Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Stories We Tell Ourselves

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 10, 2013

A couple of years ago I was struggling to finish a novel called The Profession. I was lost. The book was dying. It was a Bad Moment.

Enter Shawn.

This is when it’s great to have a friend/editor/literary Kahuna who really knows his stuff. Shawn flew out to L.A. from New York and we beat our brains out for a couple of days. I remember vividly what he finally said:

“You know what this book is about? It’s about stories. We all have stories that we tell ourselves about what our lives are—and those stories are always wrong.”

Godfather

Diane Keaton and Al Pacino in The Godfather. Story "B" was waiting inside Story "A" from the very start.

That was it. That was the stroke that split the diamond. It solved The Profession. But, though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was also a template not only for the hero’s journey in most of the novels or screenplays that you and I write, but for many of the struggles we face in our real lives.

Last week’s post was called “Good Guy Speeches.” Good Guy speeches are the soliloquies (however brief) in which the hero of a book or a movie lets go of Story “A” and prepares himself to move on to Story “B.”

Here’s Crash Davis’s (Kevin Costner) Good Guy speech from Bull Durham:

CRASH DAVIS

Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gork … you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.

All his life, Crash has dreamed of playing in the majors. That’s his Story “A”: “I’m going to make it to the big leagues.”

Crash has bet all his chips on that story.

Now, in the moment of his Good Guy speech, he finally accepts that this story is bankrupt. He’s not going to make it to “the Show.” Crash’s speech is a gorgeous lament for the non-appearance of that stroke of fortune, that run of good luck that is sometimes the entire difference between a winner and an also-ran. Crash acknowledges with this speech that that streak has not come for him—and, even if it had, it wouldn’t have been enough. He tells Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins), who is on his way to the majors, “You’ve got a million-dollar arm. All my body parts put together don’t add up to seven cents.”

Another all-time great Good Guy speech comes from a different sports movie, the first Rocky.

In this Oscar winner for Best Picture, a ham-and-egg boxer named Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) has through freak luck gotten a shot at the heavyweight championship. He’s going to fight Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) tomorrow night. But tonight, the eve of the title fight, Rocky can’t sleep. He leaves his g.f. Adrian at home and goes alone to the empty arena. What he experiences there changes him profoundly.

Rocky looks around at the brand-new ring, the thousands of seats, the huge posters of himself and Apollo, the giant American flags. Until that moment Rocky’s Story “A” had been that he could win. He could knock off the champ. That was the story Rocky was telling himself.

He comes home to Adrian, who sees at once that something bad has happened. “What’s wrong, Rocky?”

ROCKY

Who am I kiddin’ [believing I can beat the champ]? I ain’t even in the guy’s league…It don’t matter, ’cause I was nobody before…I was nobody. That don’t matter either, ya know…It really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed. And if I can go that distance, ya see, and that bell rings, ya know, and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, ya see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.

When Rocky says, “‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance,” he has switched from Story “A” to Story “B.” This is monumental. It is his true victory, hours before the fight itself. Because he has moved from delusion to reality.

He has acquired wisdom.

In the final scene of Bull Durham, Crash Davis returns to the woman he has always loved but never yet really connected with, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon). He tells Annie he has quit playing ball. “I hit my dinger and hung ‘em up.”

(In other words, Crash has relinquished Story “A.”)

Then he tells Annie that he’s heard there’s an opening for a manager at a minor league club in Visalia, California.

CRASH

What do you think, Annie? Think I can get to the Show as a manager?

ANNIE

You’d be great!

Crash, like Rocky, has moved on to Story “B.”

We all tell ourselves stories, like Shawn said. And those stories, as he observed, are almost always wrong.

The nutshell plot of many movies and books is simply this:

ACT ONE. Hero starts off desperately believing and living Story “A.”

ACT TWO. Hero tries like hell to achieve Story “A.” Events intervene. Hero cannot achieve Story “A.”

ACT THREE. Against his will, hero releases Story “A,” moves to Story “B.”

In more complex stories like The Godfather or Shane, the hero’s passage from Story “A” to Story “B” may be a dark elevation—i.e. Michael Corleone’s evolution from Marine Corps captain to Mafia don—or a noble but tragic fall: Shane’s transition from the dream of hanging up his guns to his recognition of the necessity of strapping them back on forever.

In really good writing, the seeds of Story “B” have been planted from the very start. When we, the reader/moviegoer, flash back in our minds to the story’s beginning, we see the clues that we had missed the first time through.

In Rocky’s case, even though he was at the start an untrained, going-nowhere brawler, it was plain to us in the audience that he had plenty of heart, he could take a beating, and he had thunder in his fists.

In Crash’s case, even though he was way past the age when minor leaguers get called up to the Bigs, we could see that he possessed the savvy, the grit, and the leadership to whip a team into shape and to turn boys into men.

Story “B” was there all along, if only we had had eyes to see it.

I’ve been asking myself lately, What Story “A” am I believing about myself right now? Is there a Story “B” lurking somewhere? If so, what is it?

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

21 Responses to “Stories We Tell Ourselves”

  1. April 10, 2013 at 4:21 am

    If I may be so bold as to quote from a dying man to his protagonist daughter in my own novel, “sometimes you have to give up something so you can play a more rewarding game.” Ironically, the novel itself moved from Story A, traditional publication, to Story B, self-publication, and found it’s own more rewarding game.

