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Stirring up a little good natured debate (extra updated) • 7 February 2008 • The SnowBlog

Stirring up a little good natured debate (extra updated)

I've budged this up the running a little because people are still busily commenting. Plus I'm adding bonus material(!). I feel quite anxious about this post. I've got some thoughts I want to share, but part of me thinks this is one of those things it's better to keep quiet about. But on the other hand, why should I be afraid to voice my views? What's the worst that can happen? So here are some potentially incendiary opinions about storytelling. When I read Stephen King's book On Drinking On Writing I was very disappointed to learn that he's one of many authors who will set out on a story not knowing where it will take them. When he talks about writing endings which disappointed fans, but which had become inevitable, I want to phone him and say "but that's why you need to plan ahead". I can picture the autobiography of a disastrous architect containing the same revelations: "Sometimes we'd get towards the completion of a building and I'd realise there was nowhere to put the bathrooms. What the disappointed users of the building need to understand is that by that point there is an inevitability that takes over. As the finishing touches occur to you, there's a limit to what you can shoehorn in." When I hear such wing-it writers being interviewed, it always seems to me they've placed their own working preferences ahead of the readers' ultimate satisfaction. Sure the building fell down, but emotionally the architect had moved on by that stage and was ready for a new challenge. Sure he could have reviewed the plans early on and fixed the problem, but he didn't want to risk becoming 'stale' or 'predictable'. Now, that's not to say I dislike all books that are plotted on-the-fly or that I don't appreciate the skill that goes into them. It's akin to someone who builds a comfy camp for the night with only the twigs and leaves they find on the ground. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't rather travel in the company of someone who plans ahead, prepares in advance, and has all the important necessities to hand at the right moment. To me, starting a story without having planned it first is like starting to tell a joke before you've thought of a punchline. Or setting off on a journey before selecting a route. Beautiful, happy accidents may result, but not as frequently as disasters will. Which would be fine, if the disasters were quietly disposed of, but I've lost count of the books I've read where I got the impression the author was flailing for an ending or had changed their mind halfway through about the kind of story they were telling. Writing is inherently spontaneous and creative. Ideas always occur along the way. Setbacks present themselves and need to be overcome. There is no way to keep the creativity and the imagination from happening. Thinking otherwise reminds me of those cultures who worry that if you don't teach children to walk, they'll never learn. Walking and creativity happen whether you assist them or ignore them. So I don't accept that the writing muse is totally feral and might be driven away by anything inimical to its wildness, such as a pre-determined plot. Plots are channels for creativity to flow down. They make sure all that creativity gets to where its needed. Of course, the danger is that when confronted with such a channel we decide to fill it with cliché. And there is no remedy for that except to be wary and inhospitable to cliché - as part of your structured approach. Force yourself to get from A to B using something original, or at least something fresh (because 'original' is too much of an undertaking in the age of television, where we've all seen ten thousand stories, and it will warp your plot if you allow it). Eliminating clichés is hard work, but in my mind that's not an excuse to avoid pre-planning; if anything it's another reason for requiring it. Naturally great plots can come together for authors who do wing it, but surely not with any dependability - and I really feel we shouldn't be expected to read (or watch) all of their experiments. Personally, I've found the literature of screenwriting fascinating and helpful when it comes to storytelling. It continually asks questions about the function of each event, each scene. It asks: why do we care? What's the point of this? Is this relevant? Does it move the story along? If you watch a scene written by a good screenwriter you will see double or even triple duty being performed. You will see characters being defined, at the same time as background exposition is being sneaked in, at the same time as the plot is being advanced. And it will be done in a way that uses humour or conflict or compassion or curiosity to make the scene work as a standalone piece of drama. Now, I readily accept that these rules can be over-applied. Or mis-applied. Or that better alternatives may present themselves which appear to break the rules. But in my mind there's no doubt: if you cultivate a way of thinking where you always know why you think your audience cares about your characters, and what you expect the audience to take away from each scene, and you think about what you're setting up and how you're going to pay it off, then your stories will be better for it. Morals can be cheesy, lessons learned too overt, stories too neatly tied up with a ribbon - but being aware of the danger of over-applying a structured approach is just another part of the structured approach. I think of the screenwriting attitude to storytelling as a series of questions - and you'd better have good answers to those questions. If the 'function' of most of your scenes is just that you thought they were 'good writing' (as opposed to good storytelling) they'd better really be amazingly good because most of us have 'internalised' the rules of storytelling, even if we can't explicitly state them. We tend not to like stories that wander or fizzle out - and by and large we don't want them to just finish; we want an ending. The more sophisticated among us can cope with very open, very ambiguous endings, but most of us are more likely to mutter: 'well what was that all about, then?' Personally, what I would like to see is more great writers obsessing over plot. To relate it to composing music: I don't want more atonal symphonies, where the performing musician decides how to get from a start note to an end note over eight bars; I want more beautifully crafted pop songs which make me happy or make me want to dance or take me instantly back to a perfect moment, or even choke me up when I'm feeling emotional. Sonnets are a strict form, but that doesn't put off great poets. I'd like to see more really intelligent writing within classic, emotionally-satisfying plots. I want to read detective stories and romances and action thrillers and even sci-fi by the giants of contemporary literary fiction. I think then we'd really be able to judge their abilities. They'd take some stick from certain academics and certain critics, but they'd re-energise the book world, delight millions and win my respect into the bargain. Now, form an orderly queue to tell me why I'm wrong about every single thing I've just said. (Oh, and these are general points of course; I'm not picking on anyone in particular here. Except Stephen King.)
Updated: I just wanted to say thanks for all the thoughtful and fascinating comments. I've brought up what I'm sure is a false dichotomy, but there's definitely something interesting in there. Thanks for helping find it.
Extra Updated: Particularly interested in Zos's view on the non-limitations of pre-planning. But I thought I'd share with you why planning looms large in my personal thinking: every now and then I like to write a particular type of story and although they're just one dot on the fiction spectrum, the thought of someone attempting one without a plan is almost inconceivable to me. You may not like this example, but I think you'd have to admit, not having a plan in place before you started writing would be pretty limiting and probably self-defeating. A short (2500 word) story what I wrote.


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