Whoosh! Issue 46 - July 2000


Don't Forget Della Street: Standing the Test of Time




Keeping 'Em Guessing

Those really are stunt doubles

Gab and Xena walk off into the sunset.


[38] With Della's stories we know that Xena and Gabrielle will end up together in the end, but the stories still take a number of unusual twists and turns before they get there. We are also unable to predict some of these twists because Della artfully omits key details. Sometimes when writers omit details, it leaves unanswered questions and plot holes big enough to drive a truck through, and that detracts from the story. We do not consider those people to be careful writers.

[39] On the other hand, I have also seen writers omit key details in such a way that it is obvious that information is being withheld. In those instances, I get angry and feel I am being manipulated for the sake of a plot device, like an O'Henry story with a surprise ending that is not earned. While these writers are better than the ones who just forget the details, feeling manipulated by a writer is not a good thing [Note 06]. Della omits key details in such a way that we do not even notice until later, when all is revealed with a twist. Toward that same end, after you have read and reread the story a few times, you can also find instances where she foreshadows the coming twist, right in plain sight, yet the first time through most of us would have missed it.

[40] Della does this on two levels. The first is on the larger plot level, where we are always kept guessing how the events will unfold. For instance, in "Resistance", we know that Xena the Conqueror is going off in search of Gabrielle's mother, who is a slave. We know that somehow Gabrielle will be reunited with her mother. What is impossible to predict is what is going to happen when Xena takes the stage in the public square. How will Gabrielle be reunited with her mother? Will Xena ruin the moment with a bloody execution?

[41] Contrast that scene with a later scene, similar in setup. Xena is to announce her impending marriage and alliance with another kingdom. Della sets us up so that all points are leading in that direction by truncating a previous scene of conflict between Xena and Gabrielle. We do not know how the conflict was resolved. That information was omitted. Something is going to happen. Oddly, the most dramatic and poignant event of the next scene happens off- camera, between Gabrielle and her mother, in an interesting balance against the scene where she was reunited with her mother. A lesser writer would have described the awful scene with Gabrielle's mother with excruciating detail and dialogue. Instead, we get Gabrielle walking up to the square alone, and someone asks where her mother went.

"What? Oh." Gabrielle shook her head. "She went back."

"Went back? What's the matter?"

"I told her . . ."

"Told her what?"

Tears filled Gabrielle's eyes, and she swallowed painfully. You are not my daughter. The words, replayed in her head a dozen times now, had been like a fist to the scribe's gut.

[42] I would argue that this scene, underplayed, with primary expository dialogue remaining unspoken, is ten times more powerful than if the scene with Gabrielle's mother had been described directly.

[43] The second level where Della executes twists and reversals is at the scenic level. It is almost as if Della treats each individual scene as a microcosm, as a mini- plot in itself, and crafts it the same way. This is not always the case, but in "Resistance" and "Toward the Sunset" we can see this technique in action. The scene will have a beginning, middle, and climax. Often within those parts, a direction will be indicated, only to be spun into reversal. Or a character will come in with one attitude, only to have that point of view turned upside down. Since the scenes function in service of the larger plot direction, the misdirections, reversals, and omitted information help to propel the reader forward through the story. We keep turning the pages, or rather, scrolling, to find out the missing pieces, to find out what happens next.

[44] Consider the opening scene of "Toward the Sunset". As a reader, I have guessed from the title and maybe reputation that it is a Western. Since Jess has long black hair, I know which Uber character she is. But she is without her paraphernalia, bathing naked in the woods. Kind of hard to figure much out about a character's role when she is naked. Another woman shows up at a distance. Why is she here? What is she doing? Inquiring minds want to know, as does Jess, who is leering too. We find out Jess has not been to church in a long time. Maybe she is a bad person. Now the second woman is also naked. No more clues about her role in the story either. Two people who like to swim. That is all we know. Suddenly Jess acquires her first prop, a six-shooter. We know what Chekhov says about what happens when you introduce a gun in a story. Sooner or later it has to go off, and it does. In one page we have two naked people we know nothing about and gun. Just try to hold me back from turning that page.


