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On Storytelling Terminology: Alligators over the Transom

I’ve told the story before about the time I graduated from college, realized I needed to get a job (yes, in that order), freaked out, and then fell into a high-paying technical-writing position that was created just for me. My interview went, “Would you prefer to work in this cubicle, or that one?”

And then, just like that, I was a technical writer. It took maybe six weeks, total, from the thought, “Oh, wow, I’m not a highly-paid professional novelist. I need to be something else!” to filling out a form in the H. R. office that listed me as “Technical Writer.” The entirety of my training in that field had been one class my senior that broke my heart, and taught me almost nothing I’d use in my actual career.

Most of the skills I needed for my career were ones I’d picked up on my own, through years of writing terrible novels. (I made the smart career move of switching to writing great novels back in 2007, but this story takes place before that.) I also picked up a few tricks with regard to styles and templates as a survival skill, but that was all on-the-job stuff.

The Terminology of a Technical Writer

But most of my  professional training came in the form of terminology. And most of the terminology I know, I learned from my first supervisor, Mark Lee. He taught me about picas and gutters and widows and orphans. He taught me the term “Subject Matter Expert” which is an incredibly significant (and oft-changing) phrase within the tech writing world.

And part of the job of the tech writer is to become a subject matter expert. So while I was at Lowrance I had to learn about FishFinders, which meant I had to learn about fishing. I helped Bruce and Emilie translate the phrase “live well” (which means almost exactly the opposite of what you might first think, from the point of view of the fish). I learned about through-hull transducers and bait clouds and transoms galore.

And then he also taught me some of his own terminology. Picture a rustic, grizzled woodsman with all his wisdom tucked away in colorful old phrases. And he’s wearing flannel plaid. There you go. That’s Mark Lee.

One of his most-used phrases had to do with our work schedule. He said, “We can’t deal with the alligators because we’re too busy trying to fight off the snakes that are snapping at our heels.” That pretty much describes my five years at Lowrance Electronics, and it’s a lot of the reason I was so happy to leave there.

The Terminology of a Storyteller

Then last fall I showed up for Category Fiction with Deborah Chester and got to learn a whole bunch of new terminology. She talked about plates and “scene and sequel” as if I were supposed to know what that meant.

In our very first class period she was talking about how to develop a story’s plot and she mentioned an old teacher who used a phrase, “alligators over the transom.” She looked around the room, chuckled, and said, “I guess none of you know what that means. Anyone know what a transom is?”

And though I’d never heard the phrase, I had a clear and immediate mental image. See, in fishing terms, a “transom” is the flat back wall of a boat (the stern). I remembered Mark Lee talking about the snakes at our heels and the alligators in the distance, and suddenly I pictured alligators coming over the transom and I thought, yeah, that could up the suspense in a plot-driven novel.

So I raised my hand, Professor Chester blinked in surprise, and I told her what a transom was. And she frowned and ducked her head and said, “Well, okay, sure, but that’s not what I was talking about.”

See, this wasn’t a fishing term. This was a writing term. It was one made up by academics sitting snugly in their ivy-covered offices. In old architecture, a “transom” is the little window above a door, and there was a time when those windows were used like mail slots. You’d be sitting at your desk, quietly working on a manuscript, when out in the hall someone would come tromping down throwing envelopes and packages over the transom to land inside your office.

So, in storytelling, the phrase, “alligators over the transom” refers to that fine old tradition–to the idea you’re just sitting there minding your own business when something terrifying and totally unexpected appears out of nowhere, where it absolutely doesn’t belong.

It’s not part of your plot, it’s not something you’ve necessarily been setting up, or even something you’ve considered. It’s a way to jump-start a story that’s starting to drag, by throwing in something totally unexpected and totally terrible, hitting your characters with it cold, and then just seeing how they react.

My Own Mire

I didn’t share any blog posts last week. I’d intended to do a series on storytelling terminology (albeit without an interesting introduction), and then instead I got my own alligators. And in this case, both metaphors work.

Last week was my finals week at OU. I had to finish up 50,000 words on a novel and write two book reviews and a term paper for my other class (and that required me to actually read one of those books start-to-finish). Thursday night of the week before (back in April) I was kind of dreading a really busy weekend trying to get everything in place. I was sitting on the couch in the living room, working on my laptop while Trish and I watched some of our favorite comedies….

And then Trish got a call from her mom. Her dad had had a heart attack. They were at the hospital and he was okay, but they were going to run some tests and we’d know more by Friday morning. By Friday morning, we knew he needed a quadruple bypass, and the surgery was scheduled for Monday morning.

So my life temporarily relocated from Oklahoma City to Wichita, KS. Instead of drudging away at my homework I spent Saturday and Sunday playing Mr. Mom so Trish could spend time with her family. Instead of dealing with our alligators we were trying to manage the snakes snapping at our heels.

And like any good protagonists, we survived the complications to find our way to a happy ending. Trish’s dad came through his surgery and recovered astonishingly quickly. By Thursday night he was home again. Trish finally got caught up on her sleep, and (remarkably enough) I got all my homework done and turned in. There was an awful lot of chaos, but we came through it all.

And if you come back on Thursday I’ll get back to work here, too. I’ve got more of that storytelling terminology to share. See you then.

2 Responses to “On Storytelling Terminology: Alligators over the Transom”

  1. Yāoguài says:

    “Old teacher” = Jack Bickham. It’s a chapter in his 38-most-common-fiction-writing-mistakes book: “Don’t drop alligators through the transom.”

    • Aaron Pogue says:

      Ah! I should’ve known. Bickham was her mentor and gets a lot of credit for the material she shares in class. This story happened before I knew any of that, so I hadn’t made the connection.

      Thanks for the info! Sounds like a book well worth reading.