Finding Your Story’s Triple Point

Remember in high school chemistry class when you first learned about triple point? No? Let me refresh your memory. The triple point of a substance is the temperature and pressure at which the three phases of matter (solid, liquid, and gas) coexist in a kind of equilibrium. It’s not any of the three and yet it’s all of the three at the same time. Mind blown. In our class we used to annoy the teacher by asking what the triple point of human flesh was.

Here’s a handy chart:


The triple point of your story (and I’m just making this up here, folks–it’s not a real thing so don’t bother googling it) is when all the right elements of your story come together and you reach the point where you can really take off writing. It could be research, outlining, and a sudden burst of inspiration. It could be characters, plotting, and finally landing on the right point of view. It could be just the right combination of procrastination and pressure (looming deadlines!) It might be a hundred different factors finally converging and giving you the perfect kick in the pants you’ve been waiting for.

In the Bartels household the past couple weeks there’s been a lot of flirting with literary triple points and I think I’ve just reached mine.

Ah, the happiness and contentment one can feel with a good start on a big project. I’m two good chapters into a new novel, one that has been brimming with possibilities in my mind for some time but which has had several false starts and one fairly detailed and then discarded outline. I’ve been struggling not with characters, themes, or plot, which are all firmly implanted in my mind and loosely drawn out in a series of notes, but with form. It was the last piece of the puzzle I needed in order to really get started, to reach the triple point.

Any time you are trying to tell a story in the present that has parallels to and lessons to learn from the past, it can be hard to decide the best method for revealing the important parts of the backstory–especially if the backstory spans a long time period. I’m personally dealing mostly with 150 years of a family history. It feels like a lot to wade through to decide what is most important and determine the best method for slowly uncovering that information in the course of the narrative. But my husband (who is also a writer) is working on a new novel where the backstory covers centuries and crosses oceans. But he too is right there, hovering at that triple point.

I’ve had a few aha moments in the past few days, moments that rendered my earlier outlining fairly useless, but moments that may not have happened if I didn’t first try something that didn’t quite work for me. Luckily, I’ve been able to salvage most of the writing, removing chunks to save for later in the book and revising the remainder to lay the right hints and focus on the right thematic elements. I did kill some darlings in the process, but of course that is inevitable.

Now I feel some real inertia and the road ahead looks pretty clear. The trick will be to harness that and make the time needed to use it wisely.


What are you working on right now? What problems are you facing? What happy moments of clarity have you experienced? Have you ever experienced the exhilaration of reaching your story’s triple point?