Every Story Has a Shape
I’ve always been a believer that our stories exist before we write them. Our job as writers, once we stumble upon these tales, is to bring them up into the sunlight in such a way that their best and most truly intended contour is revealed.
What has screwed me up on my current project—the subject of this “Report from the Trenches” series—is that I excavated the story wrong the first time around. If we think of the tale as a giant dinosaur fossil, I inadvertently chopped off the legs and dug so deep under the skull that the whole damn thing collapsed.
The process of readjudicating a story that we’ve written once and that has crashed and burned is kinda like digging up that dinosaur all over again, only revealing the true beast this time.
I said last week that, though I’d been through this process over and over on previous books, I’ve never really watched myself as I did it. I’ve never taken notes on what the hell I’ve done, or if it worked or not.
But I noticed a couple of things last week.
You could call them “tricks of the trade.” (I prefer the term “storytelling techniques.”)
Here’s one that really helped:
Give Character “A” scenes with “B,” “C,” “D,” and “E.” And so on.
If we’ve got a character named Michael, make sure he has scenes with the Don, with Sonny, with Clemenza, with Kay, with Fredo, and with Tom Hagen.
Likewise take Tom Hagen and put him in scenes with the Don, with Sonny, with Kay, and with Michael.
Because each scene acts like a laser beam scanning that as-yet-unearthed dinosaur.
Each scene reveals a new slice of the buried whole.
When we spitball a scene between Michael and Luca Brasi, even if that scene never makes it into the finished book or movie, it lights up an area that had previously been in shadow.
To write or even just to project this scene, we have to ask ourselves, “What would Michael talk about with Luca? What would Michael want? What would Luca want? What if Luca revealed something about the Don from their younger days, something that Michael did not know? Would that change the story? Could Luca betray Michael? Would Michael sell Luca out to another of the Five Families? Why? To gain what? What further scenes and sequences would this lead us to?”
See what I mean about “lighting up” the buried dinosaur?
I watched myself over the past few weeks’ work and I realize that I’ve been doing this unconsciously. I’m using this technique not just with one-on-one scenes but with scenes containing three, four, and five characters.
I’m mixing-and-matching and watching what happens.
And I’m projecting other scenes that this new scene might lead to.
I have two female characters in the story I’m struggling with. One is a detective, Dewey, the junior partner in the team with the protagonist, Manning. The other is the Mystery Woman, Rachel, whom both detectives believe holds the major clues they’re after.
I realized that I had no scenes with these two women together.
Wow. That’s no good.
“Steve, you gotta get these two females in the same room and see what happens.”
What came out was a scene where Rachel had been badly injured in a car chase and had to be taken to the hospital. I sent Dewey with her, to hold her in custody and to watch over her.
The scene opened up a whole sheaf of possibilities. It gave me a chance to see one character in a completely vulnerable position and to have the other, who up to that point had been hostile and antagonistic, find herself in the role of protector.
Sure enough, the two woman bonded—and that plugged in beautifully to the Act Three and Climax that already existed.
The other thing we gain when we mix-and-match characters and give them scenes together is that we tighten the universe of the story. If Tom Hagen has a way he relates to the Don and the Don has a way he relates to Sonny, then when we have a clash in a scene between Sonny and Tom …
Goddamit, if I had a wartime consigliere, a Sicilian,
I wouldn’t be in this mess!
… the exchange is given added weight and dimension because of the other scenes that set it up and now illuminate it.
If Ophelia has had a scene with her father Polonius and her brother Laertes, both on the subject of her infatuation with the melancholy prince Hamlet (and his with her), those scenes add layers of interest when we put Hamlet and Ophelia in the same room and let them struggle to puzzle out their relationship. And when Laertes kills Hamlet in the climax because he believes his friend was the cause of the deaths of his father and sister (as we’ve witnessed in other scenes between and among them), the whole tragedy becomes a tightly-wound hand grenade, exploding with meaning.
Excellent idea! and one I haven’t seen suggested before – it’s rich with possibilities. Even if the scene doesn’t make it in the final WIP, we as the writer gain additional insights into our characters and that’s never a bad thing. I’m off to try this with some characters in my novel who haven’t “intersected yet” and see what happens. Thanks.
Or keep that material and work it into something else — a short story, a chapter in a sequel, that sort of thing.
Quite a few authors have said they keep a notebook or a text file filled with material that didn’t make it into a novel, or ideas that were awesome but didn’t fit into a particular narrative. That stuff can take on a life of its own.
Exactly! I too believe stories exist before we come upon them and we must honor what really happened. I have a lot of ideas for stories that haven’t worked out the way I thought they would, but I know they fit in somewhere, just not where I first thought. The fun of finding out where is what makes the journey worthwhile and such an adventure!
