This world has lost its glory,
Let’s start a brand new story.
– The Bee Gees (Words)
This song popped up on my playlist this morning and I froze for a moment as the words sank in. Some days I really do feel like the world has lost its glory. I feel like curling up in bed and never emerging, or running away and never being found. But that’s probably not the best way to go about it; rent needs to be paid (otherwise where will I put my bed?) and running away … well, that’s the backup plan, so I’m not going to scrap that option just yet. So what now? Start a brand new story.
This week I have been thinking about story structures. I have been thinking about the stories we build our lives around, the plot structure of our journey through this life (thank you, Joseph Campbell) and the complications that arise, the thresholds we cross, the tests and allies and enemies we encounter, the elixir some of us may never obtain.
In contemplating the plot of my life thus far (which has had some minor climaxes and quite a few chapters most readers would skip through), I’ve also been contemplating the plots of the stories I’ve written – and the plots I’m yet to write.
What books do you love? Do they have complicated plots and two-dimensional characters who are challenged by the world and who allow that challenging world to define them rather than challenge themselves to re-interpret the world? Do they have complex characters put in somewhat simple situations, situations made complicated by the various characters, their assumptions, and what can neatly be described as the human condition?
Often, the stories I write are complicated. And by complicated, I mean that sometimes I give up on them because I can’t keep track of where my characters have wandered off to, or what names I’ve given the various characters who pop in and out with a lot to say but not much to really contribute. You know the ones. The charlatans who appear and you think they’re going to be important but they aren’t. They take up chapters and chapters, but then they vanish and you realise those chapters are better off removed – the story is better without them.
Am I still talking about the stories I write or have I shifted to the stories of my life? Gosh, if only I could be certain …
Wherein lies the problem.
Plots are simple. Let’s face it, you start the story, you end the story, and stuff happens in between.
What makes the story interesting is how the characters deal with that “stuff”. The complications come from our characters whose beliefs are challenged, who are forced to do things of which they didn’t think themselves capable, who are influenced by other complicated characters who have their own motives and beliefs and “way of doing things”.
We are complicated. The world, however, is really very simple. In fact, if you stay in bed for a whole week, the world will keep turning (I have tested this theory several times).
Our stories are not supposed to be complicated; the world is always as it should be and the plot is fairly straightforward. Our characters are the complicated ones, the ones who throw in plot twists. The story comes from how they navigate their way through this world and interact with the other complicated characters they meet.
Campbell was on to something when he made the hero’s journey circular. We don’t tick off a list of things to do in this single story that is our life. We have a story that moves, and another story that builds onto that, and then another, and another, and … we keep going with our stories, around and around.
The world hasn’t lost its glory. The story has become over-complicated.
And what do you do if you don’t like the story?
You’re the writer.
My writing wish for you this week is for you to change your story. Maybe it’s the one you’re writing. Maybe it’s the one you’re living. Which one has lost its glory?