    • April 10, 2013 at 5:05 am

      Great stuff, S.J. I had never thought about “A” to “B” as traditional publishing to self-publishing but that is spot-on. Couldn’t be more to the point. Thanks!

  2. April 10, 2013 at 7:56 am

    From shadow career to turning pro; from “dreams” of ego-junkie to a relationship with the Muse; moving out of our head and into the world. But it takes what it takes to get there, and doing what it takes makes the story.

    Thank you, again.

  3. Kent Faver
    April 10, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Thanks Steven – this whole line of thinking would be a heck of a book. I’m completely hooked!

  4. April 10, 2013 at 9:12 am

    Bull Durham is one of my all-time favorite movies. I like exploring this concept of Story A and story B. Do we accept and recognize story B or do we continue to hold onto story A? At what point does belief in Story A keep us motivated change over to delusion? When is the moment that Story A passes us by and we must turn to Story B? How do we come to recognize it?

  5. April 10, 2013 at 9:59 am

    Steven, Awesome post. I agree with Kent’s comment above and I thank you for the bolt of clarity I received for a character in a work of my own.

  6. Basilis
    April 10, 2013 at 10:48 am

    Story A, Story B, illusion or reality, it reminds me Umberto Eco’s words: we are all born under the wrong constellation…

  7. April 10, 2013 at 11:43 am

    I had one of these moments this summer, contemplating our daughter’s big dreams and the speed with which she was achieving them.

    “Maybe it doesn’t matter so much if we get anywhere with the talk show–or anything else, workwise,” I suddenly realized. “Maybe bringing Katie into the world will have been enough.”

  8. Rebecca
    April 10, 2013 at 11:46 am

    Now, the self-assignment whispers within me to live into the wisdom required to discern between: when I’m barking up the wrong story (A), vs when I’m simply holding out for Turning Pro. Resistance, and its many splendid forms…

    Steven? another post, please. (And thanks!)

  9. Harlan Gleeson
    April 10, 2013 at 12:07 pm

    thanks steve pressfield!

  10. P.L. Bowler
    April 10, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    In every post you get right to the nut of something, Steven, like a good haiku only much more edifying, no mystery left behind. I’d love to see Shawn write a book on his evolution as an editor. He seems to have a deep trove of experience and some brilliant insights into what makes a story work. Working title: “Inside the Art of Storytelling” maybe? Everybody in the writing trade would want to read it, and I’d be at the front of the line. Whaddya say, Shawn?

    • April 11, 2013 at 4:56 pm

      Yo, P.B.!

      I shouldn’t be speaking for Shawn, but …

      He is writing that book.

      Stay tuned.

  11. Simon
    April 10, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    I’ve been battling with my Story A lately, not liking it, sick of it, ready to move on from it….but not seeing Story B yet and I am fearful it’s not there. Sure it’s there, but how long can it be lurking?

  12. April 11, 2013 at 3:25 am

    I think it’s good to embrace and nurture a Story B, C, D… as you move through life.

    I’m a Swordsman, Instructor, Father, Husband, Writer. If I can manage three out of five I have a win

  13. April 11, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Your “Story-A to Story-B” explanation cracked open another concept that I’d been having trouble with. When working with the “W-shaped” storyboard structure based on the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist is supposed to have a personal realization at the second turning point of crisis (at the end of Act 2 in a 3-act structure). It never made sense to me before, but your article, with its movie examples, brought it all home for me. Thank you!

    Also thank you for your “War of Art” book. I carry the silver mirrored hardback version with me to every artist residency I attend and refer to it every time I feel my fear (resistance!) rise. I also recommend (or give) it to every struggling artist I know.

  14. April 11, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Excellent illustrations. I’d never looked that closely at Rocky before. This is brilliant and helpful. Thanks!

  15. April 11, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    Brilliant, as always, Steven, You crystallize something I’ve been groking as I’ve grown as an author — that what hero believes to be true about herself and her world completely get challenged and evolve into something else for the hero to overcome her obstacles.

  16. MTM.
    April 12, 2013 at 11:03 am

    Another vote for “when said situation is A Wrong Story vs when is it simply Resistance, and how to discern between them” post here. ;)

  17. April 15, 2013 at 11:31 am

    Forget the theme of our books, this is the theme of our lives. Must be why fiction endures in which it resounds so strongly. Puts me in mind of a line from Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet:

    I’m amazed by what I managed not to see. I marvel at all that I was and that I now see I’m not.

    Nice follow-up to the good guy speech. How do you suppose it relates to the bad guy? Is the difference between a hero and a villain that one accepts his Story B and one rejects it? Or does a villain never reach the epiphany that affords her the choice. Or does he in his frustration at the choice twist Stories A and B into some “I want it all” or “If I can’t have it no one can” kind of Story C. Or any or all of the above. How many ways can a person react to that epiphany? Maybe the number correlates exactly to the character archetypes common in fiction.

    I have some writing to do. Keep stirring it up, chef.

  18. April 20, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    My programmer is trying to persuade me to move to .net from PHP. I have always disliked the idea because of the expenses. But he’s tryiong none the less. I’ve been using WordPress on a number of websites for about a year and am anxious about switching to another platform. I have heard fantastic things about blogengine.net. Is there a way I can import all my wordpress content into it? Any kind of help would be greatly appreciated!

  19. Chris Oakes
    June 4, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    Excellent piece, Steven. Thank you so much – now I must go and chase many ideas you have inspired!