“What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick?” by Annie Proulx is the story of Gilbert Wolfscale, whose rabid devotion to his ranch drives off his wife and sons.
‘The Contest” by Annie Proulx is a short story from the Bad Dirt collection, published 2004.
Like Larry McMurtry, Proulx writes two main types of stories — comical stories similar to those found in dime novels (in McMurtry’s case) and in hunting and fishing magazines (in Proulx’s case).
“The Contest” belongs to the comical class, and makes a great case study in satirical anticlimax. When writing an anticlimactic story we have to be careful not to make the reader feel like we have wasted their time. This one works, and it’s worth taking a close look at the story structure. Proulx has done something interesting with it.
STORYWORLD OF “THE CONTEST”
This is a humorous tale, and a satire of smalltown Wyoming rural life, where parish pump politics rule, and where the usual human pecking order works by unusual rules.
Utilised across about half of the short stories in her Bad Dirt collection, Annie Proulx created the small town of Elk Tooth.
The population is only 80, yet there are three bars in town—Silvertip, the Pee Wee, and Muddy’s Hole. Presuming the entire populace is of drinking age—not a bad assumption, considering their barren, infertile surroundings—that’s roughly one bar for every couple dozen citizens, which actually seems about right. Given the lack of a social scene on these arid prairies, and the rural tragedies that seem as common as they are strange, where else is there to go but a dive like the Pee Wee, which in one story (“The Contest”) sponsors a beard-growing competition? When there’s nothing else going on, watching whiskers sprout may be the most entertaining pursuit available.
There’s a definite magic realist twist near the end of “The Contest”, but otherwise this feels like a slight exaggeration on what could be a real place. The exaggeration, of course, would come from a narrator skilled in the art of the tall tale.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE CONTEST”
Presumably because they have nothing else to do, the men of Elk’s Tooth start a beard contest. It’s meant to be a bit of fun but becomes mean spirited, as it seems to symbolise, to the men, their entire identities.
Before the contest is over, a newcomer arrives. The guy’s beard is luxurious to a comical degree. The men tacitly agree that the contest is over. They’ll find some new way to sort out the pecking order, and turn immediately to modes of transportation.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE CONTEST”
The structure is very interesting. I’d like to compare it to a children’s picture book. Children’s stories in particular are known to start with the iterative (a description of what happens all the time) and then switch to the singular (But on this particular day…).
Proulx makes use of this switch, but in a children’s story the iterative introduction tends to be brief. After all, we don’t care much for what happens every boring old day. We want to know what happens on this particular day. Something unusual, you can bet.
But in “The Contest”, Proulx spends ten pages setting up with the iterative — sort of — and then the last three pages in the singular.
Here’s where it switches over:
On this April afternoon Creel was, aside from Amanda and Old Man DeBock, the only one in the bar.
It’s not quite as simple as that, because you could argue the beard contest is in itself a singular event. Structurally, though, the beard contest is exactly the sort of thing that happens all the time. So I’m treating this ‘one off’ contest as Annie Proulx’s way of telling us all the backstory of this town — how it works, who lives there, how the streets are laid out.
Unless we know this town, the singular portion of the story doesn’t make sense. Even so, this is a story with a classic, anti-climactic ending.
The anti-climactic ending, when used in the extreme, is known as a shaggy dog tale, which I consider a subcategory of the tall tale — a regional, masculine tradition, in line with the narrative voice.
Like many of Proulx’s stories, “The Contest” stars a community rather than an individual. The characters together make up a vision of one eccentric rural figure. Their weakness is their extreme isolation, and the insular thinking that inevitably results.
Proulx presents a society that is struggling and persisting at best – which is not especially likeable, but for which we still feel tremendous sympathy as it strains to comprehend the meretriciousness of modernity. She creates characters who, despite their tenacity and will, are somehow flattened against the landscape, beaten down, and whose tragedy is more everyman and woman than individual.
This is specifically about the men of the community, who are so similar to each other, really, that they can only distinguish themselves by superficial means e.g. by the colour, length and texture of their beards. I’m reminded of the ridiculous happenings that Amish communities have become known for. When everyone is forced to live in exactly the same way, humans still have a way of pulling themselves up the pecking order, even if it means inventing an entirely new pecking order. When you’re only allowed to drive a horse and wagon, you can still trick out your wagon.
