Life seems to occur in chapters. We many times come to a major juncture where we realize that life for the past several years has fit within a single theme, but now a new trajectory is about to take place. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but almost always never in the way that we had anticipated. For though we try to exhaustively outline every chapter of life ahead-of-time, we always seem to go wayward in the actual writing of the work.
I had one of these moments just recently, with the birth of my second child. Something about changing from a family of three to a family of four opened a whole new reality in our home. This one change is substantial enough, but it also proved to be the catalyst for other changes that were past due. We are going to start looking for a new home, we have purchased a car with more seats in the back, and we are changing jobs to be able to afford all of these changes.
Thus a singular event grew wider and wider, causing a ripple of side effects, each of which came with their own set of ripples as well. Of course eventually these life changes tend to stabilize. Eventually you finish ramping up, or downsizing, coming together, or moving apart, and then the complexity of life starts to contract. The chapter of life starts to wane.
But the thing about life is that once things start to feel normal, there is sure to be a fresh disruption to expand things out again. If nothing else, we just get bored and start talking about “needing a change.” If life does not compel a new chapter upon us, we instigate one ourselves.
The Ebb and Flow)
In case you didn’t know, a central theme of this blog is how the nuances of life invariably find their way into the structure of our stories, and this matter is no exception. We not only have learned to imitate life in how we divide our stories into thematically consistent chapters, we even structure those chapters with the same pattern of expanding and then contracting.
Think of the quest of Frodo and Sam in the Fellowship of the Ring. Things start off pretty simple in the Shire, but all at once everything expands dramatically with the arrival of the ring and the charge to carry it to Bree. This leads to the further expansion of the little hobbits’ world as they discover new locales, witness amazing feats of magic, fall into danger, meet all sorts of colorful characters, and even recruit some of them to their party. Finally they arrive at their destination, and the world of wonder starts to contract as they enter a small and cozy village.
But then…a new “chapter” of the story begins. For things don’t go according to plan and a new leg is added to their journey, carrying them back into the wider world. That chapter leads them to Rivendell, but of course things don’t come to their final rest there, either. The pattern continues, through the Mines of Moria and to Lothlorien, past the breaking of the fellowship, and still continued into the other books of the series.
If you look for the pattern, you will soon recognize that each chapter of the trilogy introduces a change, either of status or intention, widens off of that idea, and then draws to a close around it. Yes the larger plot of destroying the ring ever continues, but along the way the characters resolve the chapter of Isengard, the chapter of saving Rohan, the chapter of traversing Mordor, etc.
In fact, each of these chapters is nothing more than a miniature story in its own right, each with its own beginning, middle, and end. A more explicit example of chapters-as-their-own-stories can be found in the idea of the television series, where each episode is usually comprised of its own complete arc, though usually with an ongoing narrative that continues over an entire season, and even the entire run of the show.
Sometimes it can be hard for a show to walk the line between the two. It might lean too heavily towards developing the overarching narrative, resulting in the occasional “bridge” episode that lacks its own, complete arc. Or the show might lean too heavily on making each episode a complete experience, and as a result avoid meaningful character development, for fear of alienating new viewers who aren’t up to speed on the latest micro-drama.
One show that was very compartmentalized in every episode was the Mission: Impossible series. Bruce Geller, who was the original producer for the show, even insisted that the writers not include any character development in their episodes, having the agents come and go freely without explanation. Each episode is so autonomous that you can pick up just about any one and not miss a beat.
A better balance was found when the series was later expanded into theatrical films. The Mission: Impossible movies pay homage to their roots by featuring a series of set pieces, each one of which feels like its own episode of the show, but each of which also leads into the next step of the overarching plot.
In fact, every major secret agent or spy film seems to follow this pattern. James Bond and Jason Bourne also travel to a new destination, with a specific objective to be accomplished there. Things go wide as they gather intel, are acquainted with the relevant characters, and prepare for their operation. A climax of action occurs, the objective is either accomplished or failed, and the target moves to another location, repeating the same process over and over until the greater narrative comes to its close.
Composing your story of several diamond-shaped micro-stories is beneficial to you as an author, and also to your reader.
For you, it takes the gargantuan task of writing a large narrative, and breaks it into much more manageable miniature tales along the way. It is an easy template to follow of Introduction, Expansion, Climax, and Resolution.
And for the reader, it helps the story from becoming stagnant and disinteresting. There are many high points to look forward to along the way, and the final climax feels all the more epic for the many rises and falls that were experienced just to get there.
In my current short story, Raise the Black Sun, I just brought to a close one diamond-shaped-sequence, that of the caravan traveling their final leg to Graymore Coventry. It opened right after I closed the sequence with the witch, and was initiated by the problem of the Treksmen falling into despair. It expanded in its sense of intrigue as we watched their numbers dwindle towards doom, found a new wrinkle as the few survivors bonded around their shared hardship instead, and then started to narrow back down as they approached their destination. Finally there came a sense of resolution in their solving the mystery of the end of the horizon, and now they go to the entrance of Graymore Coventry, literally closing the door on the previous chapter, and opening it into the next. Come back on Thursday to see how that chapter move forward!