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9.14.2009

Recognizing the Postulate

It seems that the more I write fiction and the closer I get to publication with some of these tales, the less I have to say about the actual process. I suppose that's a positive development, because it feels like the fiction I'm producing is flowing more organically. There's less apprehension when I sit at the word processor, and more of a "grip-it-and-rip-it" mentality (golf term--my apologies for the mixed metaphor).

If I've learned anything recently about the creative process, though, it's just the importance of writing things down. Everything. Strange encounters. Bizarre dialogue. Individual lines that run through your head.

It seems like every day, we each encounter dozens of fiction postulates. These are what-if? moments, what one narrative theorist calls literary "reception moments" when a human truth breaks through and an artist ponders how the subject would play in the pages of a story or poem.

Late last year I encountered just a scrap of a note scrawled on the back of a receipt. This was during the holiday season, a time (for most) of happiness and celebration. This note, which I found in the parking lot of a park near my house, was decidedly somber. It struck me as very sad to find that note in the midst of a time of year I've always cherished.

I went home and started a story based on that single scrap of paper that will be published early next year.

I'm proud of that story for its postulate, what Henry James called a donnee (something given) that every work of fiction must consider in order to create an impact.

This postulate governs the direction of a story and defines its boundaries, including any limitations that might impact the plot. For Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," that donnee is phrased something like this (from Edgar Roberts's Literature):

Suppose that a small, ordinary town held a lottery in which the prize was not something good but instead was something bad.

In my story, I combined a Lovecraftian Mythos angle with a series of somber messages and the high suicide rate of jumpers at the Golden Gate Bridge.

I'll agree with Stephen King that good storytelling begins with character, but even before that it starts with that great ah-ha moment. The trick is recognizing those moments and capitalizing on them. Next time you say, "Hey, wouldn't this make a great story?" make sure you answer that question with your word processor...

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