In which I wax philosophical about story structure, TV tropes, and the question of whether my life imitates the stories I tell, or if it's the other way around.
For years and years I proclaimed
that if I ever got high cholesterol when I was old, I’d cut meat out of my diet
before I’d cut out salt. Salt and I have had a long love affair that began when
I was but a wee thing and continued until four months ago. I salted everything.
I licked the salt out of the bowl after I finished my popcorn. Then I developed
Meniere’s disease even though I'm only thirty, and now can eat only 1/20th of the normal daily
allowance now. This is very difficult to do.
But the funny thing is, so many
thing seem to happen in my life this way. I’m not a superstitious person, but I’ve
noticed this odd pattern. Whenever I declare something out loud or on twitter
or facebook, it’s doomed to change the next day. Especially declarations like:
I’m feeling better and finally have more energy, or: my writing habit is going
great, I think I’ve really gotten the hang of the discipline of meeting a daily
word count! Or: wow, my son hasn’t gotten into any trouble at school for two
Then inevitably, what feels like every single time, almost immediately
the other shoe drops, and life barges in and negates the statements I so
This is exactly what we writers
love to do to our characters too. For example, there was this moment in last
week’s episode of The Walking Dead
where all the characters are standing around, smiling at one another, finally having a good day. The camera
lingers as the characters’ eyes meet each other. You get the sense that rifts
are being reconciled, that our hard-scrabble favorites are going to be okay
after all. And then BOOM! Zombie attack!
The writers and tv crew intentionally gave you that golden moment before hand
to make it all the more heart-wrenching when, a few seconds later, all hell
It’s how I build my narratives
too. Writing is all about reversals. You know,
where a character starts off the chapter stating that they will NEVER do
something, then by the end of the chapter circumstances have forced them into
doing the thing they swore they never would. For my books, I want a reversal at
the end of almost every chapter. Well, either a reversal or a revelation. These
are things that make you go OH MY GOD! And then of course you just have to read
on to the next chapter to find out how it will resolve itself.
But it’s funny, because growing up, I was always
annoyed by reversals in books and tv shows I watched. TV shows are the kings of
reversals. Ex: Carrie starts one episode of Sex
and the City feeling all happy and glowy about keeping her toothbrush at
Big’s place, imagining that it is a sign of real growth in their relationship.
And then by the end of the episode, they are broken up. Another perfect example
of this is the season 6 Doctor
Who episode called “A Good Man Goes To War.” River foretells: “This is the
Battle of Demon's Run. The Doctor's darkest hour. He'll rise higher than ever
before and then fall so much further.” And then we get to watch exactly that
When I was younger, I assumed these were all superficial,
totally made-up conflicts. I thought: life doesn’t work like that. You don’t
have some nice opening scene where you expect one thing (and say it out loud),
then a hair-brained turn of events brings about it’s opposite. I thought they
just did it because it was the expected framework for tv shows.
But now, as I watch the pattern repeat over and over
and over in my life, I’m not so sure. Maybe that story structure isn’t just an
artificially manufactured conflict for the sake of filling thirty minutes or an
hour of tv. Really this structure has been around for a long
time. I mean sheesh, take Oedipus. An oracle tells a king his son will kill
him, so the king has the baby put out on the rocks to die, only for someone to
rescue the child and the son grows up and unknowingly kills his father on the
road one day anyway.
These are strange lessons—that the
things we want to avoid will so often come to pass in spite of our best
efforts. That moments of triumph are so often followed by moments of loss and
despair. But even through the disappointments and despair, the fictional characters grow
from such moments. They learn and change and hopefully become better and wiser
for their hardship. It’s what I hope for my life as well.