Seven Maxims of Storytelling, Part Two

Last week, I shared the first four of my seven maxims of storytelling, advice I take with me into my rewriting projects. Today, I share the remaining three. But before we dig in, let’s review the relationship between your heroine and her plight.

Character and Plight

The central plight in your story is the core of the drama. No matter what sequence of unfortunate events you might throw at your character once you’ve chased her up a tree, ultimately, your character has to get down from that tree; the tree itself is at the core of the problem. It’s hard enough getting down out of a tree without an irritable poet throwing stones at you. So what does the tree represent in your story? What plight does the character struggle with that would be hard enough to resolve even if irritable poets weren’t throwing stones?

The plight must be explored and resolved through character. If the character’s plight isn’t shown through action and conflict, it will have little effect on the reader. Regardless of race, religion, social class, or geography, every human being can relate to the struggles of love, hate, pride, fear, trust, rage, compassion, impatience, self-pity, lust, faith, betrayal, and all our other messy, primal, monkey-brain emotions.

To do this, both in writing and rewriting, I keep seven maxims of storytelling in mind. Last week, we looked at the first four. Here then are the rest.

Fifth Maxim: Explore the tension that drives any scene in your story, and delve into the emotional struggle between the characters’ desire and the meanings they attach to those desires

Ultimately, story is the exploration of theme, and theme is revealed through characters engaged in conflicts. So it stands to reason that your heroine is not the only character struggling with the theme in your story. In fact, every character in your story, from the antagonist to the comic side-kick, has some relationship to the plight that’s at the core of your theme. This doesn’t mean they’re all struggling with that plight in the same way, but the universality of your plight is what anchors your story to your theme. So throughout your rewrite, examine the tensions that are driving each scene, and dig into the motivations of the characters and what meanings they attach to those desires. This will keep your story focused and driven toward its conclusion by tying together all of the characters’ actions to the underlying plight and the central theme.

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Sixth Maxim: Identify your heroine’s goal, and you’ll discover that ALL the characters share this goal

If your protagonist wants revenge because he believes it will set him free, then you may notice in your rewrites that all of your characters are seeking freedom in some way or another, even if they are each approaching that quest from different directions and by different methods. If your heroine wants success because she believes it will give her a sense of validation, then consider how all of your characters are in search of validation somehow.

Seventh Maxim: The resolution of your heroine’s plight involves the shedding of her old identity

As liberating as it might be, evolution and change are frightening and bittersweet. There’s always a price to be paid, a cost to be incurred. Something has to be given up, lost, surrendered. Growing up means the death of youth. Falling in love means the death of free-wheeling single days. Having a child heralds the death of irresponsibility. To evolve, your protagonist has to give up her old identity, like a snake shedding her skin. The process will be painful. The procedure will be expensive. Sometimes, evolution can even be fatal. But there can be no resolution to an insoluble problem without some cost, and a new perspective that brings about that resolution.

The Bigger Picture

The purpose of inquiring into the plight is to gain a view of the bigger picture in your story. I work regularly with a writer whose protagonist desperately wants to protect his family’s legacy, and so felt threatened by his only child, a daughter, falling in love with a man of a different religion. Even though the story was rich with conflict, this writer was unable to see how to resolve the father’s bitterness and feelings of betrayal with the imagined ending in which the father accepted his daughter’s decision and his future son-in-law. The divide seemed, in the early chapters, to be unbridgeable. How could this intractable problem be resolved?

Ultimately, the resolution emerged from a deep questioning of the nature of “family legacy” as opposed to the writer’s initial idea of “family legacy.” After all, the writer is just one person, and came into the story with one idea of what this amorphous abstract concept was. But by questioning each character’s relationship to this concept, and their deeper goals and motivations surrounding this concept, the dilemma resolved itself when the father reframed his relationship to his family’s legacy and discovered that it wasn’t about carrying on tradition and blood so much as about the unconditional love of a father for his daughter.

A well-told story is compelling because the reader understands implicitly that the heroine is struggling with an insoluble problem. As authors and human beings, it’s unlikely we fully comprehend the plight in all of its manifestations, though we almost always have some sense of it. Exploring the plight is a process that continues in the rewrite. A photographer may not always be able to explain why he snapped a picture. Similarly, authors aren’t always aware of their own motivations in writing a story. We’re attempting to capture the gossamer ephemera of life on the page. A fleeting thought. An experience not quite fully-formed by words. An idea we don’t understand. By placing these moments into the context of a story, we can give these experiences to the reader as something larger than ourselves, something beyond our own limited understanding. We take the experience of the specific, and give the gift of the universal.

And isn’t that what this holiday season is all about?

Happy holidays, one and all.

May your days be merry and bright, and

all your dreams for the impending year come true.

—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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