The men want to be respected by each other. Since beards are a symbol of manhood, I guess they each want their manhood respected. (This requires being sized up by a woman — the bartender.)
In a pissing contest like this, everyone entered automatically becomes everyone else’s opponent. But the stakes are very low. The prize money is insubstantial.
But the community of men will band together in the face of a newcomer who will show them all up. Ralph Kaups is the embodiment of everything sophisticated and foreign. By the end, two of the men, Creel Zmundzinski and Plato Bucklew have banded together. The real opposition is between country bumpkins and a sophisticated blow-in.
There’s not much involved in growing a beard. In fact, you don’t have to do anything. Just hang around waiting for it to grow. And how does one turn that into a fully-fleshed story?
Proulx knows that the beard contest is just the wrapper for something far more meaty — a detailed description of a town and its people, each with their own mini backstory.
A lot of language humour derives from Proulx’s comically detailed descriptions, in sentences with multiple descriptive clauses.
But a profusion of detail does not make a story. It still needs some kind of shape. For that, Proulx introduces a mystery — equally trifling — how did Bill de Silhouette catalogue his books before he up and died? This is important because they need to put their hands on a book about beards in order to settle bar disputes between them.
The bar scene is very much like something out of a classic Western, with the shady newcomer barging in through the double swing doors. There are no guns here, but a clear winner nevertheless, symbolised not by the hue of the hat but by luxuriousness of beard.
The mystery of de Silhouette’s library cataloguing is solved when Bill’s widow happens upon a notebook with the key written down — a fitting anticlimactic solution within an anticlimactic tale.
“It was funny. I was cleanin out that big chest in the hall and I come on some a Bill’s notebooks. There was one he’d written on the cover. “Book Key.” I looked in it and it was the system he used. Made me mad he didnt’ tell me about it before he went.”
Part of the humour revolves around the observation (revelation) that it takes outside intrusion to band a community together. Otherwise they’ll just keep fighting each other.
We can extrapolate that the beard contest is over, because no one will want to give prize money to this up-himself blow in.
Now they’ll engage in arguments about who has the best motorcycle/car/horse/wagon. The hierarchy will be based not on who has the flashest equipment, but on whose is the most eccentric, according to their own smalltown logic, which itself is a nebulous thing.
Bigger than that, a newcomer will psychologically band these rural men together, at least for a time, and the ‘cruel competitiveness’ will simmer down.
TAKEAWAY WRITING TIPS
- If writing a story in which nothing happens (e.g. growing a beard) it’s a good idea to introduce a mystery.
- If the plot ends in anticlimax (e.g. a competition is set up but no one really wins it), then the mystery can be anticlimactic, too.
- Opposition comes in two main forms — opposition between members of the same group (what sociologists call ingroup) and opposition from the outgroup. Stories tend to progress in two main ways: an outgroup opponent appears early and the ingroup members band together to fight them. Or, as in this story, an inversion on the usual, the bulk of the story revolves around ingroup bickering, and the outgroup opponent only arrives to finish things off.
Stephen King’s list of top ten ALL TIME favourite books is doing the rounds, because anything Stephen King has ever said regularly does the rounds. That’s why I’m going to focus on Stephen King as just one example of a wider trend: Men don’t count women among their favourites. Continue reading “The Sexism Behind Top Ten Lists”
“Share Your Gifts” is an Apple commercial.
Classic story structure can be found in anything, from songs to narrative poems to advertising campaigns. Compared to when I grew up with free-to-air television only, and a commercial radio station that was always on, I’m rarely exposed to advertising these days. I use an adblocker and we pay to stream ad-free TV. My husband convinced me to move to Canberra, sight unseen, after telling me that Canberra has a by-law which bans billboards. I was sold.
We’re all avoiding commercials these days, right? But when I do see one, it seems corporations have lifted their advertising game.
Apple’s 2018 Christmas advertising campaign is something I might even watch for fun, despite the ostentatious use of Apple products. I may not have even picked it as a commercial, since filmmakers get free Apple products by showing unrealistic numbers of Apple computers in their stories (which I deduce is how we get TV accountants using Macs, even though accountants would more realistically be using PCs.)
Last week, Apple revealed one of its biggest marketing secrets in federal court: The company relies heavily on free product placement in television shows and movies.And Apple has a fascinating history of product placement, which it doesn’t like to talk about.
