Not long ago I hit a wall and realized I needed to study the structure of stories more closely. At first my writing group didn’t really understand where I was coming from, as they were all just starting into their second major novels with the corresponding joy and motivation that goes along with starting a fresh writing project. They recommended the old writer’s maxim of “writers write.” They wanted me to just write through it. Part of me did as well, but I knew I needed something more. I’d gotten 300 pages into a new novel, that I like a lot in parts, but I just couldn’t hold the narrative thread. I knew I needed a new path through the woods.
When I stopped writing, I took the time to study a bunch of books on the craft that helped me understand stories at a new level. Eventually, I settled on a few books that really worked for me, most notably the Seven Basic Plots and Anatomy of the Story. And as it turns out, my struggles heralded problems the group would face not long after me.
I saw the signs of struggle in the group building week after week. People were writing, but their second books weren’t as strong as their first. The narratives wandered or lost focus just like mine had. And then it happened. Everyone hit the wall at the same time, stopped writing and wondered what to do next. Graeme Ing, one of the writers from the group, has a great post on what happened to him called, “Wait I’m not done after the first book?” The good news is, this is all part of our journey as writers. It’s a good thing. It’s necessary. In fact, it’s common for novelists writing their second book. They realize they can’t just feel along in the dark with a small flashlight anymore. If they’re going to make a go of this thing, then they need to learn their craft, get better, get more disciplined and professional. Sometimes more disciplined means NOT writing. How you say? Because when you are planning a novel, setting up your premise and characters and scenes, it requires every ounce of strength not to leap right in and start cranking out pages. When you realize you need to study structure, the best thing you can do is give yourself a plan.
For about a month before my comrades hit the same wall I’d already slammed into, I’d started to dig in with a story plan for a new book. I built Word docs and Excel spreadsheets that defined characters and their desires, as well as scenes with their function in the story. I found myself wanting to share what I was working on with the group, but for years we had followed the same structure of bring in pages, read and then critique. It had worked well and I didn’t want to disturb it. But then one of the other writers in the group, Deborah Reed, sent out an article about a writer’s group that gets together for intensive sessions where they plot out each other’s books, ask hard questions and generally make all of their premises stronger. I knew I had to bring in what I was doing right then. It’s amazing how things can dovetail at just the right time, if you trust the process.
At the end of my structure study, I decided I would take the Anatomy of a Story Master Class with the author, John Truby, a three day intensive in Los Angeles. In my mind I already knew it would mark the close of that period of study and be the start of a new beginning with my work. I was right. It was one of the most incredible classes I’ve ever taken. There are people online who’ve never taken a Truby class and don’t understand what he is all about. They look at his writing credits on IMDB and see he only has a few credits to his name. What they don’t understand is that Truby has consulted on 1000s of scripts and that he’s really a professional writing instructor, who’s been at it for three decades. Someone can be a fantastic instructor or a fantastic writer or both, but they are not the same thing. I’m pretty sure Serena Williams’ coach couldn’t beat her in tennis if his life depended on it, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to teach her. Teachers teach. Writers write. Both are necessary. If you want the best PRACTICAL writing instruction class you can get for your hard earned money, then take the Truby class.
My group was ready to move to a new level. We decided to work together as a group, bring in our outlines and characters, and ask the tough questions. We did our first session on Thursday and I loved it. I printed out a huge grid of my characters and their relationships and we brainstormed together. I recommend everyone find a group of trusted authors to do the same.
Of course, there are still a few doubts within the group, which is understandable. This biggest one is as follows: as writers start to study structure they worry that structure will destroy their creativity. I worried about it. I love the free form nature of writing, the discovery of new worlds and ideas. I love meeting a character for the first time and inventing traits on the fly. Yet proper story structuring techniques can only enhance your creativity not hurt it. A good process is organic. It’s a series of questions that lead to other questions. This question and answer process is really the core of the creative journey. You just have to trust. More importantly you have to actually DO the process to judge it fairly.
So how does an organic process of discovery work? Let’s take an example that I just discovered today. I’m working on a story about a family torn apart in a civil war. I’ve decided to set up a rivalry between brothers. The younger brother is jealous of his father’s love for the older brother, the hero of the story. Secretly, he wants to be his older brother but lacks the insight and talent. Once you have these ideas, then that’s where the creativity really begins to work its magic. You take these ideas and you ask questions. I realized the hero had a beautiful girlfriend, a singer. The younger brother is jealous of her. How could I dramatize that? How could I show his obsession with her building until it leads to tragic consequences? I realized the brother could rape her. That led to more questions. What would the scene look like when he raped her? I realized he’d go see her sing in secret. Maybe he’d follow her home. That idea led me to create more scenes. One scene leads to another and opens up even more doors. You follow the logical conclusions of the actions. You ask, what led to his jealously? Maybe he watched them before, maybe he saw them enjoying an intimate moment for themselves and wanted it desperately? Then after the rape, what happens? She’d feel shame or rage. I chose shame. She doesn’t want to tell the hero, but it’s killing her inside. Naturally that means that she tries to hide it, but the hero is perceptive. He notices something is wrong and he works to get her to tell him the truth. He confronts her. Finally, she break down and tells him. Now we have another step. The hero must confront his brother. How will he react? Will he take revenge? Will he beat him or kill him? See how one things leads to the next like beads on a string? See how this IS the creative process?
Even if I never use the scenes that I just talked about, I’m working through the structure naturally. I’m asking hard questions now, making mistakes now. It’s much easier to fix these mistakes during the planning process. Eventually, I will get down to writing these scenes, but I’m patient enough to give it time to let the story grow. And when I do write, I’ll know I’m working from a solid foundation that will sweep my audiences and me along through a tidal wave of intimate opponents, intrigue and action.