Thursday, January 24, 2013

So, CFG, I read the three folk tales Ms. Duff sent me: “Abegaz the Lion,” “Ivan the Fool,” and “The Khan’s Robes.”  Hoo-wee! Strange stuff. Good thing, because strange is my favorite flavor.
Folk tales peel stories down to their simplest ingredients. They remind me of what stories need, which we discussed last month. Remember? Stories need a character who wants something they can’t have. In our folk tales we have more than one character who wants something he can’t have. Let’s look.
In Abegaz and the Lion, Abegaz wants a wife who isn’t screaming, and his wife, Meseletch … well, she must want something, right? Or else why would she scream? Maybe she wants to get rid of that bozo Abegaz, who sees a wife only as someone who cooks and cleans for him.  Ivan the Fool wants to follow the czar’s requirements. The czar wants to figure out which son should rule after him (he’s got a weird way of choosing). Ivan’s wife wants to defroggify herself, and who can blame her? Those scheming other brothers and their nasty wives – they want to make sure Ivan isn’t the winner.  In The Khan’s Robes, the poor weaver wants to survive. The khan wants more impressive robes each day. (What he needs is a looooong visit to the Time Out Chair.)
In each story, there’s conflict between what characters want. This creates wonderful tension in a story. If something is tense – let’s say, your mom – it means she’s under pressure, often from many directions. A rope grows tense if two people pull hard on each end.  Characters become tense when enemies surround them, swinging axes.
Stories need problems that seem impossible to solve. In folk tales, someone issues a challenge – a strange made-up test, like “The first to climb the Icy Cliffs of Doom barefoot with their hands tied behind their back, and lick the poisonous toad that lives at the top, and not die, HE gets to marry the princess!”
Like my Cliffs of Doom? As I said, this is strange stuff. Did these clowns ever pause to ask themselves if this princess is worth the trouble? I try to imagine myself issuing a challenge to my four sons. Here’s how it would go.
ME: Sons, hear me. I decree that thou shalt each cross the burning desert and find me a gold nugget in the Hidden Scorpion Mines, so that I can determine which of you is worthy to inherit all my treasures when I die.
SOME RANDOM SON: What treasure?
ANOTHER RANDOM SON: She’s fibbing. She doesn’t have treasure.
ME: No, I mean it! I am thy mother, and thou shalt submit to my decree!
YET ANOTHER RANDOM SON: If she has treasure, how come she won’t get us the new Wii U?
FIRST RANDOM SON: She’s a cheapskate. Move over, I can’t see the TV.
ME: Foul wretches! Putrid sons! Drop thy Wii controllers and run to do my bidding!
SECOND RANDOM SON: First I’ve got to defeat this boss.
ME: That’s it. My treasure goes to the Puppy Rescue League when I die.
THIRD RANDOM SON: Pass the salsa, will you?
Clearly, I have my own problems that seem impossible to solve. 
Stories need enemies, opposition, danger, and bad luck. It was back luck that Ivan’s arrow landed near the frog. Plucking a hair from a lioness’s tale put Abegaz in danger. The Khan was an enemy to all his unlucky weavers. All the other story elements are present in folk tales: something to believe in; friends, helpers, skills, tools, and/or a little good luck, and plenty of action. These stories are short, but they still find time to be strange.
Who can forget Abegaz’s wife Meseletch, who started screaming, and wouldn’t stop? Why? The story doesn’t say. What was bothering her? Even if it was truly bad, why scream? And yet, doesn’t life make us want to scream sometimes?  Even if you’ve never screamed without stopping, have you ever wanted to? I have.

Ivan the Fool’s wife tricked the other wives by dumping wine and chicken bones down her sleeves. Eeeeew! What was up with that?? Picture three ladies dancing with that gunk sloshing in their sleeves. Yuck. How come the wine didn’t soak through and drip on the floor? What were they wearing, raincoats? Then the bad wives go and splash their sleeve-slop all over the czar. Grody! I’ll bet, when they lost the kingdom, they wanted to scream, too.  
How about the Khan, murdering weavers if they couldn’t dazzle him with better robes? Do you know people who think only about themselves, and treat others terribly? Have you heard of crazy dictators who treat their subjects as badly as this rotten Khan did? We have some in our world today.
Sometimes strange things feel more true that normal things because the truth is strange. We have a saying that “the truth is stranger than fiction.” Therefore, my dear CFG fiction writers, if you want to make your stories feel true, make them strange. It’s okay to keep our stories simple, but we can still make our fiction as strange as truth. There’s no such thing as a normal writer. Sometimes weird is just another name for brilliant.
1.       Write a short story that feels like a folktale. Keep the story elements simple, and have one of the characters in the story assign to your character a strange, seemingly random test.
2.       Write a story with 2 characters who each want something badly, but their desires are in conflict. They can’t both have what they want. Write a scene where they argue with each other about the things each of them wants.
3.       Think of a very normal type of character. Now write a couple of paragraphs where something incredibly strange happens to your very normal character. How long does it take before they can’t be normal anymore?
4.       Write the story of Meseletch to try to answer the question: Why was she screaming? Or, if you prefer, draw a picture of what she was screaming about.
5.       Rewrite the ending of “Ivan the Fool” so that Ivan becomes a frog. What would happen next? Draw a picture of Ivan the Frog and his froggy bride.
6.       Eat some salsa. Do you even need me to tell you to eat salsa?