Saturday, January 24, 2015

What is a Story? An Etude in the Key of C

by John M. Daniel

I took [the letter] up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.  ~Huck                                                                                                                                                          

Rust Hills summed it up thus: Something happens to someone.” That’s it. Plot (something happens) and character (to someone).Okay, but what happens? Change. Or someone is, at the end of the story, a different person from the one who she or he was at the beginning.

How does that come about? It could be because of chance (a trolley runs over his foot, so he will never be able to tap dance again) but more often, and more interestingly, it’s because the character has made a choice.

The choice arises from a conflict. Remember: no conflict, no story. Conflict resolution, which comes in many forms, is what results in choice, and therefore in change. By the way, the conflict is often the outcome of a crisis of conscience, and results in a shift in the balance of power.

Yes, the choice itself has a consequence. The change, yes, we talked about that. But maybe a greater change. The moral center of gravity may have shifted. To make our story important, make that choice consequential. Write about what matters: the human condition. Write about love and death.

This critical moment of change, this catharsis, for reasons as old as the creative process, and even the procreative process, usually happens at the climax of the story.

If you don’t believe me, ask Huck Finn.

So as we write our stories, let us remember all of these ingredients listed here in alphabetical order:

Catharsis, Center of Gravity, Chance, Character, Change, Choice, Climax, Condition (human), Conflict, Conscience, Consequence, Creative Process, Crisis, Critical Moment . . . and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few.  

(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, Medallion Books. Read his interview to learn more about John M. Daniel. The book is available in print, ebook and audiobook editions.)

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