Dramatic Arc (and the outrageous price already paid)

“Look, you’ve come to the hard part,” said the skeleton, yawning.  “Remembering everything you could about my life and writing it down, day by day, as it came to you– what your professional writer friend called ‘the memory dump’ phase– well, that was the easy part.  Now that you’ve got 180,000 words worth of memories dumped… heh.  Good luck putting it into a nice salable narrative now.”


“Now, like everything else in life– if you want to sell it, there has to be an immediate dramatic focus that gets a reader’s attention, makes people line up to buy it.  No publisher is going to pay you without the marketing department’s promise that they will get paid way more.  No profit in selling something for no profit, you dig.

“It’s got to be sexy, even a story about celibacy has to be sexy.   You want to read about some priest who tortures himself because he finally jerked off?  Nah.  You want to read about the explicit torments that finally broke this charismatic monk (even if he was, or especially if he was, a real-life troll) and made him vividly spank the puppy.  I can’t tell you how to frame this story, but ingeniously frame it you must.  You haven’t told my story until it’s a tale people need to hear the end of.  A story with a pay-off they’ll pay for.

“It’s not like I killed ten people from a tower, or physically beat the shit out of you and your sister, or was a famously violent racist demagogue, or a beautiful and shameless young female celebrity, or even was assaulted by cops and the recipient of a huge cash settlement from the city.  I wasn’t fabulously rich, I wasn’t particularly talented.   I didn’t do anything to make me famous or newsworthy.   Was I even remarkable in any way?  What is the real story here?”

Leaving aside the question of why I am wrestling with it here, on a ‘public’ website, I have an idea of the shape it needs to take.  It starts with a heated and relentless 45 year argument with seemingly no end.  The argument ends, the last night of the angry old man’s life, with too-late agreement, the deathbed gift of reconciliation for the man about to die, after he admits most of the blame was his for the long war.

The reader wakes up in a room where the war is raging, fire is belching out, there’s screaming, machine gun racket, the death-groans of mortally wounded animals.   There is no apparent cause for the war, as senseless and brutal as any, but a young child is being angrily blamed for starting it, continuing it.  Both adults are furiously wailing at the kid, trying to get him to admit he is a fucking war criminal.

We see the accused kid at the beginning, a baby in his crib, old enough to hold his head up and turn it to his father, but not old enough to do much more than that.

“You were certainly old enough to stare at me accusingly with those big, black eyes,” says the father, “you never took your goddamn eyes off me.  Every time I turned my head, there was you, with those two big, black eyes, boring into me, accusing me of God knows what.”  

Panning back the camera shows we are not in a random insane asylum.  This is an ordinary kitchen table in a suburban home, although the table is on fire, with the rat-tat-tat of strafing machine guns, the whiff of rolling chlorine gas, the pounding of the big guns.

“You’re so goddamn melodramatic,” the mother says to the boy, opera wailing in the background, her eyes burning with passion.

“Leave your mother out of this,” snarls the father, “you started it, you continue it, you fight us every step of the way and you may think you’re winning, you may even be winning this battle, but you’re going to lose the war.  I guarantee, you will lose this war, mark my words.”  

The camera once again pulls back to take in the wider scene, assure the reader again that we are not viewing a tight shot in a madhouse.

We are also, of course, viewing a tight shot in a madhouse.  There are thousands of these madhouses on every block in suburbia, on every floor in every city.  I always think it a kind of blessing that I grew up in a house where the war was at least out in the open.  

That could be the PTSD talking, trying to put a positive spin on the terror of it, I suppose.   Can it be that some things are just horrible with no redeeming features?   

“It can certainly be that some things are just horrible with no redeeming features.  You want one?  Poverty.  Big word for only three syllables.  You want another one?  Rage. One syllable, total motherfucker.   But most horrible things, it’s true, I’ll grant you, there is usually some kind of redeeming feature.  The scale that we weigh such things on is very tricky to operate,” the skeleton made a crazy balancing gesture on an invisible scale between his bony hands.

You got that right.  I’m taking objectively horrible senseless brutality, and weighing it against the many infinitely precious things that came with it.  But not without a phenomenal cost.

“Not without a phenomenal cost,” said the skeleton.


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