How to cause a crisis.
I'm struck by the idea that if we honour the journey, the imagination, the twists and turns, let our story find its path, then we can't know the crisis ourselves. It must come as a surprise to us. As though the line of men with their buckets of water, that increase in size and weight, and begin to boil towards the end of the line, and the final bucket arrives at the final man and at the end we find, not a fire, but a cow with a newly born calf. Got a bit carried away there, that's not really a crisis moment, more of a twist at the end. But are we saying that our obsessing about plot, structure and a journey toward a crisis, is flawed, because we can't create the crisis ourselves it has to arise from the fabric of the story. And if we are good writers we will get good at finding those moments, at spotting them, and warming them up. So its more about listening to the story than it is about telling it...sort of...?
This post somehow addresses nearly everything I’ve been thinking about lately, so, thank you!
This is maybe too adjacent of a question, but it's coming to my mind here at 3 AM in Munich while I can't sleep from my own personal crises and maybe too much caffeine. How often, if ever, do you consciously work through your own crises in fiction? I read Chuck Palahniuk's "Plot Spoiler," and I believe at one point he talked about his mentor who taught fiction as primarily a means of confronting our own personal daemons and deepest fears, or something like that. And then of course there's the adage of fiction being truer than life. Do you feel like something in your conscious, or subconscious, writing mind uses whatever might be weighing on you in a given moment as fodder? Or do you see that as completely separate from your work? And if related, do you think it's possible to produce decent work from immediate crises/wounds or does one have to wait a few years until wounds are scars and the writer has greater nuance and perspective (but perhaps lost some emotional memory of the details that bring a story to life)? How many sentences can I end with a question mark before I fall back asleep?
"A crisis moment is best discovered, I’d say, as opposed to mandated. Or, a crisis moment arrived at in this way (i.e., organically) will have more integrity and be more undeniable."
I aspire to this, but I almost always find myself writing this crisis point first and then expanding the story outward from there. What usually ends up happening is the original crisis morphs into something else, or gets moved to another place in the story, or something else unforeseeable happens to it, and I just sort of react as best I can. I honestly have no clue how some (most?) writers just sit down and write their story from beginning to end.
Yes please to discussing Tenth of December! One of my favourites.
I had a deleted sign so Im posting again in case.
The first character in Tenth of Dec is wonderful, kept making me laugh. I am vitally interested in story climaxes, denouments, moments that sort out how far characters will go, how out of hand things can get- or where the characters courage is tested, the showdown, the thing that take our breath away-gives a crane shot of the heart of the piece, changes the meaning and throws a new light on everything. Im not saying Im great at it, but Im super interested
George gives writing clarity
(Edited down from a few hours ago. I think I was half-asleep when I first responded and ended up repeating myself a lot.)
Thank you, George, for your response to this week's question. I love knowing that you think about a story's climax in the process of writing your stories. That, in fact, you always aspire to have your stories reach just such a moment. I know that your method of writing is one of discovery through the process of writing. But it's nice to know that even you, at a certain point, steer things so that the crisis moment arises. Because you haven't mentioned it before, I've been wondering!
Yes, i harp on and on in these threads about a character-defining moment that happens at the climax of a story, but for me, thinking about stories this way really helps me analyze stories I read as well as rewrite stories I'm working on. Here's how I see it: In the climax, the protagonist must make a (character-defining) decision to go either left, right, straight ahead, or stay frozen in place. But no matter what the character does (or doesn't do), it's an active decision on their part. Depending on the decision, the character will be defined a-new. The story will say "this, as it turns out, is who the character is." And that is the point of the story!
You mention that getting the water to boil can be tough. To me, getting the water to boil isn't the most difficult part--it's getting it to boil harder and harder until the pot overflows that's hard. I mean, you put a character in a pickle and things begin to simmer (not so terribly hard to do--inventing a character with a problem). But then....things get worse. Figuring out exactly how to make things worse--that takes imagination and skill.
George, you bring up The Overcoat in your post, and I'm still pondering that story and its crisis moment. I don't think his death is the big crisis moment, as you have posited. Our lowly clerk did not choose to die. It is not a "character-defining" moment--it is something that happened TO him, not BY him. If we agree that the clerk is the story's protagonist, then the moment of truth comes when he makes the decision to go to the prominent personage, having exhausted every other idea for getting his cloak back. It's also possible (maybe?) to think of the prominent personage as the story's protagonist! He's the one who changes in the end, becomes a slightly better person, the outcome of his horror ride to his mistress' apartment. (But this is all discussion for a Sunday post, not a Thursday.)
I so look forward to your discussion of Tenth of December!
I think it’s so important when you state the crisis bubbles up as a function of getting the water to boil. or maybe it’s a tomato sauce. It’s the cooking that infuses the flavor not throwing spices on at the end.
My always expanding private library has become a full blown resource for endless entertainment! Becoming a better reader after decades of book treasure hunting is one of the many great gifts of growing old. Finding great teachers and fellow students in this community is thrilling! Thank you!
This is somewhat different than what seems to work for me. I often get invested in a writing a new story by seeing (dimly/vaguely) that crisis moment in the distance, and trying to get there, because I’m excited to get there. (Like starting a road trip with a destination in mind.) Of course, the actual crisis moment is almost never exactly as I imagined when I set out (but then again, neither was Wally World for the Griswolds). But I do often feel that I need something to aim at, and there will be delightful surprises/changes along the way.
I love the metaphor of the boiling and passing water down the line of scenes. I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between tension and conflict -- and I’d love to explore how those function differently to help (or not help) the water boil.
"The truth is, there’s a certain mindset I go into when I’m writing a story, that produces all the truisms you’ve listed above but, in practice, isn’t being steered by them. "
We see a little later what that mindset might look like. Or Georges anyway.
Sometimes, especially over the past few days, I am struck by the thought that this state of being, this setting of the mind, brings on communion with the muse; the story herself.
Trains having sex-can't get that image out of my mind^^
The way someone like George can hold so many threads together and not lose them all, is exceptional
Many thanks to you, Professor Saunders…and to others who have commented – wonderful thoughts that have encouraged me to sit up straight and ponder!
This most recent post – How To Cause A Crisis – has me thinking about …aspects of The Overcoat…and…
The Crisis of Fitting In/Into…and along the Journey
Into the Workplace
Into the (old) Coat
Into the new Coat
Into the Friendships
Into the Thoughts/Minds of Community
Into the “slanted” System of Justice
Into Others’ Memories…ours, perhaps…
…and how Crisis bubbles up (thanks for that image of boiling water…and of the gents passing water buckets!) that bridges us from one situation to the next, or spills over…into…
Hmmmm…gonna pause, review others’ comments, and brew up more thoughts :-)
I'd say the hardest thing for me is discerning whether or not the crisis moment that was born from the first draft, and that surprised me in that initial run, will still feel like a surprise to the reader (as it no longer feels like a surprise to me because I know it so well). Is this an issue of attachment? Fear to let go of the crisis/ending/entire plot sequence that was cranked out to begin with? My biggest challenge is showing up everyday ready and willing to change the lines in the now moment I'm working on knowing what sorts of ripples that will do to a plot I was generally happy with. Would love your thoughts on how you recognize when something from your own draft can get better/become more of a surprise, or just how you let those ripples make their way through the story. As always, thank you so much for you time and generosity here. And yes, big vote for more on crisis building in Tenth of December!