“The Story We Know”

Reflections on a poem by Martha Collins.

I read a poem to begin each day. This was today’s poem.

The Story We Know

By Martha Collins

The way to begin is always the same. Hello,
Hello. Your hand, your name. So glad, just fine,
and Good-bye at the end. That’s every story we know,

and why pretend? But lunch tomorrow? No?
Yes? An omelette, salad, chilled white wine?
The way to begin is simple, sane, Hello,

and then it’s Sunday, coffee, the Times, a slow
day by the fire, dinner at eight or nine
and Good-bye. In the end, this is a story we know

so well we don’t turn the page, or look below
the picture, or follow the words to the next line:
The way to begin is always the same Hello.

But one night, through the latticed window, snow
begins to whiten the air, and the tall white pine.
Good-bye is the end of every story we know

that night, and when we dose the curtains, oh,
we hold each other against that cold white sign
of the way we all begin and end. Hello,
is the only story. We know, we know.

Years ago, when I asked my friend and poet Kurt Brown to recommend a poem about death, he emailed me back with this response:

Scott, all poems are about death.

This poem by Martha Collins aligns with Kurt’s take. There is the mundane nature of the routine: Hello, then Good-bye. A daily ritual in our interactions with others. Then the turn at the end of the poem starting with the word “But,” followed by the color white: snow… whiten the air… tall white pine… cold white sign. Death inevitable as our final breath sends our soul drifting into an ineffable whiteness.

We are born. We die. Hello. Good-bye.

Yet it occurred to me as I was reading the poem, this dynamic of Hello and Good-bye is an essential part of a writer’s life crafting a story:

  • Each scene begins with an Hello to the reader. This is the location. These are the characters. This is the central conflict. Then ends with a Good-bye. This is what transpires. This is how the scene resolves itself. This is how the scene transitions into the next scene… where we say Hello all over again.
  • Each subplot begins with an Hello to the reader. These are the characters in this relationship. This is how they treat each other, how they know each other, what their connection is about. Then ends with a Good-bye. This is the finale of their relationship. This is what their connection means. This signifies how the characters may have changed individually and as a ‘couple.’
  • Each story begins with an Hello to the reader. This is how the whole saga starts. This is where the story universe gets established. This is where key characters are introduced. Then ends with a Good-bye. This is how the Final Struggle plays out. This is where it becomes clear what the story means. This is where the impact upon the key characters is visualized.

Hello. Good-bye. A starting point. An end point. In real life, perhaps a mundane experience of the usual interactions. In writing a story, however, that coupling of Hello and Good-bye represents a repeatable paradigm which provides a structure throughout for scenes, subplots, and overall narrative.

Let’s end with The Beatles’ thoughts on the subject:

“The Story We Know” was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Author: Scott Myers