Crying for a Good Story


I was surprised to find myself in tears at a local sidewalk café.  It was embarrassing because we were supposed to be having an intellectual discussion.  From whence those tears?  Well, I’ll tell you.

We were discussing story structure, this first-time novelist and I: “Your protagonist IS your story,” that sort of thing.  “Your character doesn’t wander around the plot, no, he or she IS the plot.” 

I was using Good Will Hunting as an example.  The story develops to where young Will struggles against the urge to deploy what’s left of the belief system he’s been living by (self-destructively so).  A belief system which, by this point in the story, is in shreds. 

Will (Matt Damon) is meeting with his psychiatrist (Robin Williams), remember?  The shrink would appear to be the only friend Will has left.  If Will stomps out on him, Will misses the only chance he’ll ever get to heal himself. 

Sean sees an opportunity to get Will to accept that his childhood of abuse was no fault of his own.  Problem is, Will has his black-belt in humiliating anyone who shows affection for him.  Will has begun to see how counter-productive his defense mechanisms are, but you can’t just willy-nilly drop who you are.

But you have to. 

The rational mind considers it impossible, but Will is starting to hate that mind of his.

The story has arrived where every good story must—at the moment that swallows up everything that has come before it. 

“There’s a hole in my story, and everything’s flowing into it!”  (I love saying that.)

Here at the “Act II crisis”, every scene proves to have been in service of this moment.

This is the essence of story structure—scenes serving meaning. 

And there I was, caught in the heart of the story, living Will’s anguish at not knowing who he is in that moment.  If he hangs on for a few more heartbeats, he will be cured.

It’s not sadness, no, not at all.  Will’s tears (my tears, damn!) have become a release of all his pain and sadness.  (As my wife said later at dinner, it’s the life force kicking in.)  It’s an explosion of the life force that’s too much to bear. 

My writer friend was looking at me as if these red eyes were no embarrassment but instead something to behold. 

“The readers of our stories demand this much,” I said.  “They expect our protagonist to have his little ‘death’.  By this are our readers nourished.” 

Our stories exists to serve that moment, that nourishment. 

That’s story structure.

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  1. says

    this whole concept of two stories and a hole (we dig or bury ourselves in) really appeals to me more and more

    it’s simplicity and allowability of letting a person create something organic seems to work –

    thanks much 😉

  2. says

    Adan… This particular story — Goodwill Hunting — Matt Damon portrays the pain in that hole better than anyone. And the miracle that arises when we are able to endure that pain. I’m gratified to see that you’re plowing through some older posts. Enjoy!

  3. says

    lot of great stuff you have “back” there 😉

    i’ve seen bits of info on your posts about new work

    what do you have coming out through end of year?

    thanks pj,


    ps- i had responded via my email alert, which on most sites also posts the comment to the wordpress site, but i guess doesn’t always 😉 sorry ’bout that

    you should repost your excellent reply re your new work status etc, can make a reply to that so it’ll show, thank again 😉

  4. says

    Ah, work-in-progress… that’s a touchy subject. I’m working on a novel, which, in truth, is on the shelf until I clear out projects that need attending. One such is a re-issue of a Y.A. novel called “ROXY” that was traditionally published three years ago. I’m launching it as an eBook, without my publishers involvement, although he’ll earn some of the revenues.

    I also want to rewrite and re-issue STORY STRUCTURE TO DIE FOR. I thought of writing a follow up called DEEP STRUCTURE, and I may yet. I started it but didn’t feel entirely honest about my approach. I wish I could retreat to a Greek island for the seclusion necessary to bear down on that one.

    And I’ve been encouraged to write a series of metaphysical travel pieces… another good idea! And of course I’m still trying to sell my latest novel, I SWALLOWED A SAINT. Perhaps I should rewrite it. Why not? For all these reasons, Adan, I’m hesitant about starting another work of fiction just now. Gotta clear the decks!

  5. says

    It is the sub-text of tears that prompts this response. An artist friend Gerald Kuehl ( ) told some of the stories he carries with him from his portrait drawing in Northern Canada. As he spoke he occasionally paused for tears. Pamela’s comment “it’s the life force kicking in” – perfect. Thank you both. The soul speaking words we cannot express.

  6. says

    “I also want to rewrite and re-issue STORY STRUCTURE TO DIE FOR. I thought of writing a follow up called DEEP STRUCTURE” –

    i’d really like to see those 😉

    re your fiction, i know i’d be able better to get lower priced ebooks, but don’t know how you feel about having those avail like that –

    it does seem there’s anecdotal talk of folk epublishing their work and then having someone interested in publishing it in hardcopy etc; am thinking of what you mentioned re “I SWALLOWED A SAINT” –

    unfortunately, i don’t have any first hand knowledge of that, yet 😉

    either way, looking fwd to future posts and work, thanks!

  7. says

    “He or she IS the plot.” I think that’s why I get so wrapped up in stories: the plot is palpable, like a beating heart or tears down my cheeks.
    I loved this post.

  8. says

    PJ, I love that you’re moved to tears by the concept you believe in. There’s real beauty in that strength of conviction. I felt I had hit the holy grail when my critique partner said she was moved to tears by my story. That’s the big time, right there, the ‘nourishment’ for the reader, as you put it so eloquently. Now I know my story has the goods, because it moved someone else (other than me). Sweet…
    I’ve been absent from the blogosphere for a while now because of working to the deadline, of getting my book finished by Oct 14. After many late nights and early mornings, I’m actually up to the last chapter… and then, just need to do the final read-aloud tweaks. However, I feel a bit like a mole in a hole. Thought I’d stick my head up and have a look at a blog for a minute (or two). Yours has nourished me wonderfully :-) Thanks!

  9. says

    Yvette… I hate to bother you with this reply… you’re not quite finished your novel yet! I just wanted to praise your efforts and focus and commitment. All the best.


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