As much as I love what I've learned over the past three years here at Syracuse's MFA fiction writing program, a part of me hates what I have become. It's impossible for me nowadays to watch a simple television show or commercial without deconstructing its narrative structure and silently commenting to myself on the soundness of the narrative logic, the slickness with which tension is introduced, the abruptness of the transitions, the tidiness of the endings.
What do I mean by all these fancy words. All I mean really is that stories are all around us, and whereas before, I kind of instinctively understood how they operated on my mind as a viewer or reader, I can now more clearly identify and discuss why a given narrative or joke or youtube gives me joy through the language of creative writing. I'll give you an example of how I think nowadays.
Me: I need to pee. This is a fact. I'm sitting here in the William Safire room of the library, which is empty except for me, and I need to pee.
Audience: Why don't you just pee?
Me: I don't want to leave my computer unattended here in this secluded reading room of the library.
Audience: Do you have really nice new stuff?
Me: No, look it's just a grimy four-year-old MacBook.
Audience: Oh, then are you just paranoid? Is that your "character"?
Me: Yes and no. There was a foreboding sign in the lobby which had never been there before: "DO NOT LEAVE ITEMS UNATTENDED!" Which made me think people must be getting their shit kidnapped left and right. Can you imagine kidnapping a laptop? Like: "We have your MacBook. Each day you don't pay our ransom, we will pluck a key from the keyboard."
Audience: Okay. That bit of information makes me understand your character in terms of specific time and place. The fact that there's a sign that was never there before is a major narrative occurrence which helps me understand the stakes of the story.
And so on and so on...
Now if I wanted to continue crafting this story as a piece of fiction, I would probably focus on that central narrative tension: a guy who needs to pee, sitting in an empty reading room, worried about news that there is a laptop kidnapper on the prowl. What will he do?
In real life, I'm about to pack up because this part of the library closes in two minutes. But in the story I'm starting to dream up now, maybe some shady looking dude walks into the empty reading room with our protagonist, who has to pee worse than ever. Of course, now there's a big narrative issue entering the audience's brain.
Audience: Why doesn't he just take the laptop with him into the bathroom?
Me: Well, he...Sorry, I'm really getting kicked out of this room now.
Audience: Oh, okay. Your story sucks. Bye.