What to Do When You’re Not Joseph Smith
I presented the following at the Association for Mormon Letters Annual Conference February 27, 2010.
When it comes to writing, I am an Oliver Cowdery. I’ve got a few smarts and an education. I can write my way out of a paper bag. But when compared with Joseph Smith, I’m nothing special. You remember that after acting as Joseph’s scribe for a while, Oliver wanted his own chance at translating the Book of Mormon. If he was at all like me, he likely envied Joseph’s ability to enter into the ecstatic muse of translation, and wanted his own taste. So he managed to get permission from the Lord to do some translation, but when he tried his hand at it, he failed. Why? According to Doctrine and Covenants 9, Oliver hadn’t prepared well enough. “You have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me,” reads the revelation.
This verse encapsulates my many early years of attempted writing. I would get an idea that I thought had some potential and sit down to write. I had great faith that the muse would descend upon me and push words out of my fingertips. But it never worked. Never. I would frequently find my idea dried up and dead by the end of a single page. A narrative brick wall blocking my way.
It soon became painfully clear that I was in no way a natural born storyteller. But I’m a persistent little cuss, and I decided to learn how stories work the same way a mechanic learns how an engine works, or a doctor the human body. So what follows are the observations of one who had to learn story structure from the ground up. I’m like an autistic person who learns to read the emotions of others only through mapping the human face. I find the wheels and gears, the organs and veins of stories and watch them work.
I’ve never been very good at talking about what I’ve learned. People often accuse me of pushing formulaic storytelling. But what I try to present is a set of principles. These principles, far from fettering me, have unleashed my creative abilities. They’re like launching pads, booster rockets, and navigation systems, helping me chart a course. I know that many people believe that outlining a story will neuter the creative process. That the Muse will not descend on too tidy a brain. And this may well be the case for some writers. Like Joseph Smith, some people might just have the right wiring for ecstatic storytelling. But as far as I’ve been able to tell, these people are few and far between. I think the rest of us can enhance our storytelling abilities with a bit of planning.
For me, planning is the enjoyable creative work that precedes any complex endeavor. It resides in the architect who labors to draft the plans for a magnificent building. I enjoy crafting the mainspring of a story and arranging the gears around it to achieve maximum effect. I enjoy sculpting and articulating the bones so that when they are covered with flesh, the body can move uninhibited. And then, when writing time comes, I find myself in possession of extra creative energy that I can pour into the drawing of characters, precise word choice, and apt metaphors because part of my brain isn’t worried about what will happen next in the story. I never hit dead ends. And often, in the thick of writing, I stumble across exciting ways to improve on the story. My own little bits of ecstasy.
So, with that introduction, I’ll talk about a few elements that I use as I prepare a story or a personal essay. The fist few principles will likely strike you as elementary, but I hope my formulation of their interaction will be helpful.
The most basic thing people look for in a story, even if they are not aware of it, is character change. Take a look at great literature and, with the exception of comedies, you will find that the main character goes through a mighty change, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Think of Henry V, or Bilbo Baggins, or Frank Miller. In this way, my approach to crafting a story is very character driven. The ways of coming up with a character are numerous. You likely have a way that works for you. When I’ve deveopled a character, and maybe even a situation, I appreciate having methods of plumbing the character’s depths, of finding his or her weaknesses and strengths, and of testing his or her character.
The first principle that has allowed me to do this is called a goal.
The goal is the basic propellant of a story. It’s like the gas you put in a car. If the character has a small goal, any potential change will also be small. A large goal will increase the potential for change and therefore the power of the story. Now when I say small goal or large goal, I’m not necessarily talking in Hollywood terms. Taking down an earth-destroying super villain verses trying to get a bicycle back doesn’t have to equal big and small. A large goal is one that demands much from a character’s emotional and relational resources.
Principle 2: Opposition.
Along with the goal comes the need for antagonism: someone, or something, that opposes your character’s reaching of the goal. Again, you don’t need to think of opposition in Hollywood terms. A good antagonist can be the indifference of a large city or the prejudices of a small town. It can be the protagonist’s own fears, or a family tradition, or a piece of music. What you need is something or someone to resist your character’s attempts at the goal. Why do you need this resistance? Because otherwise your character will not struggle and will not change.
As the story goes along, the opposition should get stronger. There’s not much need for this principle in short stories where often there is room for only a single struggle, but in longer works, I have found it to be essential. Once you’ve tested a character to an intensity of 3, the character has demonstrated that he or she can also overcome opposition of intensity 2. But an intensity of 5 has yet to be attempted. The higher intensity the opposition is, the more powerful the story.
