Hello writers! The time since my last post has been long, and the days grow short. The sun is low in the sky–Why am I talking like Tonto?
Anyway, I try not to post unless I have something to say. That being said, I have something to say.
As writers, we constantly strive to understand the mechanics of storytelling. Each writer finds their own way in doing so, finds their own process and techniques for conveying the story they have to tell. Some writers like to outline every detail of their story, characters, and settings, down the the number of hairs on each character’s head. Some prefer to take up the pen or keyboard, armed only with an idea, concept, character, or image, and begin, taking the journey right alongside their characters. And, most people fall somewhere in between.
Which one is right? That’s not what we’re discussing today. But, it factors into the discussion. I’m going to use Stephen King, as I often do, as an illustrative example to aid our discussion. If you have never read Mr. King’s work, that is fine. Just know that King is of the variety of writers that prefer not to outline. Instead, he prefers a very organic style that allows him to discover the story as he goes.
The result of this is two-fold. One, King’s stories have a very natural feeling to them. What I mean is they feel very much like real life, in that they don’t follow a traditional narrative structure per-se. Like life, they take unexpected turns. Accidents happen, and sometimes coincidences, which I actually detest in fiction. Two, his endings are sometimes atrocious (i.e., “Under the Dome.”) But, when they do work, man oh man.
As I was reading one of his Dark Tower books, this got me thinking about the nature of storytelling. Anyone who has read the DT books will know what I’m referring to. The first book was really hard for me to get through. For one, it was a huge departure from his other work. Granted, that first book was from a very young King. But, there’s more to be said than he was inexperienced. It was so organic. Not only do you get to see the writer evolve, but you get to see the story evolve. Some will claim this is faulty writing. And, I agree to a point.
But, here’s the crux. Why does that make us uncomfortable? The DT books are a great story. And, side note, many of King’s short stories, novels, and other works have ties to the DT series. For instance, did you know that Randall Flagg from “The Stand” is a prominent character in the DT series? In fact, I’ll be writing another post about the genius of connected worlds after this one.
Back to the point. I have always been a fan of fiction that is finely crafted, honed, and polished to the point that when you are finished reading it you marvel at the interconnected parts, the hidden symbols, the underlying meanings, and the closure you get from the story. That last one is important. Closure.
In life, we rarely get closure. We strive for it, but it is never fully attained. We only resign ourselves to the fact that we have come as close as we can get to it, then move on with our lives. When we lose a loved one, we can’t confirm they are at peace, unless you know something I don’t. We can only assume or hope.
In fiction, however, we have that opportunity, both as writers, and as readers. Fiction is safer than real life, especially fiction that follows, whether intentionally or not, a traditional story structure. How many times have to watched a movie or show, and could tell instantly which characters would die, or how the movie would end. Is that because you have a secret insight into the art of storytelling? Maybe, but more likely it is because you inherently know the structure by heart.
By following that structure, the story can become predictable. It becomes stale in many ways. Ironically, we prefer it that way. It gives fiction a sense of being archetypal. Many experienced writers will tell you not to have any accidents or coincidences happen in your stories. Beginning writers will argue, “but that is how it happens in real life!” The teachers will say, “but this isn’t real life. It is fiction.” In fiction, it is our job as writers to take real life and transform it into something that is capable of providing closure, even if there is ambiguity in the story, because the author will have worked all of that in ahead of time.
Broken down, fiction can become very mathematical. It is in the telling that the story comes alive.
This then, is why Mr. King stands apart from his peers. Not only does he write mainstream horror, but he does it in a way different from a typical writer. Again, I’m not saying he is more talented than others in his field, only that he has succeeded using an approach that would sink other writers. And, I suspect that is why many critics do not care for his work. It is messy, unpredictable, and often clumsy.
But, where he falls short in the construction of the story, he excels in the telling. You connect with his characters because they aren’t planned out in advance. I’m sure he has a concept of the story and characters in his mind, and has let them form there. But, you won’t find a “character sheet” or “plot map” anywhere on his desk on in his computer. Sure, this means a lot has to be fixed in the editing stage. In fact, he did a rewrite of the first DT book because he had written himself into a corner, and had to fix it in order to complete the series.
Nevertheless, we can learn something valuable from King. Don’t over-plan your stories. Leave a little of it up to chance. There has to be some volatility in the creation portion of writing for it to be alive. If you’re a screenwriter, then you have to follow the structure due to time constraints. But, as a writer, you are in control of the story and structure.
Be warned, if you are an organic writer, you will deal with two things. One, you will have to do much more editing than your planning peers. Two, you will struggle to find readers that are as pleased with your work as they are with the planners. Why? Because, as readers we unconsciously look for that structure because it gives us a sense of closure,of meaning.
In movies, this is what typically separates “Indie” movies from the Hollywood blockbusters. Not only do they tend to have small budgets, but they tend to steer away from the standard formula, which is why they have to go with a smaller studio, because the larger ones know the market shrinks considerably when there is deviation from the formula.
Again, that doesn’t make one better than the other. It just makes one more easily digested by the public than the other. When we talk about what is “good” or “bad,” those things have nothing to do with whether something is popular, and conversely, what is popular is not automatically good or bad either. It is typically a Bell Curve, and the stories that fit that archetype will typically be in the center of the curve.
But, the quality of the writing can make a book stand out regardless of the structure.
The lesson here? Don’t worry as much about scripting every detail of your work. But, definitely understand why certain structures work better than others, and the psychology of the reader when they choose certain books and authors. Understanding story structure, plotting, and character development are only tools in your toolbox. They are a means to an end. They help you construct the story. But, only you can put the art into the story. So, work on the artistry of it, and develop your own style while understanding the mechanics that go behind it.
Until next time, write on.