In a 2008 article for The Writer Magazine author and teacher Robert Olen Butler wrote an article entitled “The Driving Force Behind Plot.” In it he argued that “one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire.” He says that the great stories and novels, the best characters and problems, are driven ultimately by yearning. In many cases, he claims, yearning is the difference between success and failure in a narrative.
This seems obvious. But Butler makes a nice – and important – distinction: “Instead of: I want a man, a woman, wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a stake through a vampire’s heart, a literary desire is on the order of: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other.”
If this is the case, if Butler is right, than everything else in a story or novel should fall into place in subservience to the creation of yearning, the depiction of yearning, the meaning behind yearning, that which is yearned for, and what that yearning means. The why of that yearning. Or, perhaps more properly put, all the elements of the story should help make that yearning rightly and necessarily felt by the characters – and even by the readers.
Philosophically this sounds great, but it also sounds much easier said than done.
One of the ways that Butler says this can be accomplished is via what he refers to as the “epiphany” of the story, “epiphany” here being a term he appropriates from James Joyce (who of course himself appropriated it from the Church).
This is what Butler writes:
“An epiphany literally means “a shining forth.” [Joyce] brought that concept to bear on the moment in a work of art when something shines forth in its essence… What I would suggest is that there are two epiphanies in any good work of fiction… The first epiphany comes very near the beginning, where the sensual details accumulate around a moment in which the deepest yearning of the main character shines forth.”
This idea, and especially this quote, has been stuck in my mess of a head as I’ve been writing my current short story, a story about a young boy who finds something that he thinks is the most amazing treasure in the world – something that really only a small boy could love in that way. But he is also a boy who longs to have ownership over something, most anything. This is his chance and when he faces the possibility of losing it he…. well, one day maybe you can read it. Maybe.
But I’ve realized that in order for my story to work then this thing the boy finds, this thing and everything else in the story, must reflect his desire, his yearning, to have something for his own. All of his interactions, his thoughts, his movements, even the settings as much as possible, must relate to the reader how important this is to him. How it means the world to him. It must mean everything.
So as I’ve been thinking this over I’ve been paying attention to ways that great writers and filmmakers – really any kind of story-teller – present this epiphany, especially early on in their stories. Some are more subtle than others.
One of my favorites is found in the opening of Denis Johnson’s mesmerizing, troubling, brilliant, humbling novel Tree of Smoke, a great sprawling epic about Vietnam (well, taking place during and around it anyway).
It’s 1963, the day after Kennedy was killed, and Seaman Bill Houston is 18 and not sure what to make of the Philippines. Barely sober from the night before and carrying a .22 caliber-rifle, Houston is hunting for a wild boar in the jungle of Grande Island while the sounds of the late morning have him “all terrifically on edge…and if he stopped dead he could he could also the pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears.”
He props his rifle against a banana tree and takes stock of the situation, of the area, keeping an eye out for his prey. Then:
” …something moving from one tree to another caught [his] eye. He kept his vision on the spot where he’d seen it among the branches of a rubber tree, putting his hand out for the rifle without altering the direction of his gaze. It moved again. Now he saw that it was some sort of monkey… Not precisely a wild boar, but it presented itself as something to be looked at, clinging by its left hand and both feet to the tree’s trunk and digging at the the thin rind with an air of tiny, exasperated haste. [He] took the monkey’s meager back under the rifle’s sight. He raised the barrel a few degrees and took the monkey’s head in the sight. Without really thinking about anything at all, he squeezed the trigger.
The monkey flattened itself out against the tree, spreading its arms and legs enthusiastically, and then, reaching around with both hands as if trying to scratchits back, it tumbled down to the ground. Seaman Houston was terrified to witness ifs convulsions there. It hoisted itslef, pushing off the ground with one arm, and sat back against the tree trunk with its legs spread out before it, like somebody resting from a difficult job of labor.”
Johnson describes over the next paragraph the response that Houston has to what he has just done, and how the poor creature dies in his arms, its little heart shutting down right there while he watches it bleed. Go here and read pages 3-5 to get the passage in it’s entirety.
Of course, this is rather an unpleasant opening to the novel. But it sets the stage brilliantly, and does so with more than some incisive action. There is yearning here, desire, longing. This is metaphor. This is epiphany. This is a great shining forth.
What are some authors or stories or films (or whatever) that you can think of that do this well, that set their stage by presenting some Epiphany?