Peaks and Valleys

Saturday, May 13, 2017
While watching a skateboarding video, (don't ask!) I noticed the complicated tricks and feats of balance and anti-gravitational forces that seemed to make the skateboard dudes fly. Like sailing, it looks effortless, but there's a lot of work involved as they glided back and forth through the half pipe preparing for their flips and twists.

Although the peaks are the highlights, I also paid attention to the valleys, which is where they laid solid foundations for their moments of glory. The valleys are where these young men steadied themselves, gaining speed and momentum, preparing to conquer the next feat of anti-gravitational wonder.

Watching the steady pace and repetition of the peaks and valleys made me realize that our fictional characters live most of their lives in the valleys, with peak moments that may be spectacular, but not sustainable. Many protagonists live quietly, for the most part, but at one point may be dragged into a situation that calls for heroism or bravery. And they are brave or act heroically, but it usually doesn't last.

As writers, we need to plan for those valleys and use them effectively, like the skateboarders. Maybe this is where a character regains his balance. Holding a picture of a child may help her realize what's important. This also may be accomplished through conversations that explain motivations, or literal movement as the characters navigate the terrain to get where they need to be. These are the valleys. It's what happens between the peaks as the plot unfolds.

Many novels and stories fall apart because there isn't much between the peaks. The writer didn't do his or her best to move the plot along. It's harder to write in the valley, but that's where the real work pays off. The steady flow of information allows the reader to understand the story as it moves forward.

Tonight I watched an old prison movie called Canon City, based on a true story. Part drama, part documentary, the story followed the actual events of 12 escapees from a Colorado prison in the 1940s. An unseen narrator gave some information in the form of a voice-over, while most events were played out by the actors.

The movie features some dramatic scenes of the actual escape, and of course tension builds as we wonder if they will get caught. But between the scenes of high tension, the story unfolds on a deeper level as we learn a little about the convicts' backgrounds. The interactions between the convicts and the innocent people in the houses they invaded could be considered the valleys.

Staying calm for the sake of their families, these men and women often struggled to keep conversations normal. One woman offers hot cocoa on the frigid night, and in the kitchen cabinet where she keeps it, finds a weapon. It's a simple scene. She opens a cabinet, and there it is. Another one asks how the convict likes his eggs. "Straight up," he said, like he was ordering at a diner.

In my favorite scene, a child puts a cat on the lap of an escapee, which the man holds and pets. The convict petting a kitty may not be memorable, but it's an important scene in "the valley," where there's not much action. But we see a bit of humanity in that simple gesture, which foreshadows the dramatic peak to come.

So as much fun as it may be to write about someone flying through the air in a dramatic peak, don't forget to provide a solid landing in the valley.

Mary Horner is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing, available through High Hill Press and Amazon. She also teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--I think the fact that you can connect writing to a skateboard video says volumes about your talent.

It's great advice. Right now, I'm in the middle of a "valley" in regards to my WIP, so I appreciate your reminder.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Interesting you're bringing up skateboarding, Mary! I'm going to the Vans Combi Pool Party today, and my hubby is putting together a skateboarding contest/punk show/prop 64 event in July that we're heavily working on right's become a full time job. Thanks to your post, I'll be looking at the tricks with a writer's eye today! ;)

Renee Roberson said...

Thank you for reminding us to be mindful about those peaks and valleys, Mary. I love the skateboarding analogy. Sometimes I tend to keep my characters too long in those valleys so this is a gentle nudge.

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