The Middle of the Soul: a guest post from Steve Luna
Steve Luna, author of “Joe Vampire” and “Joe Vampire: The Afterlife” has worked his magic again, but this time in a dramatic novel about a teenage boy’s struggle in the aftermath of his mother’s death, called “Songs From the Phenomenal Nothing.” Luna kindly guest posted for me, and describes a technique of building a story he refers to as “the middle of the soul.” It’s good stuff, and great fodder for fellow writers. Enjoy. -KMR
There’s a term that describes the literary practice of beginning a story in the center of the action: in media res, which translates from Latin to “in the middle of things.” Stories such as this presume the reader knows something of what they’re getting right from the jump. The author doesn’t coddle or pander; they throw the reader into the ocean and slowly lead them ashore as the story unfolds. If it’s a war story, the author doesn’t necessarily start by describing an army barracks and leading to the action; he starts with the battle and works his way forward (or sideways or backward) from there. It’s theatrical and cinematic, and it works fantastically as a device to start a story at a quicker clip than it would if it started at a quiet, uneventful moment.
I love this mode of storytelling.
I use it as a model for what I write… only I take a slightly different approach. I tend to begin my stories as something I call in media animus: in the middle of the soul. My characters are already fully-formed when you meet them. They absolutely have growth coming, and regression is more than likely as well. Evolution and personal development and descent into circumstance. But they’ve already undergone some quantity of the circumstance that prompted the story. I find the most interesting way to tell their tales is to introduce them to the reader at a pivotal and potentially uncomfortable or disorienting moment in their development. It gives a solid sense of the gravity of their situations. Joe Vampire did that; his first post doesn’t begin before he’s bitten, and it doesn’t tell you anything about who he was prior to this incident that has made his story worth telling. There’s some detail fill-in on that down the line, for sure. But his blog opens when he’s already three months into the vampire trip – in up to his knees in bloodthirsting, he is. He’s jaded to it by then, and somewhat bitter. He’s still descending and has little knowledge of what’s coming for him. But he’s holding his own. This is what prompts him to tell his story in the first place. And the impact of his circumstance is apparent from the get-go.
In other words, the story begins in media animus.
Same with Songs from the Phenomenal Nothing. When it opens, Tyler is six months past the death of his mother. He’s stewing in his own pain and anger, venting it at his father and sabotaging his own future while trying not to be overtaken by everything that’s happened…and, quite honestly, he’s a little bit unlikable at that point. He may have a solid reason to be angst-ridden, but whether his behavior is justified isn’t really evident at that point. At the risk of alienating readers who want to like their main characters from page one, I take the chance that readers will judge them several times through the story. In storytelling as in life, first impressions end up being more about impact than likability. You may not like the characters in my stories from the very beginning. And you don’t have to.
All you have to do is be interested in hearing more of what they have to say.
And there’s a reason for me doing things this way.
If there’s anything I value more highly than anything else in storytelling – more than a twisty, compelling plot, more than a satisfying emotional track, more than witty dialogue and snazzy descriptive passages — it’s characters who live and breathe. Authors aren’t writing stories about setting or timeframe; we’re writing about people, what they do and what happens to them as a result of their choices. Their virtues and their vitriol; their deeds and their downfalls. Of course, we’ve invented these people and their situations in our heads. But so has everyone else who has ever interacted with anyone in the physical world. We don’t know the stories of ninety-nine percent of the people we meet, but for just a moment in our interactions, we ascribe them a soul: motivation for what they do, as evidenced by their kindness toward us (or lack thereof), their interactions with others, their mannerisms and behavioral tendencies. It’s the same when we meet a character in a story for the first time. If you were to meet Tyler Mills in real life, he’d be the kid with his chest puffed up and a chip the size of a Buick teetering on his shoulder. You wouldn’t know why necessarily, or understand his path. And you wouldn’t need to. You’d simply recognize the signs, register his behavior and possibly wonder what happened to make him so. You might even want to know a little more about him…maybe.
A big maybe, perhaps. But still. It’s there.
And that’s the hook.
To purposely mis-quote Paul Simon, “Maybe’s the entrance I’m looking for.”
It’s my job to turn the Maybe into an Absolutely, and ultimately leave the reader with a sense of I’m Sure Glad I Did. I don’t know if I hit the mark every time, but I know I feel much better about what I’ve written when I give my characters that sort of treatment. Whether they’re kind or crooked, noble or abhorrent, my characters wear their psychology from the moment the cover opens, in hopes of compelling the reader to step in and try it on for size.
And that’s why there are no slow-rolling beach entries for me and mine. From minute one, we’re out in the water — in the middle of our messy souls — paddling or sinking or barely holding our heads up. We’ll flail a little…or a lot. We’ll probably struggle more than we swim. But we’ll work our way through, for better or for worse.
It sure beats wading around at the shoreline waiting for the tide to rise.