After committing to the slow, patient work of practicing writing, it’s time to consider exactly how you will deliver exactly what readers expect.
A few years back, a writer friend of mine introduced me to a book by a well known with a compelling claim: screenwriting guru, Blake Snyder had figured out the formula for proven movie magic (here). I was skeptical because I know so many other novelists, editors, agents and writing gurus (even reputable ones like Robert McKee, Donald Maass, Sol Stein, Chuck Wendig, Randy Ingermanson, James Scott Bell) teach plot structure as vital to success.
But is it?
And while we’re at it, is writing a killer plot really what we want out of this? Is that the big secret to success we’re missing?
I’ve taught my share of writing courses and to be sure, there’s useful information in learning satisfying plot structure. I believe these teachers are on to something, even if you don’t write strictly genre fiction (especially Snyder, seriously, check it out).
But I have an embarassingly low opinion of “writer training” that doesn’t rely heavily on reading in your category and practice with writing. Self-congratulatory coaches feed off of eager neophytes, and many otherwise-intelligent writers fork over big fees for unhelpful advice. I’ve found good help in experts’ books and workshops, but it’s often too focused on the externals, and neglects the writer’s internal issues.
Writing isn’t like other jobs–it’s hundreds of little jobs no one else wants rolled into one.
You have to be a counsellor to yourself to show up and stay on task: “Come on now, quit stalling.”
You have to dig through piles of old ideas and snippets of dialogue you recorded, searching for just the right thing for this scene.
You have to be a night janitor staying after everyone else has gone to clean up the junk you left behind when you were in this scene last. Pew!
If you really want to write, in the end you have to decide if you want to be like some expert or be like yourself. I believe the only thing motivating enough to sustain this long term is to decide that we take this journey not to learn how to do it like someone else, but for largely the opposite reason—to finally write for no one but ourselves.
Now I’m going to segue to Jesus because as the one true original, his advice was to look past the surface and go for the heart. And funnily enough, that’s also the secret of good storytelling (which He also knew a thing or two about). From the Master’s example we see that 1) a storyteller has got to follow their heart to tell their story–maybe even head into the wilderness to confront their devil for a while. Then 2) they’ve got to share that heart, passionately with their character or in their memoir to complete that first and sometimes second draft, and 3) aim for the heart of their readers in the editing and shaping of it.
Basically, getting your story straight involves a whole lot of heart work–which now that I think of it may be why I sometimes feel more like an amateur counselor than an editor and writing coach. But I digress….
Some of the best writing instruction I’ve found came from reading my favorite books again, with fresh eyes. Certainly these are some of the most memorable lessons I’ve had. And writing them into my novel has solidified the ideas and helped me see I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel (to borrow a phrase). I use the same materials everyone uses. But the heart I put into it, that’s my own.
Or at least, it’s the heart I believe the Master asked me to express as best I can.
The traditional building blocks applied in the right order—characters, plot, settings—are nonnegotiable. People expect certain things when they read a story. But more than the surface elements, readers expect stories to tell the truth, not just in the external details, but about the interior life especially. The journey of the heart.
When I read, I look for the internal story. So in writing, I think about showing the character’s experience, their thoughts and feelings in words that make it real. I consider what about that heart story is and is not necessary to the action. Does it feel tense and dramatic? And am I building the reader’s understanding of the opposition, the power and strength of it, so they can experience the thoughts and feelings?
And then editing reduces the extra detail, the digressions, the places where the story stalls out. We need nothing that doesn’t show us who our character is, what they want and what’s in the way. There’s no need for a lot of deep stuff necessarily, only where those feelings should come out. If he’s thinking or feeling something about the journey, write that–use your outline to think what the emotional experience is in each chapter–happy, sad, angry, fearful, or surprising (maybe also disgusting, though that’s less common). Refer to the Feel Wheel as needed.
This is how to get your story straight.
And it can seem far beyond what’s necessary, but think how your reader wants to figure out not just the external puzzles and mysteries, but the interior ones as well–and push yourself to sacrifice what’s just your pet preference if readers don’t need it, if they won’t care, or might be confused. That’s your job too, no matter what kind of book you’re writing.
That way, each chapter/scene/section follows the golden rule: treat readers to the mystery, the romance and the wonder you’d like to be treated with. Respect their intelligence by leaving out what they can infer and discover themselves. And they will bless you for it and with any luck, share your words widely.
For the Higher Purpose,