I spent the morning working with a very talented writer. An extremely well-placed agent had recently rejected her manuscript, but told her that he’d be happy to consider a revision, or anything else she submits. This is rare praise.
I wasn’t surprised, either by the praise or the rejection. This writer has a great voice; she’s a wordsmith of the first order. Problem is, she can’t tell a story, so as the agent pointed out, the manuscript was meandering, aimless and didn’t add up to anything. And here’s the thing: the writer knew it. But she couldn’t figure out what she was doing wrong.
Talking to her, I said, “Here’s what most writers do, and why they fail: They come up with an interesting character and an interesting situation, and then they start writing to see where it’ll go. They figure that both the story and the character will come clear to them as they write. What they end up with is a narrative that’s basically just a bunch of things that happen.”
“Yes,” she said, “That’s exactly what I did! And when I went back to rewrite, I didn’t know what to do, or how to make it better.”[pullquote]”Story first, “writing” second” is a fundamental guiding principle when it comes to writing an effective story. Ignore it at your peril.[/pullquote]
In fact, before we spoke, she’d written to tell me she was ready to chalk it up to a good try, and start over with something else. Which was heartbreaking, and happily, turned out to be unnecessary. Instead, she’s now going back to find the heart of the story was aiming for, and only then will she begin writing forward.
“Story first, “writing” second” is a fundamental guiding principle when it comes to writing an effective story. Ignore it at your peril.
November is a Terrible Month to Waste
Why am I telling you this now? Because next month is November, aka National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. It’s that time of year when writers across the country hunker down and let ‘er rip, the goal being to write 1,666 words a day for thirty days.
And then in December, all those writers will go back over those words to see if there’s anything worth salvaging. Which is when the vast majority of them very well might end up feeling like the woman I spoke with this morning. If they’re lucky. Others will spend months, if not years, trying to massage a bunch of things that happen into a story. They’ll send them off to agents who will say, “This didn’t add up to anything.” And then they’ll give up, maybe deciding they aren’t writers after all, and vowing to take up interpretive dance instead. Now, that is genuinely heartbreaking.
And utterly avoidable. How? By taking a little time before November to focus in on the story you’ll be writing – not the plot, but the underlying layer of story that most writers completely ignore before diving in, the layer where everything that really matters takes place: your protagonist’s evolving worldview. That is what readers come to experience.
Story Doesn’t Come Through Writing
Many writers – even established writers – start off with nothing more than a general sense of who their protagonist is, a rudimentary notion of what might happen in the plot, and a basic idea of what their story question will be. They believe that their protagonist’s internal struggle will come clear to them as they write.
This isn’t something you can write forward to figure out, because this inner struggle is what defines the story from the first page. It’s what you have to know before[pullquote] “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” — Proust[/pullquote] you create the plot. Because a story isn’t about the surface “plot” level events, regardless of how well rendered they are in accordance with any or all of the external story structure models that abound. Rather, a story is about how those events force the protagonist to overcome an internal misbelief in order to solve the story-problem and achieve her goal.
Can you see where this is going? The protagonist’s internal misbelief must already exist before the plot kicks into action. Every protagonist must enter already wanting something very badly, and with an inner issue – fear, fatal flaw, wound, misbelief – that keeps her from getting it. You must know these before you start to write because they define what the story will be about.
Make no mistake: readers intuitively know that story is about the protagonist’s inner struggle, even though chances are they can’t articulate it. It’s what we’re wired to track; we filter everything that happens through the protagonist’s evolving worldview. Don’t just take it from me, here are two august writers who articulate it perfectly:
“The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot
“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” — Proust[pullquote]The protagonist’s worldview is the lens through which she’ll see, experience, and evaluate everything that happens, beginning on the very first page. [/pullquote]
Think about that for a minute. Feel it. Story is about an inner change.
How on earth can your protagonist end up with new eyes, unless she begins by seeing things through old eyes? How can she see something she already knows for the first time (meaning really see it), if we don’t know how she saw it to begin with?
The answer’s easy. She can’t.
The protagonist’s worldview is the lens through which she’ll see, experience, and evaluate everything that happens, beginning on the very first page.
So if you don’t know what her worldview is going in – and, as important, what specific events created it — how will you know how she’ll react to anything? Or what things mean to her? Or what your plot must force her to realize?
You won’t. Which means that chances are you’ll just write a bunch of things that happen.
Your Personal Decoder Ring
I want to hit hard on why nailing these specifics before you begin writing is this so crucially important, because it flies in the face of what a lot of us were taught to believe, not only about writing, but about life. To wit: there is an objective reality out there, and unless we’re really, really screwed up, we all see the same world.[pullquote]We ascribe meaning to everything – tables, chairs, people, love — based on one thing only: what our personal experience has taught us to expect. [/pullquote] Not so.
