Being a Better Writer: The Keystone

Welcome back readers! As you may have guessed from this posting date, I had another Monday shift at my part time, hence why you’re getting this today (I’m at the moment writing it up during the early evening of the 22nd, so you’re reading this in what would technically be the future). Nothing too unusual there.

So, let’s dive right into today’s topic, shall we? I really don’t feel like beating around the bush; but rather I’d prefer to just get down to it. Today’s topic comes from … well, it comes from a number of sources, actually. Listening to other authors talk about writing, certainly. Reading a few books and whatnot over the last few weeks. And just following various forums about writing online. Toss all those things into my head, and let simmer for a few hours, and this post and topic is what came from it.

First question: Are you familiar with what a keystone is? You might remember this from your history classes, particularly if they covered the Roman Empire. A keystone was, well, the key to constructing those awesome Roman arches ancient tourists would see everywhere in Rome. And modern tourist still can see in the same places, 3000 years later. You know the shape—the classic pillars with the half-circle on the top?

This design was the one of many things that took Rome to stardom and made them the most influential empire in the world (so influential that many today still underestimate exactly how much of our day-to-day society was shaped by them). It enabled Rome to build bigger, grander, more spacious structure than anyone that had come before them.

So yeah, kind of a big deal. But how did it work? And what does it have to do with writing?

In order, then. The Roman arch was a design that actually relied on gravity in order to work. I’ll link a snappy video clip here for those of you who want a quick visual aid, but the construction of a Roman arch went like this. First, obviously, you identify where an arch was needed. Maybe you needed to support a bridge, whatever. So you figure out where this half-circle arch is going to rest and build up to that point. Not hard to do, just stack some square blocks, make sure everything is even, right?

Now comes the tricky part. You then build a wooden support in the shape of the half-circle arch and put it underneath the arch, for support during construction. Then, you take some trapezoidal shaped stones and lay them together along this support (see why you need it?) so that the long ends and short ends are each on their own side of the structure (in this way, the arch forms an arch, rather than a confusing mess, the effect being that the line of stones is shorter on the inside curve and longer on the outside).

You build upward from both ends until you are about to meet in the middle. Here is where things get tricky. See, if you pull the support out now, all those stones will fall with it. But if you take the final, wedge-shaped middle piece—the keystone—and place it in-between the two halves, completing the arch, and then take the support out?

It stays in place. What happens is that twin halves of the arch, because of their angle, are trying to fall inward under the pull of gravity and their own shape. With the keystone in the middle, however, each half pushes equally on the other through the keystone, and the arch stays in place. You can now continue to stack stone on top of it to build whatever it was you set out to build. And guess what? As long as that keystone stays in place, it will distribute the weight of anything you place on top of the arch through the arch, making it even more sturdy.

Of course, if the keystone cracks or is removed, suddenly the arch is not longer pushing against itself, and the whole thing comes crashing down. Pretty clever though, huh? Those Romans …

Anyway, why the architecture lesson? Well, think of it as a visual metaphor to get your mind pointed in the right direction. If your story is an arch, and all the different parts of said story the different parts of said arch … what do you think the keystone would be? The single most vital piece of the story around which everything else “revolves,” for lack of a better word? The part without which, the rest of the story comes apart? Is it the characters? The beginning? The worldbuilding?

Well … no. Each of those is vitally important, don’t get me wrong. I mean, you can’t build an arch without one of the supporting legs, or really any of the other stones that make up an arch … but without the keystone, the entire thing will collapse. Everything that makes up the arch is centered around this single stone. What part of a story is so vital that without it, the entire story would be rendered pointless? What would everything point towards, and support?

There’s only one thing it could be: the ending.

See, it doesn’t matter how well-written your story is, or how cool the characters are. What happens, or how unique the world is. Individually, these are each great pieces of a whole … but without an ending for each one of them to build up to, a keystone that relies on every single other element of the story and brings them all together, your story will collapse. It’ll be that pile of neat elements  that almost came together … but fell apart. Sure, people will recall individual elements that stood out, but they will never remember it as a whole story, simply as the parts and pieces that stood out.

