Writing and Living with Uncertainty

Credit: Deepak Nanda/Wikipedia.org

Credit: Deepak Nanda/Wikipedia.org

Earlier this week, I listened to my surgeon tell me what the risks were associated with the major surgery I’d be having.  I listened with only half my attention — I’d heard the exact same risks before because I’ve had the surgery three times before — while the rest of my mind thought how much I wanted him to say that despite the risks, my surgery was sure to be successful and without complications.  The uncertainty of the future drives me to distraction sometimes.  At other times, it gives me anxiety attacks.  How do I live with life’s uncertainties?

Mysteries.  When I’m in a particularly uncertain time — the novel isn’t selling the way I need for it to sell and I don’t know if it will, and I’m going to have major surgery — I crave mystery novels.  I love P. D. James’ novels especially, but I’ll read any mystery as long as it’s well written and plays fair with the reader.  I was thinking this morning as I showered that there must be a specific reason that I crave mysteries when uncertainty increases. Then it hit me.  Of course!  At the end of mysteries, the mystery is solved and all the loose ends are tied off.  Although a mystery novel begins with a lot of uncertainty and questions, the protagonist answers the questions and changes the uncertainty to certainty.

Life is full of uncertainty, and I have no way of knowing if there’s structure to my life or not.  Yes, I have a schedule each day that I’ve learned needs to be somewhat flexible, but that schedule gives my day structure.  That schedule reduces the uncertainty.  Mysteries may reflect life in many ways, but just like any story written or told, they have a structure to them that life truly lacks.  I turn to mysteries for the comfort of structure and certainty.

Structure gives a story an inner logic. If a story lacks a structure, it confuses and often alienates readers.  What is the most common narrative structure in literature?  It’s called the 3-act dramatic narrative structure.  Here’s the outline:

Act 1: Exposition or Set Up

In this act, the writer sets up the protagonist’s situation, introduces the characters, creates tension between them, and introduces the main conflict which will force the protagonist at the end of this act to make a decision to accomplish something — a goal or a final decision.

Act 2: Conflict and Development

Conflict is the essence of story.  Without it, you have nothing.  Conflict motivates characters.  In this act, the protagonist must overcome all sorts of usually nearly impossible obstacles and conflicts in order to reach or accomplish the goal set at the end of Act 1.  Finally, disaster threatens the protagonist in some way so it doesn’t look like he’ll accomplish his goal.

Act 3: Climax and Resolution

In one final attempt, during the climax, the protagonist’s success or failure hangs in the balance.  During the resolution, he’s either succeeded or failed to accomplish his goal.  Any loose ends are now wrapped up with some indication of what’s in the protagonist’s future.

Variations on this structure exist, as well as the same structure with different descriptors.  Boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy loses girl, boy must regain girl but all sorts of people and other obstacles are in his way, but then he finally does something that brings her back to him, and they reunite.  All nice and neat and tidy.

In mysteries, the protagonist is usually a detective of some sort who decides to solve the mystery presented to her.  She must deal with clues, red herrings, suspects, and detours before finding that one piece of evidence that clinches the case.  I have yet to read a mystery in which the detective does not solve the case.

Writers live with constant uncertainty, just as all artists do.  There is no job security of any kind, no retirement fund or pension.  We must constantly work and hustle to defeat the uncertainty in our professional lives compounded by the uncertainty of life in general…..


6 responses to “Writing and Living with Uncertainty

  1. Great post – uncertainty – and how to live with it. But just to wish you the VERY best with your upcoming surgery. This is an excellent post about writing thank you very much.

  2. I agree with Susan, great post! I am with you on craving the “tidiness” of stories. I have so often wished my life were more predictable and certain…I guess my writing a memoir is one attempt to “tie up the loose ends,” as you say. It’s exciting work to reflect on the past and see how certain things have come together. Then, there are some threads that refuse to be tied up…grr…and the story could go on, and on, and on. Memoir writing is different from novels in that way: in my current draft, I have tied up a lot of loose ends for the READER, but I myself know that the story goes on, and certain threads have unraveled again.

    On another note, I am slowly getting through your novel…about 30% done. I am so sorry it’s taking me so long; but I’m really not reading anything else except the Bible these days. My renovations and other things going on in my life (my own book submission, trying to make lifestyle changes) have halted much of my reading, and blogging. But your novel gets more interesting as it goes on. I enjoy the unique “musician’s perspective” you give through Evan/Perceval, including just the musical ways you describe the setting/environment. You have a nice touch for description, which might be one of my weaknesses. I’m looking forward to further emotional development of Evan…you have given glimpses of his troubled past and psychological problems; this might intrigue me the most:)

    Anyway, I wish you well on your surgery and everything else!

    • Thanks, Lindsey, for this juicy comment! I know what you mean about writing memoir — I’ve been working off and on writing a memoir about being a “successful” patient and the influences on people that govern how they respond to physical illness. I actually find it intimidating because of the expectation of it being nonfiction. (laugh) Clearly, fiction is where I’m most comfortable.

      I’m honored that you’re reading Perceval’s Secret at all! I’ve heard from other readers who tend to have at least 3 books going at one time that they’re going slow too. All have had positive things to say, too. So I’m encouraged. It’s so very difficult to know how someone else will respond to what I’ve written. I know how I respond to it. So it’s so interesting to hear from readers — and I love it, too!

      Thanks for the best wishes! I hope your renovations will continue smoothly and finish well. All the best to you and your family for a wonderful holiday weekend!

      • Hi Cinda,

        I’d definitely be interested to read your memoir one day! It sounds interesting. I know what you mean about the expectation of memoir being nonfiction. I want to be as accurate and truthful as possible, but memory makes that hard sometimes; I have to imagine what certain scenes, conversations, were “probably” like. Others gladly take artistic license there, but it’s a bit uncomfortable for me.

        Thanks for the well wishes; we had a lovely holiday weekend, and workers are here at my house as we speak, hopefully getting us close to finished with renovations.

      • Last year, I took a couple of memoir-writing classes at The Loft in Minneapolis. One of the teachers, the memoirist Cheri Register, recommended the book Truth in Nonfiction: Essays edited by David Lazar. It’s a collected of essays by writers contemplating the notion of truth in literary nonfiction. I went out and bought it, but haven’t had a chance to read it. Both teachers highly recommended reading lots of memoirs to see how other writers deal with the form. It’s interesting to read autobiography anyway, so I bought some memoirs I’m working my way through. These things must not be rushed, though….(smile)

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