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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 19: Movement

Whichever tools you make use of in your writing, and whether or not you construct an elaborate plot for your story, there are two things you will have to consider:focus (or theme) and path.

If, as Ursula LeGuin says, all stories involve change, then we can think of a story as taking our readers on a journey. But what kind of journey is it?

To answer that question, we need to know the focus of the story: what is it really about?

The focus of a story is its center, a center to which everything in the story must be connected. Sometimes people call a story’s focus its theme , the main idea that is developed in the story.

A story’s focus is not merely what happens in the story; it is the significance of those happenings. If your story tells of a young woman who is kind to a beggar while her stepsister is not, and it tells that the young woman is rewarded and the stepsister isn’t; then, depending on how you tell the story, perhaps your focus is that kindness gets rewarded.

Please don’t confuse focus with having to have a “message” or a “moral” in your story. Rather, focus is what you want to get across through the happenings of the story. In oral cultures, since stories were used for teaching as well as entertainment, many stories do have what we would consider a “message” or a “lesson.” But every story doesn’t have to work this way.

What it does have to do is be coherent; and one way it does this is through the use of focus. For instance, if, in the above example, the story spends a lot of time telling us about the obsession of the kind young woman with her pet bird, but the bird has nothing to do with the girl’s kindness, then the story will lose its focus (and its readers).

This doesn’t mean that the focus of a story has to be simplistic; but it does mean that everything in the story has to connect to the focus.

While focus is essential to a finished story (one of the things that keeps people reading is to find out how everything connects to the central focus), you don’t necessarily have to have your focus in mind when you begin to draft a story. Sometimes the focus becomes clear only as you write and rewrite. Sometimes it’s only when the story is done that you read it and say, “Oh, that’s what it’s about!”

Collect as many ideas for story focus or theme as you can think of, taking them from other stories, if you like, as well as from your own mind. What might you write a story about? (Trusting the wrong person… failure… leaving home… and so on.)

Now look through your list and mark all the items that appeal to you right now. Pick one, and then do some collecting on this subject--try to keep the pen moving and see what comes to mind.

What did you notice in doing this exercise?

As you probably discovered in this practice, if you begin to work on a story by choosing a focus, you then have to invent some people and places and happenings in order to tell the story. You then have to consider the path (also known as the trajectory or shape ) of the story.

It may be, that in your process, you prefer to invent the people and happenings first, to tell the story, and let yourself discover the focus. Whichever way you work--perhaps even going back and forth, as you write and revise, between inventing and telling the story and considering its focus--you will also need to make choices about the path of the story: how, exactly, will it unfold?

The path, or shape, of the story is its movement. To find it, you don’t necessarily have to make an outline (though some writers prefer to do this), but you do have to make sure that everything in the story stays on the path, is headed in the same direction. Readers will follow you along aeven a complicated path, but if you go off on roads that turn out to be dead-ends, that don’t connect back to the main path of the story, they will stop reading.

A story, then, takes the reader on a journey. As the writer, you have to choose (or, if you prefer, the story has to tell you) where the story journey begins, how it unfolds, and where it ends.

If you need to, repeat the practices from the Story Process lesson.

Non-linear Movement
We are used to thinking of movement in story as straightforwardly linear. But one of the things you may have noticed about folk and fairy tales is that they don’t always move this way. Instead, while they do move forward, they do so by means of repetition. For instance, each of the three brothers meets the same old man; the hero befriends three different animals. (In European oral tales, three is the number usually used for repetition; in Native American tales, it’s usually four.)

We are often taught in school that repetition is a BAD thing. We are told not to use the same word more than once in a paragraph, for example. But in fact, repetition is a very powerful tool (which is probably why we are forbidden to use it!). Repetition, whether of a word, a phrase, an action or event, a motif, an image, an idea--anything at all--places emphasis on the material that is repeated. Repetition makes the reader’s mind take in that material again and again, so it can be absorbed. Repetition enables the reader to dwell in a certain place, rather than rushing ever onward without ever stopping anywhere. Repetition also enables us to make connections between different things.

And repetition can also be a structural device in stories, a tool for organizing our material.

Repetition need not be exact to be useful. For instance, certain elements in a story can be repeated while others are varied; this is a common kind of repetition in folk tales, where, for instance, the three brothers each meet the same old man, but two of them refuse to give him food while the third brother is kind to him. Repetition can also be a useful device for showing how someone changes in a story; perhaps the first few times this character meets a certain challenge he responds in one way, but then he learns something, and so the next time the challenge comes along, he responds differently.

Repetition can also be used in an even more subtle way, where elements mentioned once in a story--details, happenings, images, just about anything--find echoes elsewhere. A storyteller who keeps returning to the same elements throughout a story is telling listeners or readers that these particular things are important. Even though the story keeps moving forward, it can at the same time keep coming back to elements or ideas or themes that the writer of the story wants to emphasize.

Pick a folk or fairy tale you like and examine its structure. Write down what is repeated and how many times that material is repeated. You can also note whether the repetition is exact or partial. Now use that structure to write a story of your own.

If you are interested in learning more about the use of repetition in story, take a look at Ursula LeGuin’s The Wave in the Mind: talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination.

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