Percy’s Six Elements of Story: Establish A Clear Narrative Goal

I am reading Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. In the second chapter, Percy lays out his list of the foundational elements of story. Revisiting a list like this now and again is important. It keeps writers grounded in our craft, it keeps us from getting carried away on the crests of the sentences and missing the rising tide of the story.

Over the next six posts, we’ll ruminate on each of them. 

Establish a Clear Narrative Goal

In Moby Dick it’s “kill the whale.” In Frankenstein it’s “define the true monster.” In Mrs. Bridge it’s “find purpose and meaning in the mundane.”

The narrative goal is why the story exists. It’s why there is ink on pulp. This is the story’s purpose for being and the one element that, once revealed, will call the narrative to an end. 

From a writer’s perspective this is the foundation, the starting point. Until it is known, work cannot begin. This is the story’s destination. Like a road trip, we know where we’re going, even as how we’ll get there and what we’ll encounter along the way remain mysteries. The narrative goal is first in Percy’s list, and for good reason. Without it we don’t have a story.

Available Yet Unpredictable

We live in an illusion of cause and effect. We believe that if we do this, that will happen. Our expectations match this myth. We have low or high expectations based on the perceived actions of ourselves or others. The myth states that if we plan and execute we will see results.

This week I’m in Black Mountain, NorthCarolina, for a writers conference. I arrived with no elaborate plan. Sure I’d picked a few workshops to attend and planned to meet up with my publisher, but what would I take away from the week?

As I prepare to head for home tomorrow I find I’m taking a lot away. Much more than I anticipated. After a brief conversation, I’ve begun drafting a proposal for a talk at two other conferences; I’ve connected with another debut writer with whom I hope to collaborate; and I’ve been exposed to a master teacher of the craft of fiction whom I will continue to read.

What these developments all have in common is they had nothing to do with actions I took—I did not make a plan and take action to accomplish these outcomes. There was no cause and effect. These take-aways could not have been planned. 

I simply made myself available.

This is how we must live. We must simply make ourselves available. Put ourselves in places, in environments where what we want to accomplish takes place. Make yourself available and see how The Maker will impact those you meet and move your work forward through your willingness to be present.

To Wrangle and Capture

The poet Billy Collins’ latest book was released in September, Whale Day. As I do with every new Collins collection, I’m reading it slowly, treating it like the candy dish it is. Most evenings I dip in for a poem or two, often reading them aloud to my wife and the dog.

Nearing his 80th birthday, it amazes me how Collins continues to produce thoughtful, insightful, and edgy work. In this collection I find him yet more introspective, pushing his aesthetic a little further––a twist here, a turn there. It’s a delight to read.

That said, as I approach this collection––reading as I do, as a writer––I’m reminded that Collins has mastered that skill all writers (perhaps especially poets?) must master: the sensibility to wrangle and capture those moments that trigger the eye or heart, those moments in which the common man simply shrugs, grunts, and ambles on.

And this is the take-away for writers of all genres. Don’t let those moments that cause you pause to simply slip by and slide downstream. Grab a detail, a perspective, or an image from those experiences and use them to anchor your writing. Your writerly perception is a skill you must hone, for you are not like all the other lookers-on. You are a writer.

A Blind Man in a Textile Shop

Perhaps this is an illness of all creative writers. Perhaps it’s an illness with which I alone suffer. In either case, I am constantly seeking the perfect metaphor to describe the craft of making fiction––language to best describe the way it feels to write.

Today I believe I hit on one that comes very close to satisfying my search. It describes well the process, the act of writing, the work of finding your way as you place word after word, laying narrative onto paper, story onto screen.

Writing fiction is like being a blind man in a textile shop.

So often, I am guided by my gut, that invisible monitor and detector of aesthetic, rather than by the words my eyes read or the rationale divvied out by my conscious self. Today, while working on my current novel-in-progress I felt suddenly as if my sight had gone dark and I was reaching, feeling the text to see if it had the right hand––as those in the textile business call it. I felt that there was a sensor in my core that had taken over and was weighing the words, worrying them for accuracy. It was physical, yes, but ultimately intuition was judge. The text had to feel right, create a sensation when held.

