In the previous column we looked at the advantages of writing about characters that the reader already knows. This strategy can be applied to other elements of stories. Anything that you might have to develop for a reader — setting, the rules of a particular society, the backstory for characters — doesn’t have to be developed in detail if you work with a setting, a society, or characters that the reader already knows.
It’s even possible to extend this idea into realm of the problem story, the kind where the character or characters face a difficult problem, fail repeatedly to solve it, and finally take a new approach and successfully solve the problem. If you can start with a problem that’s already familiar to the reader, you won’t have to spend words explaining the problem.
Many stories that are re-tellings of familiar tales take advantage of the reader’s familiarity with the original version. If you want to write a version of Cinderella without a fairy godmother, you can begin your story with Cinderella at her wit’s end because the fairy godmother who is supposed to get her ready for the ball hasn’t shown up. You can use a word or two to remind the reader about Cinderella’s difficult life up to this point, but you can rely on the reader to remember Cinderella’s drudgery and her cruel step-family from other versions of the story.
However, my favorite form of a problem-solving tale that relies on the reader’s familiarity with the problem isn’t the traditional story of struggling to solve the problem and arriving at a solution after some failures. The kind of story I have in mind focuses on a problem that some character or some group of characters has already solved, and keeps successfully solving time and again.
What I’m talking about is the story of a ritual.
Rituals exist, for individuals or societies, because they address some regularly occurring problem, the kind of problem that all human beings will know about. How do we deal with the fact of our mortality? How to we restore ourselves when life wears us down? How do we manage to heal after a betrayal?
Narrating a ritual is a very good fit with very short stories. A ritual has its own beginning, middle, and end. Participating in a fictional ritual as a witness gives the reader some of the satisfaction of going through such a ceremony or practice. It’s also true that a story centered on a ritual has a potential problem in that a good ritual goes the same way every time. It’s predictable. So the writer may not be able to use the suspense of having a character’s actions generate unexpected results. When the story is about a ritual that goes off without difficulties, the story doesn’t have much plot.
However, the story of a ritual makes up for this with the power of mystery. Because we know that rituals are created to solve our universal human problems, we’re interested in finding out what all the parts of a ritual add up to. Why does this character or community of characters engage in this ritual? What are the parts? How does the ritual help them?
My favorite story of an individual’s ritual is Yasunari Kawabata’s story “Snow.” Sankichi, a man in middle age, has a ritual of checking into a hotel from the evening of New Year’s Day until the morning of January third. He spends this time in bed, always having the same dream-like experience.
The problem Sankichi is addressing with his ritual is only hinted at with these words: “he was seeking rest from the irritation and fatigue of a busy, agitated year” and the observation that even after this fretful tiredness leaves him “a deeper weariness welled up and spread out within him.” His ritual helps Sankichi recover from both ordinary fatigue and something deeper, perhaps a matter of the spirit.
Most of the story is given over to the visions that Sankichi has in his hotel room. Every year, he envisions a place where it is snowing, where he himself is the snow that is falling. He sees a vision of himself as a small boy in his father’s arms. Later, he sees the approach of birds and realizes that they are not birds at all, but all of the women who have ever loved him, with wings. The story ends with Sankichi communing with these spirits and feeling their love.
In short, it is a story about a man who has figured out a way to retreat from the world for about 36 hours and nurture himself with the restorative powers of memory and love.
One of my own best-known, most-reprinted stories is “Don Ysidro,” which recounts how one village in Mexico has invented a ritual for solving the problem of death. The story creates a ritual that makes literal the idea that when we die, we endure in the work and lives of others whom we have influenced. Rather than the idiosyncratic ritual of one person, such a story is like an anthropological report about a group of people who share this ritual.
My advice for writing ritual stories is that you find your ideas by doing three different kinds of research. In the first instance, think about your own answers to the Big Questions in life. What is our purpose? How can we deal with the departure of some people from our lives and the arrival of others? What do we owe one another as human beings?
In the second instance, what are some ordinary recurring problems in your life that might be easier to bear with the right kind of ritual? Are you world-weary like Sankichi in the Kawabata story? Do you feel that life is moving too fast? Are you anxious about losing memories or objects that are dear to you? Or are there too many memories or objects that you’re holding onto? What ritual might a character in your situation invent, and how would that ritual make the character feel better?
Finally, I suggest reading about rituals and attending rituals while thinking about what universal problems they address. What do these rituals give the participants? Consider inventing fictional rituals that in a different way give a community something that its people crave.
I wrote a whole chapter in Word Work about the rituals that writers use to help them get the writing done. If you’re writing a story about ritual, you might as well incorporate some small ritual into your drafting process. Light a candle. Say a little prayer for your favorite dead author, your personal patron saint. Burn some incense. Wear a feather in your hair.
And then give the reader the pleasure of a good ritual, a rite or practice that, with any luck, will leave you, your character, and your reader feeling at least temporarily restored.
Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.
For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.
He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.
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