Think of the story as a vague shape; a block of wood formed from your desires and experiences. Somewhere inside it is the story you want to tell. That is a different shape; it must be contained within the block, and suit the grain and density of the material, but doesn’t yet know its final shape.
And neither do you. But you have an idea of the order, kind and type of shape that you want to give it. You have an idea of how you want people to be affected when the see the final shape; you have an idea of what you feel, and what you want them to feel. An impression of the impression you want to leave.
Before you start carving the block, you need to get to know it well, to understand its potential. This is self knowledge – knowing your own experience and abilities, but also knowing what matters to you, both about the creative process and about what its outcome—the story—should achieve.
Before you start carving the block, you need to get to know well the idea that will guide and shape the process of carving it.
But who knows what surprises are hidden beneath its surface? What knots and twists in the grain, what interplay of the color of heartwood and sapwood, what new surfaces will you both reveal and create?
So, as you carve, you will incorporate these discoveries into your idea. Even as where you chuse to cut, chisel and scrape is guided by your story idea, so your story idea is formed and shaped as it adapts to the qualities and textures of the wood as you reveal it.
This is an idealized view of how the creative process of writing a story works. For many years I’ve been working towards a way to describe the process that takes account both of the infinite variety of methodologies that I discover in my writers, but also of their difficulties and frustrations. Probably the most divisive and dominant of all these frustrations is the conflict between planning and discovery.
The false dichotomy between what is unhelpfully called “plotter or pantser” has been obvious to me for a while. Doubly unhelpful because the terms themselves are misleading (which is a polite way of saying “wrong”).
“Plotting” (in storytelling, not moustache twirling) is primarily an activity for academics. Writers can usefully apply it for self-editing, using it to map out the events of their stories to help find flaws. Crime and thriller writers can also use it beforehand, as a means of understanding, revealing or making clear the events that cause the story. But not the story itself. There is a pervasive myth that somehow PLOT is the skeleton or substructure of STORY, so if you first create plot, story can be built on it, or fleshed out (shudder).
“Pantsing” is short for “writing by the seat of your pants”, which is taken to mean “writing without the security or safety of an outline”. But “by-the-seat-of-your-pants” was originally a term used by early aviators as a jokey way to explain to non aviators how they stayed in their aircraft, because for their own safety they wore no seatbelt or harness. This was for exactly the same reason that pilots have ejector seats today. You’re much more likely to survive a bad landing. Early aircraft were light and slow, so being literally thrown clear improved your chances. So flying by the seat of your pants was safer than being strapped in!
That is, of course, just a linguistic quibble, albeit a fascinating tangent.
I was talking about a false dichotomy, and it is this:
EITHER you invent the whole story and then write it,
OR you make it up as you go along.
Neither of these is true. All writers know, if varyingly, what story they want to write. If you really made it up as you went along, you wouln’t get beyond the first word, because you wouldn’t have a purpose for the first sentence. But equally, if you could really know every detail of the story before you wrote it, you would have to write motivated by self-discipline alone. It would be like doing homework for a subject that doesn’t interest you – sound familiar?
Actually, the pantsers have the easier side of the false divide, since they are following their creative instinct. They create difficulty for themselves through fear. They are afraid that if they work out too many of the details in advance, then the creative part of the process will have been done, and there will only be the tedious slog of writing it out. They fear the boredom, and they fear a loss of the creative spark.
They are right, of course, but for (partly) the wrong reasons. All communication is creative. Creative writing is better the more creativities are active as you write. That’s why poetry is such an essential learning tool: it seeks to engage every type of creativity at once, to exploit connexions and associations, by encouraging visual, verbal, imaginative, absurdity, nonsense, half-meanings, dissonance, harmony, and so on, all in search of communicative serendipity – the chance discovery of perfect arrangements of words that arises from a well prepared state of mind.
To be slightly Taoist again, the discipline of poetry is to cast off categories, to include everything, especially indiscipline.
The plotters are also right, insofar as they admit to themselves that you can’t write a story without first knowing what it will be. Where they go wrong is much the same as where people go wrong in all manner of human endeavor: believing themselves to be in a category, they try to conform to consensus about that category.
The most common example of this is when people conform to expectations of them that are based solely on their gender: they do so because they think it is right, and think there is something wrong with them when they feel ill-at-ease with it. In the UK, young men are expected to be fanatical about football (soccer) just because they are young men.
Plotters, having recognized that you need to know the story before you start writing, conform to all the planning, plotting and outlining advice they can find. They soon become unhappy with how constraining it is, but have been told that the only alternative is pantsing, which they won’t try because they believe what the pantsers believe: that it is done without any foreknowledge of the story; and they know this to be impossible.
I’m here to tell you (today) that everyone who writes a story has some foreknowledge of the story. How much foreknowledge should be what drives the rest of the creative process. If pressed to make a distinction, I’d say that some writers are much more conscious than others of what they want to write; they plan the story unconsciously, and don’t realize that they aren’t really making it up as they go along, but are actually working towards an unconscious goal.
Forget about left-brain/right-brain; not only is that distinction unhelpful, it also isn’t an accurate depiction of the way the brain works. Everyone is creative. But some people adapt better to having their creativity “channelled” (for which read “stifled”) than others.
An effective creative process arises from two things:
On a number of occasions I’ve applied Alfred Jarry’s invented science of Pataphysics to real-world problem solving. It is extraordinarily effective as it teaches people to shift paradigms at will – and paradigm shifting can only be done if you can encourage, develop and exploit the associative interconnectedness that is the real power of your creative brain. I really sound like I’m going to sell you some pseudoscience product now, don’t I? Any second now I’m going to use the word ‘quantum.’
Pataphysics is described as ‘the science of imaginary solutions.’ In Pataphysics, you present or describe a real-world problem, and encourage people to come up with solutions that can only work in their imagination.
This exercise encourages freedom of imagination, which is what post-industrial educational institutions beat out of you. It’s the imagination that you have to rediscover; non-instrumental imagination; imagination that does not, because it cannot, lead to concrete results.