The Mistress of Dialogue

[45] Did I mention that Della is a master of dialogue? You may have noticed from the examples cited above. Some writers produce prosaic dialogue, full sentences that sound nothing like how people talk. Della often reveals more about her characters by what they do not say than by what they say. Interactions between Mattie and Jess are classic for this throughout the story, especially when paired with the contradictions of each character's internal dialogues.

[46] Many times the characters are saying one thing and thinking something only tangentially related to it. Other times their conversations are cut off with no beginning or ending. One character just swims off. Or Mattie walks into her bedroom to find Jess lying on the bed, and they just pick up in the middle of another conversation. The best fun is how they constantly bait each other. Della is able to convey through these characterizations a rich balance. Each knows exactly how to push the other's buttons (and not just those kinds of buttons, get your mind out of the gutter!)

[47] Della is more experimental with this story than in most of her others, particularly with transitions. One of my favorite features of "Toward the Sunset" is that the scene changes are not announced by a double double space or a row of asterisks. We change scenes with no warning whatsoever. Consider the following:

"Hey -- what's your name?" Mattie called. But the woman had ducked under the water, swimming efficiently toward the far bank, and didn't answer.

"We don't want your kind here." Winston's angry voice carried across the hotel dining room to where the young schoolteacher and her dinner companion were seated.

[48] We already know a bit about Mattie from the swimming exchange, but since when did swimming holes come with hotel dining rooms in them? This is a classic Della transition, and it cracks me up almost as much as when, at a later dinner, Mattie starts arranging the noodles on her plate in the pattern of an American flag.


Attention to Details

[49] I often tell my students in freshman composition that there is a very simple trick to making an "A" in one of my classes, and I write it on the board in huge letters: specific detail. Stories come alive all in the name of specific detail. I love the stories of Della Street because of her use of specific detail - layers of detail, revealed a bit at a time.

[50] By the end of the first scene in the hotel dining room, the plot is already engaged, the characters are complicated and at odds, and nerves are on edge. Dialogue pops back and forth between two separate conversations going on simultaneously. The attentive writer has painted such a picture of a smirking black haired outlaw tilted back in her chair, that when she leans forward to get up, we hear the thud the chair makes on the floor and jump along with everyone else. That is a writer who is taking you along for a ride. As Jess walks out, the significant factor is what is unsaid, not what is said. She did not reveal her initial meeting with the teacher, and instead said hello with her eyes. But right up until she walked out, we had no idea what she would do.


How Do I Love Della? Let Me Count the Ways

[51] Did I mention that I am a fan of this story? I could go on and on, and I am already in danger of doing so. Instead of boring you to tears, let me send you to the story instead, and here are some things to look for:

  1. Nearly invisible transitions artfully executed. Notice the one right before Jess's auction dinner with Mattie. This is one of my favorite scenes in the whole story.

  2. Details I love: the noodles in the American flag. Rhubarb pie eating. The way the server alternates his facial expressions depending to whom he is talking, Mattie or Jess:

    It was almost amusing, Jess thought, the hotelkeeper's creative use of facial muscles, alternating between an affectionate smile for the town's beloved schoolmistress and something just shy of a snarl for the Lucifer incarnate whose every breath tarnished the saint.

  3. Synecdoche. This literally means the part represents the whole. This technique pervades Della's writing and keeps her from falling into some of the repetitive patterns other Xenaverse bards do by keeping their pronouns straight when both characters are women, of saying the bard and the warrior over and over instead of Xena and Gabrielle or whoever, honey-haired woman (I am so sick of that one), etc. Instead, in Della's writing, body parts react or do things. "Mattie's mouth fell open". "A wet blonde head popped up out of the water". "An excited masculine buzz passed through the crowd".

  4. My nomination for best line in all the Xenaverse is in here:

    She was bored. She had amused herself for a while menacing assorted townfolk with her eyebrow, occasionally throwing in a curled lip, but now she was restless again.

  5. The characters. Besides a cocky and unrepentant Uber Xena with a witty banter [Note 07], Mattie has a feistiness that goes beyond what we get from Xena and Gabrielle. I love the way she has to have her fingers pried off the doorjamb when the outlaws drag her out of the schoolhouse, and the way she cusses out Jess after losing her horse on the road. The banter between Jess and Mattie does strongly influence the dialogue in "Resistance", which is a later story. They are pretty much the same characters, which is why I am so fond of "Resistance" as well, although it is a less plausible story [Note 08].

