Blind as a Newborn Hedgehog

December 7, 2011 · 3 comments

I was having coffee with a frustrated writer. 

She couldn’t finish anything.  Her characters seemed to have forgotten which of her many manuscripts they belonged in.  My friend had no idea what her stories were about, and consequently she was “wasting a lot of time!”

So I laid my thesis on her.

Five minutes later her eyes had brightened with the recognition of the obvious and she hurried home without so much as a thank you.  But that’s okay with me because:
a) I’m familiar with that special urgency writers feel when a literary solution strikes, and
b) I want nothing more than to see this idea out there, in practice. 

Here’s what I told her:

Visualize your story as TWO STORIES.  Two successive stories separated by a moment so profound that everything that has occurred prior to this moment is sucked into it.  This sink hole is the HEART OF YOUR STORY. 

“You mean, there’s a hole in my story and everything’s flowing into it?” she chuckled ironically, sadly, questioningly.

Exactly.  Protagonist as slave to her desire—that’s your FIRST STORY.  Of course, story number one is more or less a tragedy—it’s the law of drama. 

Author and philosopher, Muriel Barbery in her novel “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” puts it like this:

“We are filled with the energy of constantly wanting that which we cannot have.  We cannot cease desiring, and this is our glory and our doom.  Desire!  It carries us and crucifies us.”

Strategies exhausted, the protagonist is horrified by their sense of emptiness.

“Okay, then what happens?” she asks.  “In the aftermath of this failure, this nightmare.”

“Not so fast,” I said.  “The protagonist needs to burn for a moment in the hell of her own making.  All good heroes possess what poet John Keats calls “negative capability”, the ability to allow things to fall away.  Very painful.  But remember, she has no other options.  There’s no way out. 

“Now the SECOND STORY is set to begin.  Your protagonist, cleansed of self-serving strategies, sees the bigger picture.  Sees her role in the scheme of things and knows what’s necessary to bring the story to a close.

“You have TWO STORIES because your protagonist is two different people, in essence.  Between the two is the HEART OF THE STORY.  The energy in that dark heart has been driving your writing all this time.  You might as well know that.”

Anyway, my friend hurried off, as I said, leaving me wondering (again) why writing manuals don’t mention the heart of a story.  Perhaps the “story” geniuses avoid it for the same reason protagonists do.  The sinkhole has no reference points.  You can’t think your way into or out of it.  It’s a kind of death. 

So, the human organizm has developed a blind spot to protect itself.  It’s sad, but very human, this “inability of living creatures to believe anything that might cause the walls of their little mental assumptions to crumble.” (Muriel Barbery.)

But what’s patently obvious to any mature person is that “assumption crumbling” is crucial to our own mental development.  This vortex, this mysterious hole, this key dramatic moment in the novel or screenplay, contains everything you need in order to understand:

What your story is about

Why you’re writing it, and even…

Why readers read

And best of all, for the busy writer, this simple concept is going to…

SAVE a lot of TIME.

I expand on all this in the eBook I’m publishing soon.  Yours for free.  All I want is to see this idea out there, working for writers.    

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

ramon kubicek December 7, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Bravo, PJ. I think you really have something here. Critics and writing “experts” do allude to what you’re talking about, referring to the sudden “recognition” a character has about two-thirds through the story, but that explanation fails to emphasize what you’re pointing out. All the talk about the recognition is a critical stance meant to see what’s going on in a text. But you’re talking as a writer, and any other writer should benefit more from this. The view from the writer’s side of the table sees the matter as an issue of craft rather than literary theory.

PJ Reece December 8, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Thanks, R.K. I, too, hope I “have something here”. It’s elusive. I often have to pause and feel my way back to this dark heart to see what’s going on in there. And then ask myself why a writer is better off knowing this. I think it has to do with the “failure”. If, as writers, we know that the protagonist cannot but fail in the first story, then we’re always aware of their inevitable and glorious demise. And the miracle that grows out of it. If we can keep that in focus, then we know why readers read.

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