Tag Archives: Good Writing

The Story Analyst: The True In Medias Res

If you look at the stories that have rooted themselves into cultural consciousness, starting a story in medias res – the middle of things – is understood in a very particular way. But is it how you understand it?

There’s a huge difference in the way great writers begin stories and the way it’s done by the rest of us.

Let’s have a look at how we poor amateurs approach the middle of things.

A writer has a story idea in mind and wants to find a really good place to begin. The sweet spot. The heat, as it were.

Say the story is about an aging spy who is called on to undertake one final mission. Today’s writer might start the story with the protagonist (a Daniel Craig type, of course, buff, gruffly suave, in control) waking up beside some hot dumb-as-bricks supermodel, contemplating in detail his predicament so the reader knows exactly what’s going on. There might be some flash-backing to signal the danger yet to come.

Some might have him already in the middle of the caper, with all the stakes pressing in on him. Or right in the middle of/after a shoot-out.

What’s the problem, you might ask? Isn’t that in the middle of the action? Isn’t that what any creative writer would do?

Not John Le Carre. Le Carre knows the difference between plot and development. In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold he starts his story developmentally at a point where Alec Leamas is on the verge of his biggest screw-up yet but doesn’t know it. He’s no Daniel Craig. Mid 50-ish, he’s not fit or buff. He’s unkempt. And he’s a problem drinker (that’s a nice way of suggesting “drunkard”).

There are no heroics. He’s just washed-up, waiting at a heavily guarded East-West German checkpoint for his contact to come across, trying to salvage this one Cold War assignment (of many that have gone sideways on him). In this moment he has nowhere left to go personally or professionally. He’s in the middle of a major disaster in the making. It’s already happening but Leamas refuses to see it or the entire scope of what’s happened to his career. Everything rides on his man coming down that road. Where they are physically and geographically is symbolically significant. The chapter is called “Checkpoint”.

He’s at the checkpoint of his career and life. See what Le Carre did there? Checkpoint? Get it?

Le Carre starts the story, not in the middle of the plotting action or the most exciting or dynamic part of the story. That would be closer to the end when he’s being held by the East Germans and attempts to escape.

Rather, he starts in the middle of things. The lens is pulled back from the action of the story – the spy action and the plot action – to make the opening circumstances reflect the developmental context of Leamas’ life situation, the very conditions that have brought him to this point, and which will drive him straight into the mess he will find himself in later.

But none of it can happen without this opening snafu. None.

What happens on that bridge t-bones what’s left of Alec’s life, sending it on its collision-course.

The place where he begins is more than just the middle of an action or the story. It’s the crossroads of every facet of his life. Note:

He’s a screw up but it’s not all his fault. He’s surrounded by screw-ups and betrayal. The weight of this impregnates the opening scene, but becomes more apparent and consequential as the story unfolds, driving Leamas to the final scene. This is especially obvious when his true lack of control over the situation is revealed. He’s not only hamstrung by the fools and liars who surround him, but what they’ve done to him has put him in the exact position to be used, manipulated, and inevitably betrayed.

Middle-aged. His youth and strength are gone. All he has left is gut-level instinct. And even that is questionable. This is the precise vulnerability that makes him easy prey for his handlers as well as his targets. Had Leamus been younger he might not have invested so much in Liz Gold, which would have changed the outcome in which Gold becomes pivotal; any older and he would have been unable to handle what his controllers knew would be facing him in East Germany, making his placement in that mission unlikely and unsurviveable.

A loner. His life in duplicity has made it impossible to live as a normal human being, but built into that is a deep sense of his lifelong lack of connection to anything – that whoever he was before becoming a spy was exactly what made a life of espionage possible. He never had anything (or anyone) to lose, and this is what inevitably makes Liz Gold so important to the story. Le Carre accomplishes this sense of Leamas’ past with master strokes – Leamas’ transience, his comfort with squalor and rough living, drink, bad neighbourhoods, no mention of family or friends. He was an expendable cog from one system that became an expendable cog in another system, only with higher stakes. A life of too much dissimulation, too much absence (in more ways than one) is the life a loner who comes from dissimulation and absence gets. Yet his loner status and how he musters everything he has left in him as a human being just to embrace love is exactly what leads to the tragic outcome. It’s used against him, but it also becomes the final heartbeat of his humanity. It saves him on the only level left that matters to him.