STORY STRUCTURE OF SHARE YOUR GIFTS
The main character (a woman in an oversized red jersey) is too afraid to show her creative work. Her psychological weakness is underscored by the lyrics of the soundtrack, “Come Out And Play” by Billy Eilish:
Hmm, hmmWake up and smell the coffee
Is your cup half full or empty?
When we talk, you say it softly
But I love it when you’re awfully quiet
Hmm, hmm quiet
Hmm, hmmYou see a piece of paper
Could be a little greater
Show me what you could make her
You’ll never know until you try it
And you don’t have to keep it quietAnd I know it makes you nervous
But I promise you, it’s worth it
To show ’em everything you kept inside
Don’t hide, don’t hide
Too shy to say, but I hope you stay
Don’t hide away
Come out and playLook up, out of your window
See snow, won’t let it in though
Leave home, feel the wind blow
‘Cause it’s colder here inside in silence
You don’t have to keep it quietYeah, I know it makes you nervous
But I promise you, it’s worth it
To show ’em everything you kept inside
Don’t hide, don’t hide
Too shy to say but I hope you stay
Don’t hide away
Come out and play
Sophia wants human connection, and to be seen and recognised for her work, but her fear is holding her back from really connecting with others via her art.
How do we know this?
Mostly because fear of showing your creative work is a fairly universal feeling among creatives. But also because of her disappointment in herself. If she didn’t want to share her work with others, she would be able to take joy in the act of creating it, without the subsequent burden of self-criticism.
This is a classic example of a story in which the main character is her own worst enemy. The only thing holding her back is her own lack of confidence.
But stories still require some other opposition, even if it’s functioning as a proxy, or a visual outworking, of the character’s own neuroses.
Here we have a dog, who wants to see her owner’s work but isn’t allowed.
Then we have the wind, opposition from the natural world, which eventually blows the papers away.
Sophia’s plan is a non-plan — she is the classic passive hero who is forced out of her comfort zone. She literally ties down her creative work in a box.
The wind blows the papers out of her hands and into the wild, where she is likely to be judged.
Since the wind blows the creative work right into the hands of people who will appreciate them, the wind is revealed to be a false opponent ally.
In something this short, there’s no time for a lengthy New Equilibrium phase, so we extrapolate that from now on this woman will not be afraid to show her work to others, and that she will be happier as a result.
As part of this campaign, Apple shared a ‘behind the scenes’ video, in which we learn — of course — that Apple computers were used in the making of it. Billie Eilish also made a video showing how she uses a Mac to make music.
It seems to me the main message Apple wants to push is that ‘making use of computers as part of your creative process does not remove the hand of the creator’. I’m guessing that’s why they paid a team of fabricators to create an actual set, rather than create the world itself on a computer.
This is Part Two of my analysis of a ten-year-old creative duo’s output. Poof The Old Lady is the name of the series; Poof and an English Owl called Worm-Hoop are the main characters.
POOF JUST WANTS A MOTORBIKE
Although the creators have never seen Supergran, an English comedy series from the 1980s, they have taken the classic ‘weak old lady’ stereotype and turned it on its head. Poof is an example of the Cool Old Lady trope.
Poof may be an old lady, and permanently close to death, but she is also a thrill seeker.
In this story, her Desire is quickly established. Her psychological weakness as a blabbering baby is also swiftly established.
A new character appears. The word ‘poof’ has double meaning here — Poof both addresses the old lady (whose name is actually Poof) and also functions as mimesis when the character appears from nowhere.
Poof The Old Lady is a graphic novel created by two neurodiverse ten-year-olds. The running gag is that an old lady by the name of Poof goes Poof! at the end of each story. But she comes alive before the next.
The creators are best friends at school, and they both like to read and watch cartoons. They count among their favourites:
- Courage The Cowardly Dog
- Dog Man
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid
- Ahn Do, Weirdo
- All of these picture books and more
- Superhero stories such as Spider-man and Teen Titans, Go!
- Pixar and DreamWorks films
- Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels
- Spongebob Squarepants
One of them loves dogs; the other loves owls. One has neat handwriting and is tidy by nature; the other can write and draw well, but her work is inclined to degenerate into scrawl, as ideas come faster than execution.