God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
Excellent analogy with the dinosaur fossil. It made me recall something I red, it may have also been your idea, about getting the story on the page. The simile was that writing a first draft was like a sculptor seeing the shape in the material she was working with (wood, cooper, stone, etc.). By getting the general shape of the art, we can start to refine the details and pull more out of the work because we know what it is.
Keep up the great work Steve and thank you for these last 8 or so posts about “the trenches”. I am in a different place than you with my own work. I struggle to complete larger works and fizzle out often with no idea how to proceed. I am now realizing I am starting with a handful of ideas about characters/setting/etc. but not with a vision for the whole story.
Rest assured I have taken great notes from these posts and it has helped me discover the possibilities of how I can improve my process.
What a great gift and thank you again for sharing your experiences and process with so many people.
As usual, your insight and wisdom is pure gold. Thank you! The timing is perfect as I’m now able to apply this to my third novel and I expect it to help greatly.
I love the fossil metaphor. Thanks for using The Godfather to illustrate this – lots of gold in this post!
It can also be fun and insightful for the writer to imagine how he’d feel or behave with the characters in a scene, and can expose some interesting stuff about him/her that has, until now, remained buried.
Thank you for your constant commitment to the craft and sharing your process with such unveiled vulnerability.
You are a Brave indeed!
This post was writing GOLD!
I’m reminded of the difference between British and “American-Russian” acting schools. Sometimes you have to work from the outside-in, and other times from the inside-out. The proof is in the product. Either way, it’s hard work and if it fails we only have ourselves to blame. Oy. Do I know that one.
The novelist David Mitchell cut some scenes from his 2014 novel “The Bone Clocks,” and those removed scenes became the basis for his 2015 novel, “Slade House.” (Which is ridiculously good, by the way — you know a novelist is at the height of his powers when he spins discarded material into an amazing book in its own right.)
Anyway, can I make a suggestion? Instead of using only this forthcoming novel as material for these blog posts, could you consider taking us through some of these processes with your well-known books?
Obviously none of us has read this forthcoming book, since it doesn’t exist yet, but we’re all familiar with Gates of Fire, the Afghan Campaign, Killing Rommel, etc., and it would be fascinating to read about the creative process behind those books and the decisions you made in terms of structuring them, choosing the points of view, reworking scenes, etc.
I’m not saying I don’t like this series. It’s been illuminating and it’s heartening to know even great novelists still struggle with this stuff from time to time. But I think we, the readers, would relate much more easily to anecdotes about books we’ve already read and have wondered about.
For example, the decision to introduce Sparta to us readers through the eyes of a squire — outsiders experiencing Sparta for the first time through the eyes of another outsider experiencing Sparta for the first time. That was a clever decision. Likewise, the scene with Alexandros and Xeo disobeying their elders and sneaking off to witness the pre-invasion battle — why was that scene necessary? What did it need to establish in the reader’s mind before the climactic battle of Thermopylae?
Anyway, just a thought. Cheers!
This is a very generous thing that you’re doing – exploring how you write, successes and failures, and sharing the lessons, the intuition, and the discovery. Love it.
Excellent insights and opening line, Steve. It reminds me of a story I heard a rabbi tell–of which I may get the details wrong.
Each of us comes to this world with 100 pieces. The thing is, 50 of those pieces aren’t authentically ours. In order to be who we came here to be, we must give away the 50 that don’t belong and accept the 50 that do–from other people doing the same thing.
That’s what you and Shawn do–help us discern what is and isn’t authentically our art. We’re fortunate to have you both.
Great post, Steve.
Steve: Love this idea and it made me recall one reason why I enjoy the TV show ‘Modern Family’. The writers mix and match the eleven main characters throughout the series and it does cast them in new lights. Thanks for the weekly enlightenment.
This is exactly how I’ve treated my various stories for years; more particularly, the characters who inhabit them. I view them not as objects, but rather people I come to know – in much the same way I get to know anyone else. I don’t consider myself a people person, which explains why I’m not a teacher or a politician. But the people I encounter in the stories that hop into my mind are intriguing nonetheless. They have something to say – just like everyone else – and I’ve become the right person to tell it. When I have trouble with them, I just sit back and let it go for a while. I move on to another project. That works for me in that I don’t have to force either the story to take shape or the characters to reveal themselves.
Would you consider providing the first draft of your current project along with our purchase of your current work as a learning resource so that we could compare and contrast the 1st draft with the final published work. I think it would be an amazing learning resource and a priceless behind the scenes look at a professional writers journey?