A drunk. Le Carre evokes a strong sense that this was written into Leamas’ very DNA, but given his age and what’s become of his life and career it’s the only way left to cope. It’s also what makes him right for the ruse necessary for his final mission. The line between Leamas and the role he is required to play as a disaffected agent ripe for Eastern-bloc harvesting is barely visible, thus making the ruse credible.

He thinks he knows what’s going on. Leamas prides himself on his ability to get the lay of the land, but somehow the landscape has changed under him without his having been aware of it. This peril in knowing is what turns everything inside-out.

Everything rides on his work. Until it doesn’t, and then, in the end, he realises that what matters rides on the choice he makes on that wall. He can choose the agency, himself, or Liz, but whatever choice he makes presents a dire double-bind that will cost him dearly.

To choose Liz is to lose his life. To choose anything else is to lose his humanity.

Wow.

That the story begins on a bridge and ends on a wall is incredibly astute use of metaphor.

Everything about this story mirrors what we already intuitively and instinctively understand about the human experience. We might understand nothing at all about being a middle-aged alcoholic agent but when Le Carre makes a move everything in our gut tells us it’s exactly as it is in the part of the human story where we are all participants. All the internal cogs fit together, meaningfully, and because they do, the machinery powers up and runs on its own momentum.

All because of what goes into that opening scene.

This is what opens the door through which we and Leamas must enter the story. In this opening Le Carre pulls off the other definition of true:

verb
 
  1. 1.
    bring (an object, wheel, or other construction) into the exact shape, alignment, or position required.

As writers we should all aim for that kind of true in fiction. It’s not an inert noun, but a verb. It’s dynamic. It requires something of us, writer and reader alike. Readers care because we recognise in this story and other masterpieces the exact shape, alignment, and position required to communicate human beingness back to us.

Leamas’ moral victory, the most important of his life, must come at the cost of his world (and life), the very conditions set up right at the beginning of the novel. Smiley and The Circus get what they want. Mundt gets what he wants. All this comes at the cost of Leamas and Gold, but even they, too, get what they want: to know love in one another.

What’s so beautiful about it all is that while it’s inevitable, it’s neither predictable nor prescriptive.

Writers – especially those who have come up in the age of narcissism – haven’t figured out how to get much past themselves to offer readers something about themselves. Writer and reader connect when the writer expresses something that also communicates meaning for the reader.

Because that moment – that perfect, beautiful set-up at the beginning of the story, the in medias res – ?

That’s the writer preparing us, not just the story. It’s saying: this is what true looks like. Buckle up.

The next time you’re done reading a novel, go back to the opening scene and check out how contextually relevant it is to what went on in the story. If it’s a particular genre, compare it to a masterpiece of that genre, and how those stories open. Guaranteed the masterpiece is the set-up of a world at a collision point, out of which the character has evolved and the destruction of which proves the test of everything the character had understood about Life and her/his own life.

It’s that in medias res set-up that determines how the character will face it, and what the outcome must be. It’s all interdependent. If it isn’t, nobody will want to read your story because it simply won’t be true.

So how will you create in your in medias res the exact shape, alignment, and position to tell a true story?

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Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

Prompts: The Brainworm Of Voice

If you’re using writing prompts to help fire up the creative synapses, they are likely doing more harm than good, especially if you don’t understand why.

Confession: I hate prompts, if you haven’t already guessed. I despise everything about them.

And because I google the term for research, the gods of algorithm think I must like them a whole lot because suddenly they appear in all my feeds, and not being all that tech savvy I have no idea how to cull them. Seeing them makes my teeth hurt.

Prompts make me want to use the F word. Normally I reserve the F word for unique situations prompting my raging, blood-coloured wrath. And now, prompts.

False.

There. I said it. (Please don’t think less of me).

