We all know the story of Frankenstein - the sewing of random pieces together to create a physical body and then shocking the monster to life. But what would happen if we Frankensteined our story?
Real·Good·Stories are comprised of more than one thing. They're not only about a bank robbery or luck or the protagonist's relationship with their father. They have a ton of varying elements that bring them to life. They live in this gray area made up of seemingly unrelated thoughts and feelings and ideas and events (and desires and motivations and fears and... I could go on and on forever). But when all these moving parts are taken together, considered as one, they make a cohesive story that feels like real life. We know an author has "done it" when they seem to have accurately captured reality and represented it on the page. This is why sometimes it's difficult to describe what our favorite books are "about," because they're about so many different things - they're about life! The whole big, messy, gray-area of life we live in.
Jonathan Lethem talks about a common problem writers face in his video in the How Writers Write Fiction 2015 course. At the start of a new story, it's easy for writers to feel stuck, for their story to feel lifeless and boring, for the whole thing to feel forced. He found that many writers have trouble getting their stories off the ground. The stories aren't interesting enough, complex enough, engaging enough. This causes the writer to get bored and worry if the whole story was a waste of time. They consider abandoning the story completely because it's not working.
The stories can get back on track. They just need something to spark the life back into them.
STEP 1: JUXTAPOSE SOMETHING INTERESTING
Lethem suggests the use of juxtaposition to reinvigorate the story and get the writer unstuck. Juxtaposition is when you take two or more separate, independent, unrelated things and force them into conversation with each other. It functions as a mini-collage of sorts, like sticking the different pieces of Frankenstein's body together to make the whole monster. Juxtaposition can introduce new ideas, create surprises, and cause new, unexpected things to arise. It will DEFINITELY move the story in a different direction.
This is an amazing technique that I have fallen head-over-heels in love with. I did this consciously with one story I was trying to write that was "about" first loves (and I was falling helplessly into Joy Katz's Cloud of Aboutness). The story was falling flat on its face. I was bored. The whole thing felt forced and shitty. In an unrelated part of my notebook, I had all this fantastic, concrete, detailed material about deer and hunting and the woods. So I stuck the two together, creating a "monster story" of deer and lovers. And oh-my-god did that story become interesting! There were so many different things going on, so many different pieces moving around and working with the other pieces. It was freaking cool. And most importantly, I was interested in my story again.
Juxtaposition isn't the only step to making a good story though. The difficulty with this is that you can't just put these two things next to each other and call it a day. The reader has to see that there is a reason for it being there, otherwise it will feel like a haphazard collage done by a six-year-old that doesn't make a bit of sense.
STEP 2: FIND CAUSALITY
You can't wave a gun in the air screaming, "I have Chekhov's Gun!" and then never talk about it again. Remember, the stories we love feel seamless, everything feels like it's supposed to be there. We have to weave these contrasting pieces together so that they feel inextricably connected. They have to be fused together so the whole story feels natural and organic. These varying pieces have to have reason and purpose for being there.
Lethem's next step is to find causality between the juxtaposed elements. Causality is the "because," the "why," the reasoning and purpose behind what's happening in your story. It is how you create seamless stories, because it shows that everything is meant to be there.
In my story, I can't just have a scene about a deer and then a scene about a first kiss. That would be weird and random. I had to fuse the two things together to highlight their differences, to contrast them in an interesting way, to force them to communicate with each other. This is done to allow the reader to see the overall meaning and themes of the story through the images and events I presented. So I connected each love-life event (first kiss, first boyfriend, losing virginity) with a deer-hunting event (witnessing a dead deer, hunting a deer, eating venison for dinner). The protagonist's present day situation - meeting her boyfriend's deer-hunting, gun-toting family - sparks a flashback of memories of her experiences, primarily lack-of-experiences, with the hunting world. Her present love-life event juxtaposed with deer and hunting causes her to confront her past love-life events juxtaposed with deer and hunting. There's NO WAY I could separate these two ideas now. They're so linked together in my head that to take them apart would ruin the story completely.
REAL·GOOD·TIP: Every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. It's Newton's Law. So when merging your separate pieces together, make sure you consider the weight of each piece. In my story, if I arbitrarily put a deer crossing the road right next to the scene where my protagonist loses her virginity, there isn't enough weight to cause them to be inextricably linked. It won't make a big impact. If, however, I put the act of first shooting and killing a deer next to the scene where she loses her virginity, the comparison will be much stronger. Pay attention to your structure and plot, and if it's accurately pushing your story to the meaning you want.
After juxtaposing your pieces together and finding the causality that binds them, you should have a story that is walking and talking and fully alive. This is the lightning strike of electricity that brings Frankenstein's body to life. This is when your story really becomes a story. But why the heck have you even written this story in the first place? What is this story's purpose? What does it mean?
STEP #3: UNDERSTAND WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOUR SUBTEXT
In the beginning of things, when you're writing a story "about" something, it's not going to work. It's only after dealing with the concreteness and sparking new life into it that we can go back to the overarching "aboutness." We can consider its themes and meanings, the take-away points that make this story a story. We can find its subtext.
The subtext is the underlying themes of the story. It's hidden underneath the language, the words, the plot, but brings higher meaning to the piece as a whole. John McNally talks about the art of finding his subtext through revision. He explains, "If the story itself is a lake, then its subtext is the Loch Ness monster, dipping in and out, keeping mostly hidden, but sometimes rising up and scaring the bejesus out of you. Or sometimes the subtext is the main story’s doppelgänger: it looks like the main story, it has the same cast of characters, but it’s acting in peculiar ways, and (more frighteningly) it has its own agenda."
McNally, too, found that juxtaposing two elements together - in his case two whole stories - brought the truth of his story to life. He says:
"Side-by-side, I realized that the two stories were really talking to each other. One was succumbing to the darkness of his own life; the other was embracing the darkness. It wasn’t easy putting the two stories together: I had to cut a lot from each story, including some of my favorite passages, but it was necessary because these two stories were meant to be together. The realization that they belonged together was exciting—more exciting than any realization I’d had as a fiction writer up until that point. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein trying to patch together something living from something dead. And like Dr. Frankenstein, I had created something scarier than I had anticipated, something that took on a life separate from me, a story that began to tell me what it was all about rather than the other way around." - McNally
McNally's experience with fusing the stories together allowed him to realize what his story was all about. Now that you've put two independent things together and fused them together, your story has a deeper meaning too. You have no longer written a story "about" a topic, but the "about" still exists in it - it's just out of sight. If you look at what your juxtaposition highlights and causes to happen, it's created a theme, a subtext. Pay attention to what the images and scenes are showing you.
If you consider my story again, for example, the theme considers the "hunt" for love and how you change before and after a love-life event. It's asking questions about what happens to you when you fall in love or when someone holds your hand or kisses you for the first time. It's posing a curiosity to deer and wondering what it means to be a hunter. I could never have come right out and said these things boldly and declaratively - and I could never have actually sat down and written it - because it would've been boring. But that's what's going on in my story. It's the truth of it all. It's why I wanted to write it in the first place.
Find a story that you've been working on that's been giving you a lot of trouble. You know the one - the one that's flat and uninteresting and seems to not be going anywhere. Infuse some new life into it by juxtaposing it with something totally unrelated. Make it cause interesting things to happen. Make them inextricably linked. And see where the whole thing takes you. I'm sure you'll find an interesting subtext that brings your story into a whole new light.