Thursday, April 21, 2022

Getting out of the way

“Sometimes the story knows what it’s trying to say, and your job is to let the story speak.”

I said this to a student this morning. He had two pages written and said he didn’t know where to go from there. We were “talking through” his story, meeting 1:1 for a critique, and the more I listened, the more I heard him talk about his aspirations for the story, which seemed juxtaposed with what he’d written. In the end, we talked about several passages that seemed to speak to his original concept, and he went back to the drawing board, looking for ways to flesh those original ideas out.

Or, rather, he went about the work of getting out of the way and letting the story reveal itself to him (and the reader).

This sounds much easier than it is. We all have great ideas, and the beginning of every story holds promise. Raymond Chandler once said, “There are no dull stories, only dull minds.” Stephen King described writing as akin to archeology –– the trick is to get the story out of the ground without breaking it. That’s a useful analogy, one I return to often, as a writer and a teacher.

It’s why outlining is so hard. What looks good on the outline might not work when you have to actually execute the game plan. The game changes as it’s being played. This is why my “outlines” are more like long, detailed character sketches, complete with motivations and maybe even a few lines of dialogue, things I think the character would say that helps me to define them (for myself and then the reader).

I’d love to hear more from the Type M community on the topic of getting out of the way of the story and letting it reveal itself.

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