I’ve increasingly become of the mind that writers must be zealously protective of their own voice, and defiant about outside influence to the point of phobia.

For that reason, prompts are like one of those amoebic brain diseases you get when you’re minding your own business enjoying your tropical vacation. Then – BAM! – half your brain is gone and suddenly you can’t do your own taxes anymore.

It changes who you are.

Prompts come from someone else’s mental space, someone else’s story, someone else’s experiential and perceptual scaffolding.

Someone else’s voice.

As soon as you start answering to a prompt, no matter how benign it might be, you’re moving away from your own voice and individuality, your own originality, your own story, your own possibilities.

Next thing you know you’re Star Trek‘s USS Voyager lost in the Delta Quadrant and, like the hapless Federation vessel, while it took nothing to get pushed tens of thousands of light years from home it will require a potential lifetime, a series of improbable misadventures, luck, and a major con job perpetrated by Future Old You against the Borg Queen just to get back to where you started, and if some unsuspecting redshirt ensign has to die along the way, it’s going to be you.

Writing is not like a parade where some clown broadcasts fistfuls of candy while we toddle around like drooling idiots hoping to get more than the next kid.

We’re bloodhounds on a scent trail. That scent trail represents the stories that are in us to tell. Prompts act like some perp planting false scents to take us off the trail so we never find our mark.

If you’re unable to find anything to write about unless someone prompts you, you need to ask yourself if this is the right road for you. Any teacher who thinks prompts are actually helping (because any writing is good writing, right?) is probably not very knowledgeable about issues around Voice and originality.

Writers should be following our own instincts, our own storylines. Everything that exists to pour into a story should well up from within our own internal resources and personal inspirations. It’s the only hope we have to earn Voice, and thus our uniqueness and originality.

Try picturing Graham Greene responding to this: Tell the story of Hallowe’en from the perspective of a piece of candy. (Thanks, writingprompts.tumblr.com).

Having said that, if you must use them here’s my take on how to avoid allowing them to become developmental poison to you as a writer as well as your projects.

Never use anything but a neutral, non-intrusive prompt. If you have a teacher trying to strong-arm you into anything but, refuse.

Don’t do it.

A neutral prompt is one that introduces minimal outside influence or undesirable voice, ideas, style, or tone into the writer’s work. These would mostly be one word prompts, and are so nondescript they can be easily inserted into any story idea.

Door.

Bread.

But. BUT…

Even that seemingly innocent prompt could take you away from the story that’s waiting inside you to be told anyway. That prompt could end up being a creative McGuffin, a false lead that takes you on the wrong scent trail, the wrong conclusions.

That’s not even the scariest part. Most of the time there’s a prompt list made available as though giving you an option among many is the good part.

  • Outside the Window
  • The Unrequited love poem
  • The Vessel
  • Dancing
  • Food
  • Eye Contact
  • The Rocket-ship
  • Dream-catcher
  • Animals
  • Friendship

(courtesy of thinkwritten.com)

That. That right there is a narrative brainworm. All those specific words – together – came from someone else’s subconscious core, biases, and perceptions. Those words have a deeply subconscious meaning to the prompt creator, not you. They will never be about you or your own originality and Voice.

Prompts are always about the prompt creator. As a result your mental space has just been subconsciously hijacked by someone else. Whatever your story is, this annoyance is now in your way whether you like it or not, whether you’re conscious of it or not.

Say you’re writing about your expedition into the Amazon in search of your grandparents’ story after they died of gullibility in the great mythic rubber fields of Fordlandia. But say you’re all bunged up creatively and you enroll in some writing class hoping to git ‘er done.

So you sit down eagerly rubbing your hands together awaiting instruction. Teacher says, “I want five hundred words on the writing prompt he suffered from personal anarchy. Go. (taken directly from @writingprompt on Twitter).

Personal. Anarchy.

Really?

Oh, I’d go all right. Straight out the door.

I mean, seriously, people?

(Serenity now, serenity now.)

Right.

That’s not just an intrusive prompt, it’s patently awful. It’s highly suggestive of someone else’s (very questionable) voice, thinking, ideas, and tone.

