Destabilization

The latest episode of the Writing Excuses podcast dealt with how to finish a character’s story. During the discussion, they described good plot structure as circling back on itself. I understand what they meant, but I worry about the concept being misinterpreted; beginning writers may think that you have to end up at the same place you started, literally or metaphorically. Sometimes this does happen (as in the classic Hero’s Journey), but plenty of good stories don’t make this kind of circle. So let me put my own spin on the point.

Stories begin with some kind of destabilization. Something pushes or tempts one or more characters to break their routine. For example:

  • The characters leave home, temporarily or permanently
  • A new person enters the characters’ lives (often summarized as “A Stranger Comes to Town”)
  • The characters encounter a puzzle and decide to solve it (this is the plot of most mystery stories)
  • An event occurs which makes it difficult or impossible to continue with the status quo
  • Some incident, large or small, induces the characters to make changes in their lives

Now it’s possible for things to occur without destabilizing the characters’ lives. Lots of people go on trips without being changed, and a typical police detective solves plenty of “mysteries” without being strongly affected by them. A situation only becomes “story-worthy” when characters truly are destabilized.

(And let me say as an aside, new writers are sometimes reluctant to destabilize characters. Few of us like being destabilized ourselves, and if you identify with your characters, you may be inclined to keep your characters cool and unaffected by whatever happens. This is a mistake—characters should never skate through plot situations. Even James Bond has to sweat.)

So if a story starts with destabilization, how does it end? When the characters’ lives are more or less stable again. You don’t have to resolve everything—life is seldom so neat. And “stable” doesn’t have to mean “happy”; characters may end up dead or in terrible circumstances. (See, for example, the ending of Hamlet.) But an ending will feel like an ending if there’s nothing that’s going to propel much further change in the situation.

In other words, you can look at story structure as starting with a state of stability, then getting destabilized, and eventually returning to stability again. The final state may or may not be similar to the initial one; it could be wildly different. But if the final state feels stable, the audience will understand and accept that the story is over.

[Photo of Leaning Tower of Pisa by Saffron Blaze [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons]

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