If you are an experienced writer, you already have a process that works for you, and you aren’t reading this.
You aren’t reading it because you already know that it is impossible to write a story without knowing what it is going to be, but also impossible to write a story that can’t be adapted to what you discover while writing.
You’ve left the whole “plotting vs. pantsing” question far behind you, or given up writing for good, so you still aren’t reading this, unless indulging in the cup of regret.
So I’m addressing myself to those who are still on the steep part of the learning curve – the part where it looks like a sheer cliff-face.
Don’t try to be a plotter, don’t try to be a pantser. Try to discover the creative process that works for you.
Before You Start Writing
How much you do before you start will depend on what sort of story you want to write, so you should begin by understanding that. The key issues are going to be length and complexity.
Length can refer to word-count, but before you start writing, you should think about the density of events. If the story contains two or three major events and the rest is all about their consequences – emotional, psychological, economical, then even if it is 500k words, it has a low even density, so you won’t need to do much note-taking. If it is action packed, leaping from place to place, filled with significant encounters and twists-and-turns, then even if it is only 80k words, you may need to make some notes.
Complexity is revealed through looking at the interplay between story features (characters, locations, events, items, ideas) as well as how numerous they are. Broadly speaking, the more characters, the more complex the story, even if most of the characters are minor, if they appear more than once, they need to be tracked.
Forget anything you’ve learned or read about structure. If you define a structure and try to fit a story to it, then if you’re extremely talented, the story will be well-written but mediocre.
If it looks like it’s going to be long, complex or both, then you will make your life easier if you start thinking about a few objectives.
Finally, consider your availability. If you are already a full time writer, then you will be spending a considerable chunk of your time, daily, to your book. You aren’t likely to lose track of the bigger objectives, but probably need to make less notes. If you only write in your spare time, or at weekends, making notes and identifying objectives and writing them down becomes a necessity.
The Hierarchy of Objectives
Objectives are ordered from the vague and general at the top to the precise and local at the bottom. Think about all of them, but don’t write them down unless you think you are in danger of forgetting them, or getting distracted.
In my experience, the difference between a very good book and a great one is the existence of an outline; but an outline can cut both ways if you don’t know how to use it.
Think of your outline as the empty space between the beginning and the end of the story. What you put in between should be a balance of what you feel is necessary for you to be able to start writing, and any important ideas that you have that you might overlook if you don’t write them down.
Most important is that your outline is not fixed.
Even though you might sketch out in charcoal the shape you expect it to take on the outside of the block, once you start carving, you have to adapt.
The flexible outline has three qualities.
In short, the purpose of an outline is to let you get on with creation, but mitigate for your faults and failings. If I didn’t make notes of all the ideas I have while writing, I’d forget most of them. But I also note important fine details (recently, the colour of stockings that two characters were wearing) so I can refer back to them correctly (the right colours on the right legs, which I would certainly get wrong otherwise) AND expand them into the symbolic landscape (echoing the colours elsewhere).
Sparse Visual/Spatial Outline.
I like to use this one myself for editing, and especially when helping an author to develop a story idea. There is enough information here to start writing, provide you know what type of story you want to write.
How to do it:
At the top of the page, write a single line that describes the first event in the story – the event that starts everything happening.
At the bottom of the page, write a single line that describes the story’s ending. This is a lot more difficult; it can take several stories before you get proficient at summing up an expected ending, so don’t worry if it seems vague or unclear.
Draw a vertical line from the start to the end.
On the left-hand side of the line, write the major events that you expect to happen in the story, and mark with a short horizontal line approximately where you think that the event will occur.
On the righthand side, make a note of any other thoughts or ideas you’ve had, and if possible draw lines to the outline showing where they have influence. In the example I’ve just used characters, but other features – locations, idems, ideas – are all relevant.
The most important thing in this approach is that you DO NOT EVEN TRY to think of anything, let alone everything. Make a note ONLY of the ideas that have already come to you. If other ideas follow on from the process of making this outline, make a note of them only if you think you might forget them.
As you write, add events to the left, and other features to the right, as you write them. Evenually this outline will become quite cluttered, but keep it up to date and it will form a very accurate picture of your story by the time you reach the end. This is of very great value in self-editing.
Chapter by Chapter
Literally the opposite extreme, a chapter by chapter outline can be produced in a number of different ways, but my advice is to work by working your way down a hierarchy of objectives.
How to do it:
Using your favorite word processor or creative writing software, begin with some major objective signposts. Two of these are obvious:
There are a few others that are not too difficult to find:
If you already know what the key events of the story are going to be, give them simple names and put them in as objective signposts:
And so on. If you know that characters have to be in particular places or states of mind by any particular stage, use those, too.
Bear in mind that before you start outlining the actual chapter content, you may not have many clear objectives, but they will occur to you as you are developing the chapters. Write them down, in approximately the right place in the story, as they occur to you. Bear in mind also that as you progress through the chapter details, some major objectives may change or move. Do so as soon as it occurs, even if you haven’t finished writing a chapter summary.
Once you have your major objectives, begin working your way through each chapter in order. For each chapter, write a sentence or two describing the chapter objectives, and a few more describing how you think you will reach those objectives. I generally write the objectives first, and then build the story around them (see further below).
This is the outline for chapter 2 of a book I am writing:
We bring Chastity to Ake town. It is Saturday – the day after Chaper 1.
We get to see various features of Ake Town including Mill Scrap.
By the time Chastity and Warris sit down to dinner, an even worse storm is raging than the previous day.
Show that Chastity already knows Doad – inevitable really, considering how long she has been there.
End the chapter with more than a hint that Warris stays the night with Chastity.
As you work your way through the objectives for each chapter, you will probably find that details of later chapters start to suggest themselves to you. Make a note of these. Eventually you will start to see how the events of each chapter tie the major objectives of the story together.
The advantage of working ONLY with objectives is that it leaves completely open how you chuse to achieve them, and therefore enables you to create a clear definition of the story’s intention and it’s destination, without fixing the path that it follows.
Finding Your Own Balance
My technique is to begin with overall objectives but not to fill in any details until I am ready to write them. This is a process that builds up the story outline progressively as I write it.
