Finally, after a brutal stretch of snow and ice and cold, temperatures have moderated, and the thaw has begun. All that snow will now melt to water and run off into streams and tributaries and storm drains. Once we get above freezing, it has to go somewhere, right?
During what I like to think of as a time of gathering, the snow accumulated and the cold set in, and I went out into it with my shoulders hunched against the wind and the muscles in my legs tensed as I carefully made my way over ice. I felt the tension of the gathering in my body, and felt it more each day the cold snap continued.
So it is in a good narrative. A story well-told gathers the particulars that build the tension between characters. Sometimes that tension comes from the fact that one character wants something, and another character makes obtaining it difficult. Other times, there’s a mounting tension of circumstances that a character finds untenable but perhaps is too afraid to try to change. The point is a good story always has this pressure building, a pressure that ultimately has to have its release.
A good story reaches a point where the pressure it’s created has to go somewhere. Usually a single event creates the tipping point, that point beyond which the world of the characters will irrevocably change. Maybe it’s an action on the part of the main character. Maybe it’s an opportunity that the main character has for a definitive action, but for whatever reasons he or she refuses that chance, and it goes on by, never to present itself again.
If you’re writing memoir, try to identify those sorts of moments from your own experience. What were the tipping points in your narrative? What were the moments that stay with you to this day because of what they changed in your life, or perhaps locked you more fully into something you still wish you could have escaped? What were the moments that caused your world to shift in some way? If you’re writing fiction, what are the similar moments in the lives of your characters? Finally, no matter what you’re writing, what’s the single moment beyond which the pressure of the narrative can no longer build? What’s the single event that provides the breaking point—that explosion, or meltdown, or quiet significance that becomes deeply felt as it allows the release of the pressure to run through the lives of the people most intimately involved in the sequence of events? How does that release end up changing them forever?
“Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change,” Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, says. I find this excellent advise for those of us thinking about the way a good story has to gather a certain energy that must, by story’s end, have its release.