Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A well-oiled machine

This week's blog for "March is Women's History Month" starts with four fourth-grade boys and a machine.

Bear with me.

For a school project, the boys built a Rube-Goldberg-type machine for putting a hamburger patty between two buns. The machine has three eye-catching parts. From the left, to start the process, a red and blue koosh ball drops down a chute into a cup and sets off a series of actions involving levers and strings. In the middle of the process, a nail is catapulted toward the balloon and pops it. Very dramatic. That sets off another series of actions such that at the end (bottom right of photo) a mousetrap is triggered to flip a hamburger bun on a waiting patty.

The process sounds very familiar to me — it reminds of how I might set up a novel. I have a good hook to open and an appropriately action-packed scene for the end. And usually I have a grabber of a scene in the middle. But getting from one of these highlights to the other often involves some less-than-thrilling scenes whose only glory comes from how well they move the plot.

My job on the Rube-Goldberg project was to talk about the physics and the energy exchanges involved in the various actions, make suggestions about the presentation, and otherwise enjoy the energy and intelligence of four extraordinary fourth graders.

Working with the boys on their presentation, I found myself advising them to use "causal" terminology (theologians, close your ears) to explain how the steps interact with each other. It's not just that "this happens and then that happens" but one step follows from another, each step causing the next reaction.

It's just as important in a novel to have each scene follow logically from the one before it, moving the story along. A novel is not a series of scenes, but a dramatic unfolding, where the choices and actions in each scene motivate what happens in the next.

We all remember the difference between a sequence of events (The King died and then the Queen died) and a story (The King died and then the Queen died of grief.)

A novel may be a work of art, but at its core, it's a well-oiled machine.

And, oh, yes, the Women's History Month note:

A bright third grade girl, a sibling of one of the boys, was also at the presentation. She was every bit as excited as they were and raised her hand constantly to answer questions and perform tasks.

I've sent off a package to her. Just a little inspiration in the form of a DVD of the Marie Curie biopic, selected readings about women in science, and of course, some variations on the periodic table.


Monica Ferris said...

Essential to a plot: this thing CAUSES that thing. Funny how when it's pointed out, the writer says, "Yes, of course." But non-writers or would-be writers sometimes have to have this pointed out to them. Though in a mystery, people only thought the queen died of grief. Great post!

Camille Minichino said...

Ha, terrific point, Monica ... it only LOOKS like the queen died of grief, but we all know ...

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

How fortunate those kids are to have you. Especially that little girl who you encouraged. (Of course, we're pretty thrilled with you, too...0

Camille Minichino said...

Thanks Joanna, but I have to confess that right now the boys are NOT thrilled with me because they are in grade SIX not grade FOUR. How could I be so far off?

We might be hearing from them ....

Cindy said...

Camille was WONDERFUL! The boys, filled with thousands of units of potential energy, hung upside down on chairs, reaching maximum kinetic energy, causing them to smack each other with balloons, and repeatedly collapse and expand their pointer. Amid all this, they actually absorbed a fair amount of their conversation with Camille. The little girl harnessed her potential energy (until that evening's pillow fight) and absorbed the lessons more directly. It was delightful, Camille and Dick. Thank you!

Doug said...

She's hardly little and she's in fourth grade! And my friends and I are sixth graders. Suggesting that we put color on the parts of the machine that move will be helpful in front of the judges and the audience next Thursday night. Thank you for teaching us about how our machine changed one kind of energy into another. Wish us luck on Thursday!

Camille Minichino said...

This may be the most EDITED blog of my career, and rightly so.
I need a fact finder.
Thanks for all the corrections Sixth-Grader Doug.
And I know the judges/teachers are going to be SO impressed!

Anonymous said...

Kudos to Doug and the other 6th graders, and to that special female fourth grader! And, kudos, of course, to Camille, who makes an explanation a sensation! xoxoxxo