Writers are expected to have opinions, and I’ve got plenty.
For instance, I often state that a story is a trip with a destination. I came to this realization after a writer friend of mine critiqued some of my work by proclaiming with a maximum of exasperation, “It’s not a story!” When I asked him to elaborate I got a lecture about a beginning, middle and an end, a rising narrative building to a climax, and several other “clarifications,” which left me thoroughly confused. I realized that I had to come up with my own definition and I arrived at the trip with a destination. The destination, however, must be specific and physical, it cannot be a feeling of self-acceptance, or a new awareness of one’s place in the universe. Furthermore, “physical,” is not limited to a spot on a map – it can be a swimming pool or the back seat of a car.
The best destinations promise to answer questions that are really interesting and provocative, questions that people really want answered. Often the destination is reached, sometimes it’s not, which also provides an answer to whatever question the writer has posed.
An obvious physical destination comes from “The Wizard Of Oz,” the destination being Dorothy’s Kansas home – will she get back or won’t she? However, destinations can change along the way, after all, in the beginning of the story the destination is Oz itself.
One of my favorite destinations is set up in “The Godfather.” The destination is the big chair behind the Godfather’s desk and the question is, who will be sitting in it when the story ends, and more profoundly, will the son be corrupted by the father? As the tale unfolds it becomes clear that Michael is the candidate to sit in the chair, and ironically, the story will have a happy ending if the destination is not reached. The destination is reached by Michael, and the story ends tragically and powerfully.
It’s important not to mistake a situation for a story. Five characters, beautifully drawn, full of angst, desire and contradictions, all sitting in a subway car – this is a situation. However, if one of the characters intends to hang themselves when they get home, or another has finally mustered the courage to go up and talk to that special someone who always gets off at their stop, then you have a story. Ironically, if a clear and compelling destination is set, the story can wander, take all sorts of detours, even slow down for reflection and the reader will still feel that they’re going somewhere interesting – whereas if the destination is never stated the narrative can head straight to the finish at breakneck speed and the reader will be impatient, distracted, confused and bored. One of the unintended flaws of many of today’s popular character-driven novels is that there is no story.