No prompt should ever take you away from the possibility of telling your story your way. As soon as you let someone else’s voice dictate anything in your work, you’re doomed.

And what if it is a simple prompt like bread? What if it starts you thinking about food symbolism, and you go off on this tangent about the body of Christ and breaking bread with someone?

What effect does that have if a circle metaphor would have worked far better to support your story and characters?

Deep down, those are very different symbols with different allusions. Getting it wrong could throw the context of your entire story off kilter. Readers have a gut instinct for wrongness even if they can’t pinpoint its sources.

It’s so easy to lose your voice, and so very, very hard to regain it.

If you need inspiration, trust your own gut and your own developing Voice. Just look around your world, what matters to you. Use anything that speaks to you when you’re stuck. It’s that speaking part that’s coming from the core of who you are that matters most, and it will lead you on your own journey.

Because then, what you’re writing about – whatever it is – has already begun taking you to the next part of your journey, and because you’re bringing that speaking part along with you, it will add itself as a vital part of the whole, assuring that not a single step in your personal journey as a writer has been wasted.

Do that, and the story inside you will begin to emerge right alongside your authentic Voice.

Trust you.

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Filed under Creative Writing, Editing, Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

The Story Analyst: The Magic Of Context

Before you can tell a character’s story, you have to understand how context creates that particular kind of individual with the specific power to influence the world they inhabit, and thus drive narrative.

Take a look at the list below, then try to identify the novel it describes:

  • Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions
  • Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love
  • With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules
  • She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is
  • An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society
  • They have one daughter together
  • The end of a pregnancy almost kills her
  • Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand
  • Influential people in their social circle turn their backs on them
  • She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side
  • Others pay a heavy price for their choices
  • His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love
  • In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices

Now, with a few tweaks on the details this could describe just about any romance novel out there. But this isn’t just any novel out there.

In fact, it’s not even just one novel, it’s two very distinct narratives, one occupying the literary end of the spectrum, the other genre.

How can this be? How can a single, very specific summary fit two totally unique novels?

And get away with it.

And produce two masterpieces.

If you haven’t already guessed, the two novels are Anna Karenina and Gone With The Wind.

How did this happen and still work?

Context.

Every single detail of both novels bears specific and perfect working agency for each particular narrative. Agency is a kind of inherent power to influence, in this case in a fictional context.

So how does context work in fiction? Say you took the same narrative summary and superimposed it into Hollywood circa, oh, just now. How would those summary details muscle through?

For laughs, let’s call our fake novel Anna Kardashian and take on context point by point.