Before I used Scrivener I used loose sheets of paper, because you need to be able to add new information between existing information.
With Scrivener, I have a folder for each chapter, and within it, a file for the chapter outline, a second file for the scene outlines, and then each of the scenes in a single file. But how you organize it matters less than the overall process:
How to do it:
Begin with a sparse outline, and then add in as many major objectives as possible. Write out a brief story summary. This is one paragraph for each of the major events, and lists the major revelations.
Then decide the objectives for the first chapter. Once you’re happy with them, add some details as to how the objectives will be achieved. This is the second chapter outline with those details filled in:
We bring Chastity to Ake town. It is Saturday – the day after Chaper 1.
She has been given various errands by other girls (and maybe by members of staff). She goes to town with Hope and one other girl. They have to leave her at the Star with the Inspector, who is expected to bring her back to the school.
Over the course of the afternoon, the weather worsens. The market closes up early.
We get to see various features of Ake Town including Mill Scrap.
By the time Chastity and Warris sit down to dinner, an even worse storm is raging than the previous day.
They convince each other that it would be best if Chastity stayed the night in town, in one of the Star’s comfortable rooms. The inspector uses the call box outside the Star to call Letter House.
This gives an opportunity to show that Chastity already knows Doad – inevitable really, considering how long she has been there.
Possibly drop a hint that Chastity has already slept with some local young man.
End the chapter with more than a hint that Warris stays the night with Chastity.
From here, you can identify individual scenes within the chapter, and outline them, immediately before writing them. Here’s scene 1:
Scene 1: the bus to town
Use the view from the bus to establish the broader landscape.
Also, use it to give the first glimpses of some important locations: Newly, the Old Mill, Mill Scrap.
Give some slim details of the town centre.
Develop the relationship between the three girls a little more.
Drop the mysterious parcel in there somewhere.
Get the girls to the tea rooms.
But, while writing, I continue to update the rough outline, and while writing a chapter, the chapter objectives and outline can also change, so I make sure to update it once I’ve finished each scene.
My main points in this article are these:
In short, writing, like any creative endeavor, is a mixture (rarely a balance) of expectation and discovery. Both are essential to creative excellence. If there is a balance to be found, it is between your anxiety, your needs, your desires, and the needs of the story you want to write. In other words, the right approach to writing an outline is going to vary with your personality and experience, and with the requirements and constraints of your chosen project.
What I hope you will do, therefore, is find a balance to suit you that is some sort of mixture of all three outlining techniques that I have described.
Your outline is there to help your story meet its objectives – to help it to become the story you want it to be. So your outline must not dictate the path that the story follows, just show it where it needs to get to.
Your outline should become more and more detailed as your story progresses. Your story shapes the outline.
The story you finish up with, is a combination of your intent, and the process of realizing your intent, and the tools and the medium you work with. As you carve the block, the wood pushes your chisel. You have to decide when to let the wood guide you, and when to force it. When to follow the grain and when to cut the grain. You have to learn to recognize the beauty that your process reveals, and balance actively searching with surprise revelation, balance force with discovery.
Art is meaningless without conflict. If it was a matter of every factor in the creative process working in perfect harmony, the results would not merely be uninteresting, but pointless.
No creative process can be uniform, nor uniformly easy. Some parts will be difficult. There will be times when you strike a knot, and have to completely rethink the shape of the final sculpture. And that is exactly how it should be.
Whatever process you follow to your current story, you should prepare yourself to begin the next one in the same way, with another uncarved block, and another journey, where you will again discover both the work of art, and the process of creating it, at the same time.Continue reading
Why are you looking for creative writing ideas?
Does that heading come across as a little aggressive? It will, if you feel guilty about looking for ideas. But why would you feel guilty about looking for ideas?
I suppose because:
We make these preconceptions for ourselves because our culture has us convinced that…
artists are special
… and once we start to see ourselves as artists, we start to see the value in being seen as special. And because we want to be what we seem, we try to be more special.
So surely if you have to go looking for ideas about stories to write, you aren’t very creative?
C’mon! I did an article about ghostwriting where I tried to show that you can have all sorts of creative ideas but no idea how to turn them into a novel.
So you can also have all the creative talent necessary to turn great ideas into great stories, but be short on the actual ideas. And you can, through the course of your artistic career wander all up and down those two continua.
I am going to tell you where to find the ideas that will make great stories. But I’m going to start with a few techniques for finding ideas, and here’s why.
You’re an artist, and you need to push and stretch your creative ability, to develop your range of expression and your reach.
You’re an artisan, you have a specific skillset related to writing, but you’re well aware that this is a skillset that takes a lifetime to master, that there is always new knowledge to add, new skills to incorporate.
This means that the core of your career as a creative writer is learning and development. With every new writing project you expect to learn something new; and I’m certain you do.
If you’re aware of this, then you’ll know that mastery comes from seeking mastery, and from practice. Lots and lots of practice.
Practice differs from free creation in one very critical way: it is artificial. The aim of practice is not to produce a work of art, but to hone your ability.
I’ve produced a whole range of exercises for exactly this. Some of which will be available for free on this very blog. Their purpose is to do more than just hone. My aim with those exercises is to challenge, to sensitize, to raise your awareness, to get you thinking about writing in new ways.
And that’s the other major component of practice: exploration.
If you’re lucky enough to already be a bestselling author, or you have at the very least a sure and steady income from it, you can probably do some of your exploration by getting a little experimental in your next published book. Try out new techniques, new ideas, new approaches.
But if you reckon you’re onto a winning formula, or you just want to build up a loyal fanbase by giving your readers what they love the best about you, then you might not want to get too experimental in a book you intend to sell.
And of course, if you haven’t hit on that winning formula, then clearly you need to keep experimenting.
And that’s where practice comes in.
Working for nothing
It’s hard to convince a writer to spend her precious writing time on work that will never see the light of day. Actually, I’d like to see writers who do my exercises post the results on their Facebook or their Website, to encourage the others – but mostly to show that most creative people create better within constraints. All the writers I’ve worked with write better to order than when writing what they want to write.
