications on this story are the fact that the family owns a junkyard, and the dad is crazy, and there are guard dogs, and the narrator is pretty sure he wants to marry Rachel but not (at the beginning) absolutely certain of this. There is a difference between the narrator's social class and Rachel's. She's rich, but she loves him and that's okay. He's already bought the ring.

The story opens with what seems like a meta-story comment about stories that we want to tell, and stories as they happened. This isn't just a frame that Van Pelt returns to at the end of the story, but the thematic statement of the story. We all add bumps to the baseline (as the song goes) and no story is told in a purely factual way. The first comment on the theme is offered by the narrator: This is a bad thing. The narrator (whom I am going to call "Steve" for easy reference) is carrying a wound from a fake family vacation his father took them on, pretending they had gone to space in the family rocket, when in fact they had never left the junkyard. 

Rachel's reaction to Steve's comment is "that's sweet, that he cared."

The theme returns, pointing out that even this story could be a story just like the trip to Mars Steve didn't take as a child.

Side note: One of the problems with first person narration is the assumption that the person telling the story is speaking to an audience (you) telling their story and it's always tough for me to decide when to go ahead and break that fourth wall and simply address the reader. I think the paragraphs in this story that are entirely thematic are those that break the fourth wall.

Steve also reveals his value system is wrong. He doesn't admit that just yet, but after the dog "attack" he acts like his life is junk. Again, Rachel immediately comes back with "this was your life, that makes it important (to me)."  Steve's so wounded by the story that he dismisses his childhood as junk and false hopes. Again, bumping the baseline is wrong, and again, it's not wrong if it gave you a dream.

Steve's simple problem is if he should ask Rachel to marry him, and he decides to do so at this point. His growth is linked to the change in his attitude toward the theme.

THen there is a false ending, they arrive at the rocket and it launches and my what a bump in the story, a complete unexpected surprise because everything that led up to it indicated that this was impossible. This is the theme in action: A false story being told to make things exciting and cast doubt on everything that has gone on before.

But it's just a fake-out. Why? It doesn't satisfy the theme. If the central question is "are lies told to children bad?" then this ending means that Steve's original answer ("No!") was wrong because he asked the wrong question. Maybe (as I think on it) the story can't pull out the rug from under the reader by saying "this problem never existed." Maybe this is a twist ending and very hard to pull off, but the theme as I read it is pointing towards the story-as-told vs. story-as-was. This false ending doesn't resolve Steve's original point, but nullifies it, and now I'm getting repetitive because I don't know how to say this clearly and concisely.

So let's move on. When Steve sees the rocket ship through Rachel's eyes, he is turning. The revelation that he will ask her to marry him changes him and lets him come back to the theme and say "actually, story-as-told is far better than the story-that-was because the story-as-told gave me more value and imagination and if I had only kept that I wouldn't look back upon my childhood with the grupminess that I do." 

And with that growth, the story can end, because the theme has been addressed. 

Van Pelt leaves a few things up in the air. We don't know how much of this is story happened as told, and how much was made up in this particular telling, but that's okay, because the point of the story is that some bumps in the baseline are okay.



Recap:

One: Quotidian Structure is OK. At the last SFWA reading in Portland, I heard stories by Jay Lake, MK Hobson, and Seanan McGuire. Jay's story had a physical action that came down to "people watched the tide come in on the river". Mary's excerpt was: "a guy signs paperwork at his new job". Seanan's story was: "a bunch of people listened to a recording". These seem very boring but they were  all great stories. 

I over think my physical plots, so I should devote time to stories with simple external actions and then see how interesting I can make them.

Two: Theme works in a story by allowing the protagonist to say something about the theme, the other characters to make comments, and closes the story when the protagonist changes their position. That's a long statement and had I more time I could probably do something with it, but it's coming down to the end of my lunch hour and I'd rather hit the Post button than save the draft.

On the plus side, examining how theme plays out here, I think I have a theme for a story that's been through critters and got a lot of "it's well written, but I don't know why I read it" comments. Even though that story has a complex structure (six scenes and six points of view) the thematic approach just may fix the thing.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
jimvanpelt
Nov. 17th, 2012 01:42 am (UTC)
Wow! Josh, I've been analyzed. Thank you for the thoughtful look at the story. I wish I'd felt that smart while writing it!
joshenglish
Nov. 19th, 2012 08:15 pm (UTC)
That's the lovely thing about theme. You don't have to write it for me to see it.

I also need to remember to look back at this story as a good example of backfilling information just in time, and also how it plays with the false ending. It's well done.
jimvanpelt
Nov. 19th, 2012 09:19 pm (UTC)
Hi, Josh. Did you know that the story is an homage to Bradbury, and a sequel to his piece, "The Rocket"? It was interesting to query for permission to do it.
joshenglish
Nov. 19th, 2012 11:32 pm (UTC)
I had no idea, no. Why did you seek permission to write the story? It stood on its own well enough I didn't think it was a sequel to another story. Was it simply a case of the rocket in the junkyard and the fake trip are all elements of Bradbury's story?
jimvanpelt
Nov. 20th, 2012 12:35 am (UTC)
He was still alive when I wrote it, and he's one of my idols, so I thought it was polite to ask him if I could write the sequel. I didn't have to, but it felt like a courtesy to me. However, I didn't know that since he'd had his stroke a few years ago, that he wasn't handling any correspondence like that, so I ended up exchanging messages with his agent.

Bradbury's story is well worth reading (obviously, I liked it). The narrator in my story was ten in his story. I wrote the story because I wondered what it would have been like to have had the experience as a kid that Bradbury wrote about.
livejournal
Nov. 19th, 2012 09:17 pm (UTC)
The Family Rocket Explained (in an interesting manner)
User jimvanpelt referenced to your post from The Family Rocket Explained (in an interesting manner) saying: [...] and thorough discussion of my January 2013 Asimov's short story, "The Family Rocket." [...]
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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