Monday, 9 January 2012

You Already Have The Answer


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.



26 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've found that critique partners can really help in asking those questions. That can lead to a lot more in the story when you start supplying answers.

Christine Rains said...

Great post! I don't know what I'd do without my CPs.

Sherri said...

I agree. I'm so glad my own family members ask me those annoying questions which help me when I'm editing.

Lydia Kang said...

So true. A little wandering, when it comes to creating the storyline, can always be helpful...

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I think that's a great point - how the answers are most likely already there, buried in the parts we haven't yet explored. I found that with NaNo this year - I wrote short stories about some of the secondary characters in the novel and I discovered new plot angles to flesh out the main story.

Stephen Tremp said...

I have my CPs and my editor is one too. No way I could do this alone. Great post!

Neil Vogler said...

Very well put and insightful post, Mood. And I agree with you on all of this -- it's how I work. Often when we begin to work on a project that we're passionate about we have yet to grasp the full enormity and dimensions of the whole idea. But the pure spark is there. And in that spark are all the glimmerings of what the novel could and should be. Always worth revisiting those first sections. Often I find they're the key to finally being able to hold inside your head the entirety of your novel.

JKA said...

Yeah, I'm having to remind myself to turn off my internal editor and just write lately. Not always easy to do!

Emma Lauren said...

Great post! I have often found that it's easier for me to flush out a story when I have someone asking me specific questions about it, questions where "I don't know" just does not suffice.

LD Masterson said...

Coming up with the questions isn't usually my problem, finding the perfect place to work in the answer is the challenge.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Mood,

Another helpful post. I admire your consistency in your posts. Always succinct and interesting.

I will definitely twee this...

Laura Josephsen said...

Exactly this. My husband is my most dedicated "Why this? How come that?" person that I have; I've learned to think a lot more critically in my writing, rewriting, and editing thanks to him. Plus my awesome beta readers are great at catching things and getting me to think outside the box or seeing things I'm missing.

Julie Daines said...

Thanks again for another great post. I have to agree with the others, critique partners and writer's groups are the best.

Often I think what I've written is a good representation of what's in my head, when in actuality, readers can't read my mind and they need more on the page.

elenaaitken.com said...

Great post! I find my crit partners invaluable for asking those questions! Love my Wordbitches. :)

Sulthana said...

Great post. Although I'm forever being told by my family that I ask too many questions about everything already!
I like the idea of letting everything down in your first draft, holding nothing back and coming back to it later to find the gems.

mooderino said...

@Alex-asking the right questions is half the battle.

@Christine-yes, they're useful to have around.

@Sherri-it always amazes me the thing I thought were obvius, that aren't.

@Lydia-writing that's too pared down feels a bit soulless to me.

@Madeline-I think you can always find more if you do a bit of digging.

@Stephen-I think you can do it alone, but it takes a lot longer. A lot longer.

@Neil-I think those first few chapters are key even if you end up cutting a lot of it.

@JKA-I think that's important just to get the first draft completed.

mooderino said...

@Emma-thanks.

@LD-once you know the question at least you're that bit closer.

@Michael-cheers.

@Laura-good to keep the husband involved.

@julie-me too. In my head it all makes perfect sense.

@elena-cheers.

@Sulthana-keep asking questions!

Margo Berendsen said...

My gut tells me you are right; our first drafts, no matter how carefully plotted, often miss something... but that something is there, hinted at, but we need someone else's eyes to help us see it. Kind of like therapy (grin). Except its a little scary that our novels sort of take on a life of their own like that

Rena J. Traxel said...

I do have a friend that asks all the annoying questions! She is always a great help.

Michael Offutt, Visitor from the Future said...

With my book, I wrote one draft all the way through and thought I liked it. Then I gave it to a person I trust to read and they told me it was utter crap (for the most part). IT really opened my eyes on stuff I needed to change. IT took me two years to get something I was ready to query. Anyway, first drafts are a pain. There's a lot of truth in your post.

Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

Excellent advice! I need to find that someone who asks lots of questions when they read - I think that will help me get into more detail.

Monica T. Rodriguez said...

A reassuring post. My recent problem, though, has been when a reader has wanted to know more - in the first scene of the story. That's a scene for raising questions, not answering them, so I've struggled withr deciding when I'm truly holding back too much information and when the question asked is simply the exact reaction I'm looking for. Any suggestions? Thanks.

Christa said...

This is excellent advice. Also, I can't stress enough the importance of having critical beta readers. I am a harsh beta reader, but I want writers to win and succeed and I think having someone tell them the truth is a means to that end. I went through many people who said "this is really good" until I found someone who said "this doesn't work and here's why"---essential!

mooderino said...

@Margo-I think I would be suspicious of any story where the first draft didn't feel like something was missing. It would be like recording your fastest lap first time round a race circuit.

@Rena-she sounds like a keeper.

@Michael-I think once you know the first draft won't be a home run, you can take on board criticism without taking it personally.

@Jamie-I think it can only help.

@Christa-it's often easier to jsut be nice and not risk upsetting the writer, but not very useful.

mooderino said...

@Monica-that's difficuly to answer without knowing the specifics of your story. Generally though you should be able to tell the reader enough so they know exactly what someone's doing and why, and they should still want to know what happens next.

The temptation is to be as mysterious as possible, but that tends to be frustrating and not very enticing.

I know something really interesting
vs
I know something interesting about how your mother really died.

More info makes it more interesting. You don't need to reveal everything about the answer, but the question should be as clear as possible.

Lydia Kang said...

Your scratching analogy is so perfect. Let's hope I know where I'm scratching...

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