  1. Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions:  … so, um … going against Hollywood’s conventions would take our Anna into the realm of .. morals? and sexual decency? Okkaay, sssure.
  2. Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love: Let’s call him Brhatt Pittsky. He’s an amoral/immoral frat boy she meets at a kegger. Brhatt’s been with some whores in the past but he doesn’t really need them because he can always find girls willing to do the same things for free, so he saves a ton of money that way. To complicate things, one of the girls he uses for booty calls loves him and might/might not already have a child with him. Brhatt’s sole objective is to take Anna’s virginity even though she’s in love with a narcissistic rapper, Kanyley Welkes, who she thinks is totally fabs because of his pseudo-religious prosperity rap message. Unfortunately, although Kanyley is hot for Anna, he doesn’t really love her and wants to marry his cousin to keep it in the family. Brhatt goes after Anna with everything he’s got.
  3. With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules: Ooh, this is getting sticky already. So Brhatt does everything possible to get Anna to let her guard down, showing up at parties and getting friends to manipulate contact until she responds to his intense pressure. He super wants to video himself taking her virginity and gets her alone unchaperoned one night and convinces her that anything that feels so goooood has to be approved by God. When he goes to tape it, he accidentally presses the wrong button on his smartphone and instead of taking a video he ends up with a very blurry nightvision image of his butt crack. 
  4. She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is: Her motto is: WTF? LOL!
  5. An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society: she goes clubbing and, unlike everyone else, is not taking obscene selfies of public sex acts, nor snorting mountains of coke. Once their social circle finds out she’s a virgin, from then on that’s all anyone posts about on FB. Brhatt’s friends make up some pretty funny memes about it too, using Photoshop to superimpose Pepe the Frog’s face over hers to show how virgins have to be ugly to be virgins. None of the memes go viral, though.
  6. They have one daughter together: Of course, she gets pregnant her first time, and of course he denies he’s the babydaddy and demands a paternity test. And of course because the Bible says once you fornicate with someone you’re bonded to them for life, she realises she loves him and dedicates herself 100% to the relationship.
  7. The end of a pregnancy almost kills her: When her latest pics of the nursery and her mason jar crafts on Pinterest do not go viral she can’t deal and goes on clonazepam. Guys, it was super, super hard.
  8. Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand: Because they’ve already fornicated, she moves in with him figuring it’s as good as marriage in God’s eyes. She tries to withhold sex so she doesn’t feel bad about herself for continuing to fornicate but he pressures her to do gross stuff that makes her puke and also causes such severe sphincteral atrophy that she needs rectal surgery to prevent excrement from continuously leaking out, but at least it’s not technically fornication. Her frigidity drives him to shag (that’s what the cool kids are calling it these days, right?) his booty-call buddy more regularly, and Anna starts getting paranoid about how much Brhatt truly loves her.
  9. Influential people in their social circle refuse to receive them: Obvs! She smells like feces all the time. His rapey frat-boy friends hate her guts more because she thinks they’re a bad influence and won’t let them in the house, thus preventing them from gang-raping her for a rape-fantasy porno they want to post to PornHub.
  10. She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side: A mousy sister-in-law whose only interest is children and housekeeping. She doesn’t actually so much as stand by her side as just not get all judgey.
  11. Others pay a heavy price for their choices: Her friends say she makes them feel bad and guilty and shameful about all their out-of-wedlock pregnancies with different babydaddies and the drug use, and they wish she would stop being so high and mighty.  And also do something about the rectal leakage. His friends are sick of them both for getting in the way of their viral-porn careers.
  12. His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love: After trying for too long to undermine her morals and get her to finally do that porno his friends think they can sell on PornHub, he finally does rape her in earnest, then sends pics out in an act of revenge porn. She finally realises that even though they’ve fornicated God will forgive her if she breaks up with him. Probably. But then in an epic turnaround Brhatt realises he likes Anna a little. It makes him sad, but not really.
  13. In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices: she requires years of therapy and corrective rectal surgery but otherwise just coasts along, eventually getting ultra-religious and distributing L. Ron Hubbard tracts for Scientology. He never finds fame and fortune with his revenge porn which, buried in an ocean of horrific, galling sexual imagery, never, sadly, goes viral. He blames her for his failure. She spends the rest of her life and her family’s fortune hiring lawyers to get the revenge porn images off the net but even after years and decades somehow they always manage to surface. The guy she’s living with, though, is super, super supportive and so sweet. LOL!

Yeah, pretty much the same, no?

The worlds from which Tolstoy and Mitchell drew not only created their particular heroines and all the bit players, those worlds made it possible to drive powerful narrative through context. The characters have agency because the contexts have agency and thus provide it to them.

In a Hollywood context – morally, spiritually, politically, economically – Anna Kardashian could not have been created in a way that might have driven her to Anna Karenina’s particular end. Hollywood has no moral or spiritual or social power to realistically or even hypocritically control, ostracize, and destroy one of their own over an extramarital affair and having a child out of wedlock, or for a defiant need for autonomy when that’s the accepted norm. This strips away the agency of any possible suicide, as well as its power as an end. Oh, Anna Kardashian might still have committed suicide but not with the same causal agency derived from the institutional pressures that snuffed out Anna Karenina’s freedom to choose as a human being and as a woman. Her world had her completely boxed in to an impossible corner, out of which suicide was the only truly autonomous choice she had left, and the only freedom. That’s not within the realm of Anna Kardashian’s story at all, and couldn’t be.

