You have now – from inside you somewhere – dug out the three elements of a story. It should be one that you wouldn’t have considered writing, before starting this guide.
Because with each exercise, in each case, I have nudged you toward doing more than one thing at once.
NEVER DO JUST ONE THING AT A TIME
I have deliberately made these exercises more than just the usual writing exercises – exercises you have no need to engage with emotionally.
Perhaps the main lesson I would like you to take from this guide is that, as a good writer, you will never do just one thing at a time – I mean, write in order to perform one task at a time.
There is no such thing as a “descriptive passage” or “a brief character sketch”. There is no separate chunk of prose to be labelled “brief witty dialogue section” or even, though the task may need to be accomplished, “sentence to get the character into the room”.
Everything – every sentence – will always be doing at least two but possibly half a dozen things.
For example, a description of a bedroom is also a character sketch of the person or people who sleep there, a contribution to the mood of the story as already established and also, perhaps, a foreshadowing of action that may happen in the bedroom or elsewhere. The description is also a piece of social observation that tells us about an entire class and culture, and any number of other things as well – many of them not easy to label; the stuff that goes on between writer and reader on an unconscious level. This is how I see the world; Oh, interesting, I see it the same/very differently.
I have tried to complicate even these basic exercises with desire and memory and deceit – not merely to make them harder but to ensure that, whilst carrying them out, you weren’t able to do just one thing at once.
If you’re in the shit with your writing, it may be because this is what you’ve been doing. It’s too obvious to you what each sentence is trying to achieve. This may make you bored with your own work, or – at the least – disenchanted with it. Hopefully, some of the suggestions soon to come will help you address this. Starting with –
In getting you to do these exercises, I have nudged you toward writing emotionally and excessively.
By excessively I mean more than normally. This will soon become clearer.
Let’s, for now, just take a simple example. Straightness.
There are kinds of flamboyance, of dressing up, of having fun, that most people don’t allow themselves, apart from on Hallowe’en or Mardi Gras.
I am saying that you need to be able to access those excesses at all times. Your page should be more like a festival than, as my father used to say, a wet weekend. Because, if you don’t access excess, you may end up writing something boring.
THE ELEMENTS OF YOUR STORY THAT DIDN’T PREVIOUSLY EXIST
What is your story about?
It is about this – now read it back to yourself, out loud.
First, your place – this is where your story begins.
Then your person – this is who your story begins with.
And then your thing – this is what begins your story.
Is it an interesting story, potentially? Does it have more basic story energy than the last story idea you came up with by yourself?
Exercise: Copy out a new version of the story-start.
Explanation: You have your story-start kept safe somewhere, I hope – the one I asked you to dig out before. I’d now like you to make a new copy of it – but so as to get to know it better than you would just by photocopying it or printing it out again, I’m going to ask you to make another copy of it by hand.
It doesn’t have to be neat. It doesn’t matter at all if you make the odd mistake and have to cross things out. In fact, it’s better if it looks like a working draft rather than a handwriting sample.
Drafts are not for being neat, they’re for making glorious messes over and over again. Copy out every work that you wrote, even the bits you wrote in two versions or left struck through.
Once you’ve done this try an experiment, if you like (don’t have to if you don’t want to share):
Experiment: Read out to someone you know, or anyone you trust, the three elements and then read out the first two pages of your latest story idea then ask them which they would like to hear more of.
I am gambling that, in most cases, the someone will be intrigued by all the mismatched elements and will feel a strong desire to see how they could possibly fit together.
I am gambling that, in your opening (because it’s in the shit), you won’t have created an equal amount of potential story energy.
Either way, they’ve chosen to hear more of something you’ve written.
Time for my two story definitions:
A story needs something, somewhere and someone.
A story is about a person or a thing that is in the wrong place.
Aside: By wrong, I do not necessarily mean morally wrong or wrong in a way that would upset or offend someone (although this may be the case) – I just mean not usual.
It’s weaker, but just as much my definition to say A story is about a person or a thing that is not in the usual place.
In between now and next time, try and think of exceptions. Especially you, Mr But.
Can you come up with an example of a story, in any form, where every element from start to finish is in its right place – the person is where the person usually is, doing what the person usually does?
See you in a click.