But time is the constraint. Most writers do not write full time – though since the e-book revolution, a lot more do than ever did before. This means your time is limited, so practice writing doesn’t seem like an efficient use of your time.
A truth, cautiously and mostly acknowledged
Most people seem to agree that the best way to sell more books, long term, is to write better books. So even if your priority is to get rich from writing, your primary long term goal must be to become a better writer.
This will never happen if you don’t try to become a better writer.
And a harsh truth, mostly ignored
You won’t become a better writer by reading books that claim to tell you how to become a successful writer. You certainly won’t become more creative, or become a better artist. And you need to become more creative, and become a better artist, to become a better writer.
Let me put it this way…
Which is easier for a salesperson:
Wouldn’t you rather try to make money selling great books than try to make money trying to sell mediocre ones?
You should look for creative writing ideas for practice.
Stories are everywhere
We make almost everything we do into a story of some sort. Stories are everywhere. In the simplest form, a story is
how we explain what we want and how we get it
Stories like this abound in everyday life, generally as answers to questions, but sometimes as the questions themselves, their explanations, their justifications.
Most people would answer that kind of question with a story. So all those questions are story prompts. Story ideas.
The more you go looking for them, the more you will find them. But if this still looks a little arcane or obscure, then start simpler.
Look for conflict
Conflict makes stories like nothing else.
A conflict is easy to express in a few words, and its resolution always brings a sense of release, and of completion.
Conflict can start very small.
An ant, trying to climb over a grain of sand.
Conflict can be real or imaginary.
Is your neighbor trying to steal your parking space or does he just not know whose it is?
Conflict can be internal.
Should I have another biscuit?
You ate all the pies!
… and make the practice effective
Narrow the scope
The more you restrict a story idea, the more you will learn from it. Artificial restrictions are exactly what you need when you practice. So give yourself limits in both the idea itself, and in the treatment:
Only the ant’s point of view
in 50 words
with only dialog
with no dialog
every verb has an adverb
all in the future tense
All of which means that practice shouldn’t take up too much of your time. If the restrictions are tight enough, it will force you to explore and discover and innovate and experiment. And this will have consequences when you go back to your book.
There are plenty of online resources that have lists of writing prompts. Use those, but stick to the most restrictive ideas, and the ones that you think will be difficult; the ones where you think you will have a hard time finding something to write.
The story is almost unimportant.
Even I’d admit that the very greatest writers chuse stories with great care. But they aren’t just plucking the stories out of the air. They certainly aren’t looking for conflict and drama, and turning that into a book.
They’re chusing their story to match, complement and enhance their central theme.
The theme is important.
Think of your book as a message, from you to the reader.
If you think you’re writing for yourself alone, then I can’t help you become a writer. Until you start writing for the reader, you won’t be a writer.
If your book is a message from you to the reader, what do you want that message to be? Here are some I’ve encountered recently, in every genre from pulp detective fiction through historical, SF, heroic fantasy, “chicklit”, contemporary fiction, urban fantasy and “literary fiction” (whatever that is). I guarantee you can’t guess which theme goes with which genre:
All these statements have one thing in common. They are opinions.
Strongly held, perhaps even beliefs, but opinions. And they are the opinion of the author. Sometimes the author is surprised when I point it out to them.
What you care about
How do you find your message?
It shouldbe fair to say that you write because you have something to say.
It may not be a darkly hidden fire or a bright flame in your eyes. It may just be an issue you care about or a current cause of anxiety or concern.
It may not be some trauma from your past – though it could be.
It may not be some dread for the future – though it often is.
It ought to nag at you.
Think about what makes you bridle. What gets you on the defensive, or the offensive.
What makes you angry?
The first time you identify your theme or message before you start writing will probably result from identifying what makes you angry.
Anger is born of frustration – at incapacity, injustice, incompetence – at any situation that could be remedied, but where the people who could remedy it take no steps to do so.
Anger may be personal, it may be social. It may be irrational. It may be idealistic.
But if you are angry, it will show in your writing.
And this is good.
Because if you can find and latch on to a strong emotion, it will provide you with a message.
The ideal message
Should take the form:
this is so, or seems to be so. people seem to accept it.
this should not be so. people should not accept it.
Doing it wrong
This is the wrong way to think about it. True, I said that great writers will select or build or design a story around their central theme, so that the theme is served, and never undermined, by the story.
But if you take your message and try to build a story around it, you will end up with a plodding, obvious fable that constantly repeats the message until the reader is sick of it and throws the book at the wall.
The secret of rhetoric
Rhetoric is the Classical art of public speaking. In it’s simplest form, it has three stages:
This applies just as much in a book. Want to get your message across, but the reader can’t, won’t, and shouldn’t accept just passively listening to your moralizing.
The reader wants and needs to be entertained, and if you can give the reader his dose of stimulation, escapism, excitement – whatever he is looking for, then you can also deliver your message, and this is the killer:
deliver your message with passion, and you will enhance the reader’s experience
but here’s the caveat…
let the reader become too conscious of the message, and it will destroy the reader’s experience
Striking a balance
Finding that balance between a satisfying reader experience and the requirement for a heartfelt message is what leads to the best reading experience. Getting there is all about your approach, and this is where I come back to the heresy:
The story is almost unimportant.
Choose a story that you think you will enjoy writing
Possibly the best way to do this is to write a story that you would like to read. Or imitate or emulate a story or writer that you love. There is a great tradition of writers wearing their inspiration like a badge of honor. Don’t be afraid to dedicate your book to the author you want to be like.
Give yourself clear boundaries
In exactly the same way that artificial restrictions force you to work harder and better at practice exercises, so clear boundaries will result in both clearer and more coherent work, and a better class of creativity.
Clear boundaries can be as simple as:
Be careful that your boundaries aren’t in direct conflict with your desires. It’s one thing to give yourself a challenge; if you are constantly fighting the structure you imposed on yourself, maybe you should ease off on the structure.
