I read something interesting in a book titled “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” by Dwight V. Swain. In Chapter 6 (at least in my edition), “Beginning, Middle End,” Swain begins the first paragraph with this bold statement:
“All stories are ‘about’ the same thing: desire versus danger. Each concerns a focal character’s attempt to attain or retain something in the face of trouble.”
Huh. That is quite interesting to contemplate, isn’t it? Are all stories essentially variations on that theme? I suppose, upon reflection, I have to agree with him. Every story we write must move at least one character through a challenge of some kind - whether it is something desired or something that character wishes to not lose. I will add that there are countless variations on that simplistic notion. A character could desire to be out of pain, for example. So, we could say that he desires painlessness, but in truth his desire is to be rid of something, more than to attain something. I digress.
The fact is, every story does need to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and all along the way, we must be drawn in by the character’s quest, whatever that may be, and the obstacles that are presented along the way. Let’s say you are writing a story about a woman who is in an abusive relationship. She may not even realize that what she really wants is to have a happy, pain-free life, and to be loved. We want that for her, though, as a kind of universal concept that being loved and appreciated is good and that being yelled at or hit is bad. Somehow the story must take us through the process of getting her past the obstacles (e.g. an obsessive husband like the one in Sleeping with the Enemy) to a resolution.
The process of doing that is a bit like weaving. You have tools to work with - your imagination, your writing skill, and your ideas for how to make this story unique. Like a piece of woven material, the piece must have a beginning, a middle and an end. It will be like no other woven piece, because the skill you bring to it, the threads you choose to include, and how you finish it at the end will all be unique.
One more thing on the weaving analogy: like a piece of woven fabric, your fiction piece will not look good at first. You won’t be able to fully imagine the finished piece until it is complete. So don’t judge its merits when you are only halfway there.
When you start a piece of fiction, think about these things:
- What is the character’s desire or quest?
- What are the obstacles that are in the way of achieving it?
- How will you weave in the setting, the minor characters, an antagonist, and interesting action and dialog?
- How will you build tension and suspense along the way?
- How will you resolve the primary conflict, and bring the story to a close?
Thinking about it this way hopefully takes out some of the mystery behind the craft of storytelling. It’s about creating a story that we (readers) want to read because we are riveted by that character’s problem and we simply must find out how it will all be resolved.
@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.
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