Archive for the ‘story’ Category


September 7th, 2008 2 comments

In her latest Storytellers Unplugged column on screenwriting, Alexandra Sokoloff wisely wrote, “And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure.”

I nodded my head. Indeed, I know an opinion is of value if I agree with it.

And I sure do agree …

But Castle, a nitpicker sayeth, you’re always blathering on and on about quality, about the need to avoid the cliche and …


And what makes you, o picker of nits, think that the formula precludes quality or that it isn’t the engine leading to the creation thereof?

Here’s what I had to say on the subject, oh, back in 1983:

A not so far-out fantasy based on all-too-true reality:

The scene: A cocktail party. Having learned that I am a writer, she approaches. She is middle-aged, pleasant, interested in literature, enrolled in a college course called, “The More
Famous Minor Works of Recently Deceased Contemporary Authors.”

She wants to know: “What do you write?”

I tell her: “Men’s mag stories …”

She frowns.

” … Horror stories. Mysteries … “

She frowns and sneers.

” … Science-fiction and fantasy … ”

She frowns and sneers and grimaces.

” … Suspense. And confessions stories, yeah, I write lots of confessions …”

And now she looks as though she realizes she has French-kissed a leper!

Zap! She lets me have it: “You write formula fiction!”
And she says it like: “You promise little children candy and comic books if they get in your car…” She says it like: “You operate a lab that does painful and needless experiments on very dogs and sweet cats. . .” She says it like—

Hey, you know how she says it.

But this time, this time, uh-uh, this time,

Bucky, enough is too much.

So I leap onto a coffeetable. And I start off with a scream and I get louder and I’ve got my arms flapping like I’m trying to fly and I’m a sure contender at Oscar time for Best Performance by an Out-of-Control Lunatic as I get rolling:

“Edgar Allan Poe wrote formula fiction. He figured out the formula! There’s this story about a nutty captain looking for an albino whale—and that’s Moby Dick and you can say that Melville wrote formula stuff because it’s an adventure story, huh? And also a how-to book, should you go whaling…”

Woo! (Borrowing from the Rick Flair formula.) Am I into it! “And Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and Steve Crane! Formula,

Oh, yes, I’ve got her, Ms. Lit Crit. She is pale, near catatonic! So time for the barrage! “And Flannery O’Connor and Conrad Aiken, Charles Beaumont, Ted Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison and Paul Boles and Loren Estelman and Ray Bradbury. Fine writers. Ernest Hemingway. Blow up bridge. Bell tolls for thee. Use formula. Rest case.”

So she dared to sneer at “formula fiction,” eh? Look at her now. Right before my pleased eyes, she has turned into a pillar of salt.

A formula, you see, gets to be a formula because it works, it creates a satisfying reading experience.

A builder follows a blueprint (a formula) so he doesn’t erect a house with the basement above the kitchen. A cook follows a recipe (a formula) to create an angel food cake instead
of a molasses-guacamole-hamburger-pineapple-who-the-hell-knows. A driver follows a map (a formula) to get from here to there instead of winding up past the briar patch near where the
woodbine twineth.

And you’d better hope that your surgeon is following the “surgical formula” when he’s got you on the operating table!

And, you ask, what is that formula?

Ah, there are many variations, but these days I articulate it based on comments that fine writer and teacher Brady Udall, author of THE MIRACLE LIFE OF EDGAR MINT, made in a workshop several years back.

The fiction formula: Interesting things done to and done by interesting people.

Whether we’re talking STAR WARS or that other book of battles WAR AND PEACE, if we’re following the adventures of Starman Jones throughout the galaxy or Inman on his journey back to COLD MOUNTAIN, if we’re learning of the dreams OF MICE AND MEN or the cravings of HANNIBAL, we can see that formula at work.

And in the creation of the “interesting things” and the “interesting people,” there we can utilize our knowledge of craft, our insights of the world, our abilities as—dare I say it—Artists, as we follow the formula.

Nothing to it.

Put it in here and it comes out there.


(Some of this column originally appeared as the Introduction to J. N. Williamson’s chapbook fiction collection entitled NEVERMORE, published by Maclay and Associates in 1983. I was younger then.)


August 7th, 2008 10 comments



The title of my entry today has been shamelessly stolen from a book called (what else?) YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS. Edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, it’s published by Harper Perennial, and is subtitled CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN WRITERS INTRODUCE STORIES THAT HELD THEM IN AWE.

