Do you suppose there is some guy “out there” stuck with the actual moniker Walter Mitty, the hapless character created by James Thurber for a New Yorker piece back in 1939? Unwitting parents sometimes tag their newborns with names that later prove a burdensome brunt of jokes. Walter Mitty would be a classic misnomer. In the “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Mr. Mitty daydreams a series of situations in which he’s suddenly thrust into some crisis that forces him to take heroic action. Most of his heroism is nipped in the bud before fruition by the interjection of reality.
Thurber’s literary talent certainly produced much laughter among the magazine’s readers, but his story also employed the key elements needed to make any story successful. Yes, you do need a plot and compelling characters, but without these key elements, your story will assuredly break down and quickly crumble into nothingness.
The elements are:
Tension, of course, is another word for conflict. Two guys sitting at a table arguing about who deserves to marry the heroine might make an interesting discussion, but likely not for long. But an argument that becomes heated and escalates from threats to a shootout in the middle of the street. Bingo! There you have it. Story! All the elements are present. Discovery and transformation might be more mental than depicted by physical action, but they are there. In the end, one of the characters discovers something about him or herself or the other—that maybe the woman wasn’t worth it, after all—and the action transforms him or her in some positive or negative way. Typically a lesson is involved for one or both characters and certainly for the reader.
Discovery and transformation as such are usually less direct and subtler and may play out over the length of the story or serve as the critical ingredients of the climax or resolution. In fact, to be effective, a story needs to be impactful on its characters and thus its readers. Even though Mr. Mitty never achieves the ultimate result of his heroism because his daydreams inevitably collide prematurely with reality, they build tension and the climax is not so much what happens but what does not happen—he, the reader is cut short and thrown back into reality, depriving both of an heroic conclusion.
When it comes to tension, the writer creates it and the characters and readers are impacted by it. Tension is synonymous with conflict. Absent conflict you are absent story. What’s left is bland description—a table of guys playing poker. But the instant one accuses another of dealing from the bottom of the deck, story starts because conflict has been suddenly interjected and has no place to go but rise in intensity. Tension also needs to be sustaining. There may be a shoot out in the opening scenes, but the underlying tension—say that of the Clantons vs. the Youngers—feeds the ongoing story. A writer doesn’t pour water on a fire, but gasoline!
Desire is everywhere in story. It’s not necessarily that between the hero and distressed maiden. It might be the wimpy benchwarmer who dreams of making the winning touchdown, or the quiet son of a local mechanic who secretly works on a stock car he hopes to enter at the last minute in the county fair stock car race and take home the trophy to impress some girl.
Desire serves as the motivator to the actions of key characters. It’s at the heart of conflict and tension. The protagonist may want something really badly and the antagonist may want to keep him or her from obtaining it, or be in competition to acquire it. Maybe the young stock car driver is the son of the racer seriously injured in a collision with the winner of last year’s race. Maybe last year’s winner sabotaged the father’s car and tried a repeat that performance this year. Will he succeed?
Crisis is like salt and pepper. Without them, food may be good but bland. The central conflict of a story relies on various sorts of crises that confront each character. Careful, you can have too many, but you need enough to motivate or explain why certain characters behave the way they do. Crisis is what helps define the characters and the heart of the story.
No story can stand in place. If it’s not moving, something around it better be. The action can be mental, but it needs to be active. By that I mean something that moves the story forward, i.e., serves a substantive role. You can spend a lot of words describing a character’s traits, but those traits need to be displayed in action to have credibility and substance. A character’s memory of hitting his thumb with a hammer as a kid helping his father nail the address numbers on the house becomes so much more than a memory when he realizes thirty years later those numbers are the key to the bank safety deposit box in which his father stashed a fortune in diamonds.
Something small gets bigger. Something insignificant becomes critically important. Something thought to be meaningless becomes the heart of a solution or a threat. Something, or someone, dismissed should not have been.
Thus crisis must also grow—escalate from something first forgotten to something critical to the solution the heroine is in search of. The inordinately quiet child slowly emerges as the main suspect in a murder case. The bumbling kid shows up as the star quarterback on the out-of-town team.
Struggle is another key spice of story. It too is everywhere. The hero may be struggling with some internal conflict that threatens his success or is on the verge of destroying his relationship with his one true love, or threatens the capture of his potential mimesis. Story is the collection of all the challenges that must be overcome by someone or something added together to achieve a goal or prevent an event.
But in the end, there has to be a reward. That is where discovery and transformation come in. Sure, the prospector may ultimately discover the hidden goldmine of a legendary miner, but it’s important that during the process of doing so, he becomes a better person. Of course, it’s the writer’s job to decide what path his hero takes to redemption and how to create and deal with collateral damage along the way to reach some transformation, but the listed elements can be applied to each character and the story as a whole. Otherwise the readers will end up where they started from, and there is no story in that, unless every road out of your fictional town takes the main character to the same place.
“Hey, Mom,” said the boy to his mother (as they passed a road sign for “Elements – 5 miles)—“what say we stop there and look for a place to have lunch?”
Who knows. They might find Walter Mitty there, looking for a good place to have lunch.