This will be my last blogpost on the Journey Story.
Our plot outline, as detailed in the previous posts:
We’ve discussed the first two. The development of a journey story frequently arises from obstacles that come up along the way.
Imagine if a journey story had great transportation, clear highways, cheap gasoline, flawless mechanical performance, no highway patrol… boring, isn’t it?
The kinds of obstacles that come up are almost infinite. They could be physical: a car breakdown, a defective pair of hiking boots (as in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild … nonfiction, but still relevant), a wrong turn, as in “Good Country People.”
Or the obstacles could be people. Given that I’m a fan of Aristotle’s Poetics, I’ll divide the kinds of people into three categories.
- Enemies or adversaries
- People bonded by friendship or kinship
Now, one might think initially that the most dramatic action would come from an encounter with an enemy, or a stranger who becomes an adversary, as happens in “Good Country People” or in “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr.” And those certainly are both wonderful stories. But Aristotle would say that the best stories show conflict between those bonded by friendship or kinship.
In many of the stories I listed several posts ago, friendship or kinship is at the heart of the conflicts. “The Rich Brother” is a story about two brothers. “The Ant of the Self” is about a father-son conflict. “Stars of Motown Shining Bright” is a story about two friends (or frenemies) journeying to see a boy they both are enamored of.
Whatever obstacles you create for your journey, and they could be many, here’s what you should ask yourself. Do the obstacles build suspense and tension? And (most important) do the obstacles force the characters to react in a way that reveals themselves?
To discuss the climax of the story let’s go back to John Gardner’s definition:
“In nearly all good fiction, the basic – all but inescapable – plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.”
There should come a moment when readers know if the character achieved his or her objectives. Did Frodo get the ring to Mount Doom? Did Little Red Riding Hood get her basket of goodies to her grandmother?
In much literary fiction, the objective is more subtle and spiritual. However, fiction takes place in the physical world, and so it’s helpful if there is something “dusty,” as Flannery O’Connor would have it, something in the world of bodies and objects that correlates to whatever is happening within the heart and soul of your character.
And I’ll end this formalist approach to the journey story with endings. There are four classic endings to stories: Marriage, Death, Leavetaking, Homecoming. If you think about the most traditional stories, they will almost always end with one or more of these.
Short stories may not get all the way to one of these large endings. Short fiction frequently end with an image or gesture that somehow encapsulates the experience. In “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” it’s the imagined sound of oar blades that reveal the vulnerability of the main character. In “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” it’s the red imprint that a gun has left on the flesh of the main character. In “The Rich Brother,” it’s the vision of a woman standing at the door, asking ‘Where is your brother?’
Try to discover an image or gesture that truly reveals the character’s situation, both externally and internally.
I’m sure I’ll have much more to say about how stories end as I continue this blog.