You could try working the morality/sexual decency angle against the business-as-usual moral degeneracy of LaLa Land but a socialite with money in today’s Hollywood has more power to turn away from that influence than anyone else in this life. She is not trapped anywhere by anyone, even if her parents or a trust controls the purse strings. If she finds degeneracy too overwhelming she can find belonging and a moral home elsewhere. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, kept ignorant and uneducated by her society, was powerless to survive alone without her husband’s or her lover’s wealth, nor the isolation of a social world that rejected her absolutely.

Now, make her a Muslim woman in ISIL-controlled Mosul or Saudi Arabia and we can start talking about the power social, economic, and cultural conditions have to control a woman’s autonomy when that woman isn’t even allowed to set foot in the street without a related male chaperone, nor drive a car, nor hold her own passport.

Not in Hollywood, though.

Similarly, the contrast between the decadent antebellum South and the Civil War’s brutality (as well as its devastating economic and social effects) create then drive Scarlett and all the others in the story toward their outcomes. Just as the combination of her low Irish and aristocratic coastal French lineages provide her with the “gumption” that allows her to both understand and navigate her rarified world then survive when it falls, the inbred Southern aristocracy of Ashley and Melanie makes it impossible for them to survive on their own when their world is stripped of its beauty and grace. Rhett, too, as a reject of that world, becomes detached from its value and autonomously survives on his own terms, allowing him to manipulate Scarlett into doing the same except with consequences he doesn’t foresee (because she is not entirely like him, and he is not as entirely unlike his world).

Not even the LA Riots visited the total destruction of a way of life represented in GWTW to provide a modern equivalent of Mitchell’s complex statement about character and survival.

It’s the conflicted pressures of those contexts that propel Anna to her final scene. The antebellum/post-Civil-War South contexts created Scarlett O’Hara, and for the same reasons Anna is driven toward her suicidal end, context makes that same ending for Scarlett impossible.

In fact, in great fiction the opening lines and scene become the absolute nexus point of all those contexts, out of which the story runs like a torrent on its own power.

Take context away and the only power a story has left is plot and writing style, and those are almost never enough to carry a narrative without leaving the reader feeling like they just ate a meal that was mostly carbs and empty calories.

Why is context so important? Because it’s the way life works, and the best stories tell us the most about ourselves and our world in the best possible ways. Every single experience we have, our history, our culture and social/familial conditions create the context from which our very being arises. And because they create us, they create the directions in which we’re pushed and pulled, and they create within us the agency (or lack of it) to either react from basic animal instinct or respond as conscious beings to whatever happens to us.

Get context wrong or ignore it, and you signal to readers that you don’t understand much about life or people, or that you’re a simple-minded fool.

Take a look at how context has worked in your life and in the lives of the people you know. How are you giving your stories the contextual substance necessary for the kind of agency and self-propelling momentum that can get readers truly engaged with your story?

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Poll: Have you ever returned a novel because it’s awful?

When we go to the grocery store we can never really tell if the fruit or vegetables are bad until we sink our teeth into dry, pulpy disappointment.

We all have books on our shelves we’ve loathed, books that make us mourn the trees sacrificed for nothing and that we’ve judged not worth the time stolen to read them.

If you believe this Nielsen data graph (courtesy of ingenta.com) on the performance of fiction in the marketplace, you have to know it represents people increasingly becoming disappointed in fiction.

Image result for book sales performance graph

And yes, that’s a nearly 50% drop you see there in General Fiction over the course of a mere decade.

You also have to know that the true statistic would be far worse if they included readers who keep buying books that keep on disappointing but there’s no way to count disgust or disinterest after good money has already been laid down.

Just for funsies, how many of you out there have ever returned a novel because it stunk? It would be interesting to find out. But more importantly it would be interesting to find out why readers don’t return terrible books, so in the comments section tell us why you don’t treat rotten fiction like rotten fruit.

Should we be sending that message to the industry and to writers for failing readers?

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The Alchemy of Great Storytelling

In the ancient world, the magic of turning lead into gold was thought to be achieved through alchemy. What are writers trying to do but work toward some kind of alchemy through words? Strong writing and great storytelling – not always concurrent expressions – are something exquisite wrought from the ordinary.

