This is another post from the Archive. I’ve hit a point in my current working project where I’ve had to take stock of what is there and what isn’t there in the story so far. This post came to mind as a guide for me as I am reviewing the almost 80,000 words I’ve already written.
I’ve just read a great article by Gwenna Laithland advising writers to use ‘white noise’.
Basically, white noise is the void – the bits you leave out which the reader then projects their own thoughts and imagination onto.
Laithland uses the example of a Harry Potter stage show casting Hermione Grainger with a black actress. J.K. Rowling admits that she never specified her heroine’s skin colour.
I often get caught up in feeling the need to give more detail in description and narration – partly because I write dialogue much more easily and my pages can quickly resemble a play script.
I like writers at both ends of the spectrum. The very precise and detailed, and the void.
So which is best?
I suppose the answer is write with detail when you need to manouveur the reader into a specific place and embrace the void where it really doesn’t matter.
I am still working on this.
I’ve come to realise that the Void can also be used in the plotting of a story also.
What you need to reveal to the reader and what they can deduce for themselves.
The trick seems to be letting go of your own imagined, or fixed, view of the story and allowing the reader the space to become properly involved themselves.
The void allows them to bring their imagination to the story, even if you plot line turns out not to be what they imagined– Jack Reacher creator Lee Child is very good at this, giving you lots of room to try and work out what the ‘bad guys’ are really up to.
This talk by French Screenwriter and Film Maker, Celine Sciamma, has challenged me in two ways.
It has challenged my already challenged mind regarding the received ‘this is the way you plot a story’.
It has challenged me to think even more deeply about what the focus of my stories are.
For Sciamma there is a three stage process for her writing. She may not title them exactly as I am about to list them, but this is my translation of them:
Identify your Global Desires for the film/story
Place the Local Scenes
Return to the Global View and ensure that each of the Local Scenes are in keeping with your Global Desires.
Your Global Desires for your story encompasses the whole form and key elements of your narrative. There may be a number: It is a love story; it has a non-typical viewpoint; its is artistically driven and not obstacle driven in plot.
Your Local Scenes are the actual scenes in the story and should be split into two lists:
1.The Desired List – This is the parts of scenes, the snatches of dialogue, the setting of the story, random ideas of plot; in fact they are anything which inspired you in the idea of the story to begin with.
2.The Needed List – These are the scenes you need to have in your story in order to tell it. It is the plot, the characters, the action, etc.
The aim here is to take all of the items in your second list and work them into the first list. All that should remain is your list of Desired scenes.
Focus on what is important in each scene. Is it the dialogue? Is it the detail of setting? Is it character? Is it the action between characters?
Your finalGlobal View for your story now checks that your Desired list of scenes is telling the elements you specified in the original Global Desires list.
What isn’t necessary needs to be cut or altered so it is necessary.
You may not need lots of background detail in your narrative.
You may not need to follow the conventions of your time period or the genre of your story.
Conflict and Obstacles – the usual cornerstones of plotting – may not have to be the focus of your story telling.
If you are telling a love story your key characters may not have to have large obstacles or have conflict in their relationship. If your Global Desire is to tell of the love between two characters then focus on the love.
Take a story you are currently working on, or a new idea you have and apply Sciamma’s three stages of planning/plotting to it.
I expect your view of your story to change. Mine has.
Ingredients, Flavour, and Cooking – Words, Structure, and Writing.
In The Script Lab‘s interview with Scott Neustadter (500 Days of Summer), one of the pieces of advice he gives is that writers should learn to ‘be a cook’.
His point is that, particularly in screenwriting, there is always going to be collaboration. You need to learn to work with others to produce the best script you can.
In any professional kitchen there are any number of ‘cooks’ and together they produce the finished plate of food which you eat.
In combining your expertise with that of others you make your writing/script better – the best that you can make it.
You learn new techniques. You try different combinations of ingredients. You taste different flavourings.
You experiment and refine.
There is a tv show in the UK called Masterchef. There is an amateur, professional, and celebrity version, but they all follow the same format – everybody cooks and some go through and others don’t. Not all of the prettiest food goes through, but the food which has the best taste and shows the better technique is chosen.
As the rounds progress, the remaining cooks are given the opportunity to work in real restaurants. They learn from some of the greatest cooks in the world. They listen to feedback from the best food and restaurant writers.
Towards the final places, the cooks are expected to show their understanding of new techniques and new flavours. They are now being judged on what they have learnt as well as how great the food looks and tastes.
I get Scott Neustadter’s point.
I also get that my ability to produce the finest beans on toast wouldn’t get me very far in Masterchef.
I also get that in making that comparison my writing might not match up to my beans on toast!
So how do we be better cooks/writers?
To be a great cook you need to understand your ingredients, flavour combinations, presentation, recipes. You need to experiment and practice. One contestant in Masterchef was asked how confident they were feeling about their food and they replied that the seventeen times they had cooked it that week had all gone well!
As writers we have to understand words and how they combine with others. We need to understand the structure which binds the words together. We need to know the recipes – the greatest books in our genre or story type – and how we can tweak here and there to produce something as equal or better.
We need to practise over and over again.
That might even be at a sentence or paragraph level.
Experiment. Learn from other writers.
Try styles of writing you have never done before. Look at how they use their ingredients to produce the final dish.
What can you take and use in your own writing?
Write and experiment. Write and refine. Write and practise until you get it how you want it.
