The Elements of Story: Water

I call my new book an eco-fiction because it’s as much a novel about the wonder and mystery of life on Earth as it is about the two people at the centre of the story. As a writer I’m always looking for ways to link nature and ecological thinking to what I do on the page. This series — “The Elements of Story” is one way I’ve tried to do that.

TheLastTree-9588Our bodies are mostly water. We’ve all heard this fact so often that we rarely stop to think about how strange it is. And when we do think about it, we usually imagine water as an inert substance that a living thing makes use of to, well, live. There’s a lot of water in me, okay, sure, but I am not water.

But if most of what constitutes this thing I call me is water, then really, I am water. I’m water with some other stuff coming along for the ride. And so are you. So is every living thing. Maybe we should classify living things as a means that water has found to circulate more widely and freely. And in human beings, water found a way to be creative, and reflect upon itself.


A story is something told by water.


So, if I’m not wading in too deep here, maybe the way to make a good story is to be as much like water as we can in the telling.

I find the Tao te ching useful for thinking about this (as it is useful for thinking about so many things).

This is from a version of Lao Tzu’s timeless book by Ursula K. Le Guin, a writer who knows a few things about the flow of a good story:


True goodness

is like water.

Water is good

for everything.

It doesn’t compete.


It goes right

to the low loathsome places,

and so finds the way.


I thought I’d try putting some of these ancient ideas into story terms. Here’s my version of some lines from the Tao:


A good story is like water,
which nourishes all things

without trying to.

It’s at home in the low places

that people disdain.


And yet water is powerful.

It can gather strength quietly

until it is able to move mountains.


In your storymaking, be like water.

In imagining, stay close to the earth.
In description, keep to the simple.
With your characters, do not take sides.
When plotting, don’t try to control.

Let all things happen

when the time is right.




  1. Such great advice, Tom! Lessons to learn from, wisdom to follow, goals to aspire to–all so poetically. Thank you.

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