Telling stories is an advanced skill. As we learn to tell stories, we absorb the influences around us. Certain aspects of storytelling come easier than others.
Let’s take a look at a storyteller in early development. If you look closely at the stories of kids who’ve been exposed to a lot of story, it’s surprising how much they already know.
It’s not easy teaching kids how to write a story, but the writers have got a print-out of this blog post. They don’t use it as they’re writing, but if they get stuck, I point them in that direction and their plot problems are rapidly resolved.
POOF AND THE OUTDATED SAUSAGES
The young creators quickly established their own ‘rules of story’, and in line with Courage The Cowardly Dog, whoever dies or changes form in one story has to revert to their original form by the beginning of the next.
Another rule is that the mode of death must be comical.
In the Poof storyworld, eating outdated food is a common way to die. The authors understand the inherent comic value of sausages. Bananas work in much the same way.
Poof, as a character, has unexpected, and therefore comical, likes and dislikes. The authors have started this particular story in iterative mode, by describing Poof briefly and what she ‘always’ likes to do.
The sausage has been drawn with a Band-aid on it, because this is how the ten-year-old illustrator imagines an outdated sausage would look. Or, Poof thinks she can ‘fix’ the outdatedness of it by literally slapping a Band-aid on it. The illustrator is also making use of exaggerated size for comic effect.
As you can also see, Poof is an old lady archetype, with curly hair and glasses. Later, Poof acquires underarm hair, but the illustrator has yet to achieve character consistency and often forgets to draw it in. The pit hair is therefore random, a bit like the holes in Courage the Cowardly Dog’s teeth.
Before writing a comedy series, especially one with a wacky world, the writer must be clear about the rules of that storyworld. These rules subsequently seem intuitive to the audience. It’s easy to forget the amount of work writers have to do to create them in the first place. Even if these rules are not written down, they at least exist inside the creator’s head.
Not everyone shares so much of their creative process, but we have access to a good case study in Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, the Warner Brothers cartoon which first aired in 1949, in a post war era. (Which may explain all the acme and use of airspace.)
STORYWORLD RULES FOR ROAD RUNNER
Mental Floss describes the rules of Road Runner as ‘a fascinating testament to the need for clearly defined systems within a wacky creative process’.
- The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going “meep, meep.”
- No outside force can harm the Coyote — only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products. Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time.
- The Coyote could stop anytime — if he were not a fanatic.
- No dialogue ever, except “meep, meep” and yowling in pain.
- The Road Runner must stay on the road — for no other reason than that he’s a roadrunner.
- All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters — the southwest American desert.
- All tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
- Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.
- The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.
- The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
- The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.
— by Chuck Jones, slightly expanded courtesy of Jason Kottke
STORYWORLD RULES FOR COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG
I have previously taken a close look at another favourite cartoon, Courage The Cowardly Dog from the late 1990s. Today I’ll use Courage as a case study to recreate the rules of that particular story world.
- Episodes begin with Courage alerting Muriel and Eustace to an opponent from outside. Occasionally we’ll mix it up by beginning with the opponent in their lair.
- No outside force can harm Courage, but they often harm Eustace. Eustace bounces back to his grumpy but healthy self between episodes.
- Any damage sustained to the Bagge house is repaired by the next episode. Each episode ‘resets’ the storyworld. No one has any memory of what dangers have come before, except Courage, who has good reason to be scared of intruders.
- Courage is always the first to spot danger. He morphs into the shape of the intruder when trying to communicate.
- Muriel and Eustace never listen to Courage when Courage alerts them to danger.
- Muriel is always loving towards Courage.
- Eustace is always mean to Courage and also to Muriel.
- Courage doesn’t talk, except for a few catch phrases. “The things I do for love!”
- Courage can break the fourth wall and directly address the audience but none of the other characters can.
- The audience’s sympathy must remain with Courage and Muriel.
- The Bagge family must return to Nowhere after their adventures, though they may leave their home to visit other places, inspired by horror and SF storyworld tropes.
- Gravity rules are different and work more like a Looney Tunes show than real life.
By ‘symbolic paradox’ I mean the symbolic equivalent of a contronym. A contronym is a word with two directly opposite meanings. For example, ‘cleave’ means to separate or cut with a tool, but also means to be in close contact with. To separate and to join, at once.
An ‘idea’ can also work like a contronym. And when it is utilised in a work of fiction to convey a certain meaning or tone, then we can call it a symbol.