Writing fiction is like being a blind man in a textile shop. 

Yes, at least for today this metaphor will do.

Two Careers

Few writers, at any stage in their career, can make a living solely off their writing. Most of us have a full-time career, what we often call a “day job.” While most of us dream of focusing all of our time on writing, our energy would be better spent learning the skills necessary and reaping the benefits of managing two careers. Here are a couple of skills where I’ve found my writing and my corporate life complement and strengthen each other.

Public speaking isn’t easy for anyone. It requires a pair of skills: writing and speaking. I have found that my ability to do this well at the office has grown as I’ve learned to read my creative work before an audience. In both cases I must compose remarks that introduce, deliver, and engage. I have found the creativity with which I do this in my writing life carries well to the corporate setting.

Project management skills entail the ability to methodically and in an organized manner get work done by forming a team and facilitating the effort of others toward a vision. Having these skills serves my writing career in too many ways to count. Because of my background in project management I know how to break down work, prioritize and sequence tasks, and apply timelines to accomplish them. I also know how to engage others and join forces to accomplish much more than I ever could alone. These serve my writing, workshops, readings, and promotional events––anytime I need to collaborate with others creatively.

As you consider it, you will soon find many overlaps, large and small, between your two careers. You will also find that having two (or more) careers isn’t that uncommon because many others have seen the benefits.

One Year Anniversary

Tomorrow, 10 September, will mark the one-year anniversary of the release of my debut novel, The Confessions of Adam. In recognition of this milestone, here are three take-aways from the experience. 

  • Involve Others. You will not be able to launch your debut alone, and you don’t want to. Engage the skills of others to help shepherd your book into the world. I enlisted an eager and willing team of friends with diverse skills such as event emcee, graphic designer, web plugin integrator, book club leader, and small business owner. Some of this was organic as I worked to create a local launch of the novel and let my needs be known, but in the end I had a base of people who were creatively engaged with me and vocal advocates for our unique effort.
  • Keep Writing. It is critical that you start and make progress on your next project. You may find you’re consumed with the book you’ve finished and have stopped writing. This may seem prudent or even helpful in the short-term, but once the excitement wanes, you’ll be left only with the writing. Make sure it’s not a blank page. The writing is the only part of the process that you fully own. Keep doing the work. I kept writing. It became a solace.
  • Tend to Everything Else. Over the last year I’ve seen voluntary and involuntary job change, the one-year anniversary of the death of my mother, the birth of my first grandchild, a close friend traverse cancer, and a global pandemic. The rest of life marches on even as this momentous goal you’ve worked toward for so long is realized. Give the people and events of your life their needed attention and consideration.

And remember to take a moment to enjoy it all. To use David Gibson’s phrase––life is gift, not gain.

First Book Club

On Saturday evening, August 29th, I will attend my first book club where The Confessions of Adam has been read and will be discussed. I’ve been invited to come and talk about my debut novel. These readers aren’t rookies. They’ve met monthly, enjoyed dinner, and read books together for over two decades.

As I prepare for the conversation, I’m pulling my notes from research, considering what I might read if asked, and gathering a few extra books, bookmarks, and author cards. But what I know is this––what I bring to this group of thoughtful readers will pale in comparison to what they will give me. They have taken the time to read my novel and I will receive an hour of reader insight––listening in as readers talk about their experiences with my book. Such conversation is invaluable as I work on my next manuscript. Such feedback informs and educates a writer like none other can. It’s a rare opportunity for which I am grateful.

The Gift of Routine

“I’ll quit when it stops being fun.” You’ve heard that one, right? Maybe you’ve said it. How about this one. “Life’s too short not to enjoy what you’re doing.”

Writing every day can feel like a rut, a bore, a routine of going through the motions with little to show for it. Many days the work can feel empty of passion, a flat obligation. I’ve felt all of this. And if I’m not careful, I find myself yearning for something else. Instead of settling into the routine, I find myself seeking excitement, wishing for the extraordinary, trying to engineer something new.

