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.