The Pacific Crest Trail Theory of Writing

A new mystery writer posted an interesting question in a writing group I run. She wanted to know how to make her story unique.

It’s a good question because almost every situation imaginable has already been written. Almost every character is now a cliché because authors have taken the clichéd character, turned it on its head, and created a shadow cliché of the original.

But still, there is originality even in the most banal situation. A situation becomes unique and original if you fully develop the characters and the situation. You give the good guys bad characteristics and the good guys good characteristics. You show why your characters are the way they are, giving them good reasons rather than just throwing them into the mix fully formed. You tie them to the story, making their characteristics an integral part of the plot. When you find that your story is going too much in one direction (straight to the resolution of the plot, for example), you turn the situation and throw more trauma at your characters. What does this trauma do the clichéd drunk cop? Make him or her give up drinking? What does the new trauma do to a clichéd rookie cop? Make him or her stronger, weaker, more determined, go seek counsel from someone who has been a tormentor? And you work against their characteristics and strengths. If the rookie is smart, throw her into a situation where her intelligence is no help. If the drunkenness of the cop is a liability, throw him into a situation where the drunkenness becomes an asset.

You can also find uniqueness in what the characters see. (That’s what made Sherlock Holmes so popular — he saw things differently from other people.)

And you can look at things through a different kind of glass. For example, I lost someone very dear to me a few years ago, and now I cannot write a character that isn’t affected by that grief. For another example, people who hike the Pacific Crest Trail are always afterward affected by what happened to them on the trail.

So, this brings me to the Pacific Crest Trail Theory of Writing. Every year, thousands of people attempt to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the beginning to the end. The trail is always the same. It is what it is. In a way, the people are always the same, too, divided primarily into a couple of groups — the kids (mostly boys) just out of college and older recently retired couples. (Though people from all over the world of all ages hike the trail, these are the two biggest groups.) Despite this similarity, each of those hikers hikes a different trail and a different hike because each one of those hikers has a different motive and motivation, each sees something different, each reacts differently to what they experience.

And so it is with writing — it is the characters, their motives and motivations, how they experience what they experience, that makes a story unique.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

5 Responses to “The Pacific Crest Trail Theory of Writing”

  1. Deborah Owen Says:

    Excellent article, Pat.

  2. Trev Brown Says:

    Hi Pat, I’ve sent you a long email, hoping it reaches you!

  3. Kathy Says:

    You’ve so whet my appetite for the PCT, I actually looked it up on the internet. What’s next? Making plans to walk it (hike sounds way too ambitious)? lol!

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