Everyone has a natural facility for telling stories. It is part of our ability to communicate. When we instinctively tell someone else about something we consider interesting, we edit, fill in background details, provide backstory, even embellish—all without thinking twice.
When we start writing these things down, things aren’t quite so easy. Without the natural rhythms and purpose of spoken language—and the interaction of another person asking for more detail when they need it—we can freeze up and start doubting the value of what’s on the page. Which is often when we turn to books for guidance and instruction, and even reassurance.
The thing is, the basic structure of story is pretty similar in every book on craft. There may be variations on a theme, but generally all the advice is pretty much of a muchness. And if you have written a story you’re trying to fix up, and you go over it armed with the Indomitable Hero Flow Chart, or the 22-step Brain Map, or whatever method your favourite new book has revealed to you, what you will tend to find is that most of the things they say you need for a good story, you already have.
They may not be in the right place, or be as fully developed as they could be, but in some form or other the essentials for story are already present. Often all that’s required is a little rearranging, and some teasing out of stuff that’s been left flat.
You might mention in passing that Norman was expelled from school when he was sixteen. Something to add a little colour to your character. But if someone happens to ask you what he was expelled for, you know exactly what it was, getting his home room teacher pregnant, and that realisation of something you knew but never wrote down impacts on the way you see a bunch of other scenes. It just never occurred to you it was important for the story you were telling until somebody brought it up.
In fact, often the key to getting your story polished and running smoothly is to have someone ask the right questions, so that you can slot in the right answers. If you can find someone like that, who's always asking annoying questions (why this? how come that?), grab that person and don't let them get away.
Almost all stories I’ve worked with people on have issues like that, where the answer is only a scratch beneath the surface. You just have to know where to scratch.
Writers who write complex, meaningful stories full of subtext and interconnected relationships, don’t sit down and plan out how one characters actions affect another. If you know your characters, if their reaction to their predicament, and to each other, have to be expressed due to circumstances that can’t be resisted, those things will come to the surface (or near the surface) naturally.
More often than not when you approach the end of a story, doubts will emerge. Is this the right way to end? Is it the right time? Does it make sense? It is too obvious? And when there seems to be something missing, something not quite there in the climax of your 400 page labour of love, you won’t have to throw it all away and start again. If you go back to the opening two or three chapter, you will find that in there will be something, a throwaway line, an object, some weird anecdote you slipped in, that provides you with the thing you need to complete the story.
This happens so often, not just for me, but for many writers, that I don’t think it can be just a coincidence. We know where we want our stories to go from the start. And we express it somehow. Which is why I feel it’s always a good idea to allow yourself to write with room to meander a bit, especially in that first draft. Those pointless digressions and odd conversations that seem to have nothing to do with anything, can hold the key to what the story’s really about.
Of course, later on when you have a fuller understanding of what these people you created are all about, then you can pare things back and disguise some of the less subtle elements. But bear in mind when you get bogged down or find yourself at a dead end, more often than not the answers are buried in parts of the story you haven’t explored fully. It won't always be easy finding them, in fact it can be quite tedious and labrious, but it will be worth it. So start digging.
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Thursday's post will be on the best ways to improvise a scene, hope to see you back here for that.