I used to have this recurring image in my head. I was outside, on a deserted cobblestone street, in a very dim light, hemmed in by thick fog. I couldn’t see anything except gray. There was a strong current in the air – like a riptide. It was scary. I’d wrapped my arms around a thick concrete post, my feet having already lost touch with the ground. I knew with absolute certainty that if I let go, I’d be swept away. Not into darkness, but into . . . the unknown, and what the hell would I do then?
Holding onto that post made me feel safe. Then one day I saw a drawing by Guy Billout in Atlantic Monthly. It was of a cobblestone courtyard surrounded by brick and stone buildings. Fortress like. Impenetrable. Safe.
Except for a lithe green snake that rose and fell through the cobblestones as if they weren’t even there.
The caption was, “There is no safe place.”
For a moment I couldn’t breathe, because I knew it was true. And if there is no safe place, what was I doing standing still? And what, exactly, was standing still keeping me safe from, anyway?
That drawing liberated me. If it’s all a risk, if it’s all a challenge, why not embrace that, instead of a stupid post? I let go. And the amazing thing is that although it was really scary to let go — I’ve stumbled all over the place, and made a major fool of myself more times than I can count — it was scary in a good way.
Change is scary. All change. Even good change. Because it means leaving something familiar behind, and that’s hard, even when that familiar thing isn’t working for us at all. It’s why we stick with the devil we know. It’s not that we’re masochists (I hope), it’s just that we know the drill, and that makes us feel safe — even when we aren’t, even when that familiar drill is the very thing that’s keeping us from getting what we really want. The irony is that our “comfort zone” is often anything but comfortable.
My motto became: if it’s not at least a little bit scary, it’s not worth doing. I’m sharing that thought with you now for three reasons:
- I’m about to do something scary (for me), which is …
- … ask you to venture out of your comfort zone …
- … which might be scary for you.
So here’s the bargain I’d like to make with you: Hear me out. Read to the end. See if the change I’m suggesting is something you’re willing to try out.
What I’m proposing is nothing short of this: that you change how you approach writing, beginning with what, at this moment, you may think of as your innate “writing process.”
That’s a bold statement, I know. But given what a story really is, and what the brain is wired to crave, hunt for and respond to in every story we hear, there’s a good chance your writing process is kind of like the devil you know. Familiar, yes, but ultimately unproductive and given to questionable priorities.
You deserve better. Because you – along with every writer out there – are one of the most powerful people on the planet. Your stories have the power to change how your readers see themselves, the world, and what they go out and do in the world. And right now, let’s face it, the world needs a whole lot of help.
But in order to do that – to wield the power of story – there is one caveat: you have to actually tell a story.
Over the next several months here on Writer Unboxed I am going to take aim at the “writing wisdom” that often inadvertently leads writers so far astray that they can never find their way back to the story they want to tell. And in its place I will offer a clear, concrete and doable method of approaching story based on what actually hooks and holds readers (Hint: it’s not the beautiful writing or the “dramatic” plot).
But before we can talk about your writing process, it’s crucial to talk about what, exactly, rivets readers. To wit:
What Is a Story?
A story is one single unavoidable external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, forcing the protagonist to make a long needed internal change in order to solve it.
What your reader is wired to track, from beginning to end, is that internal change. And not track from the outside, but from within your novel’s command center: your protagonist’s brain. Story isn’t about what we do, it’s about why we do it. It’s not about what we say out loud, it’s about what we’re really thinking when we say it.
That internal battleground is where your novel’s seminal source of conflict stems from. It’s what gives meaning and emotional weight to every single thing that happens in the plot. Because – as I am very fond of saying – the story is not about the plot, the story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. And, in turn, the internal struggle drives the action, which then further provokes the struggle – back and forth – from beginning to end. That is how the external stakes steadily mount, stripping away every internal rationalization in the process, until, at last, the protagonist has no choice but to change (or, of course, not).
But, um, change from what to what, exactly? And while we’re at it, why does she need to change in the first place? As anyone knows who’s ever needed to make any kind of change at all (which is pretty much all of us), we’re aces at avoiding it for as long as humanly possible (sometimes even longer). Especially since the things we most need to change about ourselves, are often the very things we don’t see as problems at all, but as sustaining strengths.
And so – here’s the point – it takes a long time for that kind of defining internal problem to reach critical mass. It’s usually years – if not decades – before, at long last, the world finally forces us to get the hell up and do something about it, or else.
Or, if you’re writing a novel, before the plot kicks in, neatly catapulting your protagonist out of her (oft uncomfortable) comfort zone.
Here’s the skinny: All stories begin in medias res, meaning in the middle of the thing. The first half of the story is what createsboth the internal and the external problem that the second half will solve. The second half? That is the novel itself. And here’s the kicker: most of what’s in the first half – the “before,” the “past,” yes, the “backstory” — will be laced into the novel itself, beginning on the first page.
This is why neither Pantsing nor Plotting work. There are myriad problems with both approaches, and they all stem from one seminal misconception: That the story starts on page one of the novel – that is, when the plot first forces the protagonist to take action – rather that when the story actually starts.
Pantsing Yourself into a Corner
We’re talking about the Just Do It! notion of sitting down, snatching up a pen, and writing forward by the seat of your pants. No forethought, no notion of where the story might go, or why. Because, the popular theory goes, if you’re a true writer – an organic writer – all you have to do is unleash your creativity and the story will come to you. In fact, pantsers are often told that knowing too much actually holds you back.