Here’s how the brain really rolls:
Day-by-day from birth on, we each build our own individual dictionary of meaning – think of it as a personal decoder ring. When we’re born it only has a few universal pre-set codes, geared to physical survival. For instance, we’re pretty good at instinctively interpreting the physical sensations that telegraph things like: I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I’m tired, I’m dying to know if that cute guy over there likes me.
Just about everything else is learned. And here’s the game changer: it’s not learned “objectively,” so that everyone comes away with the exact same interpretation of what things mean. Rather, it’s all learned subjectively, based on personal experience, so everyone has a different interpretation of the same “objective” thing.
In other words, we ascribe meaning to everything – tables, chairs, people, love — based on one thing only: what our personal experience has taught us to expect.
For instance – and this is from Benjamin K. Bergen’s revelatory new book LOUDER THAN WORDS: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning — if I say the words “barking dog,” we’re all, by definition, going to see a different image.
Some of us will see a German shepherd with loud terrifying bark, some that ubiquitous T-shirt from The Black Dog Tavern in Nantucket, some a yippy-yappy Chihuahua, and some our own loving, tail-wagging mutt who’s happy to see us at the end of the day.
And it’s not just the image we see that’s different – it’s also how it makes us feel, and what we do in response. If you were attacked by a dog when you were little, right now you might be under the bed in the fetal position, breathing into a paper bag and waiting for your pulse to slow.[pullquote]Your goal – before you begin writing – is to create the lens through which your protagonist is going to see, and thus respond to, the events that will befall her.[/pullquote] Or, you may have seen good ‘ol Lassie running in slo-mo through an amber field of grain, and now you’re sniffling as you revise your will to leave everything to PETA.
But there is one thing that I guarantee NO ONE ever sees upon hearing the words “barking dog”:
“A highly variable domestic mammal (Canis familiaris) closely related to the gray wolf.”
Which, of course, is the dictionary definition of a dog – aka an “objective” general fact. And with conceptual terms, the difference is even more acute. If I say, “torture chamber,” you might picture a medieval dungeon replete with an iron maiden, or a dark pit in a desert in Afghanistan, or you might think of being strapped into a dentist’s chair with Yani blaring on the headphones (or maybe that’s just me).
Point being, each of us sees – and feels — what life has taught us to expect in every situation we face. It’s how we make sense of everything. Which means that throughout your story, your protagonist will be calling up her past to make sense of what’s happening to her in the moment. And that, my friends, is precisely what readers come for: inside intel. So your goal – before you begin writing – is to create the lens through which your protagonist is going to see, and thus respond to, the events that will befall her.
So What’s a Writer to Do?
Before you write word one, you must craft your character’s backstory. Not, mind you, a birth-to-death encyclopedic bio. That can be as paralyzing as knowing nothing. Here’s the secret: you’re only looking for information that affects the story you’re telling. If a story is about a problem, then what you’re looking for is the root of the problem that will kick into gear on page one.
First, you want to pinpoint two things:
- The specific event that knocked your protagonist’s worldview out of alignment, creating the misbelief that drives the inner action.
- The event that triggered her desire for the goal itself, which tells us what it really means to her.
Next, the trick is to trace how those two competing forces shaped her life up to the moment when the story begins. Not trace them in general, but in scene form.
I know, I know. That sounds like work. And as one aghast writing instructor said to me: “My students would never do that. They all want to start writing right away!” To which I responded: “This is writing!”
Plus, if you do this first, your first draft won’t be one of those meandering, romping, collections of things that happen, but the first draft of an actual story.[pullquote]This will give you potent, specific and revealing grist for the mill, not only in terms of how your protagonist sees the world, but the specific memories, ideas, and fantasies she’ll have as she navigates the plot.[/pullquote] So chances are you won’t have to do as much rewriting later. What’s more, maybe, just maybe, you won’t face certain rejection from agents when it’s time to pitch. Or, if you decide to self-publish, rejection in the marketplace.
And believe it or not, working out a story’s inner logic is the fun part. You can write like crazy, and not have to worry a whit about how “well” you’re writing. You can test out myriad scenarios as you can dig deep into how and where your protagonist’s worldview got skewed. Because you know darn well that from the instant her misbelief took root, there have been specific signs she’s misread, and facts she’s misinterpreted, things she’s done that have made achieving her goal that much more difficult. And, voila! You have her “old eyes.”
Here’s the Brilliant Part
This will give you potent, specific and revealing grist for the mill, not only in terms of how your protagonist sees the world, but the specific memories, ideas, and fantasies she’ll have as she navigates the plot. And as important, you’ll know the key players too – the people in her past who, for better or worse, helped facilitate that worldview. Chances are high they’ll play a part in the novel too, and now you’ll know when and why they’re at cross-purposes with your protagonist, what they’re hiding from each other, and when they’re woefully misreading each other.
In other words, you’ll have created the clay from which you can build your story. Which means that come November first, when the flag goes up, and you hear the announcer call out, “Novelists, start your engines,” you’ll already have the keys in hand.