How the stages of grief can help inform story structure

Possibly the first writer who made me fall in love with writing–and not just books–is Stephen King. I read his novel Hearts In Atlantis as a new college freshman, and my head exploded at what I read. I didn’t know a book could be structured like that, that stories could be told so rawly, that I could relate so entirely to made-up people.

I had the absolute pleasure to join author Allison Dickson on her podcast, Ding-Dong Darkness Time, this June as she took a dive into Hearts.

I classify Hearts easily as a novel, but each of the five sections is nearly a stand-alone story. And Allison and I covered so much in the episode that I neglected to bring up a concept I was excited to share: The idea that Hearts isn’t just about grief, but that due to the structure, each story loosely represents a stage of grief. (If you’re curious about how I make that connection, scroll down: I include it at the bottom of this post.)

Snagging a screenshot during a conversation is not easy! But here I am, at left, with podcaster and author Allison Dickson.

I share this idea not to convince you that I’m right–maybe this never crossed King’s mind at all and I’m making a wild, incorrect guess–but to highlight a creative way to approach the structure of your book. Something at this macro level of planning doesn’t have to be obvious to the reader, and it probably shouldn’t be. But while you’re outlining your story, or even when you dive in to edit your first draft, having this sort of overarching skeleton can inspire all sorts of ideas and twists you might not otherwise have considered. Consider it, perhaps, as a far-off branch of a hermit crab story (where your story finds its shape from some other type of prose or object–a recipe, perhaps, or footnotes.)

One of my favorite parts of the fiction process is coming up with that overarching theme. If that’s something you ever get stuck on, relying on an existing list or base might provide the spark you need to get going.

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Hearts in Atlantis stories as grief stages

  1. Low Men in Yellow Coats / Denial–Bobby, our protagonist, is in denial about the low men. He’s seen evidence that they’re around, but to share this with Ted would be to lose Ted. So he pretends everything is fine. His mother, too, is in denial about the reason behind a work trip that she believes will advance her career.
  2. Hearts in Atlantis / Anger–Stokes is the only character in this story whose eyes are open to what is happening in the world, and he is anger incarnate. We see Carol approaching this understanding, too. Her anger grows the closer she comes to accepting the reality of America’s participation in Vietnam.
  3. Blind Willie / Bargaining–Of the five sections, this perhaps is the most obvious connection to its related grief stage: Willie is desperate to atone for his childhood sins, desperate to atone for what hapened in Vietnam. So acute is his desperation that this seeing man turns blind for a few hours each day, a physiological response to achieve atonement.
  4. Why We’re in Vietnam / Depression–Nearly every character in this story, and every character discussed, is dealing with depression and its various symptoms.
  5. Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling / Acceptance–This story, too, is one of the more obvious connections to its related stage of grief. In the novel’s denoument, we remeet Bobby and Carol/Denise, who reflect on all the choices they’ve made over the years that have brought them here, back to their home town, to mourn their old friend.

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