Dont Wander Around in a

"Wait a minute; I don't know what's going on here."

Did you ever read a short story or novel that gave you this feeling partway through? Worse, did you ever write a story where you suddenly started feeling that way?

It's a pretty bad feeling when it comes during a story you're reading. But it's far worse when it happens during your writing of a story. In that case, it probably signals potential disaster.

Of course all of us experience times during first draft when things do not seem to be going well-when all our careful planning seems to have failed us, and the plot no longer seems to work. Sometimes we can muddle through and fix things later. But even if we make a good fix and later sell the story or book, it's not fun to go through.

It just doesn't pay to wander around in a fog when you're supposed to be putting down a story that makes sense. At best it wastes time. At worst, it wrecks your project. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to minimize such times of confusion.

First, you should always begin with a brief statement, as precise as possible, about what your planned story is essentially about.

Second, you should remember always to follow the story, which is to say, the line of conflict growing out of the lead character's goal.

Third, you should beware of late-blooming ideas that seem to come from nowhere during your writing of the project.

Some writers would protest the first advice, saying they "write by inspiration", or "do the story to see how it's going to come out. " I hope you're not one of those. The more planning you do before starting to write, the better. Some writers do a detailed outline or proposal; others make elaborate notes on the characters; some make do with a scribbled page or two out of a legal tablet, sketching in a synopsis of the plot. Whatever the individual procedure may be, however, there is a central idea in such planning: Be sure you know what your story is about before you start.

This is easy to say and hard to do. One of the reasons it's hard is that all of us tend to imagine a lot more story than we can ever put down in the finished product, the limits of space and time being what they are. Another reason such summary is hard is that the creative imagination likes to freewheel, and detests being forced to boil its ideas down to the ultimate direct simplicity. "If I write down the idea as succinctly as possible", some will cry, "then I won't need to write the story!"

Pardon me while I disagree. As a teacher over the years I've seen far too many stories -shorts and novels alike - founder in midstream because the author simply lost her way-forgot what the original wonderful idea was, in its essence. Writing a novel, for example, is a long and arduous task, and during the composition no writer can keep all the project's aspects in mind all the time. We forget a subplot for a while, or we get overly fascinated with a minor character, or we simply get tired and lose creative focus.

In all such cases, the existence of a brief statement of the story, written when the original vision is clear, can be a lifesaver. I urge you to avoid the fog by producing a story statement.

How long should it be? Absolutely no more than 150 words, and preferably shorter. What should it have in it? The following:

1. The basic plot situation in which the story is to play.

2. The name and identity of the main viewpoint character.

3. This character's story goal.

4. The name of the primary opposition character.

5. What this "villain" wants, and how he opposes the main character. Dwight V. Swain, noted author and teacher of writing, has written that a sample story summary containing these elements would read something like my following example:

Hungry and needing money (situation), out-of-work Joe Smith (name and identity) must get a job at Acme Tool Co. (viewpoint character's main goal). But can he get the job when old enemy Sam Jones (primary opposition) tries to waylay him at the plant gate to prevent the job interview? (villain desire and plan).

In this example, of course, we have an idea for a short story of perhaps only one or two scenes. Writing the kernel of a complex novel is much harder. It can be done, however! And boiling off all the secondary aspects of a novel to reveal its skeleton may provide just the tiny reminder you'll need in the throes of a several-hundred-page project.

Before I wrote the first novel in my Brad Smith espionage series I summarized it like this:

Called back to duty by his former CIA masters, aging tennis star Brad Smith goes to Budapest to try to help a young woman tennis player escape that country. But can he get her out when the CIA plot is foiled, he is alone, and the UDBA is onto his mission?

Now, of course the plot of this 75, 000-word novel contained many more questions than this. But precisely because subplotting in this project was so complicated - and there were so many characters ultimately involved - having this "kernel statement" helped me remember what the central thrust of the novel was supposed to be.

