Seven Maxims of Storytelling, Part One

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” — Ray Bradbury

ray_bradbury_writing

Plight: The Source of Your Story

At the heart of every story lies a plight.

Notice that it’s not a question. Your protagonist has a plight. A problem that can’t be figured out or solved without creating another problem.

The only question is, “How effectively have you explored your protagonist’s plight?”

Through exploration of your protagonist’s plight, you come to the most dynamic version of your story, the very heart and soul of your story, the place from which all the tensions and frustrations and conflicts bubble up and erupt. Exploring the plight helps refine the clearest meaning from the raw mineral ore of your first draft. It sheds light on what doesn’t belong. It highlights those random digressions that aren’t pertinent to the central conflict and obscure its meaning. It offers clues to what still needs to be rewritten and leads you to the most effective order of events.

“A writer without interest or sympathy for the foibles of his fellow man is not conceivable as a writer.” — Joseph Conrad

“A writer without interest or sympathy for the foibles of his fellow man is not conceivable as a writer.” - Joseph Conrad

Maxims of Storytelling

In the rewriting project now ahead of me, I’ve laid out seven maxims for myself, to refine and purify the garbage that comes out of my drunken subconscious during the opening salvos of the creative process. I share them here with you, to take or leave them as you choose.

First Maxim: The purpose of story is to reveal an evolution

A plight is something that can’t be figured out. In order to connect to it, you have to invest in your characters. In my own first draft of The Wedding of Eithne, I clung so tightly to my initial idea of my characters that I choked them into submission. As a consequence, I was left with two-dimensional versions of what they should have been. I forgot my own best advice: “Don’t strangle your unborn story.”

So in the rewrite, enquire into the plight, feel free to explore your characters in surprising ways, and let your story move relentlessly toward a climax that reveals an evolution in your characters.

Second Maxim: Problems are solved, while plights are resolved through a change in consciousness

Sometimes, a writer isn’t even conscious of their story’s plight, particularly the pantsers among us, who throttle through a first draft without a plan or a roadmap. Even successful writers sometimes only have a vague sense of it. They’re aware of the mechanics—each scene must contain tension, the plot is a rising series of actions, the tension builds to an eventual climax. But this alone is not always enough to create a story that feels thoroughly satisfying, even to the writer. As you read through your first draft in preparation for your rewrite, is there a nagging feeling of something left unsaid?

There’s great value in becoming clear on the plight because it can expose aspects of your characters that lead to more dynamic situations in your work. Whether your story began as an idea, a character, or a plot, there is often a subconscious quest for resolution underlying that initial inspiration. The creative impulse struggles to make order out of chaos and set a chain of events into a context that provides some new, insightful meaning. Will your heroine leave her small town? Will your hero’s dreams come true in the big city? Will your Action Hero triumph over the Evil Overlord?

These questions appear to present problems, but they are actually providing a context through which you can explore the resolution of your plight. If your heroine leaves her small town, she doesn’t wrestle with her plight and discover that her small-town life is already wonderful. If your hero’s dreams do come true in the big city, he’s missed the point. If your Action Hero simply destroys the Evil Overlord and that’s the end, then there’s no context for the theme.

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Third Maxim: The desire to write is connected to the desire to resolve something we want to understand.

By finding the central plight in your story, you see where it exists in your own life. By exploring its resolution in your life, you find its resolution in your story.

Some of the problems I struggled with in my own life during my first draft of The Wedding of Eithne were:

  • I want love, but I don’t want to commit.
  • I want intimacy, but I don’t want to reveal myself.
  • I want to be true to myself, but I don’t want to disappoint anybody.

Notice how these problems—these plights—are visceral. They engage the imagination and demand an emotional experience. And what characterizes each of them? A powerful desire (I want love) and a false belief (love will complete me).

“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” – Barbara Kingsolver

barbarakingsolver

If you believe that love will make you complete, you might set out on a search for love and misinterpret each relationship that doesn’t resemble “completeness” and think that it somehow lacks love.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with your characters wanting love, but when they make meaning out of that desire, they actually create the impossibility of achieving that desire. By exploring the meaning that your heroine attaches to her goal, you begin to see into the true nature of her plight.

Fourth Maxim: Your heroine doesn’t rid herself of her desire; she reframes the meaning she makes out of it, and is no longer governed by it.

Every story begins with a false belief: I will be complete if I find love (or whatever). The purpose of storytelling is to reveal the evolution of that false belief, the arc of the story as it moves from false belief to truth. From ignorance to wisdom. Fear to love. Revenge to forgiveness. Whatever it is, your heroine’s false belief is the reader’s window into the the heroine’s plight and the new understanding that resolves it.

The heroine’s false belief isn’t incorrect; it just isn’t the whole story. Rather, the false belief is tested, over and over again, until the heroine gets it through her thick skull that she can only resolve her plight by surrendering her false belief and understanding her plight in a new way.

More Maxims

Next week, we’ll explore the remaining three storytelling maxims that I try to keep in mind as I re-read my first draft and prepare for my rewrite. We’ll look at tension and how it drives the scenes in your story; your hero’s goal and how even his worthy antagonist shares it; and how the resolution of the hero’s plight is like the snake’s shedding of its skin.

In the meantime, I hope you’re enjoying your holiday season and becoming a stranger to your own story as you prepare for your own rewrite project.

—33—

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About

Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in Discipline, Editing, Process, Writing craft, Writing Life

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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