Usually I would advise you to read this article before you continue with my thoughts, but not today. There is enough in Ken Miyamoto’s excellent article to keep you going for days!
I’ve been researching movie/play scripts for a little while now.
There are many ways in which novels and movies differ, but what I do appreciate that the later has to have a really tight hand on moving the story on and getting the audience to care about their characters.
Plot and character, the cornerstones of any story.
You are not going to write a novel in ten days – although there might be a challenge! – but one of the points Miyamoto makes early on is that you should have visualised at least 75% of your story before you sit down to write.
I think I’ve plotted every which way you can, as I am sure you probably have.
I seem to need the excitement of letting the story unfold and the characters lead me, but I acknowledge that sometimes I am not plotting as tightly as I probably should.
I suppose there has to be a purpose for the editing process, other than to spotting typos!
I find that if I plot too much then I know the story and getting the story down is like wading through deep mud. Putting the words in becomes the hard work, rather than working out where I am going next.
How about you? Strong plotters or the adventure of discovery?
Perhaps stronger discipline in plotting will produce a stronger story from the first draft?
I don’t know.
Visualising 75% of the story first means that both plot and characters should be fully developed.
The writing then becomes the how do I show this to the reader?
Much like a director framing the story from the page to the screen.
If you choose to take a break, have you broken your habit?
I’ve written just over 63,000 words in the last 7 weeks, with the aim of writing at least 1,000 words a day.
I established the habit I wanted of writing a minimum of 1,000 words a day.
Then two days ago, I stopped writing.
It was a conscious choice.
The story was going fine. I am a ‘pantser’ by inclination and, creatively, I was having no problems.
The problem came from the characters themselves.
They were easy characters, working well together.
They had a plot which was going forward and had layers. They didn’t grumble.
But they pull me to one side and ask me one question – we know what’s going on, but does the reader?
I looked blankly at them and then asked for more coffee.
They were right.
I was leaving the reader to make big leaps in understanding of the characters from subtle clues in the things they said.
The characters left me alone to work the problem out.
The first thing to do was stop writing.
Another one thousand more words which weren’t quite hitting the spot wasn’t going to help.
I realised I was going to have to make changes in what I had written so far, but I wasn’t going to do that now.
Finish the story. Edit after.
What I needed to do know was realise all of the character points I knew in their backgrounds, and let that information out to the reader, without them having to do an ‘escape room’ puzzle to work it out.
I am writing a thriller. Not a character trait treasure hunt.
I have dropped the reader into the midst of a group of tight characters.
The reader needs to understand how they got where they are and why.
I am the writer, so it’s my job to get them up to speed.
The main characters know we are back to work as normal tomorrow.
Break-time is over.
I’ve looked them in the eye, and I think they believe me.
So yesterday I suggested that relatives could take inspiration/lessons from sports and hopefully I will convince you today.
Bill Belichick is the most successful NFL coach ever because:
He stays focused on the overall goal and works hard to achieve it
He never goes through the motions and always trains with purpose
He makes sure that he puts the right players on the pitch at the right time
He doesn’t panic if things don’t seem to be working early on in the season and understands the importance of late on in the game and the season
He doesn’t waste time talking about the game
So how does this translate into being creative?
Be really clear about what you are trying to achieve.
Belichick knows the season is about winning the Super Bowl and so is the pre-season and the post-season. If you want to write a novel then that is the goal, nothing else. Prepare. Execute. Analyse to make next year’s performance better. It is hard work so put in the hours. Be focused and cut out distractions. Commit and achieve.
Practise with purpose and put what you learn into action.
A very underestimated part of what Belichick does is the practice field. The Patriots train with crowd noise. They train with old and scuffed up balls, removing as much of the grip as they can. They try to recreate conditions similar to the ones they will play in. All practice is purposeful.
It can be hard if you are time pressed for your creative pursuit but you need to practice. If you are a writer then try and find an extra couple of hundred words which are based on what you are writing, or will write in the next chapter. It might be character descriptions, or scene setting, or dialogue. If you are an artist you might need to experiment with colour, or sketch certain body parts, or try different techniques for applying the paint.
Use the creativity you need for that particular moment.
Don’t get distracted or show off. Use the skills to produce the elements you need to make that particular chapter, or picture, or composition, exactly as you need it. Be prepared and execute. If the scene is your chapter is heavy on dialogue, then make sure you have been practicing that element. Listen to good movies or tv, listen to or read good scenes from books and plays.
Sometimes, particularly in the early stages, things might not go quite the way you had planned. It happens. Work out why and fix the issue. Sometimes there might not be a specific problem, you just didn’t execute well enough, so make sure you do the next time. Keep pressing on and know everything will come together late on in the season when it really matters. You may have zigged when you wanted to zag but keep the process going and remain focused on the end result.
Don’t waste time and energy.
Monosyllabic answers and repetitive phrases at press conferences are communicating that this isn’t where we win championships and Super Bowls.
As creatives we have platforms which can really boost the audience for our creativity in ways which no other writers/artists have had before, but it can also be a massive distraction. Social Media is the press conference. Learn from Bill. Don’t waste your energy and know it is taking time away from your main job. It is necessary, which why even he does them, but his conduct tells you that he knows what is important. The end result.
So Create Like Bill! And I hope to see you all in the Hall of Fame! (But don’t be surprised if Bill doesn’t speak with us!)