The Narrative

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day about the difference between “plot” and “narrative.” This friend – Chris Kelley, to give full credit – toils in the television industry, and was the one to use the word narrative to name what I am about to describe. For Chris, it is a particularly important distinction, as television can seem, almost more than any other story-driven art form, particularly fixated on plot.

Or is it? What we are calling narrative is very much like what I have called the “intentional arc,” that unifying feeling or idea to which all action and characters are beholden. The narrative, however, is more about the flow of the story. What is the difference? The plot in a story is what happens, or the “physical arc,” as I have called it. Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back. That, on the very surface, is what happened.

But the narrative is what it felt like within the story from moment to moment. That is, what did it feel like when the boy got the girl, and then what did it feel like when the boy lost the girl, and so on? What does it feel like to be scared and then safe, in love and then alone? The narrative is the flow feeling, from high to low, from quiet to noise, chaos to peace, that forms the actual movement of any story.

In other words, what happens does mean as much as the feelings these portrayed events stimulate in our readers. It does not matter that our heroine is being chased by a knife-wielding killer, it only matter what it feels like before she was chased, while she was chased, and after she was chased. Without the feeling of safety, danger, safety – the event is meaningless; in fact, it doesn’t even exist.

In this way, our job as writers is much more to find events that match feelings, than to figure out what it feels like to experience certain events. At the end of the day, every living person wants to feel good. Some of us feel good after we’ve been scared; some of us feel good after falling in love; some of us feel good learning to cope with loss – regardless, we are always seeking that which allows us to feel as good as we can feel, both in life and our stories.

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A Simple Guy

When I was a boy, I was accused once or twice of having too simplistic a view of life. This stung. It seemed my simplicity would deprive me of whole layers of life available to complex thinkers. And so, being fiercely competitive and pathologically goal oriented, I set out to complicate myself and the stories I was going to tell.

Nothing could be easier, really. Fear, for instance, complicates things immediately. Try to argue with your fears and you find yourself wrestling with an octopus that grows a new tentacle for every rational escape route you discover. Eventually, your octopus has hundreds of arms and is very complicated indeed as life becomes a great ball of yarn you were commanded at birth to untangle.

In this same way, I often resisted letting my stories be about one thing. If I did this, they would be simple and predictable and boring. What I have found, however, is that by allowing the stories to be about one thing—one theme, one conflict, one resolution—my stories are actually less predictable.  Why?  Because I have more command over the material. When I have tried to do too much, the stories simply haven’t made emotional sense. They weren’t complicated, they were just jumbled.

I still have to remind myself to keep my stories simple, and as always it is a matter of trust. When I’m searching for the story, and I’m in that murky place where the pieces haven’t lined up, the temptation is to keep throwing more ingredients into the pot hoping that by having enough it will add up to a story. But every good conflict has within it a satisfying resolution if you allow yourself to find it. In the end, I must return to the simple but interesting idea that drew me to a story, and trust that within it is all that this story needs.

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Feel First

I was once sitting in a hotel bar with some co-workers having a post shift cool-down. I noticed a woman sitting across the bar by herself. She was dressed strangely alluringly, and she kept looking up from her drink as if she was looking for someone. Not expecting someone, but looking for someone. Eventually her eyes landed on me and I understood that she was a prostitute and that I was being sized up as a potential client. This is a look not unlike you would receive from a vendor in a mall kiosk to determine if you might want a hair de-curler or foot salt, only more predatory.

Once she had concluded I was not a possible customer and her attention wandered elsewhere, I nudged one of my coworkers and told her about the prostitute because I guess I was just that unworldly that I had to tell somebody.

“So?” said my friend. “Maybe you should take her up on it?”

“One, I’m married; and two—no.  It would be awful.”

“Why?  It’s just sex?  Why would it be so awful?”

I can’t remember what I said at the time, but it was unconvincing; I ended up sounding vaguely like a televangelist. I’m sure my friend pitied my wife for having married such an uptight rube. It was not until recently that I understood why it would have been such a bad idea for me, whether I was married or not.

If I had hired the woman, I would have done so for one of two reasons: either because I believed I was not worthy enough for a woman to be with me unless I paid her; or because I wanted to pay her, because I felt women had too much control over the mating dance and this was my only way of gaining control back. Or some other reason, but these will do. The point is, in order to go through with the act I would have to believe one of these unhappy stories. In fact, I would have to maintain the story and the feelings it engendered from proposition to payment or else I would lose the desire because the desire was based upon the feeling of the story.

In other words, I would have to consciously make myself feel bad in order to do it. Sometimes it seems as though we already feel bad and so we act from this bad feeling and there we are with a table full of coke or a hotel prostitute. But in truth, we maintain the story all along the way. If we did not keep telling the story, we would lose the energy for whatever we were doing.

Which is why one of my rules of writing is: feel first, write second. But feel what you want first, and then find the story to fit it. You can tell yourself any story you want, just as you can choose any book in a bookstore. You might as well pick the one that makes you happiest.

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Flash Of Understanding

Some friends and I spent the other night reading and “work-shopping” some flash fiction. I’d never read nor written flash fiction, so it was a fun introduction to this mini-story format. It pleased my ex-sprinter’s heart. Despite the length – 200 to 400 words – it was decided that flash fiction still worked best when it conformed to the traditional concept of story: beginning, middle, end; rising action, conflict, resolution, and a change of some kind by the protagonist.

It was a good test of sorts for novelists. See how much you can get done with very little. I love the expansiveness of the novel, but as one short story writer – I don’t remember whom – once commented, “Novels are great. You can just write anything you want to.”

Not quite, of course, but after writing the flash fiction I took his point. With so little time, one has no choice but to insinuate most of what you are trying to share. It reminded me again how much of art is the mastery of open space, or for writers, what is not said but understood nonetheless.

I have often felt misunderstood. I have learned through stories – and, yes, these blogs – that being understood—precisely, I mean—is perhaps not the point. Rather, the point of communication may be to stimulate others toward whatever ends they desire. I don’t know what those ends are, but I feel that I know what it is to pursue something, to follow a desire, and that if I seek the feeling of love in whatever I do, that alone will carry the day. If I seek the feeling of love in what I write, then what is not said, those open spaces left for the reader, would hopefully be filled as well by love, and so the work is done.

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Slice Of Life

As a reader, I have long loved what I perceived as a story’s complexity. Not complexity of plot necessarily, though that can be satisfying, but the complexity of emotional layers moving the story forward and the resulting emotional breadth I experience in following that story. Stories are like wine this way. It’s perfectly nice to drink a wine with one, pleasant flavor note, but so much more interesting when the wine has many flavors that combine to deliver a singular taste experience.

The more I write, however, the more I find it necessary to view stories as simple. At their heart, most stories are quite simple: A man journeys home from a war to his wife; a middle class woman is undone by her dreams of a grander life; two young lovers are kept apart by their families’ hatred. The layers come from asking one question over and over: why? Why is the man journeying home? Why does the woman want a grander life? As we ask and answer and ask and answer these questions, the stories acquire layer upon layer of motivation.

When a writer is able to find a rich layer of motivation, the result, for me at least, is quite delicious. So delicious, it can feel as if the writer has somehow opened an aperture to the whole of life. I was so accustomed to that experience of viewing all of life through the keyhole of some wonderful story, that, as a young writer, I began with the objective of revealing the entirety of life in one story. Unfortunately, “the entirety of life” is not a story.

Now, I frequently remind myself to see my stories as simply as I can. I am seeking only a slice of action from life. However, if I look deeply into that narrow slice of action, if I let myself tell that story completely, it can be as if I’ve cut a paper-thin swath from the tree of life. Within that single swath is every ring, the very same rings running up and down the entire tree.

