You’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!
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,
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
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
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
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.”