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Editor Roundtable: “Pilgrims”

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This week, Anne looks at Elizabeth Gilbert’s 1993 short storyPilgrims,” in order to continue her study of short stories and what makes them tick. This is the story that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her book Big Magic, her big break, the one she finally sold directly to Esquire magazine, the one that got her an agent and launched her career. A little more about that below.

The story runs 4300 words, and appeared in the November 1993 edition of Esquire Magazine. It is still available to read on the Esquire website

 

The Story

  • Beginning Hook – When Buck’s father hires 19 year old Martha Knox to work on his Wyoming horse ranch, Buck must come to terms with the idea of working with a girl. He decides she’s okay, and they spend a summer working together.

  • Middle Build – While overseeing a hunting trip for city dudes, Buck and Martha get to know each other better in a conversation around the campfire. As they get drunk, Martha’s questions encourage Buck to open up about himself. He decides to disclose a traumatic accident from his past that sets him apart from his big brother and his father.

  • Ending Payoff – Martha, in her turn, tells a traumatic story from her own past, causing Buck to feel closer to her. When he challenges her to ride off with him to Mexico right then and there, and she agrees, he has to decide whether he meant it. He gets on her horse with her, but they both fall off. Neither of them really wants to run away.

Let’s talk about the Genre: Worldview Education

Kim: I felt a Worldview-Education vibe for our narrator Buck. And Martha Knox felt similar to the kind of mentor we saw in the character Dot in Fundamentals of Caring. Even though they are both on a journey of sorts, she seems to know herself and model what it is to own your identity. 

Anne: I thought I could see Status in the way he competes with his father and brother–or compares himself to them–and seems to value their esteem.

But I think you’re right about Worldview/Education. Martha changes his worldview, from thinking it’s weird to work with a girl on the ranch, to accepting her as not just his equal but his superior. She seems to give him the courage to think of running away on a pilgrimage of his own and, in the attempt, he realizes that he’s not really cut out for that. He sees himself for what he really is, and, I think, where he really belongs.

Leslie: In other episodes, I’ve mentioned James Scott Bell’s Shattering moment concept in short stories–that there is a moment that we explore in a short story that can come before or after or at the beginning, middle, or end of the story, that the story is really about. If there is no shattering moment in a short story, I find, you miss it, it doesn’t quite work. James Scott Bell writes about the Shattering Moment in How to Write Short Stories and Use Them to Further Your Writing Career. 

My hypothesis, piggybacking on Bell’s concept, is that the life value shift that arises from the shattering moment determines the global genre. But also, the best short stories seem to be the ones that are about one of the Five Commandments of Storytelling. To me, in “Pilgrims,” Buck is used to people not taking him seriously, and when Martha Knox takes his suggestion to ride to Mexico seriously, Buck experiences a shattering moment. The story feels like a huge Turning Point in his life. It’s about the moment when somebody (in this case, Martha) takes Buck seriously, that what he has to say means something. He must decide to take himself seriously and acknowledge agency in accepting his life as it is, or not. All of these elements communicate Worldview-Education to me.

The Principle – Anne –

AnneHow short stories work. 

I chose this week’s short story mostly for the story that lies behind it. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about writing and rewriting “Pilgrims” in Big Magic, her 2015 book on creativity, and it had a real impact on me. It was instrumental in the long process of rewriting my own novel, Restraint, and has continued to resonate as I tackle shorter-form new writing myself.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Big Magic does much of what Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art does, but from a more feminine perspective. And like The War of Art, Big Magic is a book I revisit at least annually to keep my creative professionalism going.

Here’s the story:

The first short story I ever published was in 1993, in Esquire magazine. The story was called “Pilgrims.” It was about a girl working on a ranch in Wyoming, and it was inspired by my own experience as a girl who had worked on a ranch in Wyoming.  As usual I sent the story out to a bunch of publications, unsolicited. As usual everyone rejected it, except one. A young assistant editor Esquire named Tony Freund plucked my story out of the slushpile and brought it to the editor-in-chief, a man named Terry McDonnell.

Tony suspected that his boss might like this story because he knew Terry had always been fascinated with the American West. Terry did indeed like “Pilgrims,” and he purchased it. And that’s how I got my first break as a writer. It was the break of a lifetime.

The story was slated to appear in the November issue of Esquire, with Michael Jordan on the cover. A month before the issue was to go to press, Tony called me to say there was a problem. A major advertiser had pulled out, and as a result the magazine would need to be several pages shorter than planned that month. Sacrifices would have to be made. They were looking for volunteers.