But be equally wary of giving yourself too much freedom. If anything goes, there’s no tension. If there’s no tension there’s no drama. If there’s no drama, there’s no reason for the reader to read.
DO NOT think about your message when you are writing
But think about it as much as you like between writing sessions, because it matters. Talk about your message. Develop your thinking around it, inform your understanding of the issue. Research it.
BUT DO NOT WRITE ABOUT IT
Your book must not contain the message. It must be the message. So you absolutely cannot, must not, make any explicit reference, exposition or explanation of your message of any kind in your book…
You won’t be surprised to learn that rule one of writing is that there is no rule one. Or something like that.
It’s more like:
the more you master your art, the more you learn that there are secret paths
These are not secrets in the sense of mysterious techniques that experienced writers are hiding from you. They are secrets in the sense that they can pass unseen and unnoticed.
When you use a metaphor, you are using figurative language as a means of giving a clearer, simpler, faster or more efficient sense of what you want to convey to the reader.
Figurative language is the tip of the ominous iceberg of symbolism.
Symbolism is the art of writing without writing. Of telling by showing. Of giving information with doubt. Of inviting interpretation then denying everything.
Symbolism is the language of signs. It is without doubt an advanced technique. To apply it effectively you need to know how to use poetry and you will need to learn all about symbolism.
By far the best way to give the impression that you are a skillful writer of learned articles is to make some contentious statement right at the start and then re-evaluate it at the end.
Telling you this is called “touching the mask” – an expression borrowed from the Commedia del’Arte which refers to breaking the illusion by drawing attention to the mechanisms behind the illusion.
I’m touching the mask here because I want to reveal to you that there is another way to think about writing stories.
I really think it is all about inspiration. But inspiration is not what you have been raised to think it is. You can’t get inspired passively. You need two things for inspiration:
Desire is what comes from within. It’s why you want to write in the first place. If you have that, then dammit, you are special. Just not all that rare. Most people want to communicate. Most people want to express themselves. You want to do it by telling stories. So you are special, and you’re going to be a creative artist.
Stimulus is what you need to trigger a story. And you have to go looking for it. You can find it anywhere you look, as long as you are looking. You can hear it anywhere you listen, as long as you are listening.
You find stimulus by engaging with the world around you. And stories are about people. So you find stories by engaging with people.
You will have noticed that I take exception to deconstruction – the practice of textual analysis to find out how a story works.
It’s fascinating but creatively empty. You can’t learn to tell stories from it, because it doesn’t reveal how the author tried to reach his objective.
Through the story creation process, the author worked towards an intended (in some cases, hoped-for) effect on the reader.
More and more, I think the author-story-reader communication is like PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption: you can’t discover the author’s writing process by analyzing the manuscript.
In this post, I look at the characters of four authors:
I want to examine why these characters were created, and their role in telling the story, because I think they all reveal the true relationship between character and storytelling.
Before I start talking about this book, I’m going to be mean: if you haven’t read both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, you ain’t never going to be an American author.
A lot of culture is like laying the table for a meal. There are all sorts of things you can put on the table that aren’t strictly necessary, but that almost everyone does. Like a plate. For most meals, you can serve the food eat it directly on the table.
Writing in English without having read Twain is pretty much like eating without a plate.
Sure, you can do it. You’ll still get the food in your mouth. You can imagine the rest.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (retitled “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because that’s what everyone calls it) was first published in 1884, and is, broadly speaking, the sequel to Twain’s 1876 bestseller, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It’s a sequel insofar as the action takes place a year or two after the story in Tom Sawyer.
The character of Huck Finn is (you might be forgiven for thinking) firmly established in the earlier book. The vagabond son of a vagabond, Huck is uneducated, idle and a bad influence on the other children. But there’s a profound difference between Huck in the first book and Huck in the second.
In the first book, he’s established through the eyes of the other characters. This is important, so take the time to think about it.
Why is Tom’s book called ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ and Huck’s book called ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?’
Did Sam dream up the characters and think, “Damn, those boys oughta have a book written about them.”?
I’m pretty sure he didn’t. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he invented both boys because he needed them. Neither book is about boy’s adventures, or about the likely friendship of the most popular kid and the vagabond kid. That’s just how the books look to folks who think they’re books for children, and that suited Twain just fine.
Because his purpose, as always, was to satirize both the society he grew up in, and the society that persisted into his adulthood.
Many critics have drawn attention to Twain’s obvious love for freedom and equality, his disdain for authority and oppression, and these themes pervade. But there are features of human behavior that he hates even more. The pettiness, the hypocrisy; false piety, snobbery, mob behavior. When I re-read Huck Finn in particular, I see a lot of anger.
What better way to show that, than to reveal a society through the eyes of smart, savvy children and show those children through the eyes of that society?
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain shows the world through Huck’s eyes, and by doing so, shows Huck. Huck is transformed from archetype to person.
This isn’t a story for, or about, a popular character from a popular book. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a diatribe about Twain’s American South, for which he needed the character of Huck Finn, and needed to pair him with Jim, and use them to reveal each other and the world around them.
This is the story serving the author, and the character serving the story. The author’s purpose is met through bringing together world, character, and events into a story that is formed by them as much as it forms around them.
First published (serialized) in 1881 and published as a book in 1883, RLS’ celebrated book was inspired mostly by the rather fanciful accounts of pirates’ lives in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates (usually known as ‘History of the Pyrates’) by Captain Johnson (almost certainly a pseudonym).
Treasure island is best known for two things: cementing the fantasy pirate and all its trappings in the popular imagination, and the character of Long John Silver.
So many films have been made of Treasure Island that it’s probably safe to say that far more people have heard of Long John Silver than have ever read the book.
There’s something very peculiar going on here, though. You could be forgiven for believing that Long John Silver is the book’s main character. But he isn’t.
The book is told in the first person, by Jim Hawkins, a young lad who is as modest to a fault as he is courageous to a fault. You might also be forgiven for thinking that perhaps everyone thinks that Silver is the main character because he has so often stolen the scene in the movies – filmmakers preferring to give screen time to this exaggerated character who brings out the best and worst in actors.
