Never mind the three-act structure, the best stories can be said to consist of two stories separated by a bottomless hole. Where the hero “dies.”
STORY ONE—from the opening line to the protagonist’s loss of faith in him/herself.
STORY TWO—the protagonist emerges from the hole armed with the moral authority to resolve the story.
THE HOLE—the heart of the story, where all is lost and all is gained. And where audiences, instinctively aware that principles and beliefs obscure our greatest happiness, swoon.
In the first of six classes I’m giving here in my seaside village of Gibsons, British Columbia, I asked the class to consume their fiction with an eye out for that blessed hole in the story. Films depict this essential story moment more obviously that novels. But to my surprise the novel I’m currently reading offered up one of the most graphic examples.
Ask the Dust, by John Fante.
Even you, Arturo, even you must die
The protagonist, young Arturo Bandini, a struggling writer in L.A., jeopardizes his happiness by treating other ethnics as badly as he was treated as an immigrant child in Colorado. After sexually mistreating a Jewish woman, his self-respect plummets. Listen as Arturo comes untethered from his own long-held beliefs about the way the world works:
“Then it came to me like crashing and thunder, like death and destruction. I walked away in fear… passing people who seemed strange and ghostly: the world seemed a myth, a transparent plane, and all things upon it were here for only a little while… We were going to die. Everybody was going to die. Even you, Arturo, even you must die.”
Arturo’s first thought is of death, corporeal death. But until that happens he’s stuck suffering the more painful loss of his belief system.
“Sick to my soul, I tried to face the ordeal of seeking forgiveness. From whom? What God? What Christ? They were myths I once believed, and now they were beliefs I felt were myths.”
A sick soul cannot fuel the organism. A person with no beliefs has no goal. Character, which is synonymous with plot, comes to a full stop.
End of Story-One.
“I said a prayer but it was dust in my mouth. No prayers. But there would be some changes made in my life. There would decency and gentleness from now on. This was the turning point. This was for me, a warning to Arturo Bandini.”
Story-Two begins. It’s a different protagonist who drives the story to its completion.
So, who else spotted a hole in a story this week?
Look! The story has a hole in it!
I have critics who insist that my so-called “story heart” presents nothing new, that I’m simply describing the well-known Act II crisis, which is true. There’s no need for me to stand on my soapbox and shout:
“Look!—there’s a hole in my story! And everything’s flowing into it!”
But, really, I do. In my opinion, its significance overshadows all other story elements. Look what’s getting sucked into that black hole:
The protagonist—disillusioned with the utter failure of his strategies, he falls off the time line into the hole. Really, he’s out of time. What a relief.
Ergo, the plot likewise disappears—bye, bye, for now.
The readers, there they go. Vicariously escaping the prison of narcissistic beliefs, they’re free at last. Every story is an escape story, and the hole is the portal to freedom. For readers, this is the payoff. But for real life interfering, this is where our deepest yearnings would lead. This is where drama delivers. This is where we get our money’s worth.
The writer, too, of course. There she goes, having spent how long loving her protagonist all the way to this dark heart. A writer lives for the moment she can deliver her hero to the hole in the story.
Arguably—I’m working on a proof—we writers are nourished daily by loving our fictional characters in this way.
In this week’s class we discuss “characters.”
Character as plot, as the story engine, and why the hero must die.