This is the literary equivalent of leaving your house for a year long trip with no idea of where you’re going, or how to get there, or what the point is, or what you’re leaving behind during that year, or even what kind of clothes to pack – which means you’re either going to be wholly unprepared, or are lugging around so many choices that you’re exhausted before you get to the corner.
While the euphoria of boldly launching into a brand new adventure might get you out the door, then what? When you get to that corner, do you turn left, right, plow straight ahead? The euphoria quickly wanes when you realize that since you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t really matter what direction you go in. After all, as Seneca the Younger so astutely pointed out a couple of thousand years ago, “If I man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.”
Even worse, when a story hasn’t somehow appeared on its own after months of pantsing, writers are left to draw one conclusion: It’s my fault. I’m not talented, because if I was, this would be a story instead of a disjointed bunch of things that happen. Geez, guess it proves I’m not a writer. Let me reassure you that it’s not you, it’s the process itself that set you up for failure.
Now, let me say that I know that there are pantsers who do think about backstory, and who do, at times, pause to answer a question or two about their protagonist (or other character). Usually after the fact. Scattershot. In general. In bits and pieces. And that is not at all what I’m talking about here.
What I’m talking about is part of the story itself – the most foundational part, in fact. And it is not general. It is as specific as what you envision in the novel itself, and as fully developed. Without it there would be no problem, no necessary change, nor would the protagonist have an agenda when she steps onto page one (and we all have an agenda, every minute of every day). In other words, the protagonist would have no internal lens through which to view, and make sense of, well, anything.
Point being: We humans are wired to use our subjective past experience to give meaning to the present, and birth to our heartfelt agenda for the future (read: our dreams). The past is our hardwired decoder ring; without it we – and our protagonist — are nothing but a general facsimile of a generic person.
And there’s no story in that.
So if knowing nothing about the story you’re telling before you write it is a bad idea, then isn’t knowing where you’re headed part of the antidote? Indeed it is. And people in the second school of writing — the plotters – know this. The irony is, they then chart the exact wrong thing.
Plotting: How to Lock Yourself Out of Your Story
Like pantsers, plotters tend to begin on page one, and then zero in on developing the surface events of the plot, with no thought to the protagonist’s past, which is precisely what determines what will happen in the plot and why it matters to the protagonist. In other words, plotters put the cart before the horse, which does nothing but confuse the horse.
In this, plotters have made a very natural mistake: they have mistaken the plot for the story. After all, when you read a novel, what can you see? The plot, the things that happen: they’re concrete, clear and visible whether it’s a rip-roaring thriller or a quiet literary novel. So it’s maddeningly easy to tacitly assume that it’s a twofer: by creating a “dramatic” plot, you’ll also have a dramatic story. Not so.
This illusion is further fueled by the plethora of “story structure” manuals out there. Here’s how those well meaning guidebooks inadvertently steer writers wrong: they use very successful movies and novels as examples. Yeah, so? you may be thinking,what’s wrong with that?
It’s this: since we’re already familiar with these books and movies, we already know the inside story that the plot is there to serve. So when we examine the events in the plot, we knowwhat they mean to the protagonist, and what they force him to struggle with internally, and so they have a juice, a power, that they wouldn’t have otherwise. This leaves the reader with the clear implication that by creating a plot that hits all the prescribed external points, in the right order, at the right time, a story will magically appear.
Again, not so. And again, this is not to say that all plotters pay absolutely no attention to the protagonist’s backstory. But – as with most writers – backstory tends to be developed in general, after the fact, in bits and pieces, maybe.
This is very different than actually developing the first half of the story: that is, the very specific, in-depth layers of the protagonist’s backstory that will be relevant to – and a major part of – the novel itself.
The backstory that I refer to is developed in the same way as the novel itself, often in full-fledged scene form. And yes, much of it is done before you get to page one. It’ll be used in the novel itself in the form of flashbacks, memories, thoughts, logic, supplying the real meaning of your protagonist’s fear and desire. These things are already inside your protagonist’s brain when she steps onto page one. They’re how she gets to page one.
I can’t say it strongly enough: This is not pre-writing. This is writing. This is how a novel gets developed.
Novels are not written in the same way they’re read – from beginning to end, all of a piece. Writing a novel is a frustrating, messy business – it takes grit, perseverance, determination, and the courage to go into those dark places inside that we often keep hidden, even from ourselves. It’s not for the faint of heart. But then, nothing worth doing ever is.
So – you may be wondering – how do you do it?
Become a Story Genius: Be a Seeker*
Pantsing and plotting are so ubiquitous that writers often assume it’s a binary choice – you’re either one or the other. Not so! There is another way.
You can be a Seeker, digging down to the seminal “why” behind everything that happens in the story, beginning with the moment long ago when something in the protagonist’s life forced her to embrace a belief that, while it rescued her at the time, has been leading her astray every since.
Because that belief – that thing she holds most true – isn’t. And so it becomes her defining misbelief. The story begins the second she embraces it, and everything else spins off of this one moment. It’s your story’s true north. It’s what will lead you directly to the moment – probably decades later – when the novel begins.
Next month we’ll talk about how to figure out what, exactly, you’re seeking, and then how to dig down to that seminal moment in your protagonist’s life, knocking over a few more writing myths in the bargain.
*Seeker. Hmmm. Not sure if that’s the right name for this new school of writing. Diggers, maybe? Divers? Someone suggested Plumbers, and then Pathfinders, and then Trackers. This is so fun! What do you think?