The other night, after finally getting both kids to sleep, David and I sat down to watch a movie. It was some kind of action thriller type thing, with some quiet dialogue scenes but also some really loud action scenes. The kids were asleep upstairs and usually we can watch whatever we want and it doesn’t wake them up, but the sound mixing was bad in this one and if we had the volume up high enough to hear the dialogue, the action scenes would end up extremely loud. So I had the remote and I would turn down the volume whenever a loud scene came on. As we watched I realized that I was actually able – with about 95% accuracy – to turn down the volume before the loud scene came on.
Because I knew what was going to happen. And that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Sometimes movies or books get criticized as being “predictable” – and it’s often leveled as one of the worst things a story could be. With good reason: if you can guess the main plot points and the ending after watching just a few minutes of a movie or reading a few pages of a book, what’s the point in watching or reading? Half the joy of a story is the surprise, the mystery of what’s going to happen next, how the storyteller is going to work this all out.
Yet, consider the other extreme: a story where you have no idea what’s going to happen, either in the ultimate plot or scene to scene. The first thing that comes to mind is David Lynch, Mullholland drive or Inland Empire era. They are so scattered and random that each scene feels like an assault. The viewer has no idea what to expect, and so is thrown about from here to there, adrift on a sea of bizarre and unexplainable images. Now don’t get me wrong, I kind of love David Lynch. The bizarre images are thought-provoking, there are interesting themes and startling ideas, powerful juxtapositions and a mood that sinks into your skin and stays with you for days. But here’s the thing, it’s not a story.
Every writer knows, to be a story you need a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s more than that, though; you also need that beginning, middle and end to flow together in a way that’s expected. We say that something (an ending, a plot development, a twist) feels “earned” when it flows naturally from what came before. And if it does flow naturally, then the reader can either guess what’s coming right before (or at least can guess that something is coming) or feels, as soon as she reads it, that she’s known all along that something was coming. The reader feels satisfied, convinced that this is a well-told story.
Of course, as with most things in life, easy to say, harder to do. As I start work on yet another new book (because writing first drafts is my all-time favorite activity) I’m pondering story structure a lot. How to get that elusive feel of an earned story without predictability. Foreshadowing helps, of course. Focus in on an item that will become important later. Show a minor scene that reveals a character flaw that will play a pivotal role in a major scene. Just use plain old words to tell your reader something is coming (“I was foolish and naive – I thought things could go on like that indefinitely.”). Foreshadowing gives the reader a sense that she knows more about the book than you realize – a sense of control – even though you’re doing it all on purpose. But foreshadowing doesn’t explain my ability to predict every action scene in that movie the other night. That’s Universal Story.
I learned about the Universal Story from The Plot Whisperer, but I’m guessing it’s a widely used concept. It’s the idea that, no matter the genre or subject-matter, all the stories we read follow a universal pattern. It’s this pattern that allows us to know what’s coming next, and it’s the universality that makes us feel at home in a story (unlike in a David Lynch movie, where we feel like someone has burned down our home and pissed on the charred remains). Stories have arcs, they have rhythms, they have a pulsing heartbeat that sometimes rests, slow and steady, and sometimes races, skipping beats in its frenzy, until it finally slows again.
The arcs and rhythms vary by genre, but not so much as you might think. I read a children’s book to my daughter – one that I’ve never read before – and I know when to pick up the pace of my words, when to add the tension to my voice, even though the development doesn’t come until I turn the page. I know because a 20-page children’s book follows the Universal Story. I read a mystery novel and I know that the calm sit-down between the narrator and the detective isn’t going to last very long – that dead body is going to show up soon and all hell is going to break loose. Because that’s the Universal Story. I read literary fiction that starts in the middle and flows back and forth between present, future and past, and I know that the big reveal is coming about twenty pages before the end of the book, because that’s the Universal Story. And I watch that action movie and I know that a car chase is coming as soon as the main characters realize they’ve fallen for each other. And you know why: Universal Story.
Sometimes writing is the best natural high I’ve ever had – freewheeling, breathless, pure flow. And sometimes if feels like torture; when I realize what I’ve written doesn’t have legs to stand on and I have to throw it all away. I wonder if I’ll ever write something good enough to publish, or if I just suffer from some deficiency, some inability to write a story worth telling. But every word is practice, every story dances around the center, coming closer and closer to that Universal Story. And I see the Universal Story in my own life: struggle is what makes the story good, struggle is the setbacks our hero encounters, always getting worse and worse, until finally, about fifty pages from the end, she finally breaks through and races toward the climax, her victory all but certain now, one last battle and then she wins. Settling down to enjoy the life she’s earned, a little denouement and then, The End.