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Problems

Einstein famously said that we cannot solve a problem on the level at which it was created. Problems, of course, come in many forms. Writers must contend with writing problems, such as, “How do I get my character from here to there?” In truth, this sort of problem is not a problem at all but the reason we chose to write. Understanding why and how our characters will go from here to there is called writing and is presumably what draws us to our desk every day.

But sometimes the answer of why our characters do the things they do is not always so easily found, and this is when another problem arises, a real problem. This is when we might be tempted to think, “I will never know why my characters do what they need to do,” or, “No one will be interested in what these characters do.” There are a thousand variations on this form of grim fortune telling, but all the problems are really the same, and the operative word when trying to solve them is, “think.”

Which brings me back to Einstein. The level on which the problem of “What if?” was created was your brain. Brains can think anything at all. They are marvelously flexible and totally loyal. They cannot, however, predict the future. Asking your brain to predict the future is like asking your five year-old to drive your car.

So you’ve asked “What if?” and now doubt has entered your castle. You cannot argue with this doubt. That is the level on which the problem was created. Because the doubt is about the future and your brain, which you are using to argue the doubt out of your castle, does not know the future, you will only create more trouble. Do not try and think your way out of doubt.

To be rid of the doubt, remind yourself of this: The question, “What if?” does not exist. It is a phantom of your own creation. You cannot argue with a phantom—arguing with it merely sustains it. Dismiss it and doubt will disappear like smoke. It’s not always pleasant to be reminded that we are the source of all our own suffering, but better us than someone else. No matter how hard I have tried, everyone else seems to keep doing whatever they want to do. At least I can choose what I think or don’t think.

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The Full Story

My youngest son loves comedy. Unfortunately, a lot of the comedy he seems to like is aimed at an audience a few years older than he, and so many of the jokes sail over his head. He laughs anyway, because he likes to laugh with the crowd, and then asks, “Why is that funny?”

Of course, it is impossible to explain a joke in such a way as to make it funny to the person who did not get it when it was first told. This person might understand intellectually why it was funny, but they have missed their chance to laugh because the humor in all jokes lies in what is not said, what the audience fills in. Consider:

A blonde, a brunette, and a redhead walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this? Some kind of joke?”

If you have to explain that many jokes begin with a blonde, brunette, and redhead walking into a bar it is no longer funny. We make it funny by finishing the joke. Stories are like this too. In high school, and even college, we are often asked to delve into the “theme” of a famous book or story. The theme is what the story is “about.” But trying to describe after the fact what any story, especially a story with a few layers to it, is about is much the same as trying to explain why a joke is funny. You will always fall short.

The very best stories are always about the fullness of life. And so while one story’s theme might be summed up as “Love Thyself,” this does not begin to encompass what is required to love thyself, the combination of surrender and acceptance and joy and perhaps even some sorrow. The reason the story was written is because simply saying “Love Thyself” isn’t enough. Within the empty spaces of the story, those spaces the writer leaves for the reader’s own imagination, the fullness of life is felt, and only then is all a story was meant to be understood.

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What We Want

As I wrote in May (“The Last Arc”), I see each story as possessing three arcs: the physical, the emotional, and the intentional. The physical arc is everything that happens; the emotional arc is the changes your characters experience while doing everything that happens; and the intentional arc is what the story is actually about, the reason you wrote it—it’s meaning, if you will.

I’d like to look again at the emotional arc. As I mentioned in my prior article, the emotional arc is most easily described as what each of your characters wants. As Kurt Vonnegut was supposed to have said, every character in every one of your scenes has to want something, even if it’s a glass of water. True enough. But I am going to take it one step further and say that the only thing any of your characters ever actually wants is to be at peace. Why? Because that’s all human beings want.

This is often difficult for us to remember. Someone shouts at us from a car, breaks into our house, cuts in front of us in line, and we might think—well, I won’t print what we might think. But the truth is, just because someone does something awful like rob, cheat, or even murder does not mean they aren’t seeking peace, it just means they have a mistaken idea of how this peace will be achieved. Murderers believe, if only for as long as it takes to pull a trigger, that they will not know peace as long as this other person can draw a breath. They soon learn the truth of it, but not until they are labeled monster for their mistake.

