New and Improved?

Sometimes, understanding what makes a good story is almost visceral, an experience that can’t be wholly explained, but you know it when you read it.  Others make it a point to dissect the phenomenon and break it down into something comprehensible.

Let’s pretend there are writers out there who gazed at their own navels for so long that they decided the experience would render into great stories.  When the first novel hit the bookshelves, most readers were critical of it.  After all, it lacked plot and character development.

A few readers did relate to it, though, and other navel novels began surfacing.  While the majority still pointed out they were poorly written, others insisted it was just an alternative style.  Why be bound to the traditions of writing stories with tension and follow grammar rules?  This new genre simply threw off those constraints and claimed to be free and unfettered.

Those writers then insisted their genre shouldn’t just be a subcategory.  The hallmarks of navel novels should be adopted into all branches of fiction.

Many writers argued the tradition of storytelling had established that conflict and development were essential to a compelling narrative.  But anybody who resisted the new changes was labeled unimaginative.  And some writers went along with tearing down the old rules because they figured they should keep up with what was declared as the wave of the future, or because they were afraid of being called unimaginative.

As more books took on the elements of a navel novel, other stories that followed the established norms came under increasing attack.  Even the great novels in history were declared to be unenlightened, and book burnings were resurrected.

So did navel novels make the craft of writing better, or worse?  Some might argue that’s a matter of perception, but it seems that when guidelines have been established over the generations, they shouldn’t be readily dismissed.

It’s the novel idea that must shoulder the responsibility of arguing why the rule of thumb should change, considering the body of evidence….


Words Mean Things

One of the many characteristics that separates humanity from the animals is our rich vocabulary.  Critters can get certain points across with a variety of calls and gestures, ranging from “I’m ready to reproduce” to “Get the #@%$ outta my territory.”

We have the ability to discuss deep and abstract topics because our language is so complex.  When our ancestors starting developing language, I’m sure the critters played a crucial role.  Hunters out in the forest needed to communicate quickly before their quarry got wind of them.  “There’s a bull on the hill” is more concise than “There’s an elk with antlers on that rise of land.”

Likewise, when a hunter brought a chunk of meat home to his wife, telling her “We got a bull” probably helped her decide how to cook it.  She might be more likely to throw it into a stew pot, whereas “We got a cow” could make her inclined to roast it on a spit.

When some wild critters were developed into livestock, farmers took their descriptive names to a whole new level.  You need a boar in order for the sow to farrow a litter of piglets.  Calling those young pigs “shoats” means they’ve been weaned, and the gilts are the females that are still under a year old.  What about the males?  Only a few grow up to be boars, while the rest are converted into barrows for the purpose of becoming pork.

(In the middle of that process, the opportunity for preparing a dish called “mountain oysters” arises, but we might save that for the topic of euphemisms.)

Writing – and communication in general – benefits from the precise meaning of words.  Being able to understand each other fosters good relations.

For instance, imagine a friend invited you over for a steak dinner.  You offer to bring some wine as your contribution.  When you arrive and hand a bottle of merlot to your host, he shrugs and mutters “I guess this will work.”

You sit down at the table and see a pork chop on your plate.  You squint at your friend.

“I thought you said we were having steak.”

“Yes,” he replies.  “This is white steak instead of red steak.”

His tepid acceptance of your bottle suddenly makes sense.  “Well, if you told me we were having pork chops instead of steaks, I would have brought a white wine instead of a red wine.”

And you might also be sorely tempted to invite him over one evening for a mess of mountain oysters….

The Marmots and the Green Valley: A Modern Fable


A colony of marmots lived on a mountain range, and every day had to climb steep inclines and slippery stones in order to find enough to eat.  One day a few of them looked over the edge of a cliff and saw that the valley was full of green things to dine upon.  They told the other marmots about their discovery.

“All we have to do is leap down a short distance,” they said, “and we’ll have plenty to eat for the rest of our lives.”

Most of the marmots were skeptical.  “You do remember that we have bad depth perception because our eyes are on either side of our head, right?”

“Oh, that’s just an outdated belief,” the proponent marmots replied.  “We know better than that, now.”

A couple of marmots did believe them, however, so the proponents decided they needed to convince the rest of the group.  Their arguments convinced a few others to join them, and when that no longer worked, they resorted to calling the contrarians names.  Over time more marmots joined their cause.  Some truly believed there was more food at the bottom of the cliff, but others just wanted to be left alone.

Eventually most of the marmots agreed the best thing to do was leap off the cliff, but a few hard-headed individuals still claimed that wasn’t a good idea.  Now that the proponents outnumbered them, they ganged up on the contrarians and twisted their tails and bit them and shoved their faces into mud puddles.

A couple more marmots from the contrarians joined the proponents to end the abuse, but the rest finally escaped and retreated up the steep incline to straighten their tails and lick their wounds and dig the mud out of their noses and ears.

With cheers of victory, the proponent marmots leaped off the cliff.  Screams of agony replaced the cheers as their bodies were broken and ripped on the jagged rocks far below that were covered with a thin film of moss – which was what appeared like lush greenery from the distant edge above.

One marmot had been busy digging the mud from her ears and missed the order to leap.  Horrified by the wails and moans she then heard (her bad depth perception kept her from really seeing what happened), she climbed up the steep incline to the remaining survivors.  After reporting what happened and apologizing for the bad treatment, she rejoined the colony, and they proceeded to rebuild and repopulate.

Future generations sometimes peered over the cliff’s edge and debated if those white things scattered around really were bones….

Moral:  It’s better to dig mud out of your ears than have your bones scattered over sharp rocks.

copyright 2021 A. E. Branson