How to Write: Lesson 4
Well, we’ve covered a number of writing tips that don’t really have a lot to do with the craft of writing. It’s important to get in the right mindset and to prepare to create your work but time has come to actually how we go about doing the actual writing. While throwing words on pages is the essence of the art, there are obviously techniques and considerations that can assist with that end. Since, just any old words won’t work. We’ve read stories that weren’t good and others that simply blew us away. How do we make ours more the latter than the former.
So today we’re going to talk about the three main components of a story. They’re part ingredients and part spices. They inform and direct each other even if you only use a dash of one and a healthy helping of the third. But any story can be considered through these three elements and it’s best to think about them at the start than try and address them later when you’re neck deep in the minutia of your work.
These three cornerstones of writing are, of course, Character, Plot and Theme.
I’m sure that’s elicited a series of groans from just about anyone that had to take a high school English course. But it’s important to recognize that our teachers didn’t pull these aspects out for analysis with no justifications. Its these elements that get your readers hooked and it’s what will separate your writing from the rest.
But it’s also important to know that you don’t need all three. In fact, many of the best literary books will put their primary focus on one of these (though they’ll still have the others in a lesser degree). They are so ubiquitous that an explanation for them is pretty unnecessary but their importance may not be immediately evident.
Every story, for example, has characters. And those with primary attention to character are easy to highlight. They’re often the ones selected for book studies in school and include such famous works like Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mocking Bird or Memoirs of a Geisha. The draw for the reader is the personal journey and change they undergo. Oftentimes, if you really break down the moment to moment action, there isn’t really a lot happening in that person’s life. But the personal struggle, the internal turmoil brought on by the challenges the protagonist faces, are what draw the reader in. If writing a character driven story, it’s vitally important that you have a rich and fully developed character. Their hopes and weaknesses will be essentially what leads your plot and inform the themes.
On the flip-side, plot driven novels put far more focus on the action. The characters are important but you’re there for their exploits and whatever business they’re on, not necessarily the gritty peeling of their personality. These kinds of stories are often broadly popular. Star Wars, for example, has rather generic characters. They’re more archetypes than individuals. It’s the struggle between the Rebels and Empire that interests the fans. Spending too much time on the interpersonal conflict can actually detract from the narrative itself. But, of course, you can’t have empty names filling the sides of your gripping battles either. Characters are more defined by their relation to the driving conflict and the people that oppose them.
Of the three, thematic stories are perhaps the rarest. At least stories that put the theme at the forefront and drive most of the narration. Your Star Wars and Memoirs of a Geisha certainly have prominent themes but the theme isn’t at the fore. Lord of the Flies is really driven by its theme to the point of dictating character action and plot development. One reason for thematic driven pieces to be so rare is the modern perception of these stories coming across as too preachy. A Pilgrim’s Progress is hardly going to have the splash now as it did in 1678. As such, modern writing generally regulates theme to a secondary or tertiary consideration but it’s still an important one, nevertheless.
Thus, when preparing and writing your novel, it’s important to keep in mind where you want to set your focus. You can, of course, prepare these in broad strokes if that is your style. But it will save yourself a lot of headache and frustration in the editing phase if you’ve already got a focus from the start. When writing my first story, I had a kernel of an idea and set about trying to realize it into something more than a two line pitch. It took several drafts before I realized that the personal character elements were dragging away from the action I wanted to be the primary focus. My natural inclination for character dramas was detracting from the mystery that was meant to pull the reader along and really muddied the narrative.
Thus, for my second novel, I knew that I wanted my characters to take central stage. So the plot took a backseat and the locations and events that did explode onto the page were issues that sprang from personal histories or would allow the expression of my cast better than necessarily what would be the most exciting event. Furthermore, the specifics that I detailed in the world creation were meant to provide further insight into the characters and their motivations.
My latest novel, however, is far more thematic. The genesis for it was based on conceptions of humanity and its malleability due to technology. Considering how best to communicate my thoughts on the intersection of these two elements dictated the structure of the novel and who would ultimately be the principal characters. It determined their ages and occupations as well as the need to split the novel in two for both points of view.
Because, ultimately, determining on which element is going to be your focus will inform the techniques that you utilize. Certain tropes work better in plot heavy stories than they do in character pieces. And you’re not apt to use a stream of consciousness in order to narrate the big confrontation of your alternative history epic when your hero finally confronts the villain that has plunged the world into war.
So, when writing your story decide how much of your centre stage is going to be taken up by your characters, themes or plot and make sure that when pacing and developing the narrative you portion off the appropriate amount of time to each. With any luck, you can pinpoint when you’re spending too much time rushing from point to point and not listening to the inner struggle of your character or when theme starts dragging out the enjoyment of your plot. It should let you correct course before veering too far off-track and reduce the workload of your editing.