So there I am, in a small hotel between the Costa Brava and Sitges, once again unpacking the bag I’ve carried through France and Spain. It’s been five weeks, and by now the contents are painfully familiar: five t-shirts, two pairs of shorts, and various smaller items, including an excellent pair of sandals purchased on the beach in Antibes. At each small hostel and posada, I’m unpacking and packing in the same order, because that’s the only way everything fits into the bag.
I thought of this recently when a friend, just back from a writers’ conference, mentioned a term used in workshop: “unpacking.” As in, This story concludes without fully unpacking. Since then, I’ve been thinking about the term, and the similarities between unpacking on a trip and unpacking a story. In the fictional journey, the story is the bag and the necessary items are carried inside it. I like thinking of a story as being “unpacked” rather than, say, “composed.” To unpack a story suggests a different approach, one in which detail lies hidden and waits to be discovered by the writer. There are numerous terms to describe how a story advances: narrative arc, plot points, conflict and resolution, the narrative dream. Unpacking doesn’t so much rely on the conventional arc—exposition, climax, denouement—but on the detail that moves it along.
From my travels I’ve learned that ease of unpacking depends on a few basic principles, so it might be useful to consider the essentials when embarking on a narrative journey.
1. Choose carefully.
Limit what you bring. Allow yourself only what is necessary and which will serve efficiently. Then, in the long-honored tradition of travelers, reduce that amount by half. Remember, traveling light always makes a trip more enjoyable.
2. Stay organized.
Keep the most important items near the top so they can be unpacked first. These are items you don’t want to search for, or lose beneath things you will not use very much. Weightier items are best placed farther down and incidentals in side compartments.
3. Leave extra room
Like the sandals I bought in Antibes, one is certain to encounter the unexpected. Bringing too much will not only weigh you down, but take up room for those things you didn’t know you’d find. Leave sufficient space for discovery.
4. Bring your favorite things.
This is a great piece of packing wisdom I heard once from a well-traveled friend, and have followed ever since. Given the limitations, be sure to choose things you really love. This makes the journey that much more personal and pleasurable.
Unlike an actual journey, a narrative journey should not be planned too well, for it can be death to a story to know too much in advance. A story exists whole in an unknown place, and it’s the writer’s job to travel there and find it. Like many a hotel room, and so many of my drafts, the process can be messy, with details scattered everywhere until I’ve figured out exactly what needs to be unpacked.
So here I am, in the middle of a long revision, having just removed half of what seemed important at the start. The premise has been simplified, the events limited, and some surprising facts uncovered. It’s been a long and roundabout journey, and I’m almost near the end, having unpacked nearly everything of consequence in this fictional world—though not quite everything. Which brings up one more point. At the conference, my friend raised a question, wondering when, in the context of unpacking, a story was finished. The answer came simply enough, “When everything has been unpacked.”
*This post originally appeared on LitStack in March 2012*