We pulled up to the gate at Utah’s Arches National Park in an imprudent touring vehicle: a loaded U-Haul van. This would be our only sightseeing detour on the trek that would take my sister from her home in California to a new job on the East Coast. She paid the entrance fee and passed me a map. That one action would enrich our memory of the experience for years to come: the map was wrapped in a magnificent essay, “Rethinking Wall Arch.”
As our engine strained to take us up the final 1600 feet of elevation into the park, I read the essay aloud. The writing was so confident I was immediately struck by a sense of its importance.
If you’d like readers to say that your fiction conveys a sense of importance, here are some mad skills you can co-opt from this essay.
- Make important plot events personal.
The plot focus of the essay is the final event in the life of Wall Arch, which at 71 feet long was one of the main attractions at Arches National Park. The author immediately establishes his unique perspective:
Sometimes I’m considered bad luck. Things tend to fall wherever I work.
After a brief laundry list of unfortunate events, we learn that Wall Arch collapsed the morning this writer took a new job at the park, which sets up a specific—and humorous—perspective. No one else could have written this piece quite this way (which makes it all the more startling that no byline was given. But I digress.).
- Contextualize plot by extending the story frame.
We learn that Wall Arch has stood since “time immemorial”:
It was already curving gracefully when the Egyptian pyramids were still under construction. It stood defiantly while the mighty Roman Empire was collapsing an ocean away. It was still holding strong when the Declaration of Independence was being signed in 1776. And, most notably, it was still there on August 4 when everybody went to bed.
The way the author delivers us right back to his personal experience is a clever twist.
- Suspend disbelief by grounding the event in known phenomena.
When faced with a calamity of epic proportions, the first thing we do is gather what facts we can.
One answer is fairly straightforward. Erosion and gravity reign supreme over sandstone. For countless eons, rain, ice, and groundwater slowly but relentlessly ate away at the natural calcium “cement” holding the arch’s sand grains together. Eventually there wasn’t enough of this cement left to withstand the pull of gravity, and so the whole structure finally came crashing down.
Facts alone rarely tell a compelling tale. [Read more…]