Story as Ouroboros Worm (or Groundhog Day)

I saved this post quite a while ago – last September, according to the date on the post. The topic the author/blogger is talking about is the need for revision, that a story isn’t complete at the end of the first draft. Which, yeah, okay, I would hope we all know this by now: every first draft is flawed, including and not limited to those of superstar bestseller writers. I mostly skimmed her post because it was all stuff I largely came to recognize some time ago.

But there was this one section where she veered …not off-topic, per se, because it’s still relevant to the idea of a first draft needing revisions, but it was a different point that struck a note with me. She said:

But a story evolves as we tell it.  What we come to at the end informs what we said at the beginning, just as the beginning shapes the end (story as Oroborous worm).  Your understanding of the story you are telling is not complete until the telling is done.

I think plotters probably have a better grasp of the arc of their stories than pantsers like me, but I think even plotters experience this. When you first start writing, you have an idea in your head, but it’s just a shallow concept, fairly flat (unless you’re the sort to spend weeks thinking out everything about the story before you begin writing). By the time you reach the end of that first draft you’ve gotten to know it a lot better. You’ve come to know the characters on a deeper level, both personality and backstory; you know more details about the world they live in; and you know all the subtle plot twists and events that define the story. Some of these details you might not have known at the start, but now that you do you can go in and add foreshadowing or deepen the conversations or adjust the actions to reflect and bring out character.

As an example, when I started writing the first draft of Magestone, I didn’t know anyone’s backstory really well, and I was still shaping their personalities. So the first time my characters met the antagonist they had a fairly generic argument. When I got to the end, I knew a lot more about all the characters, including the backstories for both the protagonists and antagonists, and the history of their relationship. When I went back in revisions, I took out most of that generic argument and replaced it with dialogue that drew on their history and personalities. It’s much more interesting to read now.

And with every pass of revisions you come to know your story and characters better. It kind of makes me think of the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. At the start he doesn’t really know Andie MacDowell at all, but every time he relives the day he gets to know her a little better. He adjusts early events of the next attempt based on what he learns by the time the day closes on the previous attempt, and eventually he can charm the socks off her right from the start.

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2 responses to “Story as Ouroboros Worm (or Groundhog Day)

  1. I wrote the original article for Ouroboros in Wikipedia. It’s changed a lot now though… ;)

    • Heehee. That’s cool. I went back into the past articles to see if I could find your version, but things had got shifted around a bunch and I didn’t spot it.

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