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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