Where Stories Come From

The seed begins in a crack. Its first root pushes downward. Finding soft soil, it extends, or discovering a rock, it goes around. The root forks and each tendril explores, diverts, reaches deeper, and forks again.

Real life is like that. It twists and bends, seeking and avoiding. It prospers in directions the environment allows, or turns from the impenetrable. Sometimes, if we persist against that brick wall, continue banging our heads, like the root, we may finally succeed in cracking open a new path. Or face bloodied, we go another way, a lesson learned.

But stories are not roots. They are not real life.

Like the visible part of a tree with trunk, branches, and leaves, a story also has a recognizable shape. It has theme, characters, and events. Aristotle said it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Playwrights think in terms of Act I, then II, and finally III. Some trees are tall, others are wide, some are mere bushes, and some grow hundreds of feet and live for a thousand years, but they have the same basic parts.

Trees arise from roots, and stories grow from real life.

It is the story-tellers job to build something from our twisted, secret lives that the reader will stop to behold: a profusion of leaves fluttering in the breeze, sturdy limbs on which a small child may climb and dream, and with a solid trunk to support the whole endeavor.

But it is the roots—ugly, dirt-encrusted, contorted by rock and crevasse—that make the story.

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