The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
Whether you’ve been writing for years or you’re thinking about storytelling for the first time, you’ve undoubtedly heard the words ‘climax’ or ‘crisis’ used to describe the moment in a story when all of an author’s efforts are brought into dramatic tension. These words (and others like them) are commonly used by storytelling gurus who teach formulaic paradigms, as well as by critics and scholars analyzing an author’s work.
While we obviously need common terms to talk about fiction, it’s a mistake to allow the name of a thing to obscure your authorial goals. In this section Hills does a brilliant job of exploring the full implications of this dramatic moment, and shows how any name ascribed to such moments woefully understates their full power and potential.
Defining things by their schematic or logical structure is fine for storytelling gurus, critics and academics, but it’s a mistake if you’re actually trying to create the thing being described. We can all agree where Los Angeles is on a map, but that says little about what Los Angeles is like as a city. We can all agree about the structure of a suspension bridge and how the load is distributed, but that tells us almost nothing about the complexity of building such a bridge.
It’s relatively easy to come up with a crisis or climax when you’re tinkering with a story. That central, focusing moment may even be the thing you first imagined. But there’s a big difference between rigging two-dimensional transitions that meet a minimal definition of ‘crisis’ or ‘climax’, and fully integrating such transitions throughout the entirety of a fictional work.
Again, it’s the difference between drawing a map of Los Angeles and bringing Los Angeles to life. Your job, as an author, is not simply to satisfy some formulaic or structural requirement, it’s to bring your story world to life. Treating the climax or crisis of your story as a structural goal, and meeting that requirement, almost certainly means falling short of your story’s potential.
It’s not the name of the thing that matters, it’s the thing.
Next up: “Epiphany” as a Literary Term.
— Mark Barrett
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