I was given a choice: I could either cut my story by 30% so that it would fit in the new, slimmer November issue, or I could pull it from the magazine entirely and hope we find a home, intact, in some future issue.

“I can’t tell you what to do,” Tony said. “I will completely understand if you don’t want to butcher your work like this. I think the story will indeed suffer from being amputated. It might be better for you, then, if we wait a few months and publish intact. But I also have to warn you that the magazine world is an unpredictable business. There may be an argument for striking while the iron is hot. Your story might never get published if you hesitate now. Terry might lose interest in it, or–who knows?–he might even leave his job at Esquire and move to another magazine, and then your champion will be gone. So I don’t know what to tell you. The choice is yours.”

Do you have any idea what it means to cut 30% from a ten-page short story? I’d worked on that story for a year and a half. It was like polished granite by the time Esquire got their hands on it. There was not a superfluous word in it,  I believed. What’s more, I thought that “Pilgrims” was the best thing I’d ever written, and as far as I knew, I might never write that well again. It was deeply precious to me, the blood of my blood. I couldn’t imagine how the story would even make sense anymore, amputated like that.

Above all my dignity as an artist was offended by the very idea of mutilating my life’s best work because a car company had pulled an advertisement from a men’s magazine. What about integrity? What about honor? What about pride? If artists do not uphold a standard of incorruptibility in this mysterious world, who will?

On the other hand, screw it. Let’s be honest it wasn’t the Magna Carta we were talking about here. It was just a short story about a cowgirl and her boyfriend.

Well, Liz made the necessary cuts. Yes, it changed the essence of her story. She says the result was neither better nor worse than the original. Just different. It was published in Esquire, it got her representation by a major agent, and it launched her career.

Does the story work? I think so. But it does leave a lot up to the reader, and a quick scan through Goodreads tells me that it didn’t work for a lot of readers.

The irony of modern short stories seems to be that while they’re quick to read, a lot of them don’t supply every single thing you need to be perfectly sure of the meaning, or the intention, or the ending. Or even the story type. This kind of short story demands close attention. Re-reading. Some extra consideration. More time than you might think.

When we know that the author spent a year and a half honing and polishing this story before she had to cut 30% of it for Esquire, we know that this kind of story doesn’t just fall out of the keyboard and onto the screen. I think it’s safe to say–as I’ve been saying with our other two short stories so far this season–that every word choice is carefully considered. It has to be, to put plot, characterization, great dialogue, PLUS layers of meaning and nuance, across in 4300 words.

I’d like to go through the structure of “Pilgrims” briefly, then look at some specific word choices and motifs that help carry the meaning.

First of all, its 4300 words can be split into 9 beats, by my count.

  1. Buck and Crosby are shocked to learn that their dad has hired a girl to work on the ranch.
  2. Meeting Martha Knox – largely a physical description of her.
  3. Buck and Martha go dancing at a bar in town.
  4. In a conversation around a campfire, Buck discloses his past trauma.
  5. As the conversation continues, Buck and Martha establish that Buck’s brother Crosby isn’t a rival for her affections.
  6. Still around the campfire, Martha discloses her own past trauma…
  7. Which encourages Buck to dare her to run away with him.
  8. Martha accepts the challenge and they get on her horse.
  9. They try, but fail, falling off the horse and laughing.

You can see a simple story arc there. It’s not a love story–at least, I don’t read it as one–though Buck feels like he should make some overtures in that direction, and there are hints of attraction and sexuality throughout. They’re both young people: Martha 19 years old, and Buck is the younger of two sons on their father’s ranch. So some hints of a love story feel almost inevitable.

Let’s start with the title, “Pilgrims.” Pilgrims are mentioned only once in the text. Part of the family business is running a kind of dude ranch or guided hunting tours for city people. Five of them are asleep in the tents as the long conversation around the campfire goes on, and Martha refers to them as “a bunch of pilgrims.”

The word has to speak for itself. Pilgrims are people on a journey towards something they believe in. It’s a journey of faith. It’s not supposed to be easy or cushy.

The city slickers from Chicago are angry at Buck for “not being able to make them good enough shots to kill any of the elk we’d seen that week.” They’ve come out here to try to become something they aren’t, or to experience something powerful that might be more of a fantasy than a reality.

Earlier in the text, Buck’s dad tells him that Martha “showed up somehow from Pennsylvania in the sorriest piece-of-shit car he’d ever seen” looking for a ranch job. She, too, has made a kind of pilgrimage, all the way from Pennsylvania to Wyoming. In the end, Buck proposes another one: a journey on horseback over the Great Divide and eventually to Mexico. He fantasizes briefly about how they’ll become bank robbers, like in the old West.

