I had an “ah-ha moment” recently that has made a huge difference in how, and why, I write. It’s nothing new, and I am not the first to figure this one out. It’s no secret, but by making a small shift in my approach, I am able to look at writing in a totally different light.
It’s all about the story.
Now, that may not seem too earth-shattering. Why else do people read, but to uncover a new tale, something fresh and insightful? Yet when I started my first attempt at a novel, I got lost in the words and forgot what I was writing. It went something like this: I had an idea. Then I added characters, built a basic plotline in my head, and started, with furrowed brow and calloused fingers, to write it down.
The problem was that I obsessed about the verbiage and phrasing, the rewriting and editing, instead of focusing on just telling the story. I was paying attention to the words, not the plot. I wanted each sentence to be perfectly crafted, each paragraph a song. I could see pretty little chapters, wrapped like gifts to form a succinct and flawless novel. In my head, it was all about the writing of it, not about the plot. And it was painfully and shockingly bad.
I never finished that one, with all my obsessions about word choices and sentence structure. Somehow I lost the thread of it in all my high-minded literary attempts at ‘being a writer’. It unraveled, turning into a long journey with no destination. It was the perfect example of trying too hard and going nowhere.
I am a member of several writing groups, and I am lucky to get to listen weekly to other writers read their work aloud. All of them are good writers. And by that, I mean each sentence has a subject and a predicate. No one is too flowery with adverbs, and everyone knows about ‘showing not telling’. There is always good dialog to move the story along. The problem, as I see it, is that not everyone has a solid and interesting story idea. And that’s what will make or break you.
I don’t think that that is a matter of opinion or genre choice, because if the writing is gorgeous and the story is dreadful, no agent is going to take it, because no publisher will publish it, because no one will read it. A good story needs to have some basic elements that I forgot about when I got too caught up in writing and not aware of exactly what I was writing.
Here are some basics to keep in mind when crafting a good story.
1) Stay open-minded, but don’t spin off into the stratosphere. I like to follow where my hand takes me and not always chase my pre-decided plotline, because often I end in a much better place than my original plan would have taken me. However, I have also driven off cliffs with my plot and completely lost whatever I was trying to say. Prolific author John Irving says he plots each book entirely before writing it, and then sticks to his plan. Stephen King claims to have never plotted a book in his life. I believe that there has to be a happy medium. Find your sweet spot between structured and free-form, I say.
2) Remember your protagonist and antagonist, and never forget their motivations. Always keep the motive for their actions at the forefront, and stay true to their personality (hopefully you have given them personality). To do this, you have to know your people pretty well. Why is your protagonist acting the way she does? How does she change throughout the novel? What is her goal, and how does she achieve it? Who is trying to stop her, and why? Some call it character arc and it’s a good term to know.
3) Take me somewhere surprising. Please don’t introduce me to people and then bore me with where they go. Teach me something new. Surprise me with their back-story, something delicious that changes everything. Shock me with a decision they make, but make sure I understand why it makes sense. Pat Conroy did this to me in The Prince of Tides. Every time I read it, I am amazed at what those crazy Wingos do. And I love it every time.
All of this is not to say that a great idea and a great plot will hold up terrible writing, because it won’t. By starting with a great story and good characters who do surprising things, your writing can follow their lead. Just don’t attempt it the other way around.