I’ve come to believe there’s another way—an accurate way—to look at our daily work.

Life is gift, not gain*. The daily routine, the repetition of sitting down to write at the same time each day, this practice of day in and day out effort is a gift. It’s part of the created order. With the first rising and setting of the sun, repetition and routine were invented. Structure was created for us to inhabit, as a form for our lives. 

In routine we are given a place and a peace. To seek something else is to fail to see the Creator’s gift in the daily pursuit of our creative work. For all of us there comes a day, or a period of time, when we cannot do our work. When a circumstance preempts our routine. During those times we wish we could go back to the routine, back to the ordinary. So enjoy the work each day brings––the delight of the ordinary, the gift of routine.

*This is one of the many ideas developed in David Gibson’s Living Life Backward.

We’re Insecure and Lack Confidence

“Yesterday evening, I started my novel. Now I begin to see stylistic difficulties that horrify me. To be simple is no small matter.” 

– Gustave Flaubert in a letter to Louise Colet, 20 September 1851

When Flaubert wrote the sentences above he had just started work on what would become the first novel of modern realism, a French classic, and a world literary masterwork, Madame Bovary

When starting a new project (and deep in the throes of one) an author will encounter feelings of inspiration and the sense he or she is on a mission, but just as quickly as these gifts of perception arrive, they will disintegrate into feelings of uncertainty—both in the conceit of the project itself and in one’s ability to pull it off.

Every author travels this terrain. And with every manuscript. Of course we cannot know what will be the fate of our work once it is out in the world, should it be so successful as to find readers. For this we can be grateful. If Flaubert had prophetically known what his new project would come to be, wouldn’t he have been further “horrified?” If I knew no one would ever read my novel-in-progress, how would I carry on?

It’s true, Flaubert was attempting to break with convention, to write in a new way, but such somersaults are attempted to some degree with every project. Every author is attempting the unknown, seeking to climb a mountain of her own invention, one he has never before seen.

So take comfort. You are in creative company with Flaubert, and every other writer of whom you’ve ever heard. And those you haven’t. We’re all walking our ridge, in search of footing with every step.

The Invention of Character

There are many examples for writing students of exercises and worksheets through which to create characters. Do a search in Google Images for “character creation worksheet.” 

Are you overwhelmed? Close your browser. Let’s talk about how working writers get this done.

People present themselves in what they say and what they do. These are a result of beliefs and experiences. And all of this is alive, complex, and full of contradictions. 

We know very little of people when we first meet. We learn through doing life with them, through conversations, through time spent together. It’s a slow process. But a rewarding one. It’s what gives much of our life meaning. A person’s hobbies or where they went to school? These are simple trivia. Their tics and idiosyncrasies, their moments of insight and magnificent blunders––these are what endear them to us.

Characters are people. They are dynamic, not static. Characters aren’t developed, they’re ever-developing. I knew nearly nothing about Oren when I began to write my novel The Confessions of Adam. I knew simply that he was from Susa, a master scribe, and a proud skeptic. All of these details came by necessity of the story. Oren walked onto the set. That is how we met.

As I wrote, I learned much more about Oren. I learned his father and he had a difficult relationship. I learned his son and he did as well. I learned about his tragic romantic life, his insecurities, and loneliness. These were dimensions of him I learned through the writing, through listening, in time spent with him––not ones I invented writing a character sketch. This is life, not a lab.

Oren became a friend. He was from a culture, time, and place unlike my own. He was at once ancient and modern. I listened to what he said, how he said it, and I came to better understand him as I wrote these down. I am convinced there are nooks and crannies of Oren I know nothing about, depths of his psyche and complexities of thought he intentionally holds back, ones he himself doesn’t yet understand, or doesn’t know how to share.

When you view a character in a story you’re writing just as you would a new acquaintance, and in time, an old friend (or enemy), you have a fully developing character.