Let me urge you to take this sort of step yourself, always.

Having done this, you will be more ready to take the second step that will keep you out of the fog, and that is of following the story.

It sounds absurd, doesn't it, to say a writer should follow the story? But stories are often screwed up because the writer forgot... or lost... this principle. The story is where the conflict is. The conflict grows out of the central viewpoint character's quest after a central goal. If you remember this, you won't get as confused about where your story should go next. You as the author will continually ask yourself: What is the goal? Where is the conflict? And write those segments.

Sometimes the temptation is to follow some minor character "because she's interesting. " Watch out for such feelings on your part; more often than not, they signal that you've lost the thread of conflict... allowed your primary character or characters to get passive. You fix this by giving the main character some new thrust-a plot stimulus -to rekindle the flame of conflict and plunge him into the struggle anew.

Examine your own thinking as you plot and write a story. Are you following the line of conflict? Keeping the main viewpoint character stimulated, involved, moving ahead in his quest? I hope so! If not, look back at your basic statement of what the story was to be about. It contains the basic goal, and the basic conflict, which together define the story question. Get your story moving again, and on the right track, by following that line of struggle.

At some point, of course, you will have done most of the above work as well as you could during one or two drafts. At that time, you will try to lean back from the project a bit and consider ways you might improve it.

This is a necessary and vital part of revising any story of any length. Sometimes flaws are seen and corrected. More often, new angles are detected and worked into the story with a resulting enrichment. For all of that, you should always remember to be a bit leery of any major, far-out plot or character "inspirations" that seem to come out of nowhere at this late stage of the creative process.

That's because your imagination tends to be a fairly short-term tool, and it gets bored easily. Also, it's a lazy facility, and would rather work on some new "game" rather than concentrate long hours or months on the same matter. So what often happens is, the imagination sends up for you some new grand idea that sounds like great fun because it's fresh, but really has nothing whatsoever to do with the present project.

So in thinking about revision of your story set in Chicago, you get this brilliant idea for an episode set in Afghanistan; or it suddenly occurs to you in the dead of night that, wouldn't it be neat if your twenty-six-year-old protagonist were changed into a seventy-seven-year-old crone?

Such blinding flashes of "inspiration" may sometimes work. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they represent a rebellion by a rambunctious imagination, a bad impulse to be avoided like the plague. If you have planned your story and written through it, following the conflict, major deviations from your plan at the late stage of revision will at best represent enormous and dangerous rewrite, and at worst another disaster. When in any doubt at all, stick to your game plan!

Along this same general line, perhaps one additional way of losing yourself in a fog should be mentioned. That is the problem beginning writers sometimes have when they speak of how "My characters just took over the story and went their own way. "

I hope you never heard yourself saying such a thing. Because did you ever stop to think how strange such a statement really is? How can your characters take over your story or anything else? They are not real. You made them up. They exist only in your head. And you are the author. You are the one in charge!

Part of your job as a creative writer is to control, discipline, and channel your imagination-not passively let it freewheel like a runaway truck. If it seems those characters in your head want to go a way other than the way you planned, either there's something wrong with your plot, and you're changing it in your subconscious, or...

If you get lost in the fog during the writing of a story, don't blame the characters! If you're lost, it's either because of a faulty concept at the start or loss of the conflict line. Characters can't do anything because they don't exist except as your imaginative constructs.

Characters taking over, new "inspirations" coming out of left field, and all the other good stuff amateurs imagine is a part of writing are all results of imperfect technique, laziness, poor planning, or lack of understanding of basic writing principles. They may look interesting in an old Rod Serling episode on late-night TV reruns, but they're just as nutty as everything else in "The Twilight Zone. "

You are in control. It's your story. When things seem to go wrong, or you feel lost, careful analysis of your planning and the copy you've written to date, along with review of basic techniques, will show you what really has gone wrong. Then you can fix the problem.

There's nothing mysterious in the process. Always remember that.

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