For the better part of my youth, my father, and then later I, would go into the woods on our eighty-acre farm in southeastern Illinois and cut a cedar which would serve as our Christmas tree. Needless to say, it was always a tree whose branches had grown according to nature’s will, which is to say it wasn’t a pine that had been sheared and shaped to form the perfect upside-down ice cream cone that the tree farms sold. Our cedars could be a little wild, a little unpredictable, just like a good story.
We have to resist the urge to decide what our stories are before we write them. We have to forsake planning for spontaneity. A good story surprises and delights when it pays such close attention to its characters and the worlds they occupy that surprises in words or actions lie just below the surface, ready to emerge with just the right amount of pressure from the plot.
So the first key to a successful story is immersion. By that, I mean a deep dive into the details—both the details of place and the details of characters. When we create a believable world via its particulars, we can’t help but know our characters more intimately. When we know the things they value—whether ordinary or extraordinary—and when we know the markers of place that matter to them, we prepare the world from which surprises can organically emerge.
A famous writer—was it Flaubert? (really, I should know this, or at least know how to look it up since I use this quote so often; if anyone knows, please let me know)—once said if writers are lucky, they figure out early on what their obsessions are and they spend their lives writing about them. I think this is true, but what’s equally true is that if writers are lucky, they figure out early on in the composing process what their characters obsessions are, and they follow them.
What occupies our characters’ minds—the things that are always with them—can lead them, if the writer is brave enough to permit those characters free will, into all sorts of trouble. Trouble leads to pressure, and pressure leads to surprise. Think of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The grandmother’s obsession with the past—her memories of the old South and its genteel ways and a time when people “did right”—creates a sequence of events that leads to a meeting with the Misfit, thereby putting her and her family in harm’s way. In the final moments with the Misfit and the grandmother, grace emerges from darkness in a surprising and yet convincing way.
So what do I mean by surprise? I mean an additional layer of truth we didn’t expect to find. This doesn’t happen because of a plot twist. It happens because a character speaks or acts from the heart in a way we never could have predicted when the story first began. The grandmother touches the Misfit tenderly at the end of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and says, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” This tenderness is nothing the Misfit can tolerate. It’s too intimate, too full of grace—a grace he must feel he doesn’t deserve, a grace that rises organically from the particulars of the world of the story and that leads to its tragic and inevitable end.
My father and I never tried to cut any of the branches of our cedar trees. They went where they went, and we didn’t try to tame them. Instead, we accepted their imperfections and came to value the surprising way one might overlap another or spring out so far it touched a wall or drooped close to the floor. We let those trees be what they were. They stood in our house, wild and beautiful things, delightful in their individual and unpredictable natures.