Story offers enduring emotions and shared experiences. Storytelling in all its forms is a mysterious unfolding along with a whole bag of magician’s tricks used by the writer. But to perfect your story, be it a novel or screen play or memoir, you need to apply the logic that comes with plotting and planning. Now, stories often come from a kind of dream place, or the unconscious or subconscious if you will. Because storytelling has these gossamer origins, often they don’t want to conform to a 3-act structure or hero’s journey. The writer can get stuck between the desire to improvise and discover and the need to outline or plan. That’s when you cover the basics by sketching a beginning, middle, and end, however brief.
Now, some lucky writers can see the story as a whole, will know their ending from the get-go. Some writers though find that writing fiction is an act of discovery, a search for meaning and truth. No matter if your process is a compulsively-finite plot chart or a loosey-goosey freefall, at some point, you need to clarify the main events and why you’re using them, and know how your main characters will suffer and change. Most stories also need a truth, a grounding in the real or fictional world, and a cause-and-effect sequence of events.
- A protagonist who will suffer and somehow change* because of the story events.
- The suffering and changes will be unique to the protagonist’s background and weaknesses.
- The protagonist’s emotional or physical baggage hinders his or her success.
- An inescapable setting or environment suited for a significant backdrop and interactions. Better yet, one that presents an additional obstacle.
- An event, circumstance, incident that kicks off the story and presents a problem. This incident forces the character to react or make a decision. It’s the set-up for the drama to follow.
- A moment where the protagonist is engaged, even if reluctantly, in solving the problem and there is no turning back.
- A plausible reason for the protagonist to engage in solving the problem or achieving a goal.
- A complication, twist, or test that makes the problem more difficult to solve.
- An ending that plausibly ties up what has come before, shows the results, solves the story problem.
And if you’re thinking formula schmormula, analyze fairy tales or classic tales. Because these storytelling elements have been around since the beginning of time, which equals the beginning of storytelling. A classic tale retold by the Grimm brothers and first published in 1812 featured siblings Hansel and Gretel caught in a horrific situation. The set up: A woodcutter’s family has hit hard times. There’s not enough food to sustain the struggling family. This mirrors the reality of centuries of struggles and deprivations from crops failing, famine, and tyrannical dynasties exploiting the starving population. In a version published in 1857 their mother is dead and their father has remarried. The parents decide to lead the children into the woods and abandon them there, perhaps hoping that wild animals will provide the solution. The children overhear the desperate plot and collect stones to leave a trail to follow back home. They return home to their surprised parents. The next day the woodsman leads the children deeper in the woods and again leaves them. The children leave a bread crumb trail, but it disappears, perhaps eaten by birds.
The complication: A witch lives in the deep forest. She’s a cannibal and has constructed an edible house to lure starving children into her clutches. The hungry children fall on the house, devouring the goodies festooning it. And are, of course, captured. From there the clever children turn the tables and capture the witch. In the end they return home and their father vows to never sacrifice his children again. The plot or plan holds the story up, keeps it moving until a conclusion. You can do this.
*series characters often change less than characters in stand-alone novels.
Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart
Not all sentences end up in novels and stories. But novels and stories consist of nothing but. Sentences are the bricks as well as the mortar, the motor as well as the fuel. They are the cells, the individual stitches. Their nature is at once solitary and social. Sentences establish tone, and set the pace. One in front of the other marks the way. ~ Jhumpa Lahiri
It’s the third week in February, the moon is pearly and full, spring is awakening, and days are stretching longer. Across the globe people are falling asleep, waking up, being born, dying, making love and plotting wars, cooking, dreaming and taking a wobbly first step. Writers are penning romances and thrillers and memoirs, poems and lyrics, fake news and investigative journalism. Actors are owning the stage, singers are crooning and blasting out tunes, orchestras are tuning up, and designers are putting in the finishing touches and flourishes. Pundits are pontificating, preachers are preaching, weathermen are predicting. Parents are tucking children into bed, reading them stories, spooning soft food into babies’ mouths, holding hands with a kindergartner on the way to school. Their backs bent, workers are picking avocados, strawberries, and lettuce. This teeming planet is the stage for billions wandering and marching and running and plodding.
Some days the planetary noise, the joy and movement, the grief and laughter, and just daily getting by is deafening. At the same time, the energy and inventiveness and potency of humanity is inspiring. I don’t know about you, but I’m tapping in to all the creative energy because I’m in the midst of a reboot, a do-over, a reordering of priorities.
These days I’m brainstorming, creating plans, and filling a notebook with jottings and possibilities. It’s equal parts daunting, fun, and scary. It also means I’m stepping away from the noise and spending more time at my desk. More time quieting myself and trying to ignore the happenings in Washington. It means I’m analyzing partially-completed manuscripts, evaluating ideas, and planning new courses and workshops. I’m discovering how much I missed teaching after taking time away from it and how my typing fingers are sometimes cranky. Or maybe the word is creaky. No matter, I’m at it.
I want to tell you about a small habit that I believe is useful for writers: Every year I choose a word that amplifies how I’m going to focus my energies for the year ahead. My word for 2017 is RESOLUTE.
