“The writer,” says Donald Barthleme, “is one who, embarking on a task, does not know what to do.” This sounds somehow both daunting and holy — as if writing is going to be all mystic attunement, unaccountable inspiration — but it turns out to be simply and depressingly true. Not knowing what to do on the page is no more pleasant, and no more spiritually charged, than not knowing what to do with an overflowing dishwasher. You feel inadequate and enraged and your knees hurt and you’re fairly sure that that plastic thing you just removed is now broken.
Which accounts, I think, for the entire sub-industry of books devoted to taking the mystery out of writing. It certainly accounts for those books’ presence on my shelf. Bird by Bird and Hero With a Thousand Faces and Save the Cat and Aspects of the Novel and self-published Kindle things whose titles I’m too embarrassed to type out. At the many points in the writing of a novel when I feel hopeless, I turn to these books as I turn, before weddings and funerals, to YouTube tutorials on how to tie a tie. Dear Non-Judgmental and Miraculously Competent Stranger: Please cure me of my idiocy.
But these books, good and sensible as many of them are, never quite do the trick. Their rules of story structure — and it is always story structure that I am convinced is the crux of the difficulty — are either too rigid or too academic, too low-brow or too lofty. Blake Snyder wants to know whether my story is more “Monster in the House” or “Dude with a Problem.” E.M. Forster, meanwhile, would like us to muse together on the distinctions between narrative pattern and narrative rhythm.
Which is why I am so excited to have finally discovered, well into my thirties, a group of story gurus whose wisdom meets me precisely where I am. At long last, some expertise that leaves me feeling neither grubby nor in need of a nap. Meet the hatchling iguana and the hellishly numerous racer snakes of Fernandina Island.
Is your heart not racing? Did you not, in those two minutes and sixteen seconds, feel every string of your emotional instrument expertly plucked? That single interaction between a gaggle of scaly creatures on the other side of the planet has taught me more about storytelling than entire years of expensive education.
You need a sympathetic protagonist, and that doesn’t mean he needs to be cuddly.
I have seen iguanas. I have touched iguanas. I have, for reasons I can’t quite reconstruct, owned iguanas. I find them creepy and papery and fundamentally unlovable. But this iguana — he is, for the length of this video, as dear to me as my oldest friends. If you, as writer, can evoke a character’s plight with sufficient vividness — if you can, by careful trickery, wire a connection between the reader’s nervous system and your character’s — then you can write a compelling story about anyone, including someone who is literally cold-blooded.
Your protagonist needs to have a significant but theoretically solvable problem.
A snake is coming for our poor hero. But fear not, or fear only somewhat, because he has a plan. He’s going to stay absolutely still. And for a while, we think that his plan might — might — possibly work. At 1:01, though (the instant when this video goes from good to great) his plan fails, as all early-in-a-story plans must fail. Think of Roy Scheider trying to close the beach in Jaws, or Raskolnikov deciding to kill and rob the old lady in Crime and Punishment. And after this failure…
Your protagonist needs, now that his first plan is off the table, to act boldly.
Sweet Jesus, the desperation of that run. Did he even know, when he woke up that morning, that he was capable of running like that, front legs fully off the ground? Your hero, who to this point in his life has done well enough with the standard hammer, saw, and nails, now finds himself rummaging desperately in his characterological tool-kit. This is Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie deciding to go ahead and start a relationship with Terri Garr, or Macbeth realizing that he’s also going to have to kill King Duncan’s guards. Your character thinks he’s pushed himself to his absolute limits, except…
Even this bold plan has got to fail.
Has there ever, in cinema history, been a tenser or harder-to-bear scene than 1:22–1:33? This was when, on first viewing, I actually turned the video off, certain that I was about to witness an iguana explosion. Your poor hero, having acted boldly, now finds himself well and truly fucked, and if you do this part right the reader should find himself all but covering his eyes. This can’t be happening. This is Joy and Bing Bong stuck in the Memory Dump in Inside Out, or Romeo learning of what he thinks is Juliet’s death and deciding to take poison himself. This seems as if it has to be the end of the line, except…
Your protagonist must transform himself, and in so doing be extricated from his impossible predicament.
Each and every time I watch it, it comes as a heart-stopping surprise when the iguana squeezes his way out of that snake-crush. We still don’t know if he’s ultimately going to make it — that final scrabble up the rock-face with its astonishing snake-leap is still to come — but even if he does die, something has, by the fact of this escape, changed. The iguana, in facing the absolute blackest imaginable moment in iguana life and overcoming it, has been reborn: he is not the same character that he was when he decided that the best thing to do, if pursued by a snake, is to hold your breath. By the time he’s up there on the mountaintop, blinking beside his oblivious friend, he is Odysseus reunited with Penelope, he is Christ in Galilee. His story has arced.
Now all of this, as I’m sure the iguana and snakes would hasten to tell you, is subject to infinite variation and reinterpretation. Romeo and Juliet really do die, for instance, so it’s not so much they who are reborn as it is their families. And sometimes the problem your protagonist faces can be as subtle as a persistent feeling of ennui, and his plan can amount to not much more than a wintry walk through Central Park.
But this video, unlike nearly every other bit of writing instruction I’ve ever received, really does make me feel unaccountably inspired; it really does give me a sense of knowing, at least generally, what to do. So lately when I’m stuck, I find myself thinking less of Freitag’s pyramid or Robert McKee’s admonishments, and more of a certain barren beach in the Galapagos. Way down in our lizard brains — and right there in those lizards’ bodies — the principles of storytelling have been hiding all along.
Ben Dolnick is the author of The Ghost Notebooks, coming in 2018 from Penguin-Random House.