Course Corrections in the Stories We Write

Posted on March 21, 2012

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Yesterday I wrote about the elixirs of a good life that I’m teaching my sons, this year, which are

  1. Blossoming – finding the ability to evolve, and in some sense be reborn every day to the gift of a new day
  2. Cooling – knowing when to cool down and calm our passions and energies
  3. Warming – realizing when we have become too cool and need to warm up
  4. Attracting -  allowing experiences, people and gifts to come to us simply by being ourself
  5. Purifying – letting go
  6. Giving – sharing our life energy, talents and gifts
  7. Receiving – acknowledging all of the good that is coming into our lives from all around us

When it comes to living a good life we want our children and ourselves to master these energetic processes that allow us to make course corrections to our lives.

However, these “elixirs” have a different value when we look at stories we develop as writers.  More than likely your story will include characters who do not make these kind of course corrections, or when they do, something unexpected happens.

Robert McKee, author of Story describes this idea in another way:

The substance of a story is the gap that splits open between what a human being expects to happen when he takes an action and what really does happen; the rift between expectation and result, probability and necessity.

Essentially, we like to read stories where our characters fail to make the right course corrections, because all of us at one time or another know this experience of expecting a certain outcome from our actions and receiving something very different.  There are times in life when we don’t know how to proceed and seeing characters struggling with problems that are similar or worse than our own can be therapeutic and sometimes life changing.

Once again quoting McKee:

The source of all art is the human psyche’s primal, pre-linguistic need for the resolution of stress and discord through beauty and harmony, for the use of creativity to revive a life deadened by routine, for a link to reality through our instinctive, sensory feel for the truth.  Like music and dance, painting and sculpture, poetry and song, story is first, last and always the experience of aesthetic emotion — the simultaneous encounter of thought and feeling . . . Life on its own without art to shape it, leaves you in confusion and chaos, but aesthetic emotion harmonizes what you feel to give you a heightened awareness and a sureness of your place in reality.  In short, a story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience.   In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time.  In art, they are meaningful now, at the instant they happen.

That means if we are writing “true” stories, they will necessarily have characters that do not blossom immediately.  Our characters will lose their cool  in ways that hurt them or they won’t show warmth when they know they should.  The characters in our stories may attract the attention or love they desire, but generally there will be obstacles to their desires.  Often a strong plot relies on at least one character resisting letting go of something or someone.   Sometimes this will work out well, at other times it will be tragic. Memorable characters like a Scrooge that doesn’t know how to give or receive love make a story work.

What are the  failed course corrections  that make your main character memorable? Like I’ve written before in this blog, it is often our failure to achieve our desires or live our best life that make us best qualified to write great stories.

Tomorrow, I’d write about how I disagree with Mckee’s when he says it’s only possible to find meaning in our lives retrospectively.  In fact, finding meaning in the moment is one of the best ways to manage our energy, and keep up our writer’s spirit.

What do you think?  Have you ever thought about the course corrections that your characters are making in your stories? Do you agree with McKee’s ideas about story?  His book  Story, Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting is a great book for all writers.  I’m not a screenwriter, but I love the way his ideas help me to expand my concept of what it means to write stories.