New Years resolutions for writers

Happy New YEARChristmas has come and gone and soon it will be New year. It’s a time to reflect on what we have achieved over the last year and make plans for the new year.

In 2018, I published my third novel, AndroDigm Park 2067. It’s a darker story than my previous sci-fi novels and in a slightly different crime sub-genre.  It’s set in a corrupt future world struggling to deal with new android technology. If you’ve read it, I hope you enjoyed it. If not take a look on amazon. It might just interest you.

I also started work on the story for my fourth novel. To date there has been a lot of thinking and planning about the storyline, but not a great deal of typing. Should I be worried? No. It’s how I work.

Let me explain. All writers are different. At one extreme are the plotters who develop detailed plans of their story before writing it. While at the other extreme are the ‘pantsers’ who simply get under the skin of a character and simply follow him/her wherever they go. In practice, many writers fall somewhere between these extremes with some element of story planning taking place before writing. But that might be a notebook with notes, character sketches, and a bullet point lists of  plot points, or it could be a twenty-five page outline and detailed scene list. Planning comes in all shapes and sizes.

Pantsers emphasise the need for writers to write. Here is some advice of some great writers:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
― Ernest Hemingway.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
― Stephen King

“Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.”
― E.L. Doctorow

Clearly, if you are writer you have to write. If you’re going to write a novel, you need to start it and then follow though until it is finished. Unfortunately many potential writers never get beyond ‘start’. But how much of the story do you need to know before you start? E.L Doctorow’s view is that you only have to plan a short distance ahead:

“[Writing is] like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
― E.L. Doctorow

However, Doctorow’s analogy is not complete. If you’re driving a car at night you normally have a good idea of the your final destination and the route you’ll need to take to get there. In this case, the route is analogous to the main plot points or storyline of a novel. But the point that detailed planning only has to take into account a short distance ahead is not a bad one, provided you know the direction in which the story is going.

So how much of the storyline do you need to know before writing? John Irving offers an answer.

“Know your story before you fall in love with your first sentence. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of story-teller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind — making it up as you go along, like a common liar?”
— John Irving

I couldn’t agree more with Irving. You might not know every detail of your story but you should know sufficient detail to articulate who and what your story is about, the major plot points and the ending.

Pantsers and plotters also have different views on the importance of plot.

“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.”
― Ray Bradbury

I happen to like Bradbury’s analysis of plot even if it is not entirely accurate. His emphasis on plot is that it is character driven and in that sense he’s absolutely right. But he overlooks that the resulting plot has a cause and effect pattern to it. Plot points are not random events, but they give meaning to the story.  The English novelist E. M. Forster explains:

‘A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality – “The king died and then the queen died” is a story.’ But ‘“the king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’

So how do these words of wisdom from great writers help me form my New Years Resolutions? Should I target word count, scenes, milestones or other targets?

Mmm… Maybe like previous years I’ll give New Years Resolutions a miss.

 

What is a ‘story’ anyway?

Recently I was thinking about the essence of what a story was about, and what made the story good or bad from the reader’s perspective. My starting point was various dictionary definitions of story. The best I could find was ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment’. Well it’s a starting point, but it doesn’t really explain the essence of story.

Another description I found was ‘a sequence of events in a work of fiction as we imagined them to have taken place, in the order which they would have occurred in life’. This is distinguished from ‘plot’, which is concerned with how events are related, how they are structured, and how they are designed to enact change in the main character. There may be just one story, but many different ways of telling it. For example, consider the story of an Robin Hood, an outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor. It would read quite differently if written from the perspective of the law enforcer (the Sheriff of Nottingham) rather than the outlaw (Robin Hood).

Delving a little deeper into the realms of structural analysis of English literature I found that that stories are part of the wider structural classification of ‘narrative’. Narrative can be analysed into what is told, namely the ‘story’ (events/actions and characters and setting); and how it is told namely ‘discourse’, which includes ‘plot’, ‘narrative voice’ (who speaks), ‘focalisation’ (who sees), ‘narrative mode’ and ‘style’ etc.

Looking at story this way, without considering how the story is told, leaves the definition of story as a cold and lifeless object: a sequence of events without causal relationships. Unless you’re and English graduate that wants to dissect English literature in this way, it’s not a very helpful definition of story. More importantly, it misses the magic or chemistry that brings so many good stories to life.

Some in the film world take a different view of ‘story’. Martin Scorsese defines ‘plot’ as the bare bones of what happens in a movie – the outline; while story includes lots of things: characters, cinematography choices and all the emotional content portrayed by the actors. Others have used the term ‘plot’ to describe the physical events of a film and the term ‘story’ to describe the emotional journey the hero/heroine makes during the course of the film. This seems a more about character arc of the main character –  important, but not story.