The Prima Materia of Great Storytelling

Water. Wind. Fire. Earth. Original elements – Prima Materia – in a particular combination, in particular quantities, combined with a mystical unknown element called quintessence by some, the Philosopher’s Stone by others, were thought to turn sundry earth-bits into precious metal.

So how do writers turn word-bits into that rare, lustrous, ductile narrative commodity? Is there a secret buried beneath great storytelling and strong writing (even if not exclusively great literature) that can be made more understandable through the old ideas of alchemy?

The classical elements recur in psychological theory, Jungian in particular, where alchemy corresponds to the process of individuation.

All this translates aptly into the literary realm, and has been woven through narrative in other guises. For some authors the classical elements relate to the seasons. The weight or focus upon a given season gives birth to genre. Winter/water is satire; spring/wind is comedy; summer/fire is romance; autumn/earth is tragedy.

It is the life cycle of conception, birth, growth, and death. In maturation it’s the stages that take us from dependency to initiation to mating to mortality.

In storytelling, just as it is in the specific process – the Magnum Opus or Great Work – that creates the Philosopher’s Stone or unknown element, precedence of order matters. In every great narrative, the crux of strong writing depends upon beginning in the right place. And if alchemy is really an expression of the universal and the primal, a structural truth springing organically from something that has existed in us since first consciousness – then the beginning, it seems, is really an end.

The Process of Great Storytelling

The Ordinary

The generative phase of the Great Work is that of Nigredo. In the realm of classical elements, this is the earth constituent,  represented by the Hippocratic humour of black bile – melancholy. Necessarily, this aspect of the mystical alchemic process is the decomposition of the ordinary and the known, the lead. It is the chaos before creation.  It is autumnal, the cyclical space wherein the past is in ruin but the future remains beyond reach. It is tragedy. It’s the spiritual death without which there can be no rebirth. For Jung, this was a confrontation with Shadow, the concealed subconscious aspect of Self. For Freud: Apocalypse, the breaking up and breaking down of the known.

It’s possible that this beginning place seems so natural in literature because it corresponds with the origins of our very existence: the beginning is the void. It’s what precedes the Big Bang, and the nothingness before creation and before birth; it is the nothingness without which the eventuation of human existence would have been impossible.

From the the Book of Genesis to The Satanic Verses, great narratives begin with void – of the soul, the psyche, the city, society, civilization, the personal life, the political and ideological life.

This is more than just a character who wants something, as writing advice often suggests. Writers who want a shot at something greater than invisible-making work must dig into the profundity of the void, what it looks like (deeply, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, existentially), how we share it, and how it translates into narrative. Jung’s Shadow occupies this space: it is the face of identity turned as much away from the self as the public, and its awakening triggers the ruin of the known self. Pull a scratch-n-sniff level excavation, or go full-bore into the bowels of human experience; how far depends on the writer’s capabilities and will. The richness and value to the reader(s) will be a matter of what’s been tapped, and how.

In Crime and Punishment, the void is ever-present in the bleakness of pre-Bolshevist Russian society, but the void is also – simultaneously – the looming presence of radicalism that forms in answer to Raskolnikov’s social reality. In every description is a suggestion that Raskolnikov is a product of a gaping social and ideological blackness. It is already in him, psychically formed of the Intelligentsia ideal like a pustule. It’s in the physical filth and greyness. It’s in the man who beats his horse to death as much as it is in the reactions of those who witness it. From the outset Raskolnikov is the embodiment of spiritual, intellectual, and social putrefaction. His choices are society’s choices. His actions are those of a man who has broken open the breach of false selfhood and recognized his own Shadow. He murders because his intellectual superiority makes him fit to judge the moral worth of another human being. So says the mask-self. But as Raskolnikov comes to understand his Shadow self he accepts what truly underlies his murderous side.

