You may feel, This is OK. I like this. This is damn good. If that's your response, you're lucky. Often, you'll be feeling something like: This isn't moving. This is kind of dull. What's wrong with this? Still, that's pretty mild. The trouble comes with stronger reactions like: God, this is stupid. This is so awful. This is such boring, pretentious, shallow crap. What am I going to do now? Exactly! What are you going to do now?
First, you need to realize that your strong negative reaction is the most valuable thing you have. Also, what you do with it, how you use it, or how you let it use/abuse you are what will make you or break you. Too often, it goes like this: God, this is dull, boring, empty garbage. I wrote it. That means I'm dull, boring, and empty. I'm wasting my time writing. I might as well quit. And that's it for writing for a day, a week, a month, or more. Rarely will it be forever. The fact that you're this far into it means you probably have the disorder, the affliction, the desire, and the need to write. If you do, you're going to be writing for the rest of your life. But if you run away every time it's disturbing, you'll never get anywhere with it. If you're going to succeed, you must find a way of sticking to it when it's painful. This is one of many techniques you'll get in this course.
What do you do when you feel that your writing is dull, boring, and empty? First, every writer who ever was and ever will be has written dull, boring, empty garbage. And every writer has felt that he might as well give up. So, those reactions reflect nothing about your ability or what you're capable of. Remember that it's not whether you can do it, but whether you can stand to do it that makes the difference. Fine, but you're still sitting there feeling that your writing is lousy and so are you. As I said, it means nothing as far as your ability is concerned, but it does mean something—something important.
Fiction is a game of the heart, the emotions. Your writing isn't reaching your heart, or it's turning your heart away. You're sitting there with this negative reaction, feeling awful about yourself and your writing. That's the effect of your story. What can you do? Work on the effect? How would you do that? Sit there and try to convince yourself that what feels dull, boring, and empty is really fascinating? Will that work? Can you do it, and if you could, would it make your writing better? No.
Trying to brainwash yourself like this sounds ridiculous, but it's what we do, all of us, in one way or another. We sit there stewing over how bad our writing is, how bad it makes us feel, when what we need to do is to get on with it. But how do we do that? Get on with what exactly, and how? First, we need to stop lamenting the symptom (effect) and do something to treat the disease (cause). Your emotions are your best guide, but only if you handle them well, if you make them work for you rather than against you. You need to catch yourself before they attack you and you join forces and collude in the attack. The trick is to understand that your negative emotions are merely a signal that something on the page needs fixing and then to move on. Move on, OK, but move on to what?
You need to move on to what needs to be fixed. What needs to be fixed is something on the page—the cause of the problem. The cause can be fixed. And fixing the cause will change the effect. So, you must be aware of your reactions and then turn them into an issue of craft.
How does that work? How do you use the craft to fix the problem? Got any ideas? Think about it. How might you approach your writing in a focused, orderly way that will help you figure out what's needed? How about Michael Jordan and the plan? Jimmy Connors and keeping your eye on the ball? The one, two, three of dramatic movement? Enough hints. Maybe you don't need them, but often when you're feeling down about what you've written, you don't think to step back and get some perspective before you start changing things. You don't take the time to use your tools.
Another problem is that these tools are new. They take some getting used to. It takes time before they feel comfortable. But just because they're uncomfortable doesn't mean they won't work. Even if they feel clumsy or artificial, start using them anyway. The more you use them, the better they will work. It just takes practice.
Now I'm going to go over the story elements as I did earlier. And this isn't the last time I'm going to do it. You need to hear them many times. So, we'll go through them again. This is your practice, your training, your conditioning.
So, ask the first question, WANT: Who wants what? Now, the trick is not just to think about it, but to find it on the page. Where does the want first express itself and how? Locate it on the page and mark it. Could the want be stronger? Is the character absolutely determined: driven to satisfy his want or else? If the want could be stronger, make it as strong as it can be. Now, you may not have an answer right away. You may have to play around with it awhile. Plus, you'll have some ideas that aren't right or don't work. Just discard them and keep working and playing with it. For every idea we have that works, we have others that don't. Get what you can from yourself now. Don't strain. Then move on. Come back later.
The second question is OBSTACLE: What's the obstacle? Find where it first expresses itself on the page. Is the obstacle equally as determined and driven to prevent the character from satisfying his want? Is it as strong and as threatening as it could be? If it could be stronger, make it so. Can the character ignore the obstacle (not act) and suffer no injury? If so, you do not have a dramatic obstacle or a dramatic conflict. (Remember, the obstacle can appear before the want. Either way, these questions are the same. You just consider the obstacle first, then the want.) Again: relax, be loose, play around, explore your writing, and don't worry about it being good.
