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Gordian Plot

The Hero Is Freed from His False Belief

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A small boy is afraid that his younger sister must die before the day is out. A year or two prior to the action of the story, the sister had been seriously ill. The brother had asked God to spare her so she could grow to be as old as he was then. He wanted her to have at least as much fun out of life as he had had.

The story opens on the sister's birthday, the birthday which brings her beyond the age the boy had been when he had interceded with God in her behalf. To his amazement and relief, his sister lives through the day. He is delighted but also confused, and goes to his father for an explanation. The father, a lawyer, explains that God abides by the law and would never hold a person to a contract made under duress. If God would do such a thing, the father explains, he the father would have died when the little girl recovered. The father, too, had made a secret pact with God. Another example.

A family has recently moved into a new town and is just beginning to find a place in local society when the wife disco vers that she, her husband, and her daughter have been ficti onally libeled in the current issue of a chic magazine which everyone in the community reads. The story, written by a local woman author, has described their actions with median. ical accuracy, but given their behavior cruel and malicious interpretations.

The family is scheduled to attend the country club's annual party that evening. Most of the family's new friends will be there, and the wife is certain all will have read the story. She isn't sure whether she should go, or, if she does, whether she will be able to bear up under the knowledge that all sorts of sly, covert remarks will be made about her behind her back. She decides to go, finally, and to do her hest to keep the fact of the story hidden from her husband and her daughter. At the country club, she sees hidden meanings in every chance remark and action of the other guests. Just as she is about to leave the party in complete shame, the president of the club who is also the male social arbiter of the town comes over to her to express his deep sympathy and regret at the illmannered breach of good taste perpetrated by the woman writer. He assures the wife that others before her have been victims of this writer's malice and that no one in the town would accept the malevolent implications of the story. The reader's interest in these "false-belief" stories is stimulated by depicting heroes with problems which have a possible, and in most cases, entirely probable, basis in fact. The difficulty is finally met, not by solving the problem, but by removing it. There are considerable technical advantages to using imagined problems in popular fiction. The problem of a slick story must have two requirements which are seemingly contradictory. First, the prob lem must be difficult enough to be apparently insoluble; second, it must not be so difficult that it actually does not allow of a solution. The writer must play that tricky game of seeming to prove that a certain point cannot be reached, and then going on to reach it. When the problem is imaginary, as in these "false-belief" stories, the writer can make his hero's problem as genuinely difficult as his ingenuity will allow, since he will not be called on to solve it. He can merely invalidate it.

In writing "false-belief" tales, the author must keep in mind that he is not turning out a psychological monograph. The core of the story—the delusion of the hero— must never be straightforwardly described. This core must be handled with what is sometimes called "dramatic indirection." The writer should not, if he happens to be the narrator of the story, come out at any point short of the story's close and put his finger on the real nature of the problem.

There is another aspect of the "false-belief" story which is just as crucial as the handling of the hero's problem, and that is the handling of the hero's release from the problem. This release comes at the story's end. A single word following the problem's solution is one word not needed. This solution, which in the case of the false-belief story is an awakening to the truth of the situation for the hero, must come about naturally and dramatically. By dramatically, I mean that the revelation must surpass, or at least equal in intensity all the story's preceding episodes. By naturally, I mean that the revelation must not be an iso lated episode; it must be an extension of everything that went before it.

As an example, take the story of a young girl who is desperately interested in a certain young man. She has a problem. She feels that in order to keep him interested, she must allow him certain liberties. She is afraid, though, that she will not be able to draw the line at the socially demanded point. Should she lose control and shoot the works she realizes that she will lose his respect, and finally lose him.

A crisis is inevitable. It comes when she accompanies her young man to his room. Once there, though, her innate sense of decency prevails and in tears she tells him of her dilemma. He is delighted, since it turns out that he was only making the try because he felt that to keep her interested he had to show some sexual enterprise. Happily relieved of the necessity of doing dirty things, they pledge their love undying.

Now suppose the writer had ended this story differently. Suppose this love-lorn adolescent had taken her problem to her mother who would assure her with an illustration from her own past that a boy's attraction for a girl, if it is worth anything, rests on a sentimental base. If an editor bothered to explain why he couldn't use such a story, he'd say something like, "It just didn't come off," or "It doesn ' t ring a bell." He'd be hard put to say what in particular is wrong with the piece. Logically, the story seems all right . There aren't any apparent faults. But what is lacking is the total impression of inevitability every story must carry. In sending the girl to her mother for a solution, the writer seems to have contrived an ending and not taken advantage of the dramatic possibilities of the situation. The writer of the brother-sister-God tale, although he sent his hero to his father and a talky denouement, gave the reader a snapper in discovering for both the reader and the hero that the father had had something of the same unique experience as the boy himself. 'Weak though such a conclusion may be, the reader is left with the impression that the writer has not left any dramatic possibilities unused. In this type of story—and in all popular fiction—the writer must never be dramatically evasive. If a story, such as the one about the adolescent girl, allows of credibly introducing the heroine into a sweaty, uncomfortable, crucial situation, the writer must follow through and not disappoint the reader. Suppose the woman who had been maliciously characterized in the chic magazine had decided not to go to the country club but had stayed home. Suppose her problem had been solved by the country club president calling her on the phone to say that all was well. The piece would have been flat, stale, and entirely unprofitable. It is interesting to note that this type of plot closely app roaches "quality" fiction. The story's movement is primarily mental rather than physical. A more-than-ordinary insight into the vagaries of the human mind is demanded of the writer along with a more-than-ordinary appreciation of the difference between what sane people can think and What actually is reality. This proximity, though, makes the basic difference between slick and literary fiction stand out all the more clearly.

Consider again the story of the young girl in love. Su pose she happened to be attracted to someone other than' the nice young fellow who felt that only the conjugal bed was the proper place for amatorial dalliance. The "literary" story writer could have left her with a broken heart, left her in the gutter, with a gun in her hand... . Somehow the slick practitioner has to dig his way out and satisfy not only his heroine but the defenders of all laudable American institutions as well.

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