The Art of Storytelling, Part 7


This is probably the last in this series. The February issue of Writer’s Digest has fueled a lot of my thoughts and I’m reaching the end of the articles dealing with fiction.

The one I read today reaffirmed some of the things I’ve learned about plot, but also said succinctly what I think inhibits some writers. From Steve Almond‘s Fiction column, this month’s article, “The Great Plot Test,” in which he discusses common problems he runs across in teaching fiction:

The truth is, we often can’t see the bad decisions in our own work because we’re too narcissistically attached to it.

Yep, the truth hurts at times. But he said what I bumbled around a few days ago. “Too narcissistically attached.”

Years ago, in a long forgotten article or writing book, an author wrote a well-remembered statement that if we have lines in our story that we really love, those probably are the first we should cut. I disagreed! Vehemently! Why would you cut something you knew to be good?

Finally, finally I get it. The lines themselves were standing above the story, and that’s backwards. The writing, as much as the characters, plot, setting, foreshadowing, description, symbolism, dialogue must serve the story.

If I write a pretty line I refuse to cut, I am no longer serving the story with that line. That’s not to say I need to cut a line because it is pretty. But I do need to be willing to cut it.

Lo these many years later, I’ve been lopping off favorite lines right and left.

Writing fiction really is odd. I mean, it is a form of communication, so it’s me writing something I want to say to … an unseen and unknown group of people “out there.” And, if I do my job well, those people won’t think about me at all. They will feel attached to my characters, perhaps, and after the fact become aware of me, but if I intrude in the story, they very well may put the book down, or at best skip the pages where I am visible.

The point is, those lines I love just might be the ones that intrude. At least, I need to consider that possibility.

One more line from the article. Two of the common problems Almond finds in his students have to do with plot/character issues. The first is plot drift, in which the action is not driven by the character trying to achieve his greatest desire. The second is plot shallowness (my term—Almond says the author fails to push hard enough). Here’s the crux of this last point, and I’ll end here to let you mull it over:

My point is this: Once you’ve found a strong central desire within your hero, your plot decisions boil down to forching him into the danger of his own feelings. All else becomes secondary.

Published in: on January 15, 2009 at 4:40 pm  Comments (6)  
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