But look at another of RLS’ adventures, Kidnapped. The main character is another virtuous if somewhat naive young man; and the most memorable character is Alan Breck Stewart, a fictionalized version of Allan Breac Stewart, a stalward Jacobite and the prime suspect (and probable murderer) in a celebrated real life crime.
In Kidnapped, Alan Breck is portrayed as brave, honorable, competitive, a little too proud at times, cunning, loyal, a little nostalgic, and there’s a strong sense of ongoing internal conflict.
In many ways, Alan Breck is the flipside of Long John Silver.
There can be little doubt that RLS was inspired by real people and events when he wrote Kidnapped, but at the same time, he had an underlying theme, which was the disappearance of an older kind of Scotsman, the highlander – whose identity was wrapped up in his Clan and lands, in force of arms, in loyalty, in kinship; at its replacement by a new kind.
The lowlander, whose identity was defined by his sense of the politics of the wider world, by wealth and trade, by alignment, by religion, and by choice rather than duty.
As is typical for him, RLS makes no clear judgment about this. As always, he expects the reader to decide for herself (or indeed, as many assume, himself, but let it not be forgotten that at the time, when boys were encouraged to read tales of adventure, girls were not encouraged to read at all).
In both books, RLS employs exactly the same trick. He wants to write about adults, and about their behavior and attitudes. But he’s writing for children, so he selects bland, good-example, boyscout types as the main characters, as this will not offend parents and editors, and will also provide the reader with a familiar experience: that of observing adult behavior and finding it confusing, inconsistent, unpredictable, irrational.
The profound lesson in both books is that adults do not have it all worked out. That they still have their internal struggles, and that they do not always prevail in them.
Long John Silver serves this aim. He is a character of extremes, but shows that he can be affectionate, nostalgic, protective, but also less conventionally loyal and entirely unconventionally honest.
He never stops being terrifying even as he is sympathetic, just as he never lets Jim down too far even as he is thoroughly untrustworthy. Long John Silver is the most complete character in the book, and this is because he is never entirely what he seems, never fits completely in any category.
Coming back to this book has been a particular pleasure for me, for here you see a truly compelling tale that utterly demolishes the idea of protagonist and antagonist.
If anything, Long John Silver is both – he’s his own worst enemy as much when he is trying to do good as when he is trying to do ill. Jim certainly isn’t a protagonist; he’s swept along by events largely (if not altogether expertly) orchestrated by Silver.
Conan Doyle’s Holmes is seen through the eyes of Watson, his loyal friend. There can be little doubt that for the reader, the main compulsion was Holmes’ unusual character; not just his ‘unique brain’ but his behavior. In particular, the way that being super-intelligent (if you believed Conan Doyle’s mythmaking) set him apart as well as set him above those around him.
Conan Doyle was writing for a ravenous public who wanted more Holmes until the author himself was sick of it. And not for nothing; the cult of Holmes’ personality was detracting from the author’s capacity to tell his story.
I’d feel dishonest if I didn’t say that I feel Agatha Christie was a better writer. But also much more prolific, for much longer, and didn’t believe in fairies. All these contribute to her characters never getting bigger than her, even if she understood marketing well enough to let it seem that way.
The point of Agatha Christie’s country-house murder mysteries is that you think you’re being treated to the thrill of deduction, following trails of clues, the chase, the revelation – in short, a crime thriller.
But actually, the most important words in country-house murder mystery are country-house.
Agatha Christie’s success arose not from her brilliant plotting (it’s actually rather mechanical; the genius of Christie is her ability to disguise how she uses her genius), but from her depictions of the lives of the wealthy, aristocratic, famous, powerful, in short of celebrity, and her prurient depictions of their sordid and mediocre goings-on – in short, gossip.
Christie’s novels are celebrity gossip disguised as murder mysteries, and this is repeatedly lampshaded, in Poirot with reference to his reputation and in Marple with all her observations of how she is reminded by various suspects of people that she has gossiped about throughout her long life. Poirot is a celebrity sleuth. Marple is a gossip sleuth.
Both characters have been (ruthlessly) invented in order to serve Christie’s marketing strategy. Give the reader’s of pulp what they really want but are too snobbish to ask for.
Christie’s ruthlessness is amply displayed in the character of Ariadne Oliver. Mrs Oliver is a famous writer of detective fiction. She occasionally ends up involved in real murders, and doesn’t usually succeed in solving them. This is ruthless parody of the writer by the writer.
Arguably Christie’s worst book is so bad that I believe she deliberately wrote it to be as bad as possible. It’s called “The Big Four.” It reads as if her publisher told her she had to write a spy caper based on an international conspiracy of criminal master minds as that was all the rage at the time. Poirot features but is little more than guignol, in line with most of the other characters, all of whom come across as if they’ve been selected from a rack of standard caricatures.
I think it’s a mark of Christie’s strength of character and her confidence as a writer, that the characters are chosen to provide an opportunity for a story (of the kind that her public will love). She never gets over-fond of her characters.
It is impossible to imagine Christie ‘assembling a group of interesting characters and then observing them;’ on the other hand, carefully creating an ill-assorted crowd of misfits with guilty secrets and then killing them off one by one?
Nailed that one.
Everyone thinks they know James Bond. The books have gone in and out of fashion since they were first published, and the films have both helped and hindered Fleming’s reputation and popularity – in spite of the fact that none of the films has come close to showing what Fleming wanted to show.
In popular culture, Bond is trapped in an uncanny valley somewhere between the peaks of Bulldog Drummond and George Smiley – both of whom are better characters in better stories.
But Bond was never meant to be a good character, and in Casino Royale, Fleming wears his heart on his sleeve. Bond is supremely lonely. He is a character built from loneliness. He does a job that only a handful of people do; only handful of people know he does it and only a handful of people know who he is. He doesn’t like any of them. He’s emotionally immature. He has epicurean habits derived from genuinely refined tastes. But he’s a brute because that’s how you get the job done.
