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Navigating to the Heart of the Story by Diana Xin

Posted Tue, 7/30/2019 - 9:45am by  |  Category: , ,

I just need to find the right way to write this. 

This is the refrain that comes up sometimes when I open a new blank document for an old story I’ve tried to write about seven times over the course of about seven years. So many drafts, but I still haven’t gotten it right, and I still believe, because I am stubborn beyond reason, that this story deserves telling in the right way. 

“The story knows itself better than the writer does at some point, knows what’s being said before the writer figures out how to say it.” 

Thank you, Joy Williams, for assuring me that even though I do not know how to write this story, something out there does. That thing, however, is a trickster. 

More from Williams: “What a story is, is devious. It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensibility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes.”

In short, a story is a lot to contend with. Sometimes it takes seven drafts, or more.

I think of a story now as walking a labyrinth. There is one prescribed path, but many twists and turns. Inside it, beneath it, around it—a minotaur. Something restless, dark, pulsing, and true. You can’t arrive at the heart of the story without a glimpsing encounter with this something. 

After all (last quote, I promise): “The writer doesn’t write for the reader. He doesn’t write for himself, either. He writes to serve…something. Somethingness.”

In my workshop, Heart of the Story, I’ll share strategies for charting a path and mapping the illogical journey through a story. 

The first step is letting go, losing your sense of direction, risking the time it takes to turn around a corner, just to see what’s there. 

To get started, here are three exercises that help disorient and discover.

Change the scenery

Suppose a cyclone drops your story into a whole new setting. It can be Kansas or it can be Oz. But remember, setting is more than just a place. It is also time and weather, history and geography, awareness and mystery.

A change in setting can be a change of season, or a move to a different room—from inside to outside, or private to public. The key thing here is to make a change. This can be difficult to do when we become attached to a current. Change can feel messy and unnecessary, but flipping a switch often allows you to see a story in a whole new light.

Write a scene within this new altered setting. Consider how this setting might impact the rest of the story. What changes and what stays the same? Why is it important that these stay the same? 

Rewrite the compass

Characters are often pulled in different directions, often conflicting ones. What are the opposing forces that draw in and/or repulse a character? What are the things that may spur them to action or cause a change in behavior? 

For instance, pride may cause Elizabeth Bennett to spurn Darcy, but loyalty to sisters pushes her to seek his help regardless. At the same time, escape from endless family nonsense may also exist, balanced by obligation to save family fortune and honor, which is then countered by preserve the sacred self, leading possibly to guilt?

Write out the directions on a character’s personal compass. Try to cull down to four main cardinals. Of these new cardinals, which one is north? And what other magnetism may exist to pull the character away from north?

To go even further, do this for a few other characters. See how these character’s desires and objectives may push and pull on each other.

Chart the journey

In the traditional plot diagram, rising action leads to the sharp peak of climax followed by a declension in which we are meant to feel resolution. 

But plot is not the only thing that makes a story. Chart the rise and fall of mood instead of plot. Does the story start out quiet and then expand, or does it begin in chaos that dissipates, somewhat, by the end? Does it end on a fade-out, or a crash of cymbals? 

More granularly, how do these different moods work against each other? Are they in conversation or conflict? Is there consonance or dissonance? What dictates how the mood unfolds? 

I hope these exercises offer some new ways to navigate the maze of a story. Although the labyrinth can be frustrating, I hope you also enjoy the journey as it brings you closer and closer to the heart of the story, and perhaps, the heart of something else. To learn more, join me on August 17, 2019, for Heart of the Story.


Diana Xin holds an MFA from the University of Montana. Her fiction has appeared in Gulf CoastNarrativeAlaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Most recently, she was named winner of Third Coast Magazine‘s 2017 fiction contest. She is a contributing editor to Moss Lit and a 2015 recipient of the Made at Hugo House fellowship.