Snowball or the Need to Tell Stories

Consciously, I knew I wanted to be a writer since the 11th grade. I had a wonderful English teacher, Connie Nokes, who made literary elements like symbolism, allegories and foreshadowing come alive for me. I had already written a few (horrible) short stories at that point, and I remember something clicked.  I wanted to be a creative writer when I grew up. I just knew it. A switch had been flipped that would never flip back.

But looking back, maybe it wasn’t a switch at all. Maybe it was more of a snowball that had already been pushed down the hill at a much earlier age. My mother has a big file with all the “books” I wrote as a kid. I would write, and my brother would illustrate. One was a Beetle Bailey comic story of all things.

I have fond memories of both my parents when it comes to storytelling. My mother’s reading voice still evokes strong emotions from me that are connected to her reading books to me as a child. And my father loved to tell stories to us, accented with a host of unique and colorful voices.

I believe that everyone is connected to story in powerful and subconscious ways. But for me, it goes even deeper. I am caught in that giant snowball now, rolling uncontrolled down the hill, arms flailing.

We Change and Change Again

I’m reading through Robert McKee’s book on film writing, Story, which came recommended to me through a gaming podcast (that was discussing writing RPG modules of all things). I’m enjoying it so far, finding that most of it resonates with my own ideas of story, while also picking up some gems of insight.

McKee said something about the differences between the optimistic Hollywood approach to story versus the pessimistic European “art film” approach:

Americans are escapees from prisons of stagnant culture and rigid class who crave change. We change and change again, trying to find what, if anything, works. After weaving the trillion-dollar safety net of the Great Society, we’re now shredding it.

This statement seemed to mirror some of my own attitudes, particularly in my youth, when I was constantly challenging everything, often before I even really understood it. I would change a writing convention just because, at a subconscious level, I believed change was somehow in and of itself good. And honestly, although this may have been a personal rite of passage that I had to go through, I feel this wasted a lot of my time.

That’s not to say that I believe in adhering to traditional standards, because “they work damn’t!” It’s just to say, I wish I had understood some things about the way art works better with a thoughtful consistency and structure (whatever that arbitrary consistency is).

It’s not that change is bad. It can be wonderful. But it just seems like the wrong focus, that pulls energy away from where your artistic sweat and blood should be going. A good artist doesn’t lose sleep over whether his message is the arbiter of change. He worries about whether it’s the right message. Or least, an interesting one.

Tying the Knots: Visualizing Plot

As I reached the middle point in the novel, I began to worry about having all my characters enter and exit the final climax with meaningful story arcs. I worried about having everything come together and “feel right” and give the reader that sense of “everything paid off.”

So I entered my second phase of frantic story plotting. I struggled for awhile with a way to represent the story visually. I toyed with the program XMind (which satisfied some of my needs but not all). In the end, I couldn’t get it to present the elements I needed to see all at once in the format I needed. Primarily, I wanted to lay out character motivations and plot events, and be able to easily move things around, draw and erase associations, and so on. Plus, and this is the shortcoming of most programs like this, it needs to have a flexible and free-wheeling approach. I would also like the visualization to have some depth to it, so I can bring forward and push back certain element types. Color coding and icons are also critical to highlight story arcs and similar threads. Someday, perhaps, I may collaborate with a developer to design such a tool. For now, however, in the heat of artistic creation, I was too impatient to slow down for such a project. So I did the visualizations in my head. Still, I think there’s a better way.

Although I would still love to have the tool I describe above, I am fairly satisfied with the resulting outline. Having a plot line I’m comfortable with, makes writing the prose relatively smooth sailing. I love not having to worry how I’m getting to the next scene. Knowing that, I can just play with the language and the characters and the scene and just make the prose come alive more.

Your Environment: The Other Character

Today’s blog post was inspired by this excerpt from