I live in New England, and in my daily walks, I pass a lot of old stone walls. They are a common sight here as the hardscrabble soil is rocky, and over the centuries farmers simply used the shards kicked up by their ploughs to fence in their fields. We have hard weather here, with wind, snow and rain constantly shaping the contours of the walls, giving each a unique character. I love looking at the details, as what always strikes me is how beautifully enduring they are, and how well they have held up to the vagaries of the moment.
So recently, as I was starting a new story idea and thinking of the basic elements while I walked, it struck me how my local stone walls are a perfect metaphor for what makes a good book. Now, you may be thinking, “Hmmm, has she lost her marbles?” Allow me to explain.
From a distance, you see a stretch of wall, and at first glance it seems a rather simple, solid structure, with its shapes and colors blending together to make simple a simple solid structure—like a book before you open it. Then as you get closer, you notice all the distinct facets and nuances of color. The textures come into focus—rough, smooth, pebbly . . . an infinite range of subtle differences. Cracks and crevasses make the wall even more intriguing.
To me, that stone wall is a wonderful visual metaphor for what makes a good story. The basic plot and the main characters are the large stones that make up the foundation of the wall. They give the wall—or the story—its essential shape, depth and direction. Does the wall run straight as an arrow or twist like a ribbon through the surrounding trees? Are the stones tightly stacked or crumbing to the verge of chaos?
The smaller stones are the secondary characters, who are integral to keeping the wall held together as a solid structure. They add the “mortar” which can help cement in backstory and tie people, the plotline and motivations together. And sometimes those small pieces are so intriguing on their own that they end up being a big part of the whole picture.
Then lean in even closer and the colors and textures become more vivid. In a story, there are a number of ways we authors add those details. The way we describe the actual physical appearance of our characters helps bring them to life. The there are the other elements—the clothes they wear, the houses in which they live, the settings they move through, be it country or city.
Some stonewalls have a quiet, peaceful air about them, while others bristle with drama. Hard and soft—that may seem impossible given they are all made of rocks, but to me there is a distinct difference. In a story, it’s language—both how they speak and how we narrate—and pacing that create these qualities.
Lastly, a good stonewall withstanding the test of time. Some of the longtime locals around here grumble about the new construction of stone walls and how the builders try to mimic the look, but take shortcuts. They slap down a big base of cement and sort of stick the stones on the outside, and then fill in the cracks with more cement. It’s quicker, but blander. And after several long new England winters, the cycle of freezing and thawing often makes the new slapdash walls fall apart. In other words, you have to do it right or it won’t last. It’s the same with a story—the good ones can weather trends. Good writing is good writing.