    [52] There is another stock character that I love Della for, a two dimensional fellow, the jerk boyfriend. He first appeared in "Finds" as Edgar Whited, Mel's arrogant Southern fiance. He gets some of the best lines, and may be the second best reason to read this story [Note 09]. Of Janice and Mel Ubers, I place Bat Morda's "Is There a Doctor on the Dig" first, Elaine Sutherland's several part series second, and "Finds" third. I get a good laugh every time I see Edgar Whited get his.

    [53] This same character appears in a similar fashion, with much the same humor, in "Toward the Sunset". He is the banker man, David Thacker. While he does not get his in such a direct fashion, there is a wonderful scene where Jess is eavesdropping on Mattie's dinner with Mr. Thacker, and her internal dialogue makes the scene. It is almost as if the internal dialogue is actually a part of the external dialogue, similar to the first scene in the hotel dining room, where two conversations across the room influenced each other.

    The bastard wasn't even listening to her, Jess fumed, hadn't been since his arrival, worrying about hiding his d*mned suitcase than courting the woman he was to propose to, if rumor had it correctly. Reclining on the window well, Jess listed from the darkness as the drama unfolded before her.

    ... "Mattie, I feel that we are well suited to each other".

    'Well suited to each other? What the h*ll does that mean? That isn't what Mattie Brunson would want to hear, you idiot. She'd want to hear something romantic'.

    "You're a very pleasant person".

    'Very pleasant person? J*sus get off the saddle and let a woman lead,' Jess thought. 'Why don't you try telling her she is wonderful? Moron'.

    "I think you're wonderful, Mattie".

    Jess's lip curled.

    "And I'd be honored if you would be my wife".

    'Yeah, *you'd* be honored'.

  6. Last thing and then I will shut up. Did I mention that this story is hot? I know the erotica of alt-fic is largely a matter of taste, and we know from many other stories mentioned previously that Della can write erotica just fine, although she chooses to be less explicit in "Resistance". In other stories, it has overwhelmed the plot. That is not the case here. In "Toward the Sunset", it is skillfully integrated into the plot, and sexual tension can be felt in many completely innocuous scenes through the banter of the characters. There are other scenes, the underwear-swimming scene comes to mind, where no one is having sex, but it is possibly one of the steamiest scenes in the story. Maybe I just like the turn of the phrase "adherent undershirt". It sounds so calm and clinical, and at the time, Mattie is feeling anything but. The vocabulary is a big part of the kick I get from this story, because it establishes a wry tone that keeps me giggling throughout a story that doesn't try to be a comedy. It just delights.

    [54] My personal favorite erotic scene is the after-church quickie in Mattie's bedroom while all the gussied up church folk are out in the living room arguing. But we all have our preferences [Note 10].


And In Conclusion...

[55] We are living in the days of a Xenaverse fan fiction glut, much of it of wildly uneven quality. This may be both in reaction against a faithless Season Five, or perhaps it is even a reflection of the bad writing in Season Five. Meanwhile, Della Street stopped actively writing in the Xenaverse some time ago.

[56] So why Della? Why now?

[57] I have a bias when it comes to Xenaverse fan fiction. As much as I favor the democratizing inclusive atmosphere of the fan fiction community of bards and their readers, I want to see the best work recognized. "I'm OK, you're OK" is fine for drafting and revision, but at some point real literary criticism and aesthetic standards have to emerge. Our reading time is limited. When a reader invests time in a story, there should be a payoff. The story should be good.

[57] In addition to the immediate concerns of readers with limited time, I also believe a maturing Xenaverse owes it to its own literary history to clearly recognize the best writers, rather than swim continually awash in forgettable works, throwaway pieces really, by writers no one has heard of, even as an anonymous nickname. This is a part of our historical record. Who among us has put words and visions out there that we do not want to forget, ever? To this end, I invite others to contribute to this ongoing project of sorting out the best, the writers who stand the test of time. [Note 11]

[58] In literature, critics come and go. They are the most forgettable creatures in the industry. Time beats critics like paper covers rock. Time beats aesthetic standards, schmoozing, groupies the bards get to f*ck, everything. Time is like karma: you cannot argue with it. Time has allowed many big name writers from the early Xenaverse to fade into obscurity, other than as footnotes in the obligatory histories that record various "firsts", like the first explicitly sexual alt-fiction story to be posted publicly in the Xenaverse, as opposed to circulating only on private lists.