The next question is ACTION: What's the character doing to overcome the obstacle? Where does the act first appear on the page? Is the character taking direct action to change things, to make something happen, to prevail and get what he wants? Is he using himself to the limit? What else could he do? Consider everything. Is the obstacle counterattacking with equal or more force to thwart the character? If you go too far, that's fine. Just cut back.
Now, I have never seen a case where these three elements were working well on the page and the story or scene was not dramatic and compelling. Rarely will you have to go beyond these three. But let's complete the job.
What's next? We have conflict (want + obstacle) and action. The third element is
Resolution: Is it victory or defeat? The outcome of the struggle. Who wins? Who loses? Is it a compromise? How is the problem settled for now if not for all time?
That's our story form. We have two other issues, emotion and showing. It's early to get into them deeply, but in case you're that far into it, we will.
Emotion: What's the character feeling? We need to know at all times. Check your writing line by line and ask what the character's worries, fears, and hopes are, and how and where they are being expressed through the character. (We're going into this in detail in the next chapter.)
Showing: Are the characters acting and talking as much as possible? Are you creating a moment-by-moment, word-for-word experience that's happening right before our eyes with no general statements or summaries? Showing means we always have something we can picture in our mind. It's visual and almost always scene with dialogue. (We're doing more with this in chapter 7.)
The critical issue here is to use yourself, don't abuse yourself. When you become discouraged because you feel your writing is weak, let that be only a message to you that you need to shift gears and get into your craft and start working the story elements to make it work. When your writing feels boring, stupid, shallow, it's not the end of the world. It just means that not enough is happening dramatically. You need to get busy and fix what's wrong, practice your craft, use your tools, keep your eye on the ball.
This course is set up to allow you to do it yourself without having to run to others for answers every time you write a draft. The whole issue of using others—whom to use, how, and when—is tricky. There's plenty of misleading or bad advice around even among professionals—teachers, editors, agents. When you use a friend or family member, it's even trickier, because not only are they not trained, but each brings in his or her own taste, philosophy, personal bias, agenda, or even vendetta. Always, you want to get the most out of yourself before you go to someone else. This chapter is about self-editing, which you need to develop as your number-one skill. You need to do all the self-editing laid out in this chapter and in chapter 8 (rewriting) before you consider getting "help" from anyone else. The best lessons are those you teach yourself.
So, it's time to write again. As always, if you have your own project or want to continue what you started earlier, write on that for a half hour.
Here are scene exercises:
• Going to confession. This can be any religious ritual about which the character has strong negative feelings about (fear, anxiety, guilt).
• This is called the "everyone hates Jim" scene. Use that line/idea, and write a scene based on it.
• A character being tempted to commit a crime and not doing it. The line between moral and immoral.
Here are some three-word sets to choose from:
Settings and characters are next. You can go back to the ones in the other chapters if you want. Here's a new set to choose from.
• Parking lot, Disney World, hotel lobby, bathroom, rooftop, sewer, mountain, classroom, restaurant, health food store, balcony.
• Banker, skinhead, stockbroker, doorman, TV star, musician, mugger, hit man, gypsy, boxer, paranoid, televangelist.
Next is the complete story exercise:
FULL STORY, PART TWO:
Infidelity story. You had part one in the last chapter and part two if you got rolling. If you have not done part two yet, do that. Part two is the aftermath of the discovery. In it, the character is wrestling with the questions: Is it true? Why? How could he or she do this? What to do next? etc. The next part involves the character planning an initial act to find out what's going on, without tipping his or her hand. Again, if you get going and want to go forward, do part three.
Part three can be the actual confrontation of the injured lover and the cheating lover. Or it can be the character preparing for confrontation by spying to get more proof or even to catch the cheater in the act. If it's the direct confrontation scene, the injured lover wants an explanation, revenge, love, consoling. The cheating lover is to resist giving it, perhaps deny the whole thing (obstacle). At the end of the scene, the situation needs to be worse, first, because what's revealed is more troubling, and second, because the injured character is more upset. The scene ends in the mind of the injured party. If the character is snooping for evidence, he or she wants to catch the cheater without getting caught spying (obstacle). This character can also seek help from others-friends, detective, family. Things must be worse at the end of each scene, and the scene needs to end in the mind of the character, with him or her in a state of heightened worry and fear.
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