Resolute means moving forward with unwavering determination and focus. It also refers to backbone, stamina, digging in and not surrendering. Unwavering attention even when the effort feels like a weight too heavy. Resolute means unfaltering and unshakable. It’s a mindset that still leaves room for creativity and inspiration. Resolute means digging into specifics. Handling the details. Creating systems. Planting seeds and tenderly thinning them, watering and protecting the tender shoots.
For me resolute means defining all the parts of a process including the mop-up; making lists, and crossing off action items. Resolute means squared shoulders and sometimes late nights. Unflinching . It means your game plan is nonnegotiable. However, it also means your game plan can be tweaked and improved on. Resolute means hanging on. Because some days it’s all you can manage.
Resolute is my plan, my backbone, the doorway I’m humping through. It’s an approach that melds badassery and my inner warrior. Resolute is whole-souled and obstinate and clear-eyed. Diligent as a long-ago monk bent over a manuscript in a scriptorium. It’s my strategy against political worries, difficulty, and inner resistance.
Throughout this year you’ll find me studying the playbooks of authors who take risks, who succeed against wildly-discouraging odds. I avoid play- it-safers. No interest. Bring on the intrepid. The mountain climbers of the literary world. The authors who rip off scabs and write about their griefs and scars. The critical thinkers who clarify complicated issues. The political columnists who set things straight. The fantasy inventors who bring us wonder. The Dystopian world builders who scare us.
Steadfast is another beautiful, full-throated word. Kin to resolute, it’s a quality I value in friends and partners. Steadfast people are everywhere. The single mother up late folding laundry and making lunches. The teacher spending her free time grading papers and lesson planning. The waitress with the warm and genuine smile who makes your day better. The immigrants plucking up their courage and leaving their homelands. The lonely hearts risking at love. The full-time employee who carves out time to volunteer, sing in a choir, pursue a passion, write a novel.
How do you define resolute in your daily life? What is your North Star? What traits do you already possess that can help you remain steadfast in the months ahead? Can you muster your resources and courage? Choose goals that are attainable? Set up systems?How will you track your progress? How will you fuel your imagination while you’re focused and the word count grows? How will you use the quieter winter months for mapping your course or progressing on your current project? How will you remain loyal to yourself? Choose yourself?
Keep it lit
According to The Guardian sales of George Orwell’s 1984, published 67 years ago, are now soaring. The novel warns about government propaganda, an authoritarian culture and historical revisionism, now jarringly resonant. It’s where the term Orwellian comes from.But you probably already know that.
The New York Times is also weighing in on this phenomena. The Atlantic is reporting that books by Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, and Hannah Arenldt have also had a spike in interest over the past year. Isn’t that heartening? I’ve been predicting that books sales will rise, especially dystopian tales. Dystopian novels are “chiming with people” Jess Harrison a London-based editor at Penguin said. She added that The Man in The High Castle by Philip Dick, an alternative history in which the Nazis defeated America to win World War II, is also selling well, according to the Times. Huxley’s Brave New World is also selling like proverbial hotcakes.
Books are better than hotcakes or any sort of cake. Books offer respite, companionship, and insights into human nature. Reading most anything increases your ability to focus. A research study at the University of Sussex reveals that reading is the most effective way to overcome stress, better than other methods like listening to music or taking a walk. People who read regularly sleep better, have lower stress levels, and lower levels of depression compared to non-readers. Even reading for a short period, such as 6 or 7 minutes lowers your heart rate. Other research shows that reading increases your vocabulary and helps with memory. Reading also develops empathy,and enhances brain connectivity and imagination,
Meanwhile, I’ve finished reading Chuck Wendig’s Invasive. It’s a bio thriller about genetically-modified insects. The book is out in hardcover and the publisher scattered illustrations of ants crawling across the pages. Every aspect of the story contributes to a hellscape and the protagonist Hannah Stander, a futurist consultant for the FBI, has a complicated backstory since her parents are wacky survivalists. Reading it I learned a lot about ant societies and their work ethic for lack of a better term. Reading it I felt my skin crawl at times. Reading it I forgot my worries about our government and this worried world.
I started reading The Best American Mystery Stories of 2016 as I do every January. It’s a delicious compilation of crime fiction, psychological puzzles, and literary fiction. This year the collection is edited by Elizabeth George. Her Introduction and Otto Penzler’s Foreword are elucidating and thoughtful. Another aspect of this anthology that I really appreciate is the Contributors’ Notes section where the authors explain their inspirations and writing process.
Reading is good for our brains and makes us better writers. Novels show us how it’s done by teaching structure and plotting. Reading enhances our vocabularies. Savor and take notes as you turn the pages. What are you reading these days?
Keep writing, keep reading, have heart
“Writing is…. being able to take something whole and fiercely alive that exists inside you in some unknowable combination of thought, feeling, physicality, and spirit, and to then store it like a genie in tense, tiny black symbols on a calm white page. If the wrong reader comes across the words, they will remain just words. But for the right readers, your vision blooms off the page and is absorbed into their minds like smoke, where it will re-form, whole and alive, fully adapted to its new environment. ” ~ Mary Gaitskill