Condiments Enliven the Meal   7 comments

Does anyone write stream of consciousness or capers anymore, or has the Hollywood hero’s journey ruined that?

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A Word about Capers

Go check out PJ MacLayne’s Harmony Dupree series of capers on Amazon. Clearly someone is still writing them and someone must also be reading them, and how fortunate are we that a member of our blog hop is the author of several capers?

As for Stream of Consciousness

One of the key moments of my high school English career was diagramming a 27-page sentence in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. Ms. Stithem’s Analysis of Literature offered extra credit if we did it, so I did. It was a technically grammatical sentence, but … why? Seriously. Why? Because he could? Faulkner was a great writer, but gimmicks like this — while securing his place in literary history — don’t necessarily make for good reading. I don’t remember the book. I know I had to have read it because I got an A on my analysis of it and the extra credit for diagramming the sentence (me and Mark Greenwald), but I don’t remember the content of the book, so — yeah — gimmicks are a problem.

We also read James Joyce’s Ulysses in that class and I also got a good grade in my analysis of it. And that made a bit more sense because it was interior monologue, attempting to show (as Virginia Woolf meant to do when she pioneered the technique) the way the human mind actually works. We rarely think in a straight-line narrative. We almost always flit from thought to thought in a loose and tangential web of short-lived ideas even when we’re thinking about one specific topic. I do remember more of Ulysses, but I remember a great deal more of writers like Hemingway, who used narrative language beautifully and economically, and Dickens who also used narrative like lovely embroidery, though not nearly as spare as Hemingway.

This might explain the strength of the Hero’s Journey as a literary prop. I don’t wholly subscribe to the hero’s journey myself, but the narrative format of stories is as old as story-telling itself. The Illiad is a hero’s journey tale. While we may think in stream of consciousness, we prefer our stories to be in narrative format.

Because I don’t write to a formula, the hero’s journey doesn’t often come into my thoughts while drafting my novels, but certainly I use narrative format because I think readers find it more comfortable than stream of consciousness. I tend to use the hero’s journey as a measuring stick – Did something happen in the story? Was there change? Did I bring my character to a new base? Those are important questions, but I avoid the formula of adhering to the format, because I think it’s overused, and I don’t think humans (even characters) all go through the exact same motions..

Not Dead Yet

Do I think the hero’s journey is overused by Hollywood? Absolutely! Formula has its place, but this formula needs some freshening up. This is why I don’t think stream of consciousness is completely a dead art form and I don’t think we should denigrate it. It has its place, sometimes even among the hero’s journey.

As I said, I don’t write to the hero’s journey format, but I do write narrative literature. Still, there are times when a little stream of consciousness can show a character’s inner thoughts. Sprinkled lightly through narrative like a condiment, stream of consciousness can bring the reader into the character’s mind at a visceral level — provided you don’t overdue it, which I think most readers find frustrating, which is why you don’t see a lot of stream of conscious still being used. I am unaware of the novelists banging out 28-page sentences, at any rate.

If you like historical romances, one book where I found it done well was Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. The character of Christian suffers a stroke that severely disables his ability to use and comprehend language and the stream of consciousness highlights that disability well. As he recovers, the author gradually backs off the stream of consciousness technique, showing the improvement rather than telling the reader he is improved. I found her technique so fascinating, I actually read a romance.

I think stream of consciousness is best used sparingly, in ways that make sense within a narrative format. I don’t see it necessarily at odds with the Hero’s Journey. They could, in fact, be used as partners to make writing stronger.

In fact, some stream of consciousness elements show up in my latest novel Winter’s Reckoning. I didn’t take it to Kinsale’s level (and certainly not to Joyce’s) but it was appropriate to the crisis Shane faces and so I explored it a little bit, like that bit of parsley on the side of your dinner plate — a condiment, not a feature.

7 responses to “Condiments Enliven the Meal

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  1. I don’t think I have ever written stream of consciousness, Lela. A hero’s journey has many different manifestations, have I written one. Maybe Through the Nethergate is a hero’s journey. Good triumphs over evil so probably it is.

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  2. Thank you for the mention, Lela. I never considered my books capers, although when I think about it, they do share some common elements. But the bad guys don’t win in my stories!

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  3. I’m not a big fan of formula, I would rather combine a couple of genres and see where it leads. As for the technical, if my teachers had made it more interesting (and I had known that I would start writing at age 55), I might have paid more attention.

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    • I had some great teachers. Mr. Selle in freshman English was really the first one to say “You’ve got a talent for writing. Keep at it!” Then Ms. Stithem in Analysis of Literature – she wanted me to become an English teacher (so glad I ignored that advice!). And Ms. Craig in Creative Writing. A few years ago, I ran into her when we were writing judges at the fair and she was excited to hear I had published. She said I was a natural.

      And that’s really true. Although I took courses over the years, I started writing when I was 12 for my own amusement. It never occurred to me that anyone else would read it — not until high school and then I took the practical path in college to getting a journalism degree. All that training honed my writing, but ultimately, I think writing compelling stories is more talent than skill. Skill helps, but talent is what we bring to the party.

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  4. Stream of consciousness is an art form, and unless you’re David Foster Wallace or Virginia Woolf, stay home, do your homework. The Post Modernists embraced it but not at the level that it can be elevated by artists. Jennifer Egan manages to weave character interiority and monologues in the stream of consciousness what’s happening now vein in some of her works, which either get rave reviews from people who get it and slammed by those who don’t. But the Caper is a whole other animal. Move the piano with Laurel and Hardy, read “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” or “The Switch”. Or Hiaasen’s “Razor Girl”. Capers take stereotypes and blow them up with foibles and background noise and edgy behaviors, none of the weirdness of “types” is burnished or buffed or subdued. Capers open with an event, possibly out of the ordinary unless you know there are insurance scammers and horny TV preachers and suddenly you’re mixed up in their business. But I love them. I don’t have to put everybody in a room and splain the mystery or follow clues or win. I get to watch some guys stuffing a drunk kidnap victim into an old Cutlass in a strip club parking lot looking for a Bumble Bee with $2 million dollars.
    I said on PJ’s post that some readers and authors like something to hang on to and others like to take the ride.

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