Cat Hurling and Other Faulty Story Mechanisms

Malibu on Table 2

My cat Malibu, pretending it never happened

Warning, unpalatable opening paragraphs:
My cat vomited on the living room floor last night. Before she did it, she performed a comic/frightening backwards dance, reminiscent of something the dwarf in Twin Peaks would have been envious of. She scooted backwards eight feet across the floor on her belly, haunches rolling, and appeared to be reversing the peristaltic effect of a snake swallowing a goat: her skin seemed to ripple the length of her body in churning waves, back-humped in high ascent.

Never having seen this behavior, I was fascinated and appalled. It was only when she produced the cud of half-chewed grass and belly splooge onto the floor that I realized that she was vomiting; I thought she needed an exorcism. After she’d finished her performance, she calmly reviewed the results and then daintily walked away.

Because I regularly turn daily events into writing considerations, while I cauterized the floor with an acetylene torch, I pondered how dramatic scenes/plotlines work in stories. (I also pondered getting a goldfish to replace the cat.) I’ve been mulling over writing a new novel that would be a series of connected stories. The lead character is a frustrated writer with an alcohol problem that’s preventing him from success in his work and his relationships. (No, this is not an autobiography.)

The Deus ex Machina: Story Salvation or Story Sap?
I’d been considering some of the major life events that can bring a person—or not—to their senses. Or perhaps make them leap off the abyss. Things like deaths in the family, loss of love, loss of respect, both self and otherwise. But I was also considering “artificial” things, on a deus ex machina level: the protagonist loses an arm in an industrial accident, the family is heir to a previously unknown fortune, a main character discovers that she’s adopted, with blindingly harsh effects. Or a cat you’ve owned for a while exhibits a behavior thought possible only by aliens.

Stories by O. Henry often have a twist in them that for me sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. The times they don’t work are when you feel the author is trying too hard, where the plot device feels author-imposed or a kind of window dressing. But some stories work up to their explosions in a way that seems organic: the suicides of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary come to mind. When I looked at the entry for deus ex machina on Wikipedia, it cited Lord of the Flies, where the rescue of Ralph by a passing Navy officer seemed to rescue the author as well.

An unpublished novel of mine uses the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 as a catalyst for the coming together—for better or worse—of San Francisco characters who otherwise wouldn’t have had the occasion to converge. The earthquake is a frame for the story, but its extreme drama isn’t used as a prop. Seeing the cat spill her story onto the rug made me consider that authors can populate their stories with all kinds of exotic and peculiar entanglements, but if the entanglements aren’t threaded into a congruent, evolving tale—with characters that are much more than manipulated marionettes—then all you have is, well, vomit.

And don’t expect your readers to stick around to clean it up.

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2 thoughts on “Cat Hurling and Other Faulty Story Mechanisms

  1. I love cats, but I can never eat a whole one.

    Someone told me that it’s fine to use coincidence to put your hero in trouble, but not to get them out of trouble. I suspect it’s because we’re all delighted to believe in a universal conspiracy to mess with us, but find it harder to believe in one which helps.

    There’s an old move, “Tales of Manhattan” about the 6 sequential owners of a formal coat. It’s the only connection, but each vignette is compelling in its own right. It’s a thin thread, but for our pattern-seeking brains, apparently it’s enough because I’ve watched the movie many times.

    There was a shortlived TV show about 6 people and how their lives crisscrossed. Very well done, and interesting because our “friends” kept meeting each other. Threads of familiarity.

  2. Joel, interesting consideration about fetching your characters out of some dark arms of destiny. I think it’s OK it they are saved when thrown overboard in a raging storm, but you don’t want to see God winking. I love the coat-sequence plot structure; there was a movie called “Gun” that followed where a gun went, and the crimes and drama associated with it. The ease of a structured path for a writer is why I used a road story as my first novel’s skeleton: your characters move down the road, and scenes are built on that movement and encounters spurred by it. It’s cheating, but fun.

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