Eudora Welty was a brilliant writer of short stories who also won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter’s, and her autobiography, One Writer’s Beginning, was to her generation/fans what Stephen King’s On Writing was to his. One Writer’s Beginning is a brilliant combination of Welty’s life story combined with subtle, well-placed bits of writing advice, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is also very short, so now you have one fewer excuse not to read it than you did a sentence ago.
There’s a quote attributed to Ms. Welty–the title of this post, actually: “There is no story until there are two stories.” I don’t know if that quote comes from One Writer’s Beginning or from somewhere else, but maybe when one of you reads the book, you can keep your eyes open and let me know if you spot it (it’s been a few years since I last read OWB).
All of this is prologue, of course, an excuse to mention a book that you ought to read. The actual point of my post today is the quote itself, because it’s spot-on accurate. There is no story until there are two stories.
Say, for instance, that you’re telling a story about a young man who is working as a moisture farmer on his uncle’s farm but dreams of “bigger and better things.” In and of itself, you don’t have enough. It’s too vague. There are too many different ways the story could go; it has no inherent focal point.
Conversely, if you’re telling the story of a rebellion against an evil emperor reigning over a galaxy far, far away, that’s too broad, too sweeping. It’s like telling the story of the galaxy itself: what star do we look at? What planet? So many specks of light in the distance…
But what about that point where the young man and the rebellion intersect? The point where the young man meets an old man who used to serve the empire but will now teach him how to harness a great force against the emperor and his henchmen? Now one of the stars in that far, far away galaxy has gone super-nova. It calls to us, brightly and with no uncertainty. Look at me! Look at the mess I’m about to make! You want to know how this is going to turn out. You know you do.
All of the best stories are built around not one central idea or character, or even one conflict. They are built around the intersection of two stories.
Another example, one of my favorite books as well as one of my favorite movies (and different enough that if you’ve only ever experienced one, you should go and find the other): The Princess Bride.
Story #1: Young Wesley goes off to make his fortune and ends up falling afoul of the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never leaves survivors. Except Wesley does survive, and after several years makes his way back to his homeland to find and reclaim the hand of the woman he loves (the Princess Bride).
Story #2: Prince Humperdinck wants to start a war with the neighboring country and plans to kill his bride-to-be (the Princess Bride) so he can frame his neighbors, thus precipitating a war. “The people will be outraged. They’ll demand we go to war.”
The Princess Bride is not just the title, it’s the point where those two stories intersect and things get interesting.
In fact, the book and the movie are even structured in a way that doubly highlights the “two stories” maxim, because even the story about Wesley and Humperdinck is only one of two stories going on in the book and movie. The other story is the story about telling the story (which differ between the book and the movie, but essentially amount to the telling of the Wesley/Humperdinck story by reading it from a book by an elder parent/grandparent to a loved child). To be clear, I’m not suggesting you take it as far as The Princess Bride does by doubling up on the “two stories” maxim; I just think it’s a particularly good example of the point I’m trying to make.
So stop a minute and think about your WIP. How many stories are you actually telling? Do they sufficiently, inextricably, powerfully intersect?
Because in my opinion, all the best ones do.