Monday, March 07, 2011

Rudder Authority: aeronautical term for Staying on Theme?

Being married to a recreational pilot, it's inevitable that I make connections between flying and writing. Now that our kids are grown, the greater part of our conversations follow one of three themes: politics, flying and farming.

Regarding flying, my hubbie did something recently that sparked a writerly connection  with me. The plane above is a homebuilt KitFox. The thing to know about this plane, and my story, is that it's a Tail-Dragger with a Small Rudder (tail).

My husband is a veteran pilot with about 2500 hours of flying time in a Tail-Dragger, which is an airplane without a nose wheel. Instead, it has a tiny tail wheel. (See how small?) Tail-draggers are far more difficult to maneuver during takeoffs and landings than planes with the more usual landing gear known as the Tricycle Gear. The three-pointed triangular shape of the Tricycle Gear adds enormous stability, automatically keeping an airplane straight and steady on the runway during acceleration.

In contrast, without a nose wheel, the weight and gravity of the airplane fall in the back. On takeoff, the plane has to reach a certain speed before the tail lifts off the ground. Until that happens, the back wheel is terribly “squirrelly.” That is, unless the pilot is really paying attention to what he’s doing, the back wheel is apt to twist the plane around in what is known as a ground loop. Ground loops are seldom life-threatening, however one’s airplane can suffer damage after being ground-looped.

In addition to dragging their tails, airplanes with small rudders are more difficult to fly. They don’t have enough of what my husband calls “Rudder Authority” to combat the squirrelly tail wheel. I’ve just learned all of this because, for the first time ever, my poor husband accidentally ground-looped an airplane, our KitFox. There were several reasons for it, which I won't go into.
As he was telling me about his experience, it occurred to me that in order for our stories to hang together, to follow a straight path from beginning to end (take-off to landing), and not ground loop somewhere along the path, we as writers need to have a sufficient amount of Rudder Authority. In order for our story to “fly,” we need to stay on an easily understandable path from the first page to the last.

How do we do that? We ask ourselves several questions:

What does our protagonist want most?

Why did I write his or her story?

What was I personally struggling with while I wrote it?

What happens to the protagonist with regard to what she wants most? Does she get what she wants? Does she discover that she wanted something else instead?

Does my own story, combined with the resolution of the protagonist’s story, come together to create a general statement about what I personally think or believe? How?
If we can answer these questions, besides possessing other requisite writing skills, we should have enough Rudder Authority to lift our stories off the ground.

Do you have control of your story? Do you know your themes? Do you have sufficient Rudder Authority?


  1. Love the plan and great post. I think I can answer all those questions about my WIP. :D

  2. I love this analogy! My rudder could definitely use a little more authority--thanks for the list of questions we should be keeping in mind. I usually figure those out while outlining, but it's so important for me to revisit them, otherwise I can get bogged down in the story and it tends to ramble. Great post!

  3. I like your questions. Yes, I'd probably answer them subconsciously/while I'm writing, having had an good idea of the answers before I started writing. However, I began the year not knowing what to write. Then in January I went to the country and my head cleared miraculously (beautiful mountains and beaches, creativity for the soul) and an abundance of ideas tumbled into my head. Still not writing! And it's March! So I'll try your questions and see if they bring any particular idea to the fore. I'll let you know.

  4. I love this idea, Cathy! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Rudder Authority. Very cool! I think my rudder needs help most of the time. The questions you posed are very helpful. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about the third one and the last one, especially.

  5. Great set of questions, Cathy. I think I'll tape them to my forehead!


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