So we can see how the one-word title, bolstered by a few carefully chosen details, tells us what the story is probably really about: coming to terms with the life you’ve got. And that is Worldview Education, more or less in eight words. All three pilgrimages in the story are likely to end with the pilgrims going home again–as pilgrimages generally do end. Will they have found meaning? The story is tacit on that point.

That’s the open ended ending that bugs many readers of this kind of short story. It doesn’t tell you what to feel or what to conclude. 

Closer scrutiny gives us a few more hints. There’s a motif of “up-and-over” that recurs about ten times. It’s most vivid when Buck is describing lying in a hospital for a year following a bad rodeo accident. His father sits with him every day, smoking cigarettes and flicking the still burning butts up and over poor Buck’s stabilized head and neck. “So damn bored,” Buck says. “The only thing I lived for was seeing those butts go flying over my face to the toilet.”

An accident bad enough to hospitalize a young man for a year is a major life trauma. Buck’s father made big sacrifices for him. It’s not hard to pick up nuances of his feeling less than both his father and his older brother, of being unlike them. Maybe he doesn’t quite fit in with his family. Worldview Education protagonists often don’t. Look at George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.

The story is bookended by mentions of going up and over a mountain pass. In the opening beat, the dad chides Buck’s older brother Crosby because he can’t get up and over Dutch Oven Pass without falling asleep. Towards the end, Buck proposes that he and Martha make their escape up and over the [WAH-shu-kee] Washakie Pass, the only way to get across the Great Divide.

But they aren’t going to go up and over. They’re going to fall off their horse, just as Buck fell off his bronc in the rodeo accident. Instead of going up and over, he explicitly went down and under the horse.

At the end of the story, when Buck and Martha have fallen off her horse and are lying in the nighttime meadow looking up at the sky, he tells us, “This one star, though, left a slow thin arc, like a cigarette still burning flung over our heads.” A meteor, quick to burn out, a meteoric rise and fall–is that all there is for Buck? Lying still and watching things happen over his head?

Maybe not. The very last line, which follows that one, tells us that Martha might have seen the shooting star too, but it’s not the kind of thing she’d mention. To me, that says that Martha isn’t much bothered by Buck’s immaturity or his being the younger brother, or a lesser cowboy than she is herself. This might be the beginning of a love story. Or at least a story of genuine kindness.

As I’ve talked about before, and as Liz Gilbert relates in the story behind the story, not a single word in a short story this lean is there by accident. This goes well beyond the typical writing advice of cutting adverbs and filler words, though you’d certainly have to do that. This is a case of knowing exactly what you want to write about–your genre, your theme or controlling idea, your setting, your narrative device, everything–and choosing important words like “Pilgrim,” and significant motifs like a shooting star, that do double and triple duty, with layers of meanings.

It means writing the story, then going back and removing things until it breaks, then putting one thing back so that it works at the most minimal level. Or maybe, depending on the reader, it even remains broken. Nothing you write is going to be for everyone.

Other Perspectives

Kim– Uncovering Genre with Conventions & Obligatory Moments

I really enjoyed this story. It ended the way that most short stories end–before I was ready. Like a great song that you just wish was longer. But like a great song, you can just listen to it again–and I did. I’ve read this story several times and each time I find myself caught up in the way it makes me feel–a sense of longing for something that I can’t quite name. That is my impression of Buck, too, and I think an element at the root of Worldview-Education stories. Whether they are consciously aware of it or not, they are trying to figure out where they fit in the world. When Leslie and I were first studying internal genres, she had the amazing insight to call it “Significance”, their personal significance in the world. This is something I’ve noticed about each of the Worldview genres–they are directly tied to the protagonist’s view of themselves in relation to the outside world.

  • Education is about the individual finding/gaining meaning and significance in their role within the larger world that allows them to continue in their role with new purpose.
  • Disillusionment is about the individual losing the meaning and significance of their role in the larger world that erodes their sense of purpose in their role, but without a present and adequate mentor they’re stuck. 
  • Maturation is often a change in a subjective truth, from seeing others (and therefore themselves) within a black and white definition to recognizing the flaw in their definitions (things are not often what they seem, people are more alike than you thought) that once they see requires new action.
  • Revelation is a change in an objective truth about themselves and the world around them, that once they learn requires new action.

So today I wanted to continue our exploration of how writers use Conventions and Obligatory Scenes to convey the genre–because Conventions and Obligatory Scenes aren’t just arbitrary must-haves for your story, they are specific tools to establish and change the life values of the story. They set up and pay off reader expectations, and ultimately create the genre pattern of change. In this story, the change is subtle and covert, but a core emotion is still evoked in me and leaves me wanting more. For me, that’s a short story that works. 

