It’s not about you.

One of the assumptions fostered by many generations of how-to books and writing classes, is that a piece of fiction is the product of extended and complex conscious deliberation: the application of various formulae and rules. If you look through these books, the list of rules is often quite intimidating. It’s a lot like what would happen if driver’s education began with presenting each student with an enormous pile of all the 10,000-odd individual components of a disassembled automobile. “First, assemble the engine…” Does it have to be that way?

I worked for a long time as a development executive, where a big part of my job was to concoct concepts for stories and then build the skeleton of a plot to be executed by others. This was often just as painstakingly deliberate and time-consuming an exercise as the writing courses would make it sound, with a lot of teeth-gnashing in trying to maneuver characters and situations from point A to point B.

Although that process is typical of Hollywood feature film storytelling, it’s not the way that I approach fiction. This type of plotting is fundamentally concept driven: you build a plot around an idea, and, often as not, try to fit the characterization in around it.

By contrast, every piece of fiction I’ve written at my own behest has been driven by the characters, with — and this is the critical piece — the distinct, sometimes unsettling feeling that the characters contained their stories, before I had written a word or even given it a lot of thought. Surprisingly little of their plots was dictated by me.

(My first novel, Double Yellow Line, was a mixed bag in this regard, with about an equal mixture of my ideas and the characters’, which I consider to be its primary flaw. You can see the author deliberating and struggling rather than listening to the characters, which gives it a decidedly amateurish quality in present form. I’m obviously not satisfied with it, which is why a page-one rewrite is high on my list of things to do.)

At some point in the process — for me, often before the story begins — the characters take on an independent life and they dictate their own actions and their own choices. This is extremely frustrating if you have a strong preconceived agenda regarding plot and themes because you often find that they don’t always cooperate with your plans. Conversely, you may find the characters doing things that you don’t readily understand.

At this point, plotting and writing the story is less about invention and deliberation and more about discovery and negotiation. It’s still a lot of work, but it’s a very different kind of work than laborious mechanical plotting. It’s more akin to directing a play, full of colorful, mercurial, and sometimes very evasive performers who insist on ad-libbing their lines and doing things their own way.

Above all, managing that process demands that you be willing to alter or sacrifice your own plans and ideas for the sake of the characters. This isn’t the same as indulging them, or reducing the story to wish fulfillment — it’s simply accepting that characters, like children, may not be interested in or willing to live up to your expectations for them. Ultimately, you can’t force it, at least not without resorting to contrivance or simply making the characters act in illogical ways.

I don’t mean to belittle the importance of technique and structure. Writing, whether prose, poetry, screenplays, stage drama, or comics, is formalistic: there are certain techniques and structures with which you essentially have to be familiar. You can’t really write good poetry if you have no grasp of meter, for example, and you can’t write a salable screenplay if you don’t understand three-act structure. I think it’s helpful to study such things and learn to recognize how they function in other works so that you can begin to internalize them.

However, storytelling is not simply an exercise in technique, and if you are preoccupied wrestling with the mechanics, you’re doing it wrong. If it feels laborious, the finished product will feel labored.

Among my occasional responsibilities when I worked in comics was reviewing the portfolios of artists. Most aspiring comics artists will, as they should, fill their portfolios with only what they consider to be their best work. Unfortunately, that often means pieces on which they’ve labored long and hard, striving for intricate detail and perfect rendering, to the point where the work is stiff and lifeless. I’ve seen many artists whose actual best work is in their sketchbooks. The loose doodles and candid sketches are where you can see the emergence of their true style — the way they interpret the world through their art — unencumbered by their conscious efforts to conform to someone else’s ideas of Good Art. There are rules they need to understand, of course ( if not necessarily follow), such as perspective and human anatomy, but what will ultimately make the work worthwhile is possessing a life of its own.

Much the same applies to prose, to film scripts, and to any other form of narrative art. It’s easy to lose sight of that, since both instructors and the entertainment/publishing businesses really like formulas and rules, but it’s one of the things that separates the wheat from the chaff.

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2 thoughts on “It’s not about you.”

  1. I really like what you’re saying here–escpecially the part about how if it feels laborious you’re doing it wrong–but it brings up another question for me:

    How closely are the actual act of writing and the creation of the story linked, for you? Does the story grow in your head at its own pace, or does it only progress when you sit down to write?

    What you said about structure not being a primary concern and the characters basically having the last say on what’s going to happen struck a chord for me, but my issue–and perhaps this is primarily laziness–is that the story happens too fast in my head for me to get it all down on paper. There are a number of stories I’ve worked on that exist in their entirety in my head, and that I’ve written down chunks of, but I never want to go back and fill in the missing pieces because I already know what happens.

  2. <blockquote>How closely are the actual act of writing and the creation of the story linked, for you? </blockquote>

    An interesting question. With <strong>Dharma Bum and the Shield of Athena</strong>, in particular, I am convinced that 85-90% of the story existed before I started writing it. (I had a similar sense with <strong>Deidre Tanaka Does Not Speak Japanese</strong>, but it wasn't as acute.) In the former, I "created" very little in any conscious or deliberate sense. It always seemed to be going somewhere, although until quite close to the end, I wasn't sure where. (I had a number of ideas at different points, most of which proved to be wrong.) There were things that felt important, although I frequently didn't understand why until much later.

    The best analogy I can make is that each scene of <strong>Dharma Bum</strong> was like watching pieces of a movie through an open door that you can't enter, and then trying to transcribe it as best you can. It came in fits and starts, and it was only when it was done that I had enough information to perceive it as a whole. I would like to say I created all of that, but I feel I would be lying…

    <blockquote>What you said about structure not being a primary concern and the characters basically having the last say on</blockquote>

    I think it's important to note that the stories do have structure. <strong>Deidre Tanaka</strong> has a pretty straightforward three-act structure, <strong>Dharma Bum</strong> is four. (I thought the latter was going to be three, which tells you about how much conscious control I have over the structure…) I didn't design them that way, but I have a passable understanding of how story structure works, so the portion of my unconscious that composes these things has apparently internalized that. On the other hand, I am resigning myself to the fact that whatever ideas I may have about where the story is going to go or how it's going to be structured are likely to be wrong.

    <blockquote>but I never want to go back and fill in the missing pieces because I already know what happens.</blockquote>

    I do wonder sometimes if the fact that I don't consciously know where the story is going a lot of the time is a psychological strategy to make sure I keep working on it — I may be frustrated, but I want to know how the story ends! To some extent, it comes down to what your motivations are for creating the story. If you're not interested in having it read by anyone else (and there's nothing wrong with not wanting to), then finding out the ending may be the <em>only</em> motivation to create the story in the first place.

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