In 1995’s Goldeneye (Martin Campbell, he of the Casino Royale ‘reboot’), Judi Dench’s ‘M’ calls Bond a ‘misogynist dinosaur.’ But he isn’t a misogynist. He hates himself more than he hates anyone else. In fact he prefers women to men, which shows in the way that he always expects men to betray him, but occasionally he hopes that a woman won’t.
This persists into the later books, where we discover that Fleming himself is a bigger misogynist than Bond. Bond isn’t a dinosaur, either. He’s damaged goods, and that’s why the Service uses him. Fleming uses Bond as a whipping boy.
He suffers repeated humiliations, and in Casino Royale, it isn’t even Bond who overcomes the bad-guy. Bond gets out alive by good luck – he doesn’t happen to be on the SMERSH hit list at the time.
Fleming’s intent seems to be to write a series of books about loneliness, in particular, the loneliness of doing a job that no one understands, and that few appreciate. Fleming’s wartime experiences are almost certainly the origin of this sentiment.
In the books, even Bond’s philandering isn’t a compensation for his loneliness. If anything, the cliché of girls who sleep with him getting killed is more than a cliché; it’s the leitmotif. It is impossible for Bond to find even a quantum of solace. Because that’s the point. Fleming creates a character who doesn’t really deserve redemption.
On the surface, you might think that Daniel ‘Craggy’ Craig’s troubled, brooding Marlon Bondo is closer to the original. But far from it. The Craig Bond is a deliberate attempt to make him into Heathcliffe – he’s violent and nasty because he’s troubled and brooding. It’s just to appeal to the women that the studio hopes are there to look at Craig in the first place.
If anything, Moore’s Bond is closer to the truth, because the wisecracking, the casual violence, the casual sex, the aloofness, are all characteristics of a man struggling to deal with his own emotional emptiness. Remove the comic timing (such as it is) and you’re left with the terrible bleakness of Fleming’s lonely Bond.
It’s probably clear that these characters have something in common.
They have all been created with the purpose of telling a particular story.
The story has been created in order to achieve a specific effect on the reader, even if it is just to play on the reader’s aspirations, in order to get the reader to buy more books.
In fact, take any “classic” or “great work of literature” and you will find that the author has created the characters as part of the story. It’s curious how when you ask schoolchildren of almost any age, ‘what is this book about?’ the answer will begin with ‘it’s about a wo/man, boy, girl…’ because of course we relate to a story through its characters, what they experience, how we feel about them, and how we feel about what they experience.
In a way, that’s the reason it’s a story.
The author wants to communicate something to you about human experience:
It would be very easy for these educated and highly articulate writers to write a 500 word monograph on the topic they have chosen, and you would understand exactly what they were thinking. But would you feel it? I doubt it.
To convince you, they have to show you the truth. They do this by creating characters that seem realistic to you. When these characters take decisions and actions, you find them believable. If you believe that Bond would kill this mook but spare that one, then you would believe it of a real person.
As a result, the author can show you a complex network of human interactions all of which develop and demonstrate the human experience that the author wants you to understand.
It is a common experience of writers who are studying writing, to be asked to do character creation or character development exercises. You write ‘character sketches’ and congratulate each other on how much curiosity a character sketch inspires.
These are useful exercises, but should not be done in preparation for writing a book. They will teach you to recognize characters who will compel or inspire the reader. But they won’t lead you to the story you want to tell.
At worst – and it happens all the time – it will lead to stories that are an ego-trip for the character (not even the writer!).
You might think, especially since software for writers usually includes templates for “character sketches” or other “character management” tools, that coming up with a cast of characters beforehand, carefully fleshing out their backstories and describing their foibles, flaws and physical appearance is the proper – or at least usual – way to proceed.
I’m drafting this post on Scrivener. When I write stories in Scrivener I have a folder for characters. It contains a card for each major character.
Character Management is what to do.
You should have a list of characters. Under each character there should be an outline.
No character should have a card unless at least one scene they have appeared in has been written.
There shouldn’t be anything on the card other than information that is present in the scene that you have written.
Enough with the abjurations! Do this:
Character management is mostly about continuity. If you know you don’t need to write down any of the information in the previous section, then you don’t need to write down anything about your characters outside what is in the manuscript.
Because characters are part of the story. They aren’t something the story is built around, or even about. The reader learns everything he needs to know about the characters from the story.
But also, the reader learns everything you want to tell him from the story. So the characters have to be more than a good match for the story. They have to be integrated with it.
Jenga characters. Remove them and the story collapses.
Your purpose in telling a story, the reason why you write in the first place — whether it’s educational, high-minded and literary, or just sound marketing — is communicated to the reader through a story that creates its characters who create the story.
You can’t create the characters and then the story any more than you can create the story and then the characters. You can decide what general type of story you want to write and you can even select the genre.
To some extent, you can decide what the major incidents and events might be. But for the rest, you have to develop the story.
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Five men stood on the scaffold. One of them, you would assume without even needing to see under the hood that covered his whole head, certainly did not want to be there. One of them betrayed no signs of discomfort; once he had placed the noose, he leaned back against the frame with almost indecent nonchalance, and watched the other three men with what could have been mild amusement. Or derision.
The other three did not want to be there, and their heels scraped on the deck, coat-tails flapped, hands wrung or clasped. Execution, they told themselves, was sometimes necessary.
There are a number of clues in this short passage as to what is going on, where, and when. The reader will, unconsciously and consciously, as you just have, pick up on them and form an impression of time and place.
This is the ideal of world building. To suggest a world, while telling the story. In contrast, the nightmare of world building is to have to describe the whole world of the story before you can even begin to tell it.
I call it a nightmare because in reality, it should never happen. But that doesn’t stop a lot of writers from trying.
However, there’s a very specific lesson that I want to draw from the passage above, a lesson that reveals the best techniques for world building while also revealing one of the drawbacks.
When I described the scaffold, what did you think it was made of?
Wood. I’m thinking wood.
So what if I told you that this story is set 1,000 years in the future. The world is in the grip of an ice age. Full snowball Earth. People live in cities under the ice, or on the slopes of active volcanoes whose cones pierce the unending ice fields.