Similarly, Jean Valjean in Les Misérables enters a time and place already in the process of destruction. But more importantly, he is France’s benumbed conscience, the nowhere place out of which the future of France will be born. He is a grown-up construct of the society that gave birth to him, that made it possible for him to become a hardened criminal to begin with. On a dark and solitary road he begins to awaken to his Shadow self.

The Magnus Opus’ Albedo (white) phase is a purification of lead into silver. Water is the element. It is winter, and satire. The decomposed remains from the generative phase are washed through into two predominant opposing principles. Of the humours, Albedo corresponds with a phlegmatic temperament – unemotional, stolid, calm. For Jung the splitting is between the psychological Anima and Animus – unacknowledged femaleness and unacknowledged maleness that must finally communicate to achieve wholeness and eventually a fully individuated Self. It is Freud’s Deluge among the archetypal motifs.

No better literary exemplar for this idea of splitting and opposing principles can be found than A Tale of Two Cities. The famous opening lines foreshadow the ways in which England and France, London and Paris, and Sidney Carton and Charles Darnay come to represent social, ideological, and political cleansing, and the distillation of self and identity – all in opposition. They query the provenance of human and cultural development. They are at once forces that both compete and complete.

The Extraordinary

Nothing as common or predictable as a simple ablution will metamorphose the ordinary into the extraordinary. Even with strong writing and strong storytelling this holds true, and it’s what divides good from great.

In narrative, to misunderstand the core of this transcendent movement is to derail storytelling and character development. It’s to continue the trajectory of the ordinary, or to make an auspicious beginning only to lose narrative footing by attenuating its potential right back to ordinary.

Exactly where this moment occurs in a narrative is part of storytelling’s quintessence.

Citrinitas represents the yellow bile of the humours – elemental fire. Yellow bile is choleric, aggressive. In this phase an alchemic transmutation by fire occurs, where silver transforms into gold.  Of the Jungian archetypes, fire is the Wise Elder or Senex. For Freud it’s Creation.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Marlow’s encounter with Kurtz, both obliquely through the idea of him and directly with the eerily brilliant but dying Kurtz, changes Marlow. Most would argue that Kurtz is the evil genius archetype but the transformation of gold in this alchemic phase does not necessitate a gentle, coddling Wise Elder. It demands a catalyst for a trial by fire. That Kurtz is the evil genius is only one aspect of his own evolution into demigod and chieftain, a self-styled and perverse redaction of the Senex, but his role in the narrative is no less that of the Wise Elder for his depraved contribution to Marlow’s development. In fact, it might be argued that only Kurtz’ personal and projected dissonance with his own embodiment of “horror” could hold the power to purify Marlow’s Self.

Finally, signifying success in the alchemic process is the unity of the quintessence with the newly rarefied gold. This phase is called Rubedo. The element is air, and the Hippocratic humor is that of blood or sanguinity. It’s Jung’s archetypal Self.  The importance of this coalescence lies in the representation of red in both components of this final stage – gold and quintessence – and thus the unity of opposites; it’s material with immaterial, body with spirit, effable with ineffable; it’s a signal completion of the Magnum Opus and the fully individuated or actualized Self. As a Freudian archetypal motif: Unity.

Not all alchemic endings are happy, but they must ring true to the process that generates them. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the moment when Dorian stabs his own portrait symbolizes a confrontation between what he has learned of himself and what he has become. Only death can provide true unity. The metaphoric and symbolic synthesis is not just concluded through the redness of blood, it is made choate.

Raskolnikov and Sidney Carton choose self-sacrifice – that of freedom and that of life, respectively, to substantiate the unity between the past self and the discovered Self.

To some extent, all great stories contain elements of the alchemic. As humans, our very existence – our lives – play out that paradigm. Throughout literary history it seems to have always cohered with readers, and likely always will.

Perhaps this sheds some light on the qualities that make stories relatable and memorable. For writers, that is the eternal mystery. Its revelation lies both in the cosmic and quantum matter of human experience, that existential site either too big or too small to understand except in pieces, where we and our stories become one.

Writers must find that place, interpret its alchemic Prima Materia, then assimilate them in just the right way, in the right quantities, in the right order, weighted precisely, then – gold.

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