Let’s look at the characters, setting, and circumstances of “Pilgrims” and see what we see. Whether you’re looking at your own scene/story or analyzing another writer’s work, it’s important to not make yourself try to “figure it out” too soon. Just apply the tools first to completion and then see what stands out to you. 

Characters

  • Buck’s Old Man
  • Buck – POV character, protagonist
  • Martha Knox – the 19 year old girl Buck’s Old Man hired
  • Crosby – Buck’s older brother
  • Women (who couldn’t even work as cooks due to the wranglers)
  • Wranglers
  • The Bronc (that put Buck in the hospital)
  • Five hunters from Chicago
  • Girls (that Crosby thought he knew his way around)
  • Agnes – Martha’s sister
  • Handy – Martha’s Appaloosa horse
  • Stetson – Buck’s favorite horse

Setting

  • This ranch
  • Pennsylvania (where Martha Knox came from)
  • Dutch Oven Pass (in Wyoming)
  • “Once this season” (they go back and forth over the pass multiple times throughout the season)
  • “Sorriest-piece-of-shit car” (how Martha got there from Pennsylvania)
  • “Eight-five of your own horses” (the type of ranch that they’re on)
  • “Down the mountain”
  • Dance (presumably at a bar)
  • Bunks
  • Campsite
  • Middle of October
  • Wyoming Rockies
  • Rodeo
  • Hospital
  • Meadow
  • Sky

Circumstances (related to characters and setting)

  • In the case of this story (and many short stories), the circumstances are what we are trying to suss out throughout the story, and what we reflect on afterwards. Who is Buck and what are his circumstances at the opening of the story? What does it mean to him to work with his dad and brother on the ranch? Who is Martha Knox? What are the circumstances 

Key moments (Using Anne’s Beat Breakdown)

BEAT 1: Buck and Crosby are shocked when their dad hires a girl

  • He liked her, he said, right away. He trusted his eye for that, he said, after all these years. “You’ll like her, too,” he said. “She’s sexy like a horse is sexy. Nice and big. Strong.”

Dad like Martha Knox, he approves of her. Also the name Knox (which is later referred to as Fort Knox) is a place imbued with value, worth a lot.

BEAT 2: Slow dancing, but what does it mean?

  • Well, it’s true that I wanted to hold her braid. I always had wanted to from first seeing it and mostly I wanted to in that dance, but I didn’t reach for it and I didn’t set down my beer bottle. Martha Knox wasn’t selling anything.

Martha Knox doesn’t need approval, she isn’t vying for attention. She knows her worth.

BEAT 3: Conversation around the campfire. Getting to know you, disclosing personal information

  • “He came to see me every day in the hospital. We didn’t talk much because he was so goddamn beat. Mostly he smoked. He’d flick the cigarette butts over my head and they’d land in the toilet and hiss out. I was in a neck brace and I couldn’t even turn my head and see him. So damn bored. The only thing I lived for was seeing those butts go flying over my face to the toilet.”

I noted the story mentions the word “bored” four times … this also seems to point to a life without purpose. 

BEAT 4: Conversation continues to a new subject (Crosby and girls)

  • “You know what they called me at home? Fort Knox. You know why? Because I wouldn’t let anyone in my pants.” “Why not?” “Why not?” Martha Knox moved the coffeepot away from the fire. “Because I didn’t think it was a very good idea.” 

This again speaks to knowing her own value and not needing to prove anything to anyone.

BEAT 5: Martha discloses her own past

  • She sighed. “Buck,” she said. “Honey.” She patted my leg and then she nudged me. “You are the most gullible man I know on this planet.”

Martha teases Buck about being gullible. The words “most gullible man I know on this planet” dig at Buck’s self-worth.

BEAT 6: Buck challenges Martha to run away

  • “You want to take off with some horses and see if we get made dead out there? Fine, I’m all for that. But don’t waste my time with this outlaw bullshit.” “Come on,” I said. “Come on, Martha Knox.” “You’re just limited. Limited.”

“You’re just limited. Limited.” is also a dig at Buck’s self-worth.

BEAT 7: Martha accepts the challenge

  • She found Handy and he let her bridle him. The spots over his back and rump in the almost dark were ugly, like accidental spots, like mistakes. I said, “You know, my old man got this horse from its owner for a hundred dollars, the guy hated it so bad. They should’ve named him Handful.” “Should’ve named him Handsome,” she said. “Look at those pretty legs.” “I hate an Appaloosa. I hate them all.”

