Sunday, September 11, 2011

WHAT MAKES A STORY? An Etude in the Key of C

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.


Rust Hills, the former fiction editor of Esquire, summed it up thus: “Something happens to someone.” That’s it. Plot (something happens) and character (to someone). For extra credit, ad “somewhere,” as in “something happens to someone somewhere”; but although highly recommended, scene is optional.
Okay, but what happens? Here’s what: change. Our 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, or an outside agent (a trolley runs over his foot, as a result of which he will never tap dance again); but more often, and more interesting, than not, it’s because the character has made a choice. As the old hymn tells us, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide.” That “once” is what the best stories are about: choice.
The choice arises from a conflict. Remember this: no conflict, no story. Conflict resolution, which can sometimes take a long time and comes in many forms, is what results in choice, the consequence of which is change. And 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 important, consequential. Write about what matters. Write about the human condition. In other words, write about love and death. Those are the two ingredients of any great story.
This critical moment of change, this catharsis, for reasons as old as the creative process, the recreative process, and even the procreative process, usually happens at the climax of the story.
If you don’t believe me, ask Huck Finn.

As we write our stories, let us remember these ingredients, listed here in alphabetical order:
Catharasis, Center of Gravity, Chance, Change, Character, Choice, Climax, Condition (human), Conflict, Conscience, Consequence, Creative Process, Crisis, Critical Moment…and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few…

Preview of a coming attraction Behind the Redwood Door:

Louie Luau roared with a force that spun me around and flung me off the boat and onto the pier. I began walking toward land without looking back, picking up speed the farther I got from the boat, and the closer I got to the large man who was walking in my direction, the man in the black leather jacket. He seemed to be minding his own business at full throttle. I slowed back down and got my keys out of my pants pocket so I could make a fast getaway.

We met.

“Hello, big Guy,” he said.


“You in a hurry?”

“Yeah. I have to get back to the office.” I jingled my keys

“Come here,” he said. “I want to show you something.” He put his arm around my shoulder and led me to the railing on the north side of the pier. We stood between two bloody, stinking troughs full of fish guts. He pointed down into the water below us, where seals poked their noses up through a web of kelp. “See that?”

“What am I supposed to be looking at?”

I heard him say, “You’re supposed to be minding your own business.” And I felt his huge claws grip the collar of my windbreaker and the seat of my pants and lift me until I was out over the railing, looking straight down into the curious gaze of a brown seal with black whiskers.

“God damn it! Let go of me! Put me down!”

“As you wish, little brother,” he whispered.

My keys fell from my hand and hit the water before I did.

Behind the Redwood Door will be published November 20 by Oak Tree Press. 


Starting Friday, November 25 and continuing daily through Friday, December 9, I will be on tour—a blog tour (my first). Each day during the tour I will be hosting a different fine mystery writer, and each day a different blog of my own will appear on a different writer’s blogsite. The name of this tour is MYSTERY WE WRITE, and this is a fine opportunity to have a “chat” with some highly entertaining writers.

I invite you to hop aboard the tour, visit the ports, and while you’re at it, pick up some holiday presents for the folks back home!


  1. I certainly can't come up with any more Cs, John, but I look forward to reading Behind the Redwood Door.

  2. Great post, John! When I teach Fiction Writing, I always start with "in a short story or novel, something happens! It is not a collection of vignettes." So we agree to the letter.

    The one C missing from above - Coffee. Lots of it.

  3. Thanks, Jean and Melodie. Coffee! of course!

  4. Wow, John. If you decide to do the A-Z blogging challenge next April, you've already got your "C' post. Well done!

  5. John, once again thanks again for the reminders...always so much to offer. augie

  6. Good stuff, John. The only "C" I might add is "Chuckle." I like to include a touch of humor if the story will allow it.

  7. Anne, Augie, Earl, thanks so much. I appreciate the feedback. By the way, I'm getting a few comments direct to me via email from folks who say they can't leave a post on my blog. I'm working on that, but as a relative newcomer to the blogosphere, I may not be punching the right buttons.

  8. John, your points are well stated. I take notice, especially, of conflict resolution = choice = change. Your tips are always something to savor. The obscure term "yudaguru" comes to mind when I consider your helpfulness. I could tell you that's an old Ainu word, but then you might counsel Warren never to trust me again.

  9. Warren will always trust you, DAvid. He just told me so.

  10. Any article that begins with a quote from Mark Twain, snares in this reader. Loved every C-note I heard.
    Jackie King

  11. Thanks, Jackie (a.k.a. Anonymous). Yes, Twain is a good writer to have on your side.

  12. Very good, John, and thought-provoking. I've always told my students to think of their stories as being, "about someone who . . ." Character and action/plot. Character first, always first.

  13. You're right, Tim. Character first. but soon thereafter, what happens to character. Ergo, et sine qua non, plot.

  14. John,
    Good synopsis of what makes a story, a story. Character, of course, comes first but, if the characters aren't faced with challenges, conflict, etc., there really is no story.

  15. A change in characte either for better or for worse. I know what you're saying. In my stories, my heroine gets beat up, knocked around, shot at, but the worst are her emotions she has problems handling.

    Stephen L. Brayton

  16. Thanks, Patricia. Yes, characters need conflict to make story. And Stephen, I agree that sometimes a character's worst monsters are the ones he or she carries around inside.

  17. This was very enjoyable. The C of honest critique throughout the process by the writer certainly helps it all along. Thanks!

  18. Very true. I like how you broke it down to the very basics. As Stephen said, the change and the conflict the main characters go through are what make the story worth reading.

  19. Thanks Theresa. Critique is a good addition to the list. Angela, I agree with you: change and conflict are essential, as are the characters.