Look up how to write a story and you’ll find a million descriptions of the different components that make up most tales. The elements we use today can be found in folklore and myth. Joseph Campbell called it the “Monomyth” or “The Hero’s Journey” and described a host of elements employed by writers and storytellers down through history – all the way back to the nights when our pre-literate ancestors gathered around the fire to frighten and delight each other with their words.
- A story has a beginning, an inciting incident, a hook.
- It has a middle where any number of complications and reversals arise while the protagonist struggles to overcome all the obstacles aligned against him or her.
- These complications lead to a thrilling or tragic or heartwarming climax, which in turn resolves to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, i.e. an ending.
For me, these are not only the elements that create a satisfying story; they also often describe the writing process itself. When I’m in the idea stage, an image, situation, character, or concept hooks me. It’s exciting! I do a little research, develop the idea in my journal for a few pages, then dive into the draft. Unfortunately, beginnings lead straight to middles, and middles are all about struggles, complications and obstacles.
As the writer in the middle, I have to manage the plot and the pacing, I have to insert exposition and make it engaging, I have to foreshadow elements of an ending that I may not have written yet. And, talk about reversals, if the story takes a different direction, and I come across an even better ending, then I have to double back and adjust everything.
For me beginnings are easy, and if I get the middles right, the ending will usually snap into place like the last piece of a puzzle. But the middles are hard. It's the territory in which I spend the most time when I’m writing. Often, it feels like sailing into the doldrums – that windless place in the middle of the ocean that trapped sailing ships for days. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about it in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
In the end it’s all about persistence. Any writer or artist who creates anything lasting has to persist over the long run by showing up day after day and doing the work, but you also have to persist when you find yourself in the doldrums of a particular project.
For example, the current story I’m working on started as a flash piece. It wasn’t quite working, so I rewrote it expanding it to four times its original length, then I did a quick revision for my critique group. So draft, expansion, revision, that’s three solid passes. I knew going into the crit that, while this story is approaching its potential, it isn’t firing on all cylinders yet. I got some great advice and ideas, but because I’m writing to the limit of my abilities, most of what I need to do is going to be difficult. I’m looking at one more major revision and then a final pass for grammar and style.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m into this story, but I’m also sick and tired of it. Sick and tired! This last revision will be the hardest. I’ve already taken care of all the low hanging fruit, now I’m working toward things that are harder to define, like transcendence and resonance, and making the tone and style support this specific tale.
This is the time when abandoning ship is most alluring, when new ideas become an immeasurably more attractive use of my time than trying to work a problem that I don’t really know how to solve. But, I believe that it’s in these revisions, where I try to fight above my weight class, that I become a better writer. So, I keep this taped above my workspace:
If there is no wind, row
~ Latin proverb
As part of my process, I do step away from a story for a day or two between revisions. Sometimes a little distance lends perspective. But, I don’t let go, because writing each story is my own hero’s journey. As a writer, I know that it’s only by rowing through the doldrums that I’ll return with the prize I’ve earned from the journey of each story.