Knots (Part three)

 

It started off simple. Where did it become a knot?

It started off simple. Where did it become a knot?

In Knots (Part One) and Knots (Part Two), I introduced the idea that compelling narratives often have a knot-like structure informing the story and motivating the characters rather than a simple through-line. I used the example of the Greek myths, in which all the protagonists of the various stories are driven by circumstances created by the gods a couple of generations before and complicated by actions taken in the present. A knot describes this condition because the characters are stuck even as the force of desire to escape builds up with almost unbearable intensity.

Many good contemporary novels and films use a knot structure. But let’s look at how we can make use of this structure when we create our own stories.

A simple approach is available, and we don’t need to know anything about myths.

First, instead of thinking about a character just in terms of a fundamental desire and the obstacles to that desire, let’s add a couple of layers.

Imagine that you want to tell a story about someone who wants to leave his hometown for a life far away. Say he comes from Squamish, and he wants to go to Montreal. He or she is working as much as possible to save the money for the trip because in Montreal he/she knows that an exciting job opportunity or some kind of special training is waiting there. Maybe a career in film animation. A dream come true if it happens.

We could add in a few limitations: Mike (or Michelle) must be able to get to Montreal by the end of August and there is pressure to save the money in time. Add in a couple more obstacles: Mike’s car breaks down and repairing it will cost a lot. Doing without a car will make it hard to get to work. The owner of the business employing Mike is thinking of scaling down the section in which Mike works, thereby threatening his job.

With these few possibilities, we already have some suspense. This suspense is created through possible obstacles to the realization of Mike’s desire to go to Montreal.

But the story feels a little one-dimensional. Let’s add in another strand.

If, as everyone knows, Mike’s desire is to go to Montreal for a dream job, is there also another reason he wants to go? What if there were a secret desire that Mike isn’t sharing with anyone? For example, it could be that Mike, who still lives with his parents at the age of 21, wants desperately to leave. He doesn’t get along with a parent (Mom? Dad?) and this parent (say, mother) makes it difficult for him to have an independent life. As Mike talks about Montreal, his mother falls ill and makes it known that she cannot depend on her husband (Mike’s father) to look after her properly. Even though her health isn’t Mike’s responsibility, the stress affects all three badly. Mom is quite capable of creating circumstances to prevent Mike’s going.

So now we have not only the external obstacles of limited time and threatened job, we also have a family situation to add stress. We can make it even more intense if we include the possibility that Mike promised his mother a few years before he would look after her if ever she got into health problems. Now she reminds him of that promise.

Mike tells no one of his struggle, but as readers we know his mind and can appreciate what he is going through.

We now have two strands we can weave together.

There is a third possibility as well. Sometime we can add a line of motivation that no one, not even the protagonist himself, knows about. The reader suspects, but nothing is declared. In this example, a friend of Mike’s—Julie—has gone to Montreal. She likes it there and wouldn’t mind if Mike joined her. Even though there is no romantic link between them, the text makes it clear that their friendship could blossom into something more. His attraction to her is unconscious, but if he doesn’t leave Squamish that unconscious element that we suspect is there will never come into the light.

These three strands can be woven carefully together into a good story, though intuition and the story’s own direct demands always rule the day. In other words, even a terrifically good structure should be canned if the story is taking you somewhere else.

With a knot-like structure like the one just described, we have lots of dramatic and narrative possibilities. Lots of ideas to stimulate even better ideas. And these ideas create their own magnetism as they cohere into a powerful story.

 

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