It’s interesting to see how paradoxical symbols come about. In some cases, we can even track the history (e.g. edelweiss).
The paradoxical symbol is an especially useful symbol for storytellers, because there is simply more meaning to mine, and also because the symbol web can never be black and white. Paradoxical symbolism is especially useful when you wish your narrator to avoid coming down on one side or the other, or when expressing ideas such as ‘life is complicated’, ‘sometimes no choice is the right one’.
EXAMPLES OF THE SYMBOLIC PARADOX
Blackberries are sweet and delicious but also an invasive weed. See “Heart Songs” by Annie Proulx for an example of the blackberry in action.
Broomsticks are a symbol of female oppression (tied to the house and the drudgery of housework) but also, by leap of imagination, broomsticks turn into a vehicle by which to escape. Via witchcraft stories, women are given the literal freedom to fly.
Gods to the Egyptians, but demoted to demons by the time of the medieval witch-craze.
HERBS AND DRUGS
The most famous herbs utilised by witches all lead double lives. Mandrake, henbane, monkshood, hemlock, thorn apple, deadly nightshade are hallucinogenic in small doses, deadly in large ones.
This paper about the Edelweiss explain in detail the history of its symbolism. Unfortunately, a benign, positive symbol can flip when something terrible happens to humanity. What started out as an alpine symbol, with associations of whiteness and inaccessibility. Unfortunately, this was a perfect symbol for the Nazi movement.
According to witchcraft, which is full of symbolic paradox, secrecy brings spiritual power, which is also why so little of its texts and methods exist today. (Plus because the witch craze, of course.) Secrecy decreases one’s power.
But secrecy can also increase any kind of power, whether that power is spiritual or destructive.
Keeping silent in certain circumstances, such as when a survivor, can cause severe damage. Yet as Daniel Dennett (the philosopher) has said, we must withhold the full extent of our desires from others to avoid exposing ourselves as wholly vulnerable, and therefore easily exploited.
Spectacles carry a double meaning: in medieval painting, the rabbi at Jesus’ circumcision sometimes wears them, and Saint Anne, too, lays them down in the crease of her Bible. But the learned can be fools, as in Swift’s kingdom of Laputa, were the scholars all wear spectacles and see nothing. And fools, on the other hand, can be wise.
— Marina Warner, From The Beast To The Blonde
Warm summers, happiness. But also old age See Annie Proulx’s short story “Bedrock” for an example of this double symbol in action.
“Man Crawling Out Of Trees” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in her Bad Dirt collection (2004). Many of the stories in this collection are in the tall story, brutal, regional, humorous tradition, and readers who don’t share Proulx’s sense of humour haven’t connected to these stories as well as they connected to earlier ones. But “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” is not one of the light-hearted, comic stories of Bad Dirt. This is one of the ‘substantial’ ones.
The characters in “Man Crawling Out Of Trees” are more reminiscent of a typically Alice Munro short story — Mitchell and Eugenie are a middle class couple who started out in New York City, had a second home all the while in Vermont, in which the wife goes to classes on how to attract birds to the backyard and her own business. Proulx tends to focus on rural characters, with middle- to upper-class newcomers as counterpoint rather than the main focus. Continue reading “Man Crawling Out Of Trees by Annie Proulx”
“Silence” is a short story by Alice Munro, one of three in a triptych about a woman called Juliet. The first are “Chance” and “Soon“.
All three are published in the Runaway collection (2004).
[“Silence”] brings to the foreground a theme that runs through many stories by Alice Munro—the role of silence within the network of domestic relations.
Read “Silence” online at The New Yorker.
Structurally, “Silence” is a mythic journey which spans approximately half of a woman’s entire life. The story opens with Juliet off on a trip in order to find information. Along the way she meets allies, opponents (most are a mixture of both), then returns ‘home’ a changed person after solving part of the mystery and learning something important about herself.
Usually when I break down a story into classic seven step structure, there’s a fairly clear line between each step. One masterful thing about work of Alice Munro: the lines are not there. “Silence” makes an excellent case study of a short story in which the ‘Self-revelation’ phase melts in to the ‘New Equilibrium’ stage. The reader keeps having revelation after revelation, then bang, there’s the big gut punch, right at the end. Continue reading “Silence by Alice Munro”