I had a talk with local writer-friend a few days ago, it turns out that we have similar tastes in reading. He’s an Ian Flemming fan, while I’m a Roald Dahl fan (though you’d be forgiven for thinking the opposite). These two authors are not so far apart, for reasons that I’ve discussed ad nauseam.
We both appreciate the Twilight Zone for it’s storytelling.
We both try to improve our ability to tell stories, though I think my friend’s quite a bit farther down that road than I am. That’s the crux of this post– improving ability to tell stories.
I’m going to analyze one good story a week. That’s (probably) all you’ll hear from me for a few months. I’m going to break down why each of these stories works. My challenge to myself is this: be a plot-guru by the end of May.
At the moment, I write about things that I feel strongly about. This tendency is equivalent to putting the cart before the horse, because I’m motivated by how I feel and not by how entertaining my writing is.
The fact is, nobody really cares about my opinion or my feelings. If they did, then literary magazines would have more readers. Feelings and opinions are luxuries for a writer. Maybe I can afford to add a dash of those things once I’ve paid my dues with plot and character. But only after I’ve paid my dues.
Therefore, I need to spend less time blogging and more time reading, then analyzing. This will be six months of my life well spent.
Taste, by Roald Dahl. (I’m sure that you can find the full text somewhere online.)
This story is one of Dahl’s betting stories, the most famous of which is probably Man from the South, which was made into a Twilight Zone episode, if memory serves. (Correction: Dahl wrote for Way Out, then Tales of the Unexpected, not The Twilight Zone. Man from the South was part of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.) The emotional action, the roller-coaster, comes from this bet. The story begins with a lead-in to the bet, and ends abruptly, but satisfyingly, with the bet’s conclusion.
The bet takes place between two characters, a gourmand and a stockbroker. The two men bet over the provenance of a bottle of wine. Both men want what the other one has; the gourmand wants the stockbroker’s daughter and the stockbroker wants the cultural prestige of the gourmand. Since prestige can’t be bought so simply, the stakes of the bet are as follows: if the gourmand guesses the correct vintage, then he gets to marry the stockbroker’s daughter. If not, the stockbroker gets the gourmand’s two houses.
I believe that Dahl began to write this story with just these ideas. Two rather gross characters who make an ugly bet. Next, he chose the ending: The gourmand guesses correctly, but does so by cheating and is discovered.
Everything else in this story revolves around heightening the stakes of the bet for the reader.
1) description of the two characters involved. Dahl chose ‘toad’ for the gourmand and ‘unscrupulous climber’ for the stockbroker. AND THAT’S IT. Dahl revels in the Dickens-like 2-D quality of these characters. He’s set up two people that the reader will enjoy seeing fall down.
2) explanation of wine-tasting art. How talented is the gourmand? Dahl leads us to believe that he is very talented indeed. Will he pull it off? I wonder…
3) desirability of daughter. This is done well– Dahl makes her believable and sympathetic, not over-honeyed. She has a good sense of right and wrong, but smokes and isn’t bright. She ‘leans away’ from both men, as the reader would.
The motivation for this story is: how will the bet end? At different points, I was convinced that the stockbroker would win, then the gourmand. Finally, when I am confident that the gourmand has won, in steps the maid who saw him peek at the bottle before dinner.
This is a twist ending, but a good one, because it follows naturally from the characters and the situation. Both men are swine. They’ve made a habit of betting on wine. On reflection, it’s natural that one (or both!) would eventually decide to cheat. That’s why Dahl’s twist ending isn’t annoying, on the contrary, the ending is insightful. On rereading the story, he’s dropped a couple hints about the venal nature of both men, so I don’t feel cheated by this unexpected ending.
There’s nothing in this story that doesn’t drive the emotional roller-coaster for the reader. It’s spare prose. If Dahl does present an opinion, it’s about finance and foodies AND it’s woven into the story so well that his opinion isn’t glaringly obvious. It’s subtle, and that’s the best place for politics in fiction.
Dahl’s place as a narrator is subtle too. He’s a guest at the party, but rarely breaks the story with his opinion or mention of “I”. He lets the characters do the talking.
Conclusion: Dahl started with the idea of WINE BET, then developed two simple– but similar– characters, GOURMAND and STOCKBROKER. Everything that happens is a natural, and insightfully-chosen, consequence of these two characters and their appetites. The twist comes from a deeper understanding of the two men’s nature than the reader expects.