by Ali Williams
While editing another author’s work this morning, I found myself wrestling with how to say, “You have 170,000 words, but you don’t have a story.” They are well-written words, they are good words, they are interesting words…but as Gertrude Stein wrote about Oakland, California, “there’s no there there.” Nothing is at stake. No-one is risking their health or happiness in service of a greater goal.
As writers, we’re often told “raise the stakes.” How can we tell if the stakes are high enough in our own work, even before asking for the opinions of our fellow authors or our teachers?
The “In a World” test.
Think about the cheesy movie-trailer cliché. There’s a shot of alien-created devastation. Or a sunrise over a battlefield. Or a sunrise over a castle. A deep voice intones, “In a world…”
That’s the stasis, the situation as it is now, the situation that cannot be sustained. Overturning this situation is a high-risk, high-stakes problem.
“One man must…”
That’s the protagonist’s quest/goal/objective. What they want. The rest of the movie will be about the protagonist overturning the unacceptable “world” and trying to get what they “must” have.
In fiction, the “in a world” moment is almost always in the first chapter, often in the first paragraph. The moment is usually pretty easy to figure out:
In a world…where a kid is alone and on the run…One kid must locate a priceless painting before he and his friend are killed by gangsters. (The Goldfinch)
In a world…where Kathy has no choice but to care for the dying…One girl must find out if she has free will. (Never Let Me Go)
In a world…where poverty can kill you and a girl is a washed-up old maid at twenty…One girl must marry a rich husband without violating her own scruples. (Pride and Prejudice)
I’d argue that it should be there at the beginning in nonfiction, too. At the very least the premise should be clear within the first chapter. What’s the untenable existing situation? What’s at stake for the protagonist? What’s the positive effect on their health and happiness if they overturn the situation, and how will they be harmed if they don’t?
In a world…where I’ve screwed up my relationships, taken too many drugs, and slept with too many people…I must walk 2600 miles to find myself. (Wild)
In a world…where my mom is rooting through a dumpster…I must become at peace with the rotten past that made me who I am. (The Glass Castle)
Chances are, if it’s hard to find your “In a world…one person must…” moment, your stakes aren’t high enough. The starting place isn’t untenable enough. Your narrator (possibly you) doesn’t have enough at stake to make the story compelling.
So try it. Stand up, deepen your voice, and state the premise of your memoir. Does it sound cheesy and overdramatic when you say it like that? If it does, you’re probably starting from the right place.