Try this Story Fix — Before You even Start

Blog postYou’ve invested time and money studying “story.”

(You can’t imagine how much I’ve spent!)

After reading all those writing manuals, we are “story structure” engineers. We could be teaching story structure. In fact, I do!

And yet—

Where’s the prize-winning novel? Where’s my Oscar for Best Screenplay?

I’m sitting here at my desk, staring at my wall, which is papered with nuggets of story wisdom. And it occurs to me that I may have overwhelmed myself with too much knowledge.

I know from experience how joyful writing can be when I’m free-wheeling, when I’m guided only by the most essential facts of fiction.

Pithy reminders—the hero’s journey in a single glance—“story” in a nutshell—that’s what we need. And I may have found just the thing.

It’s been tacked to my wall for a few years—a poem by Charles Bukowski:

if you’re going to try, go all the way.
otherwise, don’t even start…

Bukowski suffered through decades of deprivation on his way to publication and literary fame. He meant to encourage writers, and yet it sounds a lot like a warning. Going all the way

…could mean losing girlfriends
wives, relatives, jobs and
maybe even your mind.

Living like a cockroach in skid-road Los Angeles, Bukowski knew the kinds of drama a person invites into their life when they go for broke—

it could mean not eating for 3 or 4 days.
it could mean freezing on a park bench.
it could mean jail,
it could mean derision,
mockery,
isolation.

Wow. If that’s what it takes to be a writer, it could also mean we’ll have fewer writers. And yet, fiction writers demand the same toughness and determination from their protagonists—don’t they?

Reversals, defeats, humiliations—sounds like the essential trajectory of a fictional hero. What kind of second-rate story are we writing if the protagonist won’t suffer a night on a park bench on the way to going all the way?

Bukowski wasn’t thinking of story structure—the poem wasn’t meant to be a beat sheet for Act II—but that’s what it looks like to me. Mockery and derision, hunger and isolation, maybe jail time, however many calamities it takes to herd the hero into a dead-end.

For Bukowski, the isolation was a gift. Every writer needs a room of their own. As for all those other ordeals—

they are a test of your endurance,
of how much you really want to do it.
and you’ll do it
despite rejection and the worst odds
and it will be better than
anything else
you can imagine.

Undaunted by rejection, Bukowski kept on writing. He beat on his typewriter until he forgot why he was doing it in the first place.

Likewise, every fictional hero.

In the aftermath of failure, the best characters discover more altruistic reasons to carry on. Shedding old belief systems (B.S.), their lives becomes better than anything else you can imagine.

Here’s Bukowski describing the pay-off for having left his B.S. behind—

there is no other feeling like that.
you will be alone with the gods
and the nights will flame with
fire.

By this poem, Bukowski wanted to inspire creative people. Unwittingly, he is describing the grace that descends upon the protagonist at the heart of the best stories. Jettisoning our personal baggage, we carry on under the influence of a power not our own.

do it, do it, do it.
all the way,
all the way.
you will ride life straight to
perfect laughter, it’s
the only good fight
there is.

Your fictional character will ride undaunted into Act III. At this point, she really can’t lose, because she’s won the battle against her lesser self.

Freedom from the self—that’s the goal of story structure! It’s fiction’s addictive ingredient. It’s the fix that gives readers their money’s worth.

And it’s all there in Charles Bukowski’s poem, “Roll the Dice.” It’s the bird’s-eye view of “story” that I need to guide me through my novel, my screenplay, and indeed my life.

Perhaps you’ve discovered other nuggets of story wisdom. Please share them in the “Comments” below.

P.S.: If you’ve been reading me for a while, you might remember my previous riff on Bukowski in a 2010 post titled, “Perfect Laughter.

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Comments

  1. says

    PJ:
    My son rides a dirt bike swiftly on a winding path through dense woods and says his mind knows how to do it. He must focus his eyes on where he is going—sort of like a swallow dipping and diving and not thinking so much as confidently flying. I agree with you. At this point, just show up and let your mind work. Whatever you have written on your wall is written in your mind. Like playing golf, set up toward your green and keep your head down to watch the club hit the ball. You have put your time into grooving your swing.

    I love the poem you referenced and especially when it is read by Tom O Bedlam https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36CYMdFmDeQ I include the link to Roll the Dice so your readers can hear the poem. You did a fine job of making it your own. So now, we must just “do it—all the way.”

  2. says

    PJ, I resonate with your self-mockery (“Where’s the prize-winning novel? Where’s my Oscar for Best Screenplay?”). For me, it’s “Where’s my unshakeable inner peace, my community of eager student/clients?”

    See, I’m not a fiction-writer—I’m a wannabe self-help guru (with a book on the verge of publication). So I’m the protagonist of my own real-life story. We’re entrepreneurs, is the bottom line, continually struggling to bridge our creativity to commitment, confidence and self-discipline. At least, that’s how it is for me.

    Anyway, this post was just what I needed to read today. Thanks!!!

  3. says

    Susan C… I see your son riding that bike — his instincts know how to do it — he’s in the zone! And what is that but deleting one’s self from the equation? and enjoy the ride. Go girl mi amiga.

  4. says

    Joanie H… I like this idea of seeing ourselves as protagonists of our life story. As such, we need to prepare to suffer some failure. Just like the fictional heroes who have blown us away. Hey — let me know when you’re launching your book. Mark me down for a first edition.

  5. says

    I love the way you take a complex thought and take it deeper, and reflect back each time the greater journey of our characters is actually a mirror image (or should be) of our own flailing crashing course through life!
    Lovely to read your musings again, PJ!
    :-)

  6. says

    I finally found a few minutes to read this today. Another great post … and coupled with the other blog post I read a few moments ago, about creating a morning routine, this has me stoked to get back to consistently writing!

  7. says

    Mark… may this little expression stoke you even further — i discovered it just this morning — a Latin term: “cacoethes scribendi” — which means the itch to write. Since “kakos” in the Greek means bad or evil, i guess in ancient days writing was seen as the work of the devil. So… be a devil!

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