I’ve been thinking about story arcs and trajectories, and about that broader metaphor of story shapes. Stories, I’m beginning to think, are all about shape, and structure. The arc/trajectory metaphor emphasises a limited number of qualities that might be found in such shapes. Useful, no doubt, but not comprehensive. Arcs and trajectories are rather linear, but then so are stories, being told one word at a time, in order. Not only linear but also singulinear, by which I mean one line, and even for short stories one might not be enough.
What if stories have double bends in them? What if they have corners? What if stories, even short stories, stop and start (or seem to)? What if they have mirror images, parentheses or repetitions?
I was thinking about what sort of short story I might like to write next – not about who I’d like to write about, or what situation they might be in, but what sort of story? What sort of arc, or trajectory? Or other shape? A sort of zig-zag story seemed to appeal: one where the protagonist – eponymous or otherwise – was on a downward curve, maybe even had hit some sort of bottom – not that shade of story – and then experienced some sort of rebirth and rose again – no capital ‘R’ – but only to fall to that downward curve once more, because that’s the sort of character he/she was, or that was the sort of situation they remained in.
It would be an uppy-downy sort of story. What might a story like that be telling us? A fall from grace, a rehabilitation, a relapse. That’s the sort of story in which we see someone falling to their own failings perhaps. And then we can reflect on our own failings, and our own fallings. Then we can reflect on that general human falling. That’s not a bad sort of story to tackle; not, perhaps, a bad sort of story to read.
Then I got to thinking about where in the process, in that repeating pattern of rising and falling, and rising again, I would start, and stop. Would I start near the top of a passing rise, and the very beginning of the slide down? Or at the bottom of the first fall? And where would I stop? To stop at the beginning of the second rise would make a rehabilitative story (or could I show within it the seeds of a future fall? The opening threads of repeating pattern). Should I go on to the beginning of that second fall, just to make sure that repeating pattern was apparent? I rather favour the former: let the switched-on reader recognise the shoots of the snowdrop, showing before even Christmas.
In fact, if I scrawled out in pencil my ‘whole’ pattern it might look like a scruffy W, or M; but if I drew out the shape of what the written story might be, it might look more like an upside down V.
A good deal of my writing is done in front of a window that looks out slightly to the east of south, across farmers’ fields with not quite parallel hedges that sometimes remind me of a horse-racing track. There are trees in the foreground, and in the distance. In the distance I can’t see the trees for the wood. When the leaves are in full show, I can’t see more than one building gable-end, without moving from my seat. And when the trees are bare, I can see two.
A theory of mine is that if you want to imagine a story, you can do worse than start with a place. Places imply people, even when they are absent. They imply the purposes of people. My empty-of-houses landscape implies farmers, or poachers, or trespassers (forgiven and otherwise), or dog-walkers, or perambulating neighbours. It implies fast, occasional vehicles driven by locals, or slow, unfamiliar ones, driven by delivery men, or would-be criminals, or people who are lost. Like most views, it implies people out of place, or in place, which, you’ll realise, is already teetering on the verge of story.
But I don’t necessarily want to take my trimmed, honed down story shape and fit it to what I can see from where I sit. I might like to fit it to other places, remembered or even imagined, where other people intrude, or inhabit, with other purposes in mind; with other stories to tell. So, blog-post over, story arc in mind, I’m off to write that sort of story……