It is week sixteen of 2019. How’s the writing going? My work has mostly been on hold this week as I played tour guide for visiting family. It was a giddy highlights reel of sights and sounds and tastes. But the image that sticks with me is one that I stored away at the very beginning of the week.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is one of my favorite places in the city, and the Alexander Calder gallery has been one of my favorite spots in the museum since it reopened three years ago. The gallery has been rearranged since I was last there, and I was immediately drawn to this stark white mobile placed against a wall the color of lapis lazuli. Like all of Calder’s work, this mobile plays with balance, the larger shapes on the right side providing ballast for the string of smaller shapes that trail off to the left. The shapes move gently when they are caught in the air currents coming from the gallery doors leading outside, but the curved horizontal axis keeps the piece strong and steady.
I thought of Calder’s mobile often this week as I read Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative because it makes a perfect visual metaphor for Wendig’s primary advice, which is to find the spine of your story and then experiment until you achieve balance. I can imagine Calder playing around with his shapes, moving them along that curved spine, seeing just how far out he could go with the shapes on the left. Did he start out with the idea of a deconstructed fish, or did he discover it as he experimented with the pieces, with the curve of that horizontal bar and with the balance of the elements?
Wendig, similarly, wants you to dive into your characters and setting and ask questions and mess around with answers until you find the shape of your story. He has much advice to give and even some rules to convey, but his overriding message is that there is no formula: “This isn’t science. This isn’t math. You can’t plug a bunch of narrative components into an equation and spit out a perfect story. The truth is, most of what I’m telling you here is wildly imperfect. It’s guesswork. It’s lies layered with horseshit layered with I-don’t-know-what-I’m-talking-about. You don’t have the answers, either.” But Wendig knows a good story when he sees it. More importantly, he believes that you know how to spot one too.
Like Lisa Cron, Wendig believes that characters are what should fuel the plot rather than vice versa: “We have this idea of plot as a big, explosive thing. A galaxy in strife! A world in danger! Hidden treasure! Secret weapon! All of those things are very large, very plotty, yes. They’re also entirely external. They are inorganic. And yet, we often approach stories this way—and it’s like trying to install a skeleton into the body after the child is born. It’s not a part of the story. When storytellers have an exterior framework into which they then plug the characters, the characters operate as secondary, as afterthoughts. And the audience has no one to ground them in the story. Characters are everything. Characters drive the narrative.” This is true, Wendig argues, because “the small story” – the emotional throughline, the story about “characters and their personal drama” – matters more to us than the big story. We may think we are there for the fireworks, but we’re really there for the deep truths.
My favorite insight of the book is that every character in a novel “shares the same narrative oxygen” and each one – supporting characters and antagonists included – is the protagonist of their own story. Some characters in a story are on parallel paths, moving in the same direction. These characters are often allies, or become allies. Other characters are following paths that are perpendicular to one another. It’s at these intersections where paths cross that the plot really occurs. Think about the possibilities here: Two (or more) characters can meet and clash, and then move on past one another, continuing their separate journeys. An intersection could become a T-junction, a place where one character’s path ends, or where a character joins the path of another.
As Wendig points out, seeing every single character as the hero of their own story will automatically steer you away from missteps like creating “strong female characters” whose sole purpose is to “leverage the dudes into action.” Instead, give all of your characters agency. “Let them all have problems, solutions, wants, and fears, and let them act on those things as independent architects within the narrative.” Readers don’t need a lot of detail about the problems and goals of minor characters, but just a few details can show the tip of the iceberg and cue readers that there is much more below the surface.
While Wendig deliberately avoids providing a grand theory of story or a set formula for creating a successful one, the book is packed with valuable material, delivered with a great deal of wit and some top-shelf cursing. (Perhaps my favorite one-liner in the book: “Note that every day with a small child is like that scene in Jurassic Park where the velociraptors learn to open doors.” Truth.) Wendig’s annotated list of “twists, tweaks, and tickles” you can use to juice up your plot will be helpful for anyone stuck in the “long slog of the mushy middle,” and his list of elements every scene needs to have would be a perfect checklist for a writer doing an initial revision pass on their first draft. He writes approachably and practically about abstract concepts like theme, trope, and metaphor, and his advice about transitions is the best I’ve seen.
Wendig admits that, even with dozens of successful titles under his belt, he still sometimes suffers from imposter syndrome. He combats it with a profound belief that storytelling is for all of us. “Storytelling is a shared tradition,” he declares. “We all get to pass around the talking stick and the magic witch’s eye. It’s not just for the priests or the chosen few.” So dive into that deep well of stories inside you and see what you are able to bring to the surface. Experiment with the pieces, rework that all-important narrative spine until you find balance, and then grab the talking stick and tell your story to the audience waiting around the fire for another tale.
Here’s to finding balance, y’all,
Next week’s book: Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose