[Tipster] The Two Parts of Every Story

tipster post Mar 11, 2022

I recently read a memoir about a prominent American family. I loved the storyline. But I got stuck in one chapter where the author went down a rabbit hole.

He went into "commentary" mode.

He went on and on about how his family's cabin was near to where the early American explorers, Lewis and Clark, camped on the Blackfoot river. Yawn.

He spent too much time on "commentary."

A little commentary is good, even critically important to writing a story. But when the commentary slows down the reader, he or she will lose interest.

Action and Commentary

In the book, The Elements of Story, Francis Flaherty writes,

"A story is a trip down the river. As the captain of the ship, the writer must perform two duties: keep the boat moving, and, at the same time, describe and explain the scenery to his passengers."

Thus, the two parts of a story:

There is the action of the story.

And then there is your commentary to describe and explain the scenery.

When I get bogged down reading a story, whether in fiction or nonfiction (a memoir, for example), often the writer has inserted extended commentary - description and explanation.

I then get the urge to clip my toenails.

I thought I was reading a story. Suddenly, I'm reading information about the story.

Avoiding the Thinking Problem

When writing a story (fiction or nonfiction), don't forget that the main part of the story is the action. Keep the story moving.

Don't forget that it's a boat trip down a river.

In many of the manuscripts that Melissa and I read, the authors tell stories in which nothing much is happening.

For example, this can occur when two characters sit around talking.

There's no action. Just talking. Sitting. No movement forward.

Yes, you need dialogue. And dialogue can obviously move the boat down the river.

I would argue, though, that the action should trump the commentary.

When in doubt, stop writing about the scenery - and get back to the movement of the boat down the river.

Example from "The Blood Meridian"

One of my all-time favorite authors is Cormac McCarthy.

A few of you may remember the dark movie, No Country for Old Men, which was based on one of his novels.

In his even darker novel, Blood Meridian, Cormac describes a scene in which a small posse of "scalphunters" leave a village and head out onto the plains somewhere in northern Mexico. The scene is set in the late 1800s.

The marauders leave on horses:

"They [the scalphunters] rode that day through low hills barren save for the scrub evergreens. Everywhere in this high parkland, deer leapt and scattered and the hunters shot several from their saddles and gutted and packed them and by evening they had acquired a retinue of a half dozen wolves of varying sizes that trotted behind them single file and watched over their own shoulders to see that each should follow in his place."

Two things to note:

1. Cormac uses simple verbs to keep the action moving, I highlighted the verbs.

2. He uses commentary when he describes the wolves trotting behind the hunters. This slows down the narrative a bit but gives color and description to the scene.

Here's my point:

Keep your story moving. When in doubt, get back to writing the action!

Now, buckle up and write!