Ebbs and Flows and Thunderous Crashes)
Life is comprised of many moments, most of which are not very distinct from one another. Our arcs tend to be the result of a million different experiences and choices, which all compound gradually and imperceptibly. So subtle are the shifts, that when we pause to look back at it all we are baffled to know how we ended up where we are.
There are also very dramatic moments, points that hit with incredible impact, and that we immediately know will change our life forever. One that comes to mind was when my first child was born. A moment before he was only a person that I imagined about, the next he was an actual individual with a face and a cry, and who I would be spending the rest of my life connected to. Just like that I was a Dad, and life would never be the same again.
Stories feature both sorts of shifts as well. They have the slowly building moments that ever-so-subtly shift us from the beginning to the end, but also they have the dramatic scenes which turn the story on a hinge into an entirely new domain. Indeed there are many stories that come down to one of these single, focused ideas. A particular scene, or situation, lies at the heart of it, and all the rest of the story is either built as a foundation to support that key moment, or else is an edifice upon it.
First let us consider the stories that begin with a very singular premise, from which an entire tale springs out. These are stories that we can almost hear the writer saying to his friends “here’s an idea for a story…” and then gives the single, central idea that he will then riff on for all the rest of the tale.
One such story would be The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. I can easily picture the studio executives sitting in a room during the Cold War, spit-balling different ideas, and then one of them says:
“Here’s an idea for a story…a Russian submarine runs aground on a quiet, American island. So now the Russian sailors have to go ashore and try to find help, but all the locals think its an invasion!”
“Golly, gee! So what happens next Fred?”
And the rest, as they say, is history. From that single germ an entire set of hijinks follow, one after another, running from one comedic standoff to the next. Honestly the plot of the rest of the film isn’t that important, it’s simply about having an interesting situation and exploring that space for a while until the end credits roll.
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is all silly, good fun. But the dramatic premise can also be utilized to build a story of deep significance as well. One year later Hollywood gave us Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is similarly built around a single core idea: a young, white woman brings her fiance to meet her parents before they are married. Her fiance, notably, is a black man.
This film came out at the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, where the nation was still reeling from its new norms, and there was, of course, an abundance resistance to those changes. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner dives right into that conversation, reliving the exact same discussions that were happening in real-life homes across the nation. By intentionally seeding itself with the most volatile premise imaginable, that of interracial relations coming straight into the home, it gave itself an ample foundation for all of the social commentary that the filmmakers wanted to deliver.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the stories that build up to a central idea, rather than emerge out of one. The creators of these stories seemed to have a very clear idea of where they wanted the story to get to, and then asked themselves what sort of narrative could lead up to that.
Consider the example of the famous short story The Lady, or the Tiger? The title alone tells us what this tale is all about: a very simple, but important choice. The key point of the story is to give the reader a situation, and then ask them what they would do in it. The situation is a bit strange, though. A princess loves a man who is in love with another woman, and now she must choose whether to trick him into his own death, or else let him go off happily with that other woman. Either way she loses him, the only question is in which way.
Honestly the rest of the story that leads up to this central point just doesn’t matter. It tries its best to justify the reasons for why this particular situation might exist, but the scenario still seems implausible. This is a thought experiment, pure and simple, and that’s really all the justification that was needed.
The Sixth Sense, on the other hand, is an excellent example of a story that is already interesting in its own right, even before it gets to its lynch-pin twist at the end. That twist is far from just tacked on, though. It has been meticulously set up for, and without it the film might have been “good,” but not “unforgettable.”
This is the best use of a keystone point in a story. It is built on a strong foundation already, but then transforms the whole to an entirely other level.
With my next story I am going to try and combine both types of story cruxes. I am going to begin with a situation that I think is interesting in its own right, that of a captain, a sailor, and a pirate in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. From that foundation I will build out a story of mistrust, morals, and desperation. But then, at the end, I mean for it all to come to a head with a focused finish, where we see the key point that everything was building to. I’m excited to try my hand at something very tight and focused, and hope that I’ll be able to deliver a compelling little tale from it all. Come back on Thursday to see what you think of it.