The plumbing has gone wrong in our bathroom. It’s not too serious, no flooding, just a constant dripping in the cistern. I’m not sure why we thought taking the lid off was a clever idea, neither of us are practical. I know where the stop-tap is, and he can wire a plug or reset the trip-switch, but we should have known better than to unscrew a modern flushbox without making notes.
The old toilet, the one we replaced because it kept leaking, had an old-fashioned ballcock. There was a brass lever with a plastic float on the end, and a bit to unscrew so that we could replace the washer. See, I even know a couple of correct terms for that one.
The new one though, that’s a complicated system of nylon levers, tubes and boxes that were holding the lid in place. So, as soon as we undid the top we began to dismantle the mechanism, and now we’re stuck. The only kind of deconstruction and construction I’ve ever been any good with is the literary sort.
This means, that I can see how the saga of our toilets could become a metaphor for story on several levels, but can’t figure out how those nylon tubes slot back together. So let’s set aside that trail of plumbing-innuendo I am working hard to avoid, and think about short story structure.
We start, surely, with the simple linear plot: a beginning followed by a middle that leads to an end. Nothing neater. Those linear plots may be as old as speech, and they’re not worn-out yet. They make a lot of readers and listeners and writers happy, and don’t be misled by the word ‘simple’, pulling off a successful story is no easy task. If it’s going to work properly everything has to fit neatly, just like that cistern.
The advantage of something straightforward is that it’s open to re-interpretation. Technicians can make dynamic or sophisticated designs based on the principles of collecting and releasing water: writers can follow or work against the form.
Only there’s a ‘B’ word to use here. It’s a ‘But’, because they have to know and understand the form first. Okay, some people appear to be natural story-tellers, and have an instinctive understanding of what is needed to engage us with a tale. Do they? Are we sure? Is it really down to natural genius?
Let’s say it is. Where does that leave the rest of us?
How about with the trainee plumbers, mechanics, watch-menders and technicians, taking the backs off stories and opening them up to see how they work?