Storyville: Body, Mind, and Soul—Adding Depth to Your Stories
If you’ve been following this column and my teachings, then you know I talk a lot about Freytag as a guiding force in my work. That’s one structure, one path forward, and it works for me. You know—the narrative hook, the inciting incident, exposition, increasing tension, internal and external conflict, leading to a climax, resolution (with change), and denouement. That’s all crucial as the framework for your story (IMO) but let’s talk about how we can put some muscle, fat, and sinew on that skeleton and really make it dance around. Today we’ll be talking about body, mind, and soul in order to help you write dense, layered, visceral prose.
NOTE: I’ve always heard it said body, mind, and soul in THAT ORDER, but for this column, I’m going to present it in a different order—body, soul, and mind. Just noting that here.
What the body represents in your fiction is the lowest common denominator. This is the most basic story you can tell. That doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful! It just means it may not be particularly deep. This is where you show us the world—the setting, sensory details, and the physical traits of your characters, etc. This is where you move the chess pieces around the board in a compelling way, setting the stage, and acting out the play.
This kind of story is typically action, a page-turner, thrilling and exciting. And that’s crucial in any story. Sometimes all we want is to escape—to read that tenth book in that mystery series, where you don’t have to think too much. This is that television show that is distracting, compelling, but not one that you’re going to be especially moved by, it won’t have you contemplating the ending and other complex elements for days to come. Action, superheroes, mysteries, comedy—so many of these stories are kept on the surface. I don’t want every story I read to challenge me. I don’t want every novel to be so complicated that I have to look up words, and research some ancient language in order to get it. Not every film should have me questioning everything I saw, going back to watch it again after I know the truth. And that’s okay. I think Stephen King is a great storyteller, but not everything he writes is deep and moving. Long, sure, but not always layered. Some is, for sure. Maybe I’m thinking about early Dean Koontz here. I’ve got a ton of mysteries and thrillers on my shelves that follow a formula, with a different set of ingredients each time. This is what you need when you write your stories—a good foundation, a grounded reality, with sensory details that cause an immersive experience. This is level one.
But if you want to go deeper, and I think we do, what comes next is the soul—the emotion, the internal conflict, the sympathy and empathy we need to care about our characters. If we don’t care, then it doesn’t really matter what happens to your cast, right?
Where the body showed us the external conflict—the bus that will blow up if it stops moving, the asteroid headed towards our planet, the virus that is sweeping across the country (too soon?)—the soul of your story is based on the internal conflicts—hopes and fears, longing and desire, motivation and drive, paranoia and loss. If you can get us to care about your characters through backstory, trauma, wonder, success, love, passion, struggle, and chaos then we’ll follow you to the end of the earth. We need to set up our stories, as we are building our worlds, and showing you the people, giving you sensory details that pull you into the strangeness that is unfurling, so that we can see the main characters fully, and decide if we are going to like and love them, and root for them OR hate and despise them, and root against them. What we don’t want is for the audience to NOT become invested. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy. In order to hate, we must care first. So work hard on getting us to feel something about your characters, and then the story will take on additional meaning, depth, and emotion. When the horrible thing happens, we will be shaken to our core. When the magical ending is earned, we will sigh with relief. When the sadness ripples out, we will cry and have a great release. Build the world first, and then get us to care, to feel strong emotion. This is harder to do. When my students struggle, as they evolve and get better, one place where I often see room for improvement is with the internal conflicts, the emotions. They can finally get the chess pieces moving, with the body, they have written a story, and it works, which on its own can be quite complicated, but they don’t understand why nobody cares. That’s the internal, the emotions. And they need to be built, layered, and addressed at the end of your story or it won’t resonate. This is level two.
This is the most complex aspect of your story, and if you can do all three, then you really stand a chance of writing something powerful. The mind is where you roll out your philosophies, the plot, the complex narrative, the ideas, the lore, the mythology, and the buried truths. When genre fiction gets a bad rap, it’s for writing stories that mostly focus on body, with no soul or mind. Where literary fiction gets criticized is in writing dry stories that are all in the head—entitled, navel-gazing, introspective.
For me, the most powerful stories take from the best elements of genre and literary fiction to create something immersive, emotional, and innovative. I love hybrid work—not just genre and lit, but crossing over between fantasy, SF, horror, thrillers, magical realism, and the transgressive. With the mind, you can talk to us about time travel and crisis engines, the collective unconscious and spontaneous human combustion, sentient planets and artificial intelligence. Once you’ve built your world, taken us on this wild ride, gotten us to care, and made your characters struggle to achieve their goals, suffering along the way—you need to blow our minds. In some instances, that can be the ending, not just a twist, but the concept that is unfurling. The top that is spinning, either in a dream state or real life. The village in the woods that may not be set in the time that we are told. The cosmic horror that has finally revealed itself, in all of its wonder and horror and glory. This is level three.
If you can utilize all three techniques here—body, mind, and soul—then you can create a deep, layered, emotional experience that will stay with your audience long after they have stopped reading. They will revisit your story or novel, they will watch that television show or film again and again, they will cherish that graphic novel. They will think about what they’ve gone through, lying awake at night, contemplating the wondrous things they’ve seen, shedding a tear once again, marveling at the complexity of our universe (and beyond). And they will seek out more of your work. Good luck!
EXAMPLES TO READ
There are quite a few authors that do all three: Stephen Graham Jones, Benjamin Percy, Roxane Gay, Craig Davidson, Jeff VanderMeer, China Mieville, Usman T. Malik, Damien Angelica Walters, Kristi DeMeester, Sarah Read, Holly Goddard Jones, Monica Drake, Livia Llewellyn, AC Wise, Mercedes M. Yardley, Brian Hodge, Kelly Robson, Angela Slatter, Priya Sharma, etc.
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