A former private detective and reporter for a small weekly newspaper, G.B.Pool writes the Johnny Casino Casebook Series and the Gin Caulfield P.I. Mysteries. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line.” For more information about Gayle, visit her website!
For the past several months I have written blogs on the 5 Elements of a Story as outlined by Aristotle in The Poetics. Mine weren’t deep, philosophical discussions. They were just good, solid writing tips and techniques. So far we have covered Plot, Character, Setting, and Dialogue. Each of these is an integral aspect of a good story.
Without Plot, you have your annual Christmas letter. Without Character, you have a travel guide. Without Setting, you have an essay. And without Dialogue, you don’t have much reality to your story.
The final element is Meaning. Or: “What is the point to your story?” If you don’t have a point, why write the story? You might think the plot is the meaning, but the plot is simply what characters do in a specific time and place, enhanced by what each character has to say about it.
The Meaning is a higher concept. It’s the theme. There aren’t all that many concepts out there: Man against Man. Man against Nature. Man against Machine, Man against Himself, Man against God. Even if you have a dog as your hero, it would be Dog against Man, Dog against Dog, or Dog against Nature or Machine. (God loves dogs so there wouldn’t be any conflict between them. Sorry, I digress.)
The new movie, Everest, has men battling that mountain. My latest book, Caverns, coming out in October, pits man against nature until the heroes realize the rats in the caves underneath the city of Chicago aren’t their biggest problem.
The silent movie, Modern Times, has man battling the machine age. Or how about 2001: A Space Odyssey when the human is trying to outsmart the computer. (Obviously in real modern times and the real future, now, every gadget used in a CSI TV show works, nobody’s cell phone ever loses a signal or runs out of battery power. But that would be a different story. Sorry… Again I digress.)
Then there is Man against Himself. This is often a psychological tale where the man is trying to find himself or save himself. The Days of Wine and Roses and The Lost Weekend pit an alcoholic against the bottle in his fist. Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, or maybe a nymphomaniac female and her cravings, they are each fighting a battle against their addiction. And since they are the only one in the room, it’s the character against himself or herself. Society really doesn’t have a place in that scenario.
And as in some instances, the man or woman doesn’t have to win. The Tale of Two Cities ends with Sydney Carton walking to the gallows. The plot might lead him to Madame Guillotine, but it’s his self-sacrifice that takes him on his final journey and the ultimate meaning of the story.
It is up to the writer to find those obstacles against which his or her characters can struggle. The writer creates a character with traits that either defy and overcome the odds or succumbs to them, because in the final analysis all stories are really about man vs. himself.
Can the hero triumph over his limitations? Will the hero find himself, his courage, and his soul in that struggle?
What is your story trying to say? What are you trying to say?