 You probably already have a pretty good idea of what the work offers, but Donna Seaman’s BOOKLIST review will give you the details:

 Writers are passionate readers because literature is an ongoing dialogue. And you can learn a lot about writers by knowing what they love to read. Editors Hansen and Shepard decided to ask some of their favorite American writers to identify stories that fell into their you’ve-got-to-read-this category. The end result is an anthology of terrific tales introduced by essays that open windows onto the creative process of 35 top fiction writers. Each story is introduced by the writer who was inspired, intimidated, or moved to extreme emotion on reading it. Here’s some examples: John Irving chose “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens; Mary Gordon selected “The Dead” by James Joyce; Oscar Hijuelos acknowledged his debt to Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph”; Lorrie Moore was stunned by John Updike’s “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car”; Joyce Carol Oates picked Kafka’s unforgettable “In the Penal Colony”; and Louise Erdrich couldn’t get over Robert Stone’s “Helping.” This is almost a two-for-one deal for story-lovers: a glimpse into the reading minds of one set of popular and talented authors, together with a selection of outstanding stories by their mentors and peers.

 All of us who write–and, I dare say, all of us who really read–have had that book or that story or that poem that has sent us out into the madding crowd, grabbing people by the arm, not suggesting, not urging, not recommending, but dictatorially telling ‘em, “You’ve got to read this”–and then adding the essential “because …”

 Of course, your “You’ve got to read this” guidelines can and will change as you change; that’s how it works. As somebody (Lionel Trilling? W. H. Auden? Harold Bloom? Wayne Allen Sallee?) said, “Real books read us,” and US is a dynamic and malleable beast as we live and grow and grow older and grow old. Maybe once you were that 13 kid waving CATCHER IN THE RYE and yelling, “You’ve got to read this because this Salinger guy HAD TO BE living in my house and in my head to know my real true feelings so well … ” Chances are, you’re not that same kid today and CATCHER doesn’t catch you in QUITE the same way. I’ve had two different nephews tell me that STAR WARS was the best book ever written–in fact, all the STAR WARS books were the best books ever written because all the STAR WARS movies were the best movies ever movied, but these fine lads, having aged a tad, are no longer certain that the Skywalker and Co. saga belongs on the same shelf with WAR AND PEACE.

 All the above is by way of wordier than usual prologue, so that now I can say to you: You’ve got to read this.

 My criteria: I’m doing a shout-out only about stuff I’ve recently read–say, in the past year. I’m bringing to your attention a writer whose work can be found relatively easily, and yet a writer who’s not a brand name like Grisham or Patterson or Drano or Ajax. I’m pointing out to you–no, I’m telling you–YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS.

 It’s a story called “Wickedness.”

 It breaks most of the rules of short story writing. Indeed, it might be called “experimental writing,” but unlike much of that oeuvre, this is an experiment which deserves to leave the laboratory because it succeeds. It does not have a single main character, as a proper story (ahem) ought. Instead, it gives us a series of characters and each is as main as the other.

 Nor does “Wickedness” have anything like a traditional “A leads to B, B leads to C” PLOT. Instead, we have a series of vignettes presenting the characters who are caught up in a sudden Nebraska blizzard in 1888. Some of them live, some live but are damaged, some die. (Vonnegut might add here, “And so it goes …”)

 But in its presentation of that blizzard, the story does something to me I’ve never previously experienced in a short work of fiction: It makes me feel the intensity of the cold, the dead white quiet in the center of the winds, the smallness that is our human lot when hit by–apologies for the cliché—a “Force of Nature.” (yes, I’ve had a similar feeling when reading Dan Simmons’s masterful novel THE TERROR, but a short story has intensity that a novel, a lengthy novel, cannot provide.)

 In previous UNPLUGGED columns I’ve quoted Cyril Connolly’s “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice.” I’ll be reading “Wickedness” again, more than twice, pondering the title, feeling that blizzard, and observing moments in lives rendered in words with the memorability of an Impressionist master painter giving us scenes of the ordinary–and unforgettable.

 Oh, I see I’ve forgotten to mention the author of “Wickedness”; why, it’s none other than … Ron Hansen, YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS! co-editor (with Jim Shepard, also a dynamite fictionist).

 I’ve been reading Ron Hansen’s books for years and using them in my classes at Columbia College Chicago. He’s a writer of tremendous range, giving us THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and HITLER’S NIECE — and a modern comedy of manners / errors novel called ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?: AN ENTERTAINMENT. Other books include ATTICUS and MARIETTE IN ECSTASY and the nonfiction A STAY AGAINST CONFUSION: ESSAYS ON FAITH AND FICTION, which proves that “religious writing” does not have to be on the level of “God has a Son on the Honor Roll in Heaven” / bumper sticker theology. His writing has never disappointed me …

 –But “Wickedness” astounds me.

 You can find the story in Hansen’s collection NEBRASKA from The Atlantic Monthly Press.

 It’s my “You’ve got to read this!” for this STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED.

 And to my fellow UNPLUGGED STORYTELLERS and all the readers of this blog, I’m asking:

 What’s yours?


PS. Apologies for the early post, but I’m moving around and about some these days–and have to tack stuff onto the bulletin board when I can at a time “close” to when I’m supposed to …