Buck’s despising of Handy the Appaloosa horse feels like a stand-in for his own self-loathing. But Martha Knox sees value in him, despite what others (even himself) may think.

BEAT 8: They try but fail

  • Martha Knox said, “You’re a good horse, Handy,” not with the voice we always use for horses, but with her normal voice, and she meant it. I didn’t think she wanted me to kiss her, although it was true that I wanted to kiss her then. She looked great. On that frozen dead ground, she looked as good and important as new grass or berries. “You’re a good horse,” she told Handy again, and she sounded very sure of that. 

Martha Knox tells Handy (a symbol for Buck) that he is “Handsome” and “You’re a good horse” in her normal voice, not the one where the words don’t matter. This feels like she’s talking to Buck–that he is good. A few lines earlier, Buck has observed Martha Knox on the ground: 

I didn’t think she wanted me to kiss her, although it was true that I wanted to kiss her then. She looked great. On that frozen dead ground, she looked as good and important as new grass or berries.

Note the words “Good and important.” So when Martha Knox tells Handy that he is good, I hear her telling Buck he is “important.” 

The more I look at this story, the more similarities I see to Fundamentals of Caring. Trevor who was stuck in a wheelchair and Buck who was stuck in hospital bed/neck brace. Both were trapped in their life. It is likely that what led Buck to the rodeo life in the first place was this search for significance, just like Trevor wanting to seek out his father. Both things turned out to be a bust–Buck falls and gets drug around the arena, and Trevor learns his dad never wrote to him at all. But both characters had a mentor (in the form of a woman) who saw something in them that is significant–they are enough just the way they are. Dot tells Trevor he is “Handsome and cool” and kisses him before leaving with her father.

And often it takes someone else seeing us this way first in order for us to see ourselves this way. 

I think this is the Big Meta Why of Worldview-Education stories — none of us are trapped in our lives and when we can feel our own significance (often first through the eyes of others, and then our own) we can have peace in our role and live full lives right where we are. 

Valerie – The Fundamentals of Storytelling 

Let me start by saying that yes, I can see the pretty line writing in this story, and I can see the pretty images—no argument from me there. But, for all that, what I don’t see is the pretty story structure. Anyone who’s read The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know will know that, whether we like it or not, when it comes to the craft of storytelling, structure trumps fine line writing. Of course, as Shawn says, “when line-by-line- and global Story magic come together, our jaws drop” (page 36, The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know). So our ultimate goal as writers, the whole purpose of levelling up our craft, is to be able to marry these two skills; structure and line writing.

As you’ve probably already guessed, I don’t think “Pilgrims” works. I’ve been struggling with it for a few days now because, let’s face it, this is Elizabeth Gilbert; I just assumed it would work. Anne mentioned that Gilbert was forced to significantly shorten this piece prior to publication so maybe that’s where the problems crept in. Since this is Story Grid, and what we do here is provide objective feedback on subjective art, let me talk about the specific principles of storytelling that I believe fall short in this piece. 

The best place to start is the genre. I cannot, for the life of me, contort my mind enough to see this as a global Education story. I’ve heard what Anne and Kim have said, and I can see where they’re coming from, but boy, that’s a lot of mental gymnastics.

I see it as a courtship love story; or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s a story of unrequited love. Our protagonist, Buck, is in love with Martha Knox (or has a crush on her anyway). And Martha, it seems is in love with Crosby (or at least enamoured by him to some degree). Unrequited love is wonderful stuff for a story because it’s rich with tension and conflict, it creates an underdog type of hero, and it offers up the possibility of a bittersweet ending.

The irony here—and it’s not lost on me—is that a story about unrequited love would pair beautifully with a global Education story. But “Pilgrims” doesn’t quite pull it off. This story feels like it’s stillborn.

Ok, so while the setup of an unrequited love is fantastic, I don’t think this version of the story pays it off. Let’s look at what we actually have here. As far as scene types go, we have two drunk people sitting in a room talking and a truth comes out. Where did we see this before? Remember our Girl on the Train episode when Anne so brilliantly pointed out how many of these “talking head” scenes there were? If you haven’t listened to that episode, I highly recommend it. The point of this kind of scene is to give the reader/audience a new piece of information. 

So what do we learn here? Well, we learn that Martha is up for anything. She’s adventurous and likes adrenaline, but she’s also independent. That’s why she’s willing to go with Buck, but on her own horse (she won’t steal from Buck’s father and you gotta admire her for that). Problem is, we knew all that before. We knew it all from the way she showed up on the farm asking for a job. Buck knew it too. 

