Writing the synopsis for my novel, I have been following the guidelines on structuring and planning a story as set out by my writing course. For a long time (over a year), I was frustrated by the repeat of questions about my main character’s desire, the challenges she faces, the stakes etc, not to mention the tediousness of breaking each component of my story into setup, complication and payoff . I was sure I was sapping my story of any originality and killing any joy in the creative process, but I trudged along hoping it would all get better and easier. Well, it did. At least it got better – easy hasn’t happened yet.
I had a breakthrough some months back, finally understanding the purpose to all the planning. Now I can see that breaking up my story into discrete story units each with a set up, complication and payoff, and a central dramatic question raised and usually answered, makes for a multi-layered, complex and engaging story. The hard work in all this planning will ensure there is purpose to my prose, and down the track, when I spend more time on the narrative, my character (to borrow loosely from a Kurt Vonnegut quote) will have a purpose even while drinking a glass of water- perhaps with a central dramatic question of whether she sees it as half empty or half full. Okay, I butchered that. The actual quote is “Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time”.
I know not everyone follows such a format when they write a novel, but this is the only way I know how, it being my first attempt, and I am glad to be learning so much. Surrendering to the process which once felt stifling, I appreciate that setting boundaries for the creative process by defining character arcs, central dramatic questions and a theme to name just a few elements, I can create an intricate world to explore through my character’s particular circumstances and life view- a richer, more authentic human story than I would tell if my character’s inner and outer world lacked the connection that comes with consideration and planning.
My revelation also extends to a belief I now hold, that even if my story is never published nor read by anyone other than my tutor, It is worthwhile simply because it is a life teacher, a sentiment captured beautifully in an M.C.Richards quote I came across in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way All the arts we practice are apprenticeship. The big art is our life. Another brilliant quote, also found quoted in The Artists Way, and attributed to Alain Arias-Mission is The purpose of art is not a rarefied, intellectual distillate- it is life, intensified, brilliant life.
These are some of the lessons that have been revealed to me on my parallel writing and life journey:
A creative pursuit is hard work.
I had to re-frame my expectation that it would all be fun and rewarding all the time. Nothing is always good or always bad- this realisation helps to get through difficult times and builds the resilience to persevere in the face of challenges and when the rewards are not immediate. I can liken this to the lessons in the first of four noble truths presented by Buddah, commonly translated as “Life is Suffering” in English, although “suffering” is a somewhat lacking translation of “dukkah” which falls in three main categories of suffering, impermanence and conditioned states- these are all part of life- creative or otherwise.
A character needs a purpose or underlying desire and a motivator for taking action.
This has prompted me to ask the questions what is my purpose? What is making me do what I do and repeat mistakes I make? Are my actions aligned with my purpose? Answering these questions is a life long quest, every change, experience and knowledge gained is an opportunity to review that purpose and make changes either to the purpose or the path to getting there.
Other characters also have inner worlds, desires and weaknesses that once defined, make it a lot easier to imagine how they interact with the main character.
Woah, the world really doesn’t just revolve around me? Other people have needs, feelings, desires, goals, experiences, perspectives etc. Maybe less wars would be fought if people acknowledged this.
If a piece of writing doesn’t serve to move the story forward, let it go!
It’s not all lost though, the idea or flowery prose can be filed away for something else at sometime else, maybe the beginning of another story. Once I let go of my attachment to MY STORY as it was, I had an open mind and was able to embrace new story ideas and take a fresh approach. Insert profound life lesson here about attachments, embracing change and personal growth.
A story is more cohesive, and it is easier to maintain momentum in the writing process when you incrementally break the bigger story down
into a smaller and smaller story within a story, with the central dramatic question and character arc of the larger story linking it to the next level down, which also has a discrete question and character arc linking it to the next level down etc… This approach not only makes it easier to achieve the writing goal with only one small story to work on at a time, it keeps the focus on how you want your character to change; the challenges that precipitate that change; and, how you’ll set up and resolve the dramatic questions. I see an analogy here with the focus and planning required to achieve any life goals, and the re-assessment of those goals as you learn, grow and change.
A final observation I’d like to share is that even before embracing the method of structuring a story as espoused by my course (and countless others), I was able to appreciate that it held water in countless films I’ve seen where the story begins with the main character in a figurative (or sometimes literal) prison, driven to take action by an inciting incident, followed by all sorts of challenges that eventually gets him/her to a point of surrender, a revelation and then some profound change, followed by the credits rolling. I have also been able to reflect on changes in my life and recognised the typical character archetypes I have displayed and turning points that have been key events in the process of those changes. Art imitating life imitating art, including the bit about credits: Thanks to this great post by K E Garland for inspiring me to take action and jot down the thoughts that had been percolating for a while.
Are you writing a novel? Do you follow a structure, or is yours a more organic approach? Do you have any insights you’ve garnered about life in the process? I’d love to hear about it…