And we don’t want that. As you might have guessed.

So, where does this leave us? Well, I went about this whole, long, roundabout explanation in order to try and fix something in your minds: The ending is the keystone of your story. When the Romans would build an arch, everything that went into the construction of it was focused around one, central moment, that being the keystone. Every part of the constructions process was in relation to the keystone. Where would it be? How high up was it? Even the width of the arch had to be considered, as all the other stones that made up the arch itself needed to be cut to exacting specifications so that when that wedge-shaped piece was dropped into place, it would be at the exact center.

Are you seeing the similarities to how we should go about writing our story? As we shape our characters, construct our world, flesh out our antagonist, whatever, all of it should be with the end goal of making sure that our ending is the keystone that brings it all together.

See, some stories fail to do this. They deliver an arch (or perhaps an arc, if you’ll pardon the pun) that is lopsided. The ending is simply an afterthought, a point where everything stops and the story just ends. Don’t write one of those stories. At best, they’re misshapen things, where the material given doesn’t come together evenly. At worst, they’re piles of carefully carved ideas that couldn’t support themselves when the supports of the author’s own enthusiasm were removed.

Essentially, the ending of our story is the point where it should all come together. Your plot, your characters, your world … All of it should be pushing towards this end that relies on each of them in order to support the story. This doesn’t mean that each element of your story needs equal attention … after all, we read stories from different authors for differing elements that they each do well, such as characters, world, etc. Likewise, not all Roman arches looked the same either. Some were tall, some were squat. Some were wide, others thin.

In other words, don’t think that you need to stress all areas of your story equally. That’s not what I’m getting at. What I’m saying is that whatever your elements are, they should all interact with the ending in some way. Character needs to be part of your ending, along with whatever development and growth you’ve had along the way. Your world? The same. Your theme? Yup! The ending to your story needs to interact with, build on, or engage with all elements of your story in some way.

This doesn’t mean that an obscure character from early in the adventure needs to show up for some reason (“Oh, hello Tom Bombadil! What are you doing here?” said no one). But it does mean that if your character took away an important lesson from them that is important to their character, maybe that should be felt in some way during the ending. Referenced in some way, perhaps, either in a case of the character showing their growth, showing their accomplishment, their choices …

Again, I’m not saying that everything has to come back up in the ending, as in actually come up, recap style. But whatever your ending is, the rest of your story needs to support and have played a part in building it.

Two last things, here, since I can feel my brain running out of steam on this particular topic. First, note that I did not specify what kind of ending your story has to have. Happy endings, sad endings, lonely, sacrificial endings … that isn’t the important part here. Your ending can be any of these as long as it is an ending that the rest of the story supports and has built toward.

The second thing is that you don’t need to know what your ending is in advance in order for this to work. You can totally discovery write this just fine, as long as you keep all the elements and themes of your story in mind as you near the end, so that when everything finally comes to the climax and conclusion, you can be sure to craft a keystone that everything else does support. But you don’t need to know the specifics beforehand—that’s what that wooden support that is your overarching (or would that be “overarcing?”) knowledge of the story would be for. Just make sure that before you pull that away from the story you’ve made, that ending is ready to take the weight.

So, let’s recap: A story is like a Roman arch where the keystone, the piece that holds the whole thing together and is both a support of and supported by all the other elements, is your ending. When you set out to write a story, don’t just reach a spot where the story stops and call it good. Like the arch we’ve been discussing, build toward that final moment, when you put the ending in its place, and the entire rest of the story rests against it, bringing everything to a conclusion. Shape your ending carefully so that it will support all that narrative weight. Your theme, your characters … shape the ending so what your story contains is brought to a final conclusion … not dropped in a crumbling heap.

Build your arch. Bring it together. Put your keystone in place so that every part of your story stands tall.

Good luck, and I’ll see you all next week.



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