We also learn that Buck is in love with Martha (or seems to have feelings that are stronger than a crush), after all he wants her to go away with him. But we already knew that too, because he asked her to dance with him, and because he’s given us so many details about the way she looks. We also learn that he’s cowardly—perhaps cowardly is too strong a word, but I’m grasping for the right adjective … maybe it’s fearful or tentative. He tried adventure in the rodeo and he’s loathe to try it again (not that anyone could blame him). So, it doesn’t surprise us when he backs down from his plan to go to Mexico.

This leads me to the Five Commandments of Storytelling. They exist to move a story forward and to reveal character. Remember that character is revealed by action (or choice) under pressure. That pressure is created when the turning point gives rise to a crisis question for the protagonist. And the crisis question must be a dilemma. A simple choice between right and wrong, good and evil, doesn’t constitute a dilemma. It also doesn’t hold any tension or raise any stakes because the reader knows exactly what the protagonist will choose. He’ll choose what’s right, and in these kinds of highly polarized choices, the right thing for the protagonist is easy to spot.

Since Buck is the protagonist, the crisis question (as near as I can figure) comes after Martha says she’ll go with him to Mexico. Should he actually go with her, or not? It’s not an awful crisis question, but it’s not been set up the way it should have been, and therefore, it isn’t used to its full potential. For this crisis to really pack a punch, we’d have to understand that Buck is unhappy on the ranch and is longing for more, or that he’s so head-over-heels in love with Martha that he’s willing to give it all up and run away with her. He’s got a crush on her, for sure, but running away strikes the reader as rather sudden. It’s like, wait a minute. Where did this come from? Also, we’re not led to believe that Buck is looking to leave the ranch. In fact, it sounds like the ranch work suits him fine. So, had it been set up better, Gilbert could have gotten a lot more bang for her buck out of this crisis.

Furthermore, the crisis question is an opportunity for the writer to reveal something about the character that the reader didn’t know before. Up to this point, we know that Buck is fearful, tentative, hesitant; he’s clearly in his brother’s shadow, he asks Martha to dance only once and so on. There’s been quite a bit of page time devoted to painting this portrait of him. So this crisis moment then is a chance to show the reader another side of him, but what we see is more proof of his fear. His proposal of adventure is so against character that we aren’t surprised when he backs down.

I’ve been doing a deep dive into character development lately, and one of the things I’ve come across is Robert McKee’s notion of dimensional and flat characters. Both have a role to play in storytelling, so like every other principle we study, our job as writers is to know what the principles are and what they do. That way, when we’re crafting our stories we’ll know which tool to choose to create the effect we want.

McKee says that the protagonist and major characters of a story need to have dimension, that is, they need to have sets of conflicting attributes. The example he gives is that of a patriot who refuses to pay his taxes. In “Pilgrims”, this means that Buck could be fearful in one area, but brave in another. Martha could be strong and independent in one area, but needs help in another. The protagonist and any major characters need multiple dimensions (or multiple sets of contradictory attributes). Minor characters need to be flat; that is without dimension. Why? Because dimensions draw the reader’s attention and we, as writers, want to keep the attention on the protagonist and any major characters. Minor characters therefore have one trait only. For example, a sidekick is loyal. (Oh and by the way, “minor” doesn’t mean “unimportant”).

Both Buck and Martha are well described. Their portraits have been painted very well. No argument from me there. However, while we get a great sense of who they are, we don’t get contradictions within their characters. They are who they are. And there’s no opportunity to show us a different aspect of them, because there aren’t any solid crisis moments, and it’s the crisis moments where the contradictions, and the depth of character are revealed.

Let’s look now at Forces of Antagonism, since that’s what I’m focusing on this season. I’ve been doing a lot of study on this lately and I recently came across this little gem from John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. I think it applies here. In the quote I’m about to read, Truby is talking specifically about love stories with two well-defined lovers. We get a lot of questions here at Story Grid from authors who are writing love stories from both lovers’ points of view. They want to know whether, in this situation, both lovers are of equal importance to the story, or whether one of them is higher in the hierarchy and if so, which one? 

Truby writes:

When you give one character the desire line, you automatically make him or her the more powerful character. In terms of story function, this means that the lover, the desired one, is actually the main opponent, not the second hero. (Anatomy of Story, chapter 4)

So given this, is Martha or Buck the antagonist? Since Buck is the point of view character and presumably the protagonist, it’s easy to assume that Martha would be the antagonist, but there’s a problem. And it’s a big problem. Neither Buck nor Martha have clearly defined objects of desire. 

