Before any fans jump down my throat, I love Warehouse 13, but last night, my husband and I were having a Warehouse 13 marathon. As of this writing, we’re ten episodes into the series, and I’ve learned that I can only watch an episode or two and before I stop being absorbed in wondering what the MacGuffin and remember that the show is a series of fetch quests with perfect plot structure.
After the third episode of the night, my mind started to wander during the climax, and I thought of the question I asked on Friday. (Why can’t stories meander like life does?) As I mused on the question, I remembered a story that my father tells about our family:
Early in the 20th century, both sides of my father’s family immigrated from Italy to the United States. Like most Italians, one of the first things they did was join the local Catholic parish, but the priest there didn’t like these new immigrants and took every opportunity to humiliate them from the pulpit for being too poor to put silver (rather than copper) in the collection plate. Most of the community continued to go to church and sit patiently, but my grandfather’s father attended church less and less until, when my grandfather was six months old, he stepped in an electrified puddle at the factory where he worked and died. 

The Italian community was stunned by the accident and many people turned out for my great-grandfather’s funeral to support my grandfather and his mother, the perfect opportunity for the priest to shame them once again, claiming that my great-grandfather died because he didn’t go to church and would burn for it.

Over lunch the following week at work, some of the men who had been to the funeral were discussing the funeral and how angry they were when a Baptist missionary who was working with them overheard and invited them to become Baptists. They would be able to have their own church, he said, and he might even be able to get them funding to build it. 

After some discussion, the community agreed to become Baptist and, as there were brick masons in the community, began to build the church themselves at night after work. 
The story might have ended here, but the old parish wasn’t ready to let them leave. Just as the new Baptists finished digging the hole for the church’s foundation, the members of old parish filled the foundation hole in with dirt. Seeing that their work had been undone, the Baptists rolled up their sleeves and dug the hole again. This went on for some time. Each time they finished digging the hole, the hole was filled back in until the old parish were tired of it, and the church was built. 
This, I thought, is a great example of a story that resists plotting.

Write voltas not war.

If Hollywood was writing my father’s story there would be an ultimate showdown between the two groups, but in my father’s story there isn’t one. The only reason the old parish loses is because they just stop fighting. If they’d had enough patience, they might still be there there battling over the construction site. And yet, it’s a compelling story. What gives?
I’m not one of those people who wrote secret stories in notebooks when I was barely old enough to spell. I was the sad kid writing depressing poems until grad school when, following the development of what would become The Dream Life of Toby McClure, I abruptly switched to prose. Since poetry is my native lens, I have the tendency to look for poetic devices where (theoretically) they doesn’t belong. It’s probably for this reason that while thinking about my father’s story, I found myself looking for the volta.
On the surface looking for the volta in a story sounds bizarre, like analyzing white space in a novel–though, I’ve done that, too–but it isn’t so strange when you consider the volta’s function in a poem.
The word volta comes from the Italian word “turn,” and it is the point near the end of a sonnet (usually) when there is a change . The poem might change perspectives, such as in “Sonnet 130” when Shakespeare shifts from deriding his mistress to praising her. The poem might change from asking questions to providing answers or, as in the case in Mark Doty’s “A Display of Mackerel,” it might change from description to elucidating a theme.
My father’s story lacks a showdown, but his story does have a volta. For most of the story, the people sit quietly while the priest insults them, but after my great-grandfather’s funeral, the community changes from being passive victims to being active builders.

I’m not the killing type.

“I’ve seen the pictures from a thousand years of battle and I think 
It’s such a bore” -“The Killing Type,” Amanda Palmera

I dislike stories where the climax is a showdown between good and evil. I don’t get a thrill from watching people get punished, and I especially don’t like fight scenes that are little more than demonstrations of how bad ass the protag is.
But the volta, the volta is different. A story with a volta might have a change from asking questions to having answers. It might be about the change a character experiences learning something that gives them a new perspective and becomes better (or worse, I suppose) in some way.
The volta isn’t about punishment or gratuitous displays of strength. It’s about change. And change, is something I can get behind.
Advertisements