So, I just finished re(re)reading the Tao of Pooh.
Then I reread a craft article on liminality that I’d saved some time ago.
And, wouldn’t you know it, little nuggets in each seem to have plenty to say on this week’s craft topic. So, I thought I’d start by sharing them with you.
One of them tells us this: that the in-between spaces of our lives and, in turn, the lives of our characters, are
“all about learning to live with tension and pain and even the boredom of waiting. …[They] teach us to let go, relax, and be changed.”
“to avoid certain disaster [our character has] to change [their] approach, and… learn to value [their own] wisdom and contentment….[They] can no longer afford to look so desperately hard for something in the wrong way and in the wrong place.”
“…the question implicit in this… is can you be content in the midst of tension? Can you find your equilibrium in a chaotic world?”
Don’t worry yourself trying to figure which is from what and what from which; you’ll learn in due course. But first: liminality. Each of these nuggety bits speak to liminality in one way or another.
Well, what is liminality?
Liminality is a place and a process and a quality, the place and process and quality of the in-between. Of change. And a story where nothing and no one changes isn’t, in fact, a story at all.
If you’ve written a story that’s a story—that sees your character change (for better or worse)—liminality is already there, and that makes our jobs a whole lot easier.
As soon as a metaphorical wrench has been thrown into the gears (also metaphorical) of your main character’s status quo, you and your MC have crossed the threshold into liminality. (Liminality, from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold.” Go figure.)
According to writer Joe Bunting, whom I also quoted in the beginning of this post, liminality is “the space between an inciting incident in a story and the protagonist’s resolution. It is often a period of discomfort, of waiting, and of transformation.”
That’s a lot of liminal space. That is, indeed, the entire muddle of the book—pardon me—the middle of your book.
(He goes on to describe three key characteristics to this particular form of liminality. I recommend you take a look-see here.)
If you know the beginning of your story and the end of your story (as is much of my process), you’ll often already know what has changed of your character in the interim. The problem of the muddle—ahem—middle, is knowing the particulars of the how. What series of events, failures, mini-epiphanies will come together to carry your MC from who they are to who they become. That would make the middle bits all about the becoming.
I’m going to pause to stick in a pic from my chaotically organized writing journal. I found myself having some difficulties with last week’s prompt despite all my excitement about it, because I couldn’t figure out what story I was telling. (I could just as well write, I couldn’t figure out what change I was telling.)
What was the transformation of the story I wanted to write? What was the point?
Because I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, stalling after a couple pages a couple different times, I did another one of these bad boys:
The words with the most squigglies and double-headed arrows and manic circling are, if you can’t read them:
‘Nature of time’ –-> ‘time as illusion’, ‘time as arrow’, ‘time as cyclical.’
I may as well have added ‘time as change,’ because that was my epiphany. I found my story (which is still pretty rough) in the contradiction of a timeless rest-stop:
Would this place that is suspended in time be unchanging if time is but the perception of change? What about the people who go there?
Because a story is about change (questioning this would be a whole other post…), I could play around with this tension of time and timelessness—change and the unchanging… As a writer, I could embrace and delve into the ambiguous, chaotic, transformative liminality that is the process of writing, not of story alone.
I could, “let go, relax, and be changed.” (That’s Joe.)
Does my narrator change at all by the story’s end? They’re still driving, as they were before visiting the magic rest-stop, but what about their internal life? Their perception? It was subtle, and it was a change that tried to tickle its way in there, but that slippery little salmon might have gone and slipped away from me.
Those in-between bits that should comprise the how of your MC’s change became a bit vague and unfocused, much like the view of my timeless rest-stop. What about being there and then leaving caused my narrator any change? Was the change borne of the leaving specifically?
These are the questions I can only ask in hindsight, which is why it is often said that the truest writing comes from revision.
That being the case… I think I’ll visit my timeless place to try and catch me some of that liminal salmon.
While I’m meditating on fish, why don’t we turn to Megan and Sara to see if they’ve had better luck in catching the
salmon meaning of liminality in our stories…
STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH ME
By M.G. Knight
You know that moment where your character has finally been booted in the ass and she’s just kind of sitting there, soaking it all in? And when you tell her to get up and do something interesting the result is usually a middle finger, a book (usually the draft of the one you’re working on) thrown at your face, or maybe some other snide remark?
She has reason to be upset: She’s in liminal space, that extended period of uncertainty between an inciting incident and her resolution. No one likes being in foreign waters with no stars or wind to guide them as they sit there, stuck in the in-between and waiting for the final cannonball to charge through the air and destroy their ship completely. However, this “middle” is the hardest and possibly most important phase for your character; it is here where she will decide how to proceed, where her values and morals are put to the test and she has the chance to become something greater–or perhaps, something lesser.
Liminal space, then, is all about transformation. Your character has been thrust out of his usual safety net, away from friends and family and prestige, and thrown into a gauntlet of creatures hell-bent on destroying him. His decision here will tell the audience who he really is. All facades are off, all masks destroyed. We finally get to see the person behind the printed words.
Sara proposed the genius idea of liminal spaces for our prompt this past week; the results have been intriguing–especially the idea of a liminal space as a setting rather than a particular time frame. A place in-between, the place where your character has to choose, where the stakes are at their highest–what’s not to like? Liminal space as a setting is a reflection of your character’s inner turmoil, a picture of possibility and choice with temptation lurking beneath.
Ours came in the form of a rest stop. What would yours look like?