Buck, it seems, would like to have a relationship with Martha, but is he enamoured with her enough for it to be considered an object of desire? I think it’s the closest thing we have to an object of desire here because he does ask her to dance and he does ask her to run away with him, he talks about her unconventional beauty and so on. In that case then, Martha would indeed be the antagonist and I think there’s a case to be made for it. I’d call Crosby an obstacle since he’s the third point in the love triangle, but I don’t think he qualifies as an antagonist. But Buck is also struggling with himself. He needs to be drunk to get up the courage to ask Martha to dance with him, and to ask her to run away with him. Buck admits to wanting to touch her braid, but if he has depth of feeling for her, he may not be admitting it to himself. Not fully anyway. So, when a main character is struggling with himself in some way, he is both protagonist and antagonist.

Bottom line, I think there’s loads of potential in this story. However, it falls short on the fundamentals of storytelling and as a result, it doesn’t work. I’d really love to see the previous version because I’m betting that the weaknesses I’m seeing here would have been addressed there.

Leslie – Point of View and Narrative Device

I’m focusing on POV and narrative device, which answers the question, how do I deliver my story to the reader? 

POV tells you whether your story is first person, third person limited, omniscient, etc., and whether it’s written in past or present tense. But the narrative device or situation specifies who (or at least what type of character) is conveying the story, to whom, when, from where, in what form, and why. 

The more I study POV and Narrative Device and use it with my clients, the more I see the way it creates useful constraints to help writers make decisions in their story–not at random or on a whim, but for solid, story-based reasons that help them translate the ideas and feelings in their mind for the reader. I explore this in my Bite Size episode on choosing your POV. The bite size episode can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here.

I start my analysis by thinking about the narrative problem presented by the premise.

What’s the Narrative Problem presented by the premise? 

First, what’s the premise of “Pilgrims”? A young man living and working on a ranch in Wyoming feels limited by his circumstances, and because his attempt to move out of his situation ended in disaster, with severe injuries landing him in a hospital for a year. Buck is the younger brother in the family, and no one really takes him seriously. If he had told his father and his brother, Crosby, that he was going to ride over the Continental Divide and down to Mexico, they would have laughed at him. In fact they probably have a clever saying for such occasions when Buck gets one of his wild ideas. That’s why I think the shattering moment is when Martha takes him at his word—but she does call him on the more ridiculous aspect of his plan, to become an outlaw robbing banks. 

So the problem here and with any Worldview-Education story is that the change in the protagonist can be particularly subtle. The expression of the protagonist’s gift is in finding the strength to hold on, in place, and find new meaning in their existing actions. 

I’m wondering if in short stories that the problem presented by the shattering moment is what’s most relevant to the narrative device and point of view—but it’s likely that the problems presented by the premise and shattering moment are connected. In this case, and in many short stories, we want to feel the impact of that moment when everything shifts for the protagonist. We haven’t had two-thirds or so of a novel to build to a big moment and set up the conditions that make the change possible, so it makes sense that we need to be on the inside, experiencing the story from the protagonist’s point of view.

In this story, we don’t get a lot of commentary. Buck’s reaction comes to us completely through what he notices. That is incredibly subtle. We don’t have Thor finally realizing that Asgard is comprised of people not a place. This is not an effort to compare the two stories; they are very different and serve different audiences. But the quality and intensity of what we think of as “big moments” tend to be different in short stories like “Pilgrims.”

What’s the POV?

First person point of view. This is what literary critic Norman Friedman would call “I as protagonist”; we have access to Buck’s internal experience. But as I mention above,  it’s mostly limited to the things Buck notices supplemented by his memories. Commentary is spare.

What’s the Narrative Device?

Who? Buck, a young man who is struggling with his place at home on the family ranch and in the world in general.

To whom? It feels to me as though Buck is sharing his story with someone who is struggling to “come to terms with the life they’ve got,” as Anne expressed the Controlling Idea. 

In what form/under what circumstances (by implication)? To me it feels like a story around a campfire. 

When? This story’s events unfold in Buck’s past, but it doesn’t feel like the distant past. 

Why? What’s the Controlling Idea/Theme? I like Anne’s conclusion that it’s about coming to terms with “the life you’ve got”—and I would say the means by which this change happens is that Martha’s presence offers a challenge to his view that he’s stuck and his life lacks meaning. 

How well does it work?

I think it works pretty well, though I would love to spend more time with these characters; I’d be very curious to read the original version of this story.

