Books about writing come in all shapes and sizes, and I try to read a new one every few months to shed light on the writing process. A few that I’ve read from major authors like Stephen King and Isaac Asimov really shook me up. When I read that these guys didn’t like to outline their novels and preferred to “wing it”, three things struck me: 1) these guys seem to have perfect confidence in their talent for writing; 2) these guys obviously have a huge natural talent for writing; 3) no wonder the end of The Stand was a let down.
It’s a little scary to think that I’m five books into A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and there’s no guarantee that he won’t lose his way and start a storyline about Mord the Gaoler’s secret teeth. But the reason these successful authors get paid the big bucks is that they’re consistent and they’ve proven they can deliver. Track record means a lot in the publishing industry. Every novel that Stephen King writes is an immediate best-seller, so that says something.
For anything longer than a few chapters, I outline the whole story before writing any prose. It’s important that the whole of the story is reflected in its parts. If a scene doesn’t bolster the spine of the story, it doesn’t belong. I can really get a kick out of digressive or tangential passages, but they must have a point. Having a fully realized idea about the structure of an entire work allows a writer to create only scenes that fit, scenes that meaningfully turn the story on it’s course through the climax. It all has to be meaningful.
George R. R. Martin has said he likes to give his characters freedom as he writes a scene, and to see what the characters want to do. But for anyone like myself trying to catch the attention of editors and publishers, there is no room for undirected action in a book, script, short story, whatever. Every sentence must show the reader something about the characters or move the story forward (which are really the same thing). If a sentence is pretty but doesn’t reveal anything essential to the story, it must go. Recycle it into poetry, which is more forgiving of stagnant, disconnected thoughts.
Unseasoned writers want to impress people with a unique voice, and so they allow themselves flourishes of “style”. But writing that draws attention from the momentum of the story comes off as self-indulgent to any editor who reads hundreds of stories a month. These authors are missing something crucial: If two authors are told to write the same story as plainly as possible, their stories will still be totally different. Their unconscious writing tendencies make up that difference.
People who try hard to be unique miss the fact that social conditioning, genetics, inner experience, and everything else shape the way they view the world. All of this conditioning effects what people notice in the world around them, what they think about when they hear certain sounds, and how they relate external facts to internal experience. And this fundamental uniqueness is something we can’t get rid of, we can only try to hide it with a facade. As the man says, “This race and this country and this life produced me…I shall express myself as I am.” (James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)
I used to think I had a way with words until I started noticing embarrassing turns of phrase in my older writing. These were naive attempts to show my unique style instead of being confident in my own uniqueness and striving for clear language. Now I try to shape my thoughts into clear, distinct little packages. For the most part authors do well when they abolish any conscious attempt at style and tell the most honest version of their story. (My favorite champion of clear language is The Underground Grammarian. It’s dry, but hilarious.)
With this in mind, I lay out the biggest beats of my story first so I know they are solid. I might have scenes in mind already, but I put them aside and figure out the major turning points first. Or, if I’m lucky, the scenes I’ve already come up with are the major turning points of the story. When the structure best represents the story I want to tell, I figure out all the other scenes I need to get from point A to point Z, and rough them out. This saves me way more time than it takes to do. More than half of my writing time is devoted to figuring out the structure and what scenes will fulfill that structure.
Once I have my scenes figured out, there are a handful of questions I ask myself to make sure the scenes have essential dramatic elements.
1) Whose scene is it? Stories are told through character, and the plot develops through action. Knowing the central character for each scene keeps the writer and the story on track.
2) What do the characters in the scene want? Characters should want something, as Kurt Vonnegut said, even if it’s just a glass of water. A character who wants nothing isn’t motivated to take action, and whether we’re reading a book or watching a movie, things need to happen in order to move the story along. Otherwise you might as well be looking at a painting.
3) What is the conflict? Story is told through conflict. Don’t try to outfox me and say, “Not necessarily Eric…” because it just is. The conflict can come in any form, but there must be one. Nobody goes to see a movie about people just sitting around having a good time.
4) What is the turning point of this scene? If a character wants something and there’s a conflict, what happens? Well something has to happen, that’s for sure. My character wants a beer (he’s based on me). If he goes to a bar and buys one and drinks it, that’s not interesting writing even if the beer is really good. If he goes to a bar but the lineup is huge, that’s conflict. Maybe he’s motivated to try something new or clever to get what he wants. So he cuts in line. But he pisses of an MMA fighter. It’s a turning point. Now he’s forced to make a decision based on his wants. Does he apologize and go across the street to that sketchy biker bar? Does he pretend he to be deaf? Does he decide to order him and the fighter a whiskey? Only to find there’s no single malt!
While my conscious mind is working on all these points to make sure I’m telling a coherent story, my unconscious mind is automatically going to fill in the details I haven’t thought of. In this way the conscious and subconscious mind work together like light and shadow to illuminate the story. There is an adage that authors usually write more than they intend to write. Looking at my older writings I definitely see instances where symbolism has crept in unconsciously. I’m usually impressed at the interesting ways these elements add to the whole. If these elements can work their way into a nice, tight story structure, then we’re off to the races.
For anyone who isn’t widely published and completely confident in their writing, I recommend a thorough outlining process and asking these tough questions about each scene. Honest, economical writing is always in fashion.