Mistakes are what make our characters so interesting. So much of fiction is about characters taking strange and even disastrous routes toward their own peace. As writers, it is our job to understand why these characters, both antagonists and protagonists, believe in their routes, and what it takes for them to learn the truth. It’s called compassion, a writer’s greatest tool. Writers spend a lot of time constructing a character’s personality, that veil of desires that keeps each one running this way and that—yet beneath the veil there is always the same current of human potential, the desire to see that which we know within us revealed to others as it has been revealed to ourselves.

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The Mirage

Here is a familiar scenario. Your friend breaks up with her boyfriend. She calls you, despondent—this was supposed to be The One. You meet her at a coffee shop. She is wondering what is wrong with her. She is wondering why her relationships never work. They had a lot in common. He was good looking and had an interesting career. They liked the same movies and music. She wants you to tell her if she is in fact as big a loser as she suspects she is so that she can take the steps necessary to correct and not spend the rest of her life bitter and alone.

You tell her that the relationship was problematic from the start. You remind her of late night phone calls, her ranting about his latest insensitive maneuver. You remind her how distant he could be; that he flirted with other women in front of her. You tell her that the relationship was never meant to work and that is it is best that it is over so that she can find someone with whom she can be happy.

Both these stories were pulled from the same event—the friend’s relationship. Both narrators, if you will, focus on the details needed to make their “case.” What does life mean? We pick our details and we decide.

We spend our lives surrounded in stories: newspapers, sports, television, movies, books. We tell each other stories; we tell ourselves stories. The stories keep coming and coming and coming, and each of them a reduction, each of them a selected series of details connected to bring an audience to a desired emotional destination.

When I see the world as a static thing upon which I must merely report, it feels dead, and I never want to write another word. But when I see it as a banquet of infinite detail, all of it equal, all of it there to be used or not in accordance with the perspective I wish most to share, the story I wish most to tell, the world becomes friendly and alive. You will always see what you believe is before you. When I accept this mirage quality of life, I let myself see what I most want to see, and then tell stories about it.

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Plenty

Suspense author Steve Berry (The Emperor’s Tomb) made an interesting aside during our interview last week (which will appear in the January issue). He mentioned how his breakout novel, The Templar Legacy, was released the same year as Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar. According to Steve, the two novels were, “the exact same story,” only told with different perspectives, which he felt made them completely different stories. He went on to say that the two books were not in competition; that in fact the success of one fed off the other.

I love this story for two reasons. First the story, “the plot,” is not as important as how a writer tells it, what perspective the writer brings to it. We know this is true. We know that if we handed four writers the same story outline, each would write a “different” story, even though each would follow the same order of events. I would go so far as to say that two people are incapable of telling the “same” story.

Which brings me to the second thing I love about this story: We aren’t in competition. I know there are writing contests and awards, and I know that there are only so many publishing contracts being handed our every year, but what is to be done about it? There is no finish line you can see that you must get across first. All a writer can do is tell the story he or she wishes to tell as well as he or she can tell it. No matter how derivative that story might be, for good or bad, it will still be that writer’s alone.

No one can compete with you as a writer because no one can write your story but you. And even if someone is publishing stories like yours, then that writer will only serve to attract readers to the corner of the bookstore you and he both occupy. The very idea of competition is born from the lie that there is not enough—not enough readers, money for advances, paper, ink . . ..

It is a lie. Somehow, once you tell the story you most want to tell in the way you most want to tell it, there is always enough. Somehow, there is always a publisher, readers, money. Perhaps the best question is not, “Is there enough?” but, “How much will I give?” If you can dip as far into the well of your imagination as your thought can reach, and if you offer up every ounce of what you find, the world, forever a mirror to your every gesture, will reciprocate immediately in kind.

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