The genius of this story is in how the change in Buck is conveyed to us. It’s all about what Buck notices, especially with respect to Martha. In the beginning, Buck notices Martha’s appearance. By the end, he pays attention to what Martha notices and does or doesn’t mention. In other words, in the beginning, Buck is looking at Martha as a possible love interest, and by the end, she’s become a meaning-making mentor for him. 

When you seek to answer the questions about the narrative device that are not evident from the text, think about the writer’s choices and wonder about why they included certain details and left other ones out. That’s how I came to the conclusion that Buck seems to want to offer the same mentorship to someone else that Martha offered him. Showing what you notice creates your worldview and the meaning you make of your situation. 

Anne: The study of narrative device has been such a big ah-ha for me and for my clients. I introduced it to a roomful of writers in our weekend intensive last week, and it was really fun to watch the looks of skepticism give way to puzzlement and, in a few cases, to see the coin drop. This is meaty stuff!

Final Thoughts 

We like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft. What have we learned this week?

Kim: When you’re in writing mode, we recommend knowing (choosing) your genre first and then crafting with the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes in mind for that genre. But when you’re in editing/analyzing mode, either your own work or studying a masterwork, you can use Conventions and Obligatory Scenes to identify the genre, i.e., check your work. By identifying the Conventions (characters, setting, and circumstances) we can determine what kind of Life Values are in play, and then in the moments of change (pheres) we can see what Life Values have actually changed.

Leslie: My primary takeaway is how useful short stories are in studying the craft. They are different—I talked about this for the listener question in our Love Actually episode—but the short form allows you to read several examples in a short time. (It’s very different from Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, which I’m also reading right now.) You must pay attention to the differences between short and long form stories, but the same way we’ve found it useful to study films for examples of global stories, short stories help us study narrative device and POV. A more personal takeaway, for me is that the Education subgenre is my favorite of the Worldview genre, which isn’t particularly relevant to anyone but myself, except that it’s worth it to consider the genres that grab you over and over again. In a Fundamental Fridays post we wrote a couple of years ago, Anne and I talked about our personal internal genres. Knowing this is a benefit and reveals potential blind spots.

Valerie: For me, “Pilgrims” really drives home the need to focus on the fundamentals of storytelling. Above all else, a story needs a strong foundation. All the pretty sentences and imagery and metaphors can’t save a story that doesn’t have a stable foundation. This is not to negate the skill of line writing. It’s important too. But the first step in the craft of storytelling is to nail the basics. Then layer on the other stuff.

Anne: One of the most common problems I see in client work—and I still commit the sin myself in first drafts—is too much exposition. We feel like we need to explain things to the reader. Even if we’re committed to showing-not-telling, we tend to show more things than we might need to tell the story. If absolutely nothing else, I think we can study these super-lean, possibly not-quite-working short stories as examples of how much exposition you can leave out…and maybe when to stick some back in.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners.

This week’s question comes to us from our fellow SG Editor Tanya Lovetti, in the Story Grid Guild. Tonya writes:

“If you have two very strong genres that seem to be competing with each other for the primary genre, at what point do you make your decision on which one is going to be your primary? I’m mostly asking about analyzing, rather than writing, because in writing you can just pick one, but when you are analyzing it can be a bit confusing at times.”

Kim: Hi Tanya, thanks so much for your question. So the straightforward answer is find the 15 core scenes (the five commandments of the BH, MB, EP) and see what Life Values are at stake and change in those scenes, creating the story spine. But often in a great story where two genres are woven so tightly, they both show up in those scenes. Next you could look at the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes for each genre in question–is one of the genres only partially fulfilled? But again, what if you can spot everything for each? So this brings us to the Core Event … the big moment of the story that is the ultimate payoff for readers’ expectations. It is the moment when the Life Values are most at stake–the protagonist has the most to lose/gain. What is that moment in the story? How has the spine, Conventions and Obligatory Scenes been building toward this moment? What emotions are evoked in that moment? How does it make you feel? Things like this may feel subjective but at the end of the day despite all our tools, stories ARE subjective. Your experience and interpretation is still a valid tool, one that you would be mistaken to leave out of your analysis. So ultimately, ask yourself: what genre feels global? What is the big meta why of this story for you? What are all the tools ultimately pointing to? What is the holy sum that is greater than the parts? I don’t mean for this answer to be a cop-out, because without specifics it is difficult to answer. So it’s really about honoring your own intuition and interpretation, then using the tools to check your work. Make your choice and then make your case. What did you learn from the story? What do you think others could learn from it? These are just as important things to know. 

If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.

Be sure to stop by pagesandplatforms.com to find out about our editing and marketing services for authors.

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.