Monday Writing Motivation: The adventure begins… now
The Guardian last Saturday carried a series of short interviews with people who’ve been diagnosed with terminal diseases of one sort or another. I took a deep breath and read some of them. Each proved to be a revelation of determination, optimism and clarity.
One in particular struck me.
Here, in part, is what Arabella Proffer, whose doctors have given her months to live, said:
“My mantra is to leave the damn house, because you never know what’s going to happen if you do. No interesting story ever started with, ‘I went to bed at 9pm on a Tuesday.’” (My italics.)
I cannot help but admire the courage and the fortitude of Arabella’s resolve. However long you might expect to live, it must always be better to go out and meet life itself, on the field of combat or of love, than to stay huddled behind your castle walls.
And yet it struck me that there are many stories that start with variations of “I went to bed at 9pm on a Tuesday.”
Take this one, for example: “I went to bed at 9pm on a Tuesday and woke up seven months and thirteen days later in bed with a woman I did not recognise, in an unfamiliar bedroom with a view through the window of a view as alien as a Martian landscape.”
At once, the all-too-pedestrian first clause is transformed by the second. And of course you’ll recognise two familiar tropes:
That first clause establishes, in a flash, your character’s familiar, ordinary world. The world in which nothing very much happens. The world of low expectations and zero literary conflict.
The rest of the sentence is what launches your character on his narrative journey. Instantly, we recognise that he’s on unfamiliar, indeed completely unsettling, ground, confronting a myriad challenges, not the least of which is that, in due course, he’ll discover that he is the discombobulated owner of a wholly unknown face.
This transformation is the inciting incident that catapults your character into story.
Life is one thing, story quite another. In life, we seek peace and tranquillity. We would like nothing more than to meet, triumphantly, one challenge after another; watch our children flourish and succeed; enjoy a fulfilling and loving relationship with a partner that will stretch unto and perhaps, depending on your belief system, beyond death.
In fiction we relish sharing the adventures of characters who face formidable obstacles, hurdling some, falling at others. We recognise in fiction that the harder the struggle, the sweeter the victory.
Now the strange thing is that in delineating the various problems people face, the tensions they live with, the failures they have to learn to endure, fiction mirrors what life actually delivers. We might want a life of unalloyed joy; we know that life inevitably will fall far short of that. Life will be an amalgam of success and failure, bitter disappointment and joy. And if we’re lucky (or wise – I prefer to think of myself as being wise; but being wise know that it’s more luck than good judgement) we’ll learn from our defeats and apply those lessons on our next sortie.
So Arabella is both right on the button – and fundamentally mistaken. Yes, a life that is marked by bed on Tuesday nights at 9pm is a life that is not truly lived at all. And yet on any given Tuesday night, as stories teach, an adventure can begin.
PS – Why not have a bit of fun with story and enter our latest flash fiction challenge:
Write a piece of flash fiction inspired by a headline in your news source of choice. Please include the headline in your entry.
Deadline 31 January. Find full details and the entry form here.