There are no trees.
The scaffold is made from a sort of concrete, produced under high temperature and pressure. It’s uniformly black, and has a surface like seaworn glass. It’s used for almost everything that wood is used for, except that it doesn’t have to be cut or worked, but can be made directly in its final form.
Remember, world building isn’t limited to SF or Fantasy. Laurens van der Post’s 1972 book A Story Like the Wind is set in the Kalahari region of South Africa in what can best be described as an uncertain period somewhere in the twentieth century.
NOTE: Story Like the Wind is one of over 100 titles that we’ve selected as Required Reading. They range from literary classics to contemporary bestsellers, and many are freely available. Get the entire list.
Few readers could possibly know the world of the Kalahari that van der Post builds, but it is essential not only to the nature of the story but to its action.
Similarly, the Barrytown of North Dublin that Roddy Doyle builds for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (which was on the short list for the 100 books, so you should probably read it too) is not a world known to many of the book’s readers, yet is real, vibrant and believable because of Roddy Doyle’s world building.
In all cases, the best world building is achieved the way that the passage at the start of this post works. If you’re American, you probably saw the kind of scaffold you see in Ted Post’s 1968 Eastward vehicle Hang Em High. If you’re European, you might be more likely to imagine a scaffold from an earlier period, like the ones in Jake Scott’s 1999 highwaymen romp Plunkett and Macleane. You might even have imagined the executioner’s hood, even though I only mentioned a hood on the head of the condemned man.
Between ourselves, public executions are an excellent way of setting location and period without even needing to get on with the story. The reader will stay with you, because a public execution has innate drama and spectacle, and there are so many possible consequences, both obvious and subtle, that can be worked into the story.
This technique works because it takes advantage of what the reader already knows. It appeals to the reader’s memory and associates strong visual images in order to provoke the reader into imagining the world that you are thinking of, so you don’t have to describe it. Not only does this get you off the hook, it means you won’t bore the reader with extensive infodumping.
Of course, you have to have your wits about you, even if it isn’t the treeless future I described. You have to know that most readers are going to imagine either the Old West of Hang Em High or the Swashbuckling Eighteenth Century London of Plunkett and Macleane (regardless of the fact that both are mythical – a topic for another time). Because you have to make sure that you do something to ensure that the reader knows which one it is. Hats are good. Hats are downright semiotic (eventually, you will have to read Mythologies by French writer and critic Roland Barthes, but probably not now).
Just use the word stetson and everyone will be in the Wild West (never mind that the bowler (derby) and the topper were much more commonly worn until Hollywood invented cowboys). Similarly, the tricorn is inextricably linked in Europe with highwaymen, but in the USA, it refers to the colonial period, so isn’t enough on its own. You could reinforce the sense of place by mentioning the reaction of the crowd, and through it, the fact that many people are watching from stone balconies – proof that we are in a well-established city. Mention that the sky is grey and the cobbles damp, and it starts to feel more and more European.
Mention that the in spite of the high, bright sun, people are wearing thick coats against a biting dry cold wind, and we’re back on the High Plains again, only this time directed by Eastward himself.
Stick with the details that are iconic of the setting. Mention a *cough* six-gun and it might be a little too obvious that this is the Wild West. However, mention a revolver and this could be an execution following a court martial almost anywhere in the world up to the mid twentieth century. Have some guards push back an excited crowd with their muskets or instead arm them with rifles or carbines.
Each type of firearm acts to place the scene slightly differently in time and place.
All this is how it ought to work.
What happens to this technique when you’re in a world that doesn’t correspond to the reader’s memory or cultural baggage. It might be something as simple as a realistic representation of the Old West – where, as I already implied, there was a lot more variation in hats, but also in clothing and firearms. No matter how much research you do into the authentic dress and décor of the time and place, as soon as you mention Tombstone or Dodge City, your readers are going to imagine cuban heels and poor horsemanship. Tom Mix has a lot to answer for!
In my future Ice Age world, any time I mention a table, a chair, a door swinging open, a chopping block, a knife handle – anything, in fact, that for centuries or much much longer has been made of wood, most of my readers are going to imagine wood, unless I go to the trouble of impressing on them very hard that there isn’t any wood. That it’s always something else. That the same material isn’t always substituted, too. Sometimes the best alternative may be metal, sometimes plastic, sometimes something else altogether.
It would drive me and my readers crazy if at every mention I had to remind them that it wasn’t wood. But if I don’t, how will I stop the reader from imagining wood? And later on, when the reader remembers that there isn’t any wood, breaking the immersion completely?
I’m not telling you all this because I think you’re going to encounter this problem often.
I’m telling you because I want you to see both descriptive writing and world building in a different way. I want you to see them as part of the process of storytelling, not something you do first, in order to be able to tell a story.
And, occasionally, there will be something like a woodless world, that you will have to work around. The best way is to avoid any mention of it at all. Remember, the people who live in this world will take for granted that the only things made of wood are rare, carefully preserved artifacts and treasured heirlooms – enriching world building stuff, in fact. So the people who live in this world aren’t going to be thinking very much about what chairs, tables, doors and whatnot are made of.
So you don’t really have to get hung up on making sure the reader knows.
Unless the purpose of this Ice Age world story was that the ice is melting, and that the people need to discover a new way to live in a thawing world. And maybe some intrepid explorer is going to discover a tropical zone where a combination of volcanic activity, latitude, and some microclimates, mean that trees and other vegetation have survived.
This will throw into relief any mention you have made earlier on of the rare and ancient wooden items that survive, as well as all the alternatives to wood that people have been using. The absence of wood becomes a motif which enhances the impact of the discovery of these surviving trees, and enables you to fold into the mix a sense of the precariousness of the world we live in today.
Which, after all, goes to the purpose of books in the first place. In SF we write about invented worlds to reflect our present world. In fantasy to exaggerate our present world; in historical fiction to contrast our present world, and so on.
In conclusion, then, description works with what you know, or expect, about the reader, so you can use a minimum of detail to stimulate the reader’s memory and imagination into doing as much as possible of the work for you.Continue reading