The elements of story # 1: Water


What is a story made of? Most readers, writers and critics (or story gurus these days) would probably list things like plot, setting, character, conflict, resolution. Some might add theme, atmosphere, style…. 

When we think about what a story is made of, these and a handful of other concepts are what usually come to mind.

These elements are time-tested and useful. But what if we took the idea of an element back to one of its oldest meanings? That of the four fundamental constituents of the universe: 
earth, fire, water, and air.

What if we imagined a story was created out of these elements? What might we notice about stories that gets obscured by relying on the same old familiar terms?

1. Water

Look at waves rolling into the shore. What story do they seem to be telling?

Our bodies are mostly water. We’ve all heard this fact so often that we rarely stop to think about how strange it is. And when we do think about it, we usually imagine water as an inert substance that a living thing makes use of to, well, live. There’s a lot of water in me, okay, sure, but I am not water.

But if most of what constitutes this thing I call me is water, then really, I am water. I’m water with some other stuff coming along for the ride. And so are you. So is every living thing. Maybe we should classify living things as a means that water has found to circulate more widely and freely. And in human beings, water found a way to be creative, and reflect upon itself.

A story is something told by water.

So, if I’m not wading in too deep here, maybe the way to make a good story is to be as much like water as we can in the telling.

I find the Tao te ching useful for thinking about this (as it is useful for thinking about so many things).

This is from a version of Lao Tzu's timeless book by Ursula K. Le Guin, a writer who knows a few things about the flow of a good story:

True goodness
is like water.
Water is good
for everything.
It doesn’t compete.

It goes right
to the low loathsome places,
and so finds the way.

I thought I’d try putting some of these ancient ideas into story terms. Here's my version of some lines from the Tao:

A good story is like water,
which nourishes all things
without trying to.

It’s at home in the low places
that people disdain.

And yet water is powerful.
It can gather strength quietly
until it is able to move mountains.

In your storymaking, be like water.

In imagining, stay close to the earth.
In description, keep to the simple.
With your characters, do not take sides.
When plotting, don't try to control.

Let all things happen
when the time is right.

Next post: The elements of story # 2: Earth.

Quotation from Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Shambhala, 1998.

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