Friday, September 30, 2011

The Doorway of No Return

James Scott Bell, in his book called, “Plot and Structure,” writes about getting your protagonist through the doorway of no return.

While it is difficult for me to look at literature analytically, to follow charts, graphs, or any kind of set outline, I often think that if I were to wrap my head around such advice, my stories might be the better for it. Yet, when I read some bestsellers, the scaffolding is too visible and the story seems too contrived for my taste. Yet a character on a quest, or at odds with his or her surroundings, hooks me in, just one hundred per cent of the time. When I see that a protagonist has made a decision that sets them inevitably on a course that is going to cause trouble, I have to know how it will turn out. What is the doorway, and why is it one of no return?

Often the fateful decision comes of an obsession which is driving the character's actions and decisions. It can override common sense. When Scarlett O' Hara declares, in “Gone With the Wind,” that Ashley cannot love Melanie, we feel that little prickle on the back of our neck. Why is Scarlett so convinced that Ashley loves her and not Melanie? Would he not be marrying her then instead of Melanie? Folly. That is the stuff of great stories and the sign that may as well hang over the doorway of no return. When Scarlett decides to refuse to accept Ashley's marriage to Melanie, and chooses instead to pursue Ashley relentlessly, we have a story. The war comes along to make it more interesting. Scarlett marries Melanie's brother. We know that she loves Ashley. Folly.

The Webster's definition of obsession is: “the domination of one's thoughts by a persistent idea, or image.” Another description of obsession outlines a broadly compelling motivation. Used as a literary device, it is obvious that it will assist any writer trying to outline a character's desire. The scale is tipped from everyday desire, to obsession when a character begins to behave badly and erratically if any obstacle is put between the character and the object of their stated want. We need be able to accept loss in order to function.

“Life is full of disappointments,” my mother used to tell me. My father would use logic to try to help me look at things differently, in order to chart a new course. A character in the grips of an obsession, may be absolutely unwilling to accept an outcome, to the point of folly. This may be easily flipped to comedy, particularly if the object is ridiculous, or to tragedy if the pursuit of the elusive goal leads to death.

When on a tour of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, there was a saying written over the doorway leading to the prison from which it was believed no one would ever escape. The inscription read, “Abandon Hope all ye who Enter Here.” It struck me, at the time, as a bone chilling doorway of no return.

Can the doorway be good? Absolutely. An unexpected gift, a reprieve, or an act of forgiveness can put a lost soul on the path to redemption. In "Les Miserables," the Bishop chooses not to prosecute Jean Valjean for the theft of his candle sticks. Indeed, he gives him two more, putting Jean squarely on the path to redemption. His journey is full of setbacks, but the Bishop's kindness is never forgotten. It haunts him and drives the immortal story forward.

Whatever doorway a writer chooses, it must be one that alters the course all ensuing events. Therein lies a plot.


If you are of a mind to take some sort of bold leap in regards to your writing, why not consider entering our first line contest? All great stories begin with a noble sentence. Find the details on the upper left hand corner of the home page of this site. Winning this contest could start a chain of events in motion that you may never have imagined. Throw your cap over the wall. Give it a shot. What do you have to lose? It does not cost anything to enter, and it may be the feather in your cap that leads to heights never before imagined.

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