The story of a character with a goal who encounters opposition over a period of time looks kind of like the schema below; a series of goal attempts by the protagonist that result in larger and larger conflicts with the antagonist:
But this is the realm of the Saturday morning cartoon or the superhero movie. The goal merely tests the protagonist’s strength, or cleverness, or ammunition. The only thing the character needs to succeed is more of something than the opposition. But we’re here to talk about literary writing. In my definition, literary writing goes beyond the goal, heading into the dramatic need.
The Dramatic Need
The dramatic need is something in the protagonist that needs to change. The change is often a spiritual or moral one that strikes at the core of the protagonist’s life. As with the goal, the more sacrifice it takes for the character to achieve the dramatic need, the more powerful the story is.
It is often difficult to build a full-bodied dramatic need into a short story simply because there is so little time to make the change seem real. Think of half-hour sitcoms where a character says, “Oh, I see now that I was being insensitive. I will change.” We are rarely moved by such declarations simply because we don’t believe the change really occurred. This is why so many short stories that work have as their climax a character first glimpsing the terrifying notion of change, or suffering under the weight of consequence brought on by their brokenness.
If you build this into the schema, you’ll see that the dramatic need is often in direct conflict with the goal.
This is because goals are illusory. They rarely address the soul, though they often act as a metaphor for the dramatic need. Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all these things shall be added unto you.” The Buddha said that is it our desires that bind us.
I’m in the middle of watching the HBO television series, The Sopranos, many of the episodes are excellent examples of literary writing: the characters have compelling goals that are deftly balanced by their dramatic needs. Tony Soprano, for example, learns at the beginning of the first season that his deepest fear is that his position as a mob boss will strip him of his family. In one episode, he and his daughter are touring New England colleges. On the way, she confronts him with her evidence that he has ties to the mob, and he is semi-truthful with her. In return, she is truthful with him about her recent use of speed. “We have that kind of relationship, right?” she asks. “Where we can be honest with each other?” Tony wants that relationship really bad. His family means a lot to him.
The problem is, Tony spots a man who used to be a member of his father’s gang. The man had assisted the law in setting up a sting that had killed some of Tony’s friends and sent his father to jail. He is rightly angry with the man. He also takes his oath to his mob very seriously and knows it is his duty to off the man for his crime against the organization. He also wants to avenge his dead. His goal for the episode is to make sure this man is who he thinks he is, and take him down. But his daughter keeps catching him in incriminating situations: using a pay phone when his hotel room phone works fine, leaving the room in the early morning, coming home with mud on his shoes and lacerations on his hands. Their new-found honesty becomes untenable. How is he supposed to tell her that he’s tracking down a man so he can kill him? How can he not track this man down and kill him?
Tony reaches his goal in the end. He positively identifies the traitor and kills him. But his relationship with his daughter crumbles. He can’t be honest with her and she can tell. He’s losing his family, just as he had feared.
This ending is compelling because the goal and the dramatic need are deeply at odds. This is often the case with good literature. The more tension exists between the goal and the dramatic need, the more powerful the story is.
The basic structure of a drama is that a character meets his or her dramatic need. The basic structure of a tragedy is that the character doesn’t meet his or her dramatic need, often because he or she reaches his or her goal. The basic structure of a comedy is that the character changes only minimally, if at all.
I found it interesting to apply these principles to the recent, highly successful move Avatar. I enjoyed the movie—actually watched it twice, which I rarely do—but I was disappointed by the story. The basic idea is that a crippled Marine named Jake becomes part of a program that places him inhabit an alien body. His mission is to find a way to convince a tribe of aliens to relocate so humans can mine a vein of valuable ore located beneath their village. The story goes along fine for the first act: Jake tries to become a part of the tribe, meeting opposition along the way. Then he meets larger opposition in the humans who are willing to bring their superior technology and firepower to bear on the village. There are goals a plenty, and there is also a stab made at a dramatic need. Jake does, after all, forsake his own people for the aliens. That seems like quite a change, and the movie tries to give it weight at the end when Jake’s human nemesis says, “How does it feel to betray your own kind?” However, how much did Jake have to sacrifice in order to join the alien culture? The movie makes it very clear that there is nothing Jake wants in the human world. He has no legs there; he has no community or family. The humans that surround him are ruthless, unfeeling moneygrubbers. On the other hand, there’s this great family-oriented race of blue-skinned supermodels who fly around on cool winged reptiles. Where’s the sacrifice? Had the story provided Jake with some compelling reasons for staying with the humans, the story would have been more powerful because then Jake would have had to sacrifice. And sacrifice is the foundation of a powerful story.