No, I don't hate my mother or father.  Actually, I hate *you*.

An Uber kinda uber in DEJA VU.


[59] Della supposedly owns one of those "firsts", the first non-Janice and Mel Uber, the story "Toward the Sunset", a western that led Kym Masera Taborn to coin the term "Uber" specifically for these kinds of stories. Distinguished historians have researched far and wide, and revisionist histories are now cropping up that claim "Toward the Sunset" was not the first Uber, or was not the first publicly posted Uber, or something like that.

[60] Whether or not "Toward the Sunset" was the first Uber, it will always occupy a privileged place on my bedstand as my all-time favorite bedtime story, an exemplar of Della Street's abilities at her peak in the Xenaverse. I can only hope that with her talent she has moved on to writing original fiction for other audiences.


The Short Stories of Della Street

"Toward the Sunset"

"Resistance"

"Finds"

"Her Gabrielle"

"Her Gabrielle: A Response"
by Rebecca Hall

"Sacred Ground"

"Damage Control"

"Sacrifice"

"Assassin"

"Bargain Hunting"

"Companions"

"Crossing Over"

"Debts"

"Grape"

"Happily Ever After"

"Inside Job"

"Lysistrata Revisited"

"Revelations"

"Scientific Method"

"Time Wasters Series: Back Trouble"

"Time Wasters Series: Beyond Sex"

"Time Wasters Series: Delicacy"

"Time Wasters Series: Guessing Games"

"Time Wasters Series: Mush"

"Time Wasters Series: Sense of Humor"

"Trouble"


Notes

Note 01:
Even Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, you know?
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Note 02:
"Her Gabrielle: A Response" by Rebecca Hall
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Note 03:
Ella Quince owns this category ("Evil Xena Warlord Personality Shift") with her story "Well of Sighs."
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Note 04:
It seems like many of this type of story spins off from the episodes in Season One when Xena was on the edge of reverting to her Warlord ways: THE RECKONING (06/106) and TIES THAT BIND (20/120).
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Note 05:
As I said above in the text, Della shines most brightly when she breaks out of bastardized Ancient Greece and lets her stories fly on their own.
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Note 06:
TPTB pull this trick on a regular basis, and it is d*mned irritating.
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Note 07:
Someone please set me up with a date with this woman, if she is out there somewhere.
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Note 08:
Oh don't even start on me with actual plausibility!
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Note 09:
I don't have to tell you what the first reason is.
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Note 10:
VBG [Very big grin].
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Note 11:
There are many people doing just that. One site I particularly trust is Nancy Amazon and Ewok's Alternative Uber Fan Fiction Reviews. I have been in the Xenaverse now since Season Two, but my time for fan fiction has decreased considerably. The critical sensibilities of Nancy Amazon and Ewok most closely match my own, although they have drawn fire for their bold opinions. For the record, I have not met the owners of that site either, that I know of, and I have only spoken to them through sending fan mail.
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Biography

Christine Boese Christine Boese
Dr. Christine Boese is an assistant professor of English at Clemson University. Her doctoral dissertation is a cultural study of the online Xenaverse, titled "The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: Chaining Rhetorical Visions from the Margins of the Margins to the Mainstream in the Xenaverse" (http://www.nutball.com/). It is still being updated with feedback and comments from Xenites, who are encouraged to participate in the study as co-authors. It is best viewed with a 4.0 browser and the free Shockwave plugin (http://www.macromedia.com/).


Favorite episode: Tie: LYRE, LYRE HEARTS ON FIRE (100/510) and THE BITTER SUITE (58/312). I'm in a musical mood, not at all sorry that Verizon wireless keeps reminding me of Xena anthems. You think Joe LoDuca did that on purpose?
Favorite line: Xena: "Awake my Bacchae! It's time to FEEEEEEEED!" GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN (28/204)
First episode seen: Bits and pieces in Mid-Season 2, never catching entire episodes until THE QUEST (37/213), and even then I still didn't know what hit me.
Least favorite episode: The Worser (sic) Part of Season Five. As Bill the Cat would say, "Ack!" (54/308)


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