Yet again some confuse the meaning of ‘story’ with ‘theme’. For example, would you describe the film Rocky as a man’s journey to find self-respect, or is it a movie about boxer’s opportunity to box for the world championship? Was Schindler’s List a film about one man’s effort to make a difference, or a film about rescuing people from the threat of Nazi concentration camp? Don’t get me wrong. Theme is very important; it’s the subtext of what a story is about. But it’s not in my view ‘story’.

The more I looked, the more I realised that the term ‘story’ means different things to different people. For the purpose of this blog I would like to put forward the notion that story is what the reader or audience experiences from reading a novel or watching a movie. It’s the whole experience in its entirety. It is only after reading the story, or watching a movie that the reader or audience can relate what the story means to them. By focusing on the reader’s/audience’s reaction it’s easier to determine what makes a good story.

Why do some readers like certain stories and not others? We all have preferences for genre and story type. I don’t particularly like horror stories (sorry Stephen King); but that’s me. But even within genre, to be successful a story has to be interesting, different and capture the imagination of the reader. This is the most difficult challenge for any writer. In ‘Save the Cat’, Blake Snyder analyses movies into ten genres or story types which he claims covers almost every movie ever made. The trick is to make the story look different. He quoted a studio executive, during a development meeting saying, “Give me the same thing… only different.” Finding the difference is the challenge.

Most good stories are about a character (the hero or heroine) that the reader can empathise with, facing a crisis, problem or opportunity that disrupts their life, and which leads to relentless escalation of tension until it reaches a satisfactory climatic ending and resolution. Sounds simple, but of course it’s not.

At the heart of all good stories is conflict between the hero’s/heroine’s goal (what he wants, or wants to avoid as a result of the problem or opportunity they face) and the obstacles in his/her way. This raises the story question: will he/she succeed, fail, or abandon his/her goal. And what will be the consequences?

In his book, Story Physics, Larry Brooks, says the impending collision of the hero’s goal and those obstacles is what creates dramatic tension. In Brooks’ view, without conflict there is no story.

One of the great masters of dramatic tension was Alfred Hitchcock. One of the tricks he used was to let the audience know, or hint that something was about to happen, which the characters themselves did not know about. Do you remember the shower scene from ‘Psycho’? You knew something was going to happen before it happened, but it still makes you want to jump out of your chair. Another device that the movie makers use to build dramatic tension is a ticking time clock. Something dreadful is going to happen if the hero/heroine doesn’t get there in time. Remember those old black and white movies with the damsel tied to the rails and the train coming along. Well, perhaps you’re too young for that. Dramatic tension is an important quality that makes the reader want to find out what’s going to happen next. It’s a page-turner.

Another example of good dramatic tension is in the Hunger Games. After volunteering to take her sister’s place at the Hunger Games, Katniss is perpetually in fear that at some stage she will lose her life in the games. Only one contestant can survive. In one scene she is trapped up a tree with her would be killers on the ground below her with their spears and bow and arrows. What is she to do? If you’ve read the book you’ll know the answer. If you haven’t I won’t spoil it for you. Dramatic tension.

The other factor that makes a story enjoyable from the reader’s perspective is hero empathy. If the reader doesn’t empathise with the hero then he/she is unlikely to want to read on. Generating reader empathy is all about the writer’s characterisation skills. Brooks’ suggests that the most compelling way to suck the reader into the story and root for the hero is to show how he/she feels about and responds to the challenges you’ve set for them as those events happen by wring from the hero’s point of view. Thus we can see into the hero’s head and see what he is thinking and feeling at the time.

Another reason why the reader may find a story enjoyable is what Brooks describes as vicarious experience: taking the reader to a place, time or situation that they couldn’t otherwise experience in real life, that’s inherently exciting, dangerous, titillating, forbidden or impossible. Why else would vampire romance and historical romance novels be so popular, not to mention science fiction and fantasy?

Dramatic tension, hero empathy and vicarious experience are three of the six realms of story physics that Brooks identifies in his book. You might be wondering about the other three. The first is a compelling narrative premise, question or promise at the heart of the story. That is a big subject in its own right and best left to a later blog. The other two are: exposition/pacing, and narrative strategy, which are more to do with the way the story is told.

In conclusion, the term ‘story’ might mean different things to different people. But if we look at story as the experience of the reader or audience from reading a novel or watching a movie, it is possible to identify those aspects of story that make it more enjoyable to the reader. In this respect dramatic tension from potential conflict, hero empathy and vicarious experience are all important factors for a writer to consider.