I’d been writing for hours. My tired brain and I wandered into the garden. To pull a weed, I sat on the edge of a raised bed. I drifted into stillness. A breeze whispered. After five minutes, or was it ten, a bird…I didn’t dare turn…came to hover not two feet from my head. Whoosh, whoosh. Her wings beat down the air. Whoosh, whoosh.
I am a member of a small bible study group at church. At the beginning of our meetings before we study the words of the Christ, we talk about the past week, about the minutiae of our lives. I told my friends about the bird. Later, during the lesson, I lamented that I did not feel the Christ’s presence with me in my life.
Jose remarked, “Ah, but he was with you.”
“When?” I asked.
“In the whoosh of the wings.”
Since that day, I have begun to deliberately embed in my stories the hand of a loving God.
“Tina, would it be alright, if I borrowed your new knife? You see, I was thinking of getting one, and I wanted to try it out.”
“Sure. Do you want me to bring it over?”
“No, that’s okay. I’ll come to you.”
“Is he letting you drive?”
“No, but I’ll take the bus. It’s such a beautiful day. I want to be out.”
At three-thirty in the afternoon, the knife wrapped in a dish towel and stuffed deep into the bottom of my purse, I got off the bus to begin the long walk up the hill to my home. The sun was on the river, like a painting, glistening off the rippling water. The sight of it, like the river had been sprinkled with glitter, transfixed me. I stood staring. Someone had placed a bench on the overlook.
I could sit for a while. I could rest.
My ribs hurt with every breath.
He’d be home at five.
I turned away from the river and the sparkling light. When I reached the rim of the valley and the street on which I lived, I passed by the dead and broken body of a deer, obviously hit by a car. My neighbor, sweet Elkie, ran out to speak to me. “Oh, isn’t it terrible. I saw the whole thing.”
She was all of five feet, slender, white hair. Her yard boasted a sign, “Wildlife Refuge,” which my husband claimed was her excuse for never mowing.
Hands on her face, she lamented, “It must have been frightened. Ran right out into the street.”
The repulsive, bloated corpse stank. Elkie waved a hand in front of her face. “Phew. Come inside. No one should smell death. It’s not healthy.”
“I can’t. I have to get home. It’s almost five.”
She patted my hand. “You know you’re always welcome.”
I hustled away. After all, I had to be there when he walked in, Tina’s new, strong, unbreakable, ceramic knife hidden in the deep front pocket of my apron. When he turned to put his change in the beer mug he kept by the door…
I trotted up the driveway; my cell rang. It was Holly—my beautiful Holly. I couldn’t answer it. Not now. Not when I was so close.
Ding—a voice mail.
I put on my apron, and nestled the knife into its hiding place. I stood by the door.
Tap, tap, tap.
Outside, a cardinal sat on the window ledge tapping with his beak on the glass.
My husband’s 4X4 roared up the driveway.
Tap, tap, tap.
Holly loved cardinals. “They’re Christmas birds, Mom. Every day, all dressed up for a party.”
My heart raced. I couldn’t breathe. Holly? Did she need me? Was she hurt? I jerked around. My phone sat inches away on the counter. Shaking, I pressed voice mail. “Mom, I signed the lease. I’ve got my own apartment. It’s big enough for both of us. Come and live with me, Mom. You can get out. You can get out.”
He opened the door.
I find that my stories are much more realistic, they ring true, now that I consciously add the whoosh of wings.
My writing career was going nowhere. I’d imagined hundreds of thousands of dollars of income, fame, and something far more elusive, critical acceptance. My average annual income was hovering at $42.11; rejection letters carpeted the floor. Why? What was I doing wrong? I would have fixed it…if I’d known what “it” was.
Enter Story Genius by Lisa Cron, a book recommended by one of my writing buds—and the pieces fell into place. Cron’s hypothesis: All great stories have both an internal conflict and an external conflict. Because people procrastinate, because not a one of us wants to face our inner demons, great stories use an overwhelming external conflict to force the protagonist to grapple with his or her internal conflict.
Consider Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She was a discontented teenager looking for the way home. So crucial is Dorothy’s internal state to the story, that Dorothy’s fears are characters. She’s afraid to make tough decisions (the scarecrow); she fears she’s a coward (the lion), she doesn’t know how to love the people she cares about most (the tinman). I’ve always found the tinman incredibly moving. As a young woman becomes an adult, her body changes, and thus how she interacts with her family also changes. Physical demonstrations of affection can become awkward and stiff. Dorothy feels rusty, unable to move. She longs to be a child again, when affection was simple, when she could easily throw her arms around the people she loves.
The external conflict in the story forces Dorothy and her friends to face their fears. When Dorothy is kidnapped by the flying monkeys and taken into the lair of the Wicked Witch, the scarecrow hatches the rescue plan. Hmmm…smart and decisive. The cowardly lion is willing to fight the palace guards to save her. At the end of the story, when she must leave, the tinman weeps. Dorothy who, at the beginning, was willing to listen to munchkins (who told her to follow a stupid yellow brick road to find a wizard) learns that her future is in her own feet. Remember, the wizard did not get her home. She missed the balloon. Instead, she got home by clicking her heels together. Her actions, not those of a charlatan wizard, determined her future.
Thus, we see Cron’s classic pattern:
External Conflict → Compels the protagonist to face → Internal Conflict
The Wicked Witch of the West → forced Dorothy to face→ her fears about her own future
Before I put a single word on the paper, I ask myself: What is my character’s greatest fear? Then I craft an external event so powerful that my protagonist is forced to face that fear. I leave her no room to dither or escape. Finally, when she wrestles with her fear, when she grows, when she becomes more than she ever dreamed she could be, then I know, I’ve got a great story.
A Slice of Orange would like to welcome Kidd Wadsworth. Her column, Infused with Meaning, will post here on the 18th of each month. We are thrilled to have her writing for us. We hope you enjoy her posts as much as we do. Welcome, Kidd!
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