It came to me in a dream…
Earlier this year (April, to be exact), I posted about the intriguing dreams I was having given the COVID-19 pandemic.
Approximately a month after that posting, I had a particularly curious dream in which I was wandering the basement halls of a vast hospital complex. (The real-life correlate of this was when, almost twenty years ago, my late wife checked in to Stanford Medical Center for a clinical trial to combat her ovarian cancer. For some reason, we got lost in a series of basement corridors, which added disorientation to the alphabet soup of anxieties we were already experiencing.)
Returning to the dream: I don’t remember who says the words or even how or why they arise in the dream, but I distinctly recall the phrase, “A visitor and a sin,” and it was meant in the context of story.
Why this would arise while I’m wandering the desolate, labyrinthine basement hallways of a vast hospital complex currently escapes me. Thoughts, anyone?
Now, that phrase— Every story concerns a visitor and a sin—is the kind of pithy aphorism that has the ring of truth because it seems insightful, surprising, and brief. But a “ring of truth” all too often can mislead, because we are so susceptible to wanting to believe what confirms our own convictions, regardless of how accurate they are.
But the more I thought about it, the more that statement resonated with my understanding of what makes a story compelling, as long as I thought of both “sin” and “visitor” expansively.
Every story concerns a visitor and a sin.
Now, remember, what I’m discussing here is something that came to me in a dream. It’s not some mind-blowing fiction-writing breakthrough that will change your writing forever!(insert bullet points as needed.) This is a bit of a riff, nothing more. But bear with me. It might prove fun. (I almost said “instructional,” but I didn’t want to ruin the moment.)
The novelist Les Edgerton once remarked that all stories are about one thing: trouble. Replace “trouble” with “sin” and you approach what I mean by the latter term, with the added implication that the trouble doesn’t arise from nowhere, but emerges from some human failing.
Even stories premised on withstanding a natural disaster, to achieve real dramatic impact, ultimately rely on an investigation of how a lack of foresight, preparedness, or resolve intensifies the disaster’s impact on the main character(s).
Ditto stories involving tragic accidents—the plane crash in the middle of nowhere, for example—implicitly point toward the likelihood that some error of judgment either led to the accident or will greatly diminish the chances of the survivors to, well, survive.
In other words, by substituting “sin” for “trouble,” all we’re doing is recognizing that to some extent the trouble is either caused or amplified by some type of motivated agency—i.e., it’s caused by characters within the story, whether they be human, alien, supernatural, etc.
But what of the “visitor”? I puzzled over this for a while upon waking, and in the end came away with not so much a general definition as a set of examples:
- The protagonist is the sinner, and the visitor is the one who leads him into sin—will the protagonist succumb? Resist? Overcome? Some combination of the three?
- The protagonist is the sinner, and the visitor is another character who forces him to realize the damage his sin has on himself and/or others—example, a loved one who is harmed by the sin or sees the harm it is doing to the person she cares most about. The recognition offers the protagonist a chance to change his life—will he? (This also happens in many tales of revenge, where the visitor can be an ally, a bystander, or even the person against whom the vengeance is sought.)
- The opponent is the sinner, and the protagonist either recognizes or comes to recognize the threat of the sin (and, in most cases, seeks to defeat it). The protagonist may be the “detective” who uncovers the sin, or he may be victim of the sin who needs first to identify it and its cause and then defeat it or at least escape its harm.
- All the characters are blind to or complicit in the sin, and the visitor is an outsider (a narrator, or “a stranger who comes to town”) who comes to see the sin for what it is. Example: the bride-to-be who learns her husband’s disquieting family secret(s).
Again, the more I thought about this, the less it seemed purely academic—or merely dream-stuff.
In applying it to my current WIP, it made me clarify the core story problem (by identifying the sin and its human cause), made me identify the visitor (in this case, the person most unjustly harmed by the sin), and then plot out what had to happen once my visitor became aware of the sin (she accepts the help of a loyal ally to defeat the sinners and reclaim what they’ve stolen from her).
Most importantly, using the word “sin” to identify the core story problem helped me understand the moral premise of the story, which led me to answer the age-old question: What am I trying to say, and why? What is it in the human condition that I’m trying to reveal as harmful? What aspect of the human condition that I see as good do I seek to explore in opposition? How will that struggle play out? Who will prevail? Why?
In Moby Dick, it isn’t the whale that represents the sin but Ahab. The sin is the arrogant belief that nature can be controlled by man. Ishmael is the visitor, there to witness the consequences of Ahab’s sin.
The terms “sin” and “visitor” amplify the need for agency on the one hand and recognition/awareness on the other. They remind me of the need to root the story at every stage in the characters, not events (i.e., plot points inserted by the writer rather than generated by the characters).
The terms “sin” and “visitor” amplify the need for agency on the one hand and recognition/awareness on the other.
Okay, I’m about to digress, but not by much. Hold on.
In his wonderful writing guide Save the Cat Goes to the Movies, Blake Snyder identified one type of story as “A Monster in the House.” Stories in the genre—which range from The Hand That Rocks the Cradle to Rosemary’s Baby to Alien—all require three basic elements: a house, a monster, and a sin. The sin is what introduces, invites, or lures the monster into the house.
The more I think about this setup, however, the more I see it encompassing far more than horror movies. And the monster isn’t always the character we think it is, nor is she necessarily “monstrous.” The example I provided above concerning the bride-to-be who learns her husband’s disquieting family secret(s) follows the same logic—but when the house is inhabited by the guilty, it’s the innocent visitor who’s the “monster.”
- In The Great Gatsby, even though Daisy and Tom end up being the most monstrous characters, it’s Gatsby who is the monster in their (wicked) house; he thinks he can enter given his mistaken belief money alone can bestow status.
- In A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s tempting to look at Stanley’s macho brutishness as the sin, but that’s mistaken—or at least only half the story. The principle sin is Blanche’s belief she can subdue through drink, denial (scarves over the lampshades), and misguided sexual escapades (including a tryst with one of her high school students) the naked truth of mortality: growing older, losing her sexual allure (her principle claim to power), and her inescapable death. That sin ultimately leads her (the monster) into the house of Stella and Stanley. The Fall of the House of Kowalski comes when she awakens the darkest side of Stanley’s brutishness. So it might be said there are two sins, Blanche’s and Stanley’s, and a battle between them for who rules the house—or which sin will destroy it. Or, in my a-visitor-and-a-sin formulation, the sin is denial of our true natures, and Stella is the visitor who sees that denial destroy both of the people she loves most in the world. It’s an open question whether Stella resolves to leave Stanley after he rapes Blanche and she goes mad. Maybe she, too, joins in the sin, embraces denial, and stays with him. What do you think?
As mentioned already, I’m riffing, spit-balling, making it up as I go along. This isn’t the presentation of some great new insight into storytelling as much my inviting you along as I think through the implications of what a raging pandemic slipped it into one of my dreams. Has it proved helpful? Confusing? Infuriating?
Is there a sin in your current WIP? Who is the sinner? Is there a visitor? Who is it? Why? Does answering those questions help you root the story in the characters? Does it help clarify your story’s moral premise?
Does your story resemble a Monster in the House? How? Why? What is the “house,” the “monster,” the “sin”?
Any armchair psychiatrists out there want to take a crack at why the phrase “A visitor and a sin” arose in my dream about wandering a maze of hospital corridors? (Caveat: I’ve already realized that my wife and I were the visitors, cancer was the sin. Do I have that right? Or…)