Slings, Arrows, and Catapults

To write a story is to put yourself on a trajectory. Are you going to be an arrow, arcing toward its target? Are you going to be a stone, hurled at the apex of a sling’s centrifugal curve? Are you going to be a boulder, flung forward by the leverage action of the catapult?

The arrow is aimed, efficient, swift, and effective. Depending on the type of bow used to release it, the arrow can hit its target with significant force. (The English longbow–if you recall your medieval history–was able to send arrows through steel plate armor.)

Let’s equate the arrow to the writer who doesn’t begin writing until she knows what her protagonist wants and hopes to accomplish. She knows who the antagonist is and why this individual is opposed to the protagonist. This writer works out her story along a clear, organized unfolding of plot developments. As a result, the story moves quickly and believably from start to finish.

The stone and sling is a simple, ancient weapon dating from antiquity. Its user crafted a supple, thin leather strap, cradled a pebble inside it, and whirled it in a circular motion to gain momentum before letting go of one end of the strap, thus releasing the stone inside. The skill lay in timing the moment of proper release.

A sling was supposed to be a minor weapon, useful in stunning small game such as rabbits or driving skittish predators away from a flock. It lacked range and force, although it could be deadly in very adept hands.

If we equate the slung stone to a writer who commences writing without a clear plan, then we’re likely to see a story that begins with verve and momentum but then loses force. An unplanned story is one that might arrive at a satisfactory ending. It might not. It might well go anywhere.

That’s not to say such stories are worthless. They give the writer tremendous creative freedom. They’re elastic enough to allow fresh angles. They’re not bolted down to the outline and only the outline. They can be marvelous.

They can also be a mushy mess of artistic drivel that offers breathtaking potential before it begins to sputter and putter. This kind of writer will be forced to write draft after draft after draft, throwing out copious numbers of pages before a satisfactory scene or segment is achieved, if at all.

Such a writer will work best with short fiction lengths, rather than novels.

The catapult was a machine engineered to smash gates or stone walls by hurling a boulder a very short distance. Catapults have next to no range. Their effectiveness lies in the length of the wooden throwing arm. More length equals more leverage, which equals more force and distance. Medieval armies laying siege to a castle or walled town had to build a tall, unwieldy tower on wheels, had to load a heavy, unwieldy boulder, and then had to let fly in hopes the boulder would make it across the moat and knock down the wall.

The catapult writer is someone who usually has a tremendously exciting opening. This starting scene is filled with action, verve, imagination, and spirit. It’s very exciting to write, and often exciting to read.

And then … with a thud, it’s done and the story has nowhere else to go. What’s going to happen next?

“Dunno,” the catapult writer admits. “I can’t think of what should come after this.”

The story stalls, and then–perhaps after a period of painful thought–this writer thinks of another exciting development or event that could occur.

Ergo, the next boulder is loaded. Bam! The event is depicted vividly, and then it’s over. The writer has no clue of what to write subsequently until inspiration finally strikes once more.

Bam! Another event. Bam! Another. And so on.

Trouble is, the story that results likely will be a disjointed, contrived string of character actions that are neither logical nor plausibly connected. It should be a wonderful read, but in reality it just isn’t.

What’s the lesson to be learned from these metaphors?

I know you’ve already figured it out, but I’ll state it anyway:

Be an arrow when you write.

Know where you want your characters to go. Plan ahead. Think things through logically. Take the time to solve the weak spots, problem areas, and plot holes before you stumble into them.

Arrow stories can miss. They can be deflected off their trajectory if the writer becomes distracted or loses track of the intended plan. Or simply stops believing in her story and drops control. However, arrow stories can always be salvaged.

Look over your manuscript until you find the place where you went wrong. Fix it.

Go back to the plan.

Believe in the plan.

Have faith in your idea.

Trust the story instincts that helped you create and develop the plan.

Aim your protagonist at the target, at the desired goal. And don’t look back.


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3 responses to “Slings, Arrows, and Catapults

  1. Insightful! I’m the writer who begins with the ending in mind and gets carried away by the story’s subplots and details. Can I make the conversation between these characters vaguely foreshadow what will occur in book 3? Can this setting be worded to have greater meaning when the reader finds out the truth about why the character was brought here? It’s so tempting to complicate things to the point that the pieces won’t fit together anymore. And my ego gets involved then, whispering, “Ah, but if you can find a way to do it, it will be clever!” Stupid ego.

  2. Every story needs to have some time-constraint on it. Some kind of countdown to give the reader a sense of immediacy, of impending doom, of a giant stone ball rolling up behind them, and fast. It can be a nuclear device set to go off at the eclipse or it can be how many minutes before a spouse gets home from work, so long as it’s something. Where the story starts is with the catalyst, with that initial perturbation of the world, of the day, and where it ends is with that imbalance either being righted or magnified. Another way to look at this is that you, the writer, always have to be able to answer this about your story: Why today? If you can’t, then this day’s just like all the rest, there’s nothing impending, the dominoes are just tumbling away in every direction instead of in a clear, dramatic line. And the culprit in those cases is nearly always a catalyst that’s not enough of a deviation to blast the characters off into some adventure.

  3. I was taught to keep things simple. I don’t always achieve that aim, but the more I write the more I realize how valid it is. Trying to plant details across a trilogy or series is very difficult; just use only what’s strictly necessary and don’t over-complicate.

    Your ego will have to be clever elsewhere.

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