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Gordian Plot

Problem Plots

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CERTAIN STORIES rated this section on either or both of two counts. First, some stories seemed to be genuinely out of place in the slicks. It was not so much that they did not fit into the categories fashioned here, but that they, for one reason or another, seemed to have nothing much in common with any of the other stories. Second, certain of the stories were one or two of a kind. Rather than generalize some plot-heading into meaninglessness, a sort of catch-all here at the end of the book, seemed more satisfactory. Most of the stories discussed in this book relied heavily on some kind of mystery. Whether it was a mystery of identity, situation, method, or whatever, the story would end precisely when the mystery was solved. Throughout the book I have tried to emphasize that a slick story holds a reader's attention with suspense, with a mystery of one sort or another, and then finally satisfies the reader by satisfying his curiosity, by explaining the mystery. Well, there is a very cute and not uncommon reversal of this seemingly basic trick which sells more manuscripts than might be supposed. The reversal consists of posing a problem, creating the mystery, and then leaving the darn thing up in the air.

"My" husband tells me that he has been having a recurrent, continuing dream which has been seriously troubling him. I press him for details, and reluctantly he tells me that every night he imagines he is a certain Wall Street broker. He seemingly lives through all the broker's waking experiences. He goes to the office, attends to his business, and then goes home to a sumptuous apartment and a beautiful, sophisticated wife, etc.

Immediately I am jealous of this other life my husband is leading, and every morning I ask if the dream recurred during his previous night's sleep. Every morning, I find that it has. I explain to my husband that all the contents of his dream-the job, the wealth, the wife-are compensations for his waking frustrations. Then I suggest a cure. I recommend that he take powerful sleeping pills for a while, so that he will sleep too deeply to dream. He tries it, and wakes the next morning with good news. The dream was gone. He goes on taking the pills for a week. It appears that he is rid of the thing for good, when, one day, while my husband is at work, I pick up a newspaper and see on the obituary page a picture of a man who exactly resembles my husband. He is a Wall Street broker, and his name is the same that my husband told me was his in the dreams. To my horror I realize that I have committed murder with my sleeping pills.-The story ends with a rather corny appeal to the reader for help.

These wide-open stories are very popular in some markets. Esquire uses them quite a bit, and The New Yorker did for a time, but seems to be off them at present. Once such a story has been read through, the structure is ap

parent. The writer, instead of stating the problem and then solving it, actually has spent his entire wordage developing the mystery and to hell with what happens after that. Against the norm of a story which has a beginning, middle, and end, these question-mark pieces have only a beginning. The slick usage of the type is for the most part restricted to terror tales like the one described.

Background, local color, family chit-chat, and such constitute, of course, common incidental music to more prominent themes. Occasionally, though, there will be no one prominent theme. The total effect of such a piece is that of the familiar stage play which is full of amusing and interesting characters who spend three hours doing and saying all sorts of unrelated things. Every character, to be sure, has his own trifling problem peculiar to his personality which at the close is certain to be resolved. You Can't Take It with You was such a play. And, taking into consideration that a philosophical and social theme ran through them, The Iceman Cometh and The Lower Depths were this kind of omnium gatherum. There is no denying that fine creative writing can be done within such a format, even in lengths and looks that resemble short stories. But the chances are the editors will send such efforts back charging "not a story." There is a snappy switch possible of the popular "biterbit" story which might well be called "bitten-bites." One example concerned a real-estate agent who was having business troubles.

Either his clients refused to pay him his commissions on the grounds that they did the selling themselves after the agent had merely introduced the customer, or clients demanded ridiculous, unobtainable prices for their properties, or perhaps clients would refuse to sell to customers they considered unworthy of the privilege. At any rate, he was having a difficult time of it, when, one day, he is visited by a distinguished- looking gentleman and his wife who announce that they are interested in purchasing something moderate- something for about $100,000, the gentleman says.

Excitedly, the agent warns his biggest client to make ready, he is about to bring over a customer for the property he never thought he would be able to sell. The party arrives, and the gentleman customer, who has introduced himself as a colonel and the president of a well-known manufacturing firm, makes himself right at home. He expresses pleasure with the grounds and the building and even with the present occupants (since he does not wish to buy from any new-rich, he says). But he claims he must stay over a day or two in order to be sure of the "feel" of the estate. The host agrees to accommodate the colonel and his wife, and the agent retires from the scene, certain that he will soon be pulling down a fat commission. In two days, though, the owner calls to say that the colonel decided against buying and that now he, the owner, is turning his property over to another agent, since he feels that the sale was lost by this agent's mismanagement. The same morning, the colonel and his wife show up again at the agent's office ready to look at another estate-something a trifle better, they say. The agent directs them to his second largest account, and much the same thing happens.

The colonel and his wife hang around for a few days, eating, drinking, and acting like royalty, and finally decide not to buy. The agent loses still another property. This kind of thing goes on for a couple of weeks when suddenly the colonel announces that he has been unable to find anything in which he and his wife could live comfortably, and says that he is returning to his home and business in another city. A few days after the departure, the agent makes a call to the colonel's company in order to talk with him about another property he recently acquired. When he gives the colonel's name, the party answering at first does not recognize it. But suddenly the name is remembered and the "colonel" is paged from the drafting department where he works as a draftsman.-The story closes with a "cute" announcement from the agent that he is taking a vacation himself, that he plans to go to Saratoga where he intends to spend some time with the best families in the East-for free. Switches on standard plot-lines like this are highly desirable commodities, if they manage to perform the same functions that the more common plots do. Indiscriminate "switching" for the sake of originality is foolish. The writer must remember that some very ingenious and inventive writing brains are applied full time to the problems of selling the slicks. I dare say that attempts have been made to sell diametric reversals of every basic plot described in this book-probably without much success. Generally, the wiser course is to leave the trail-blazing to the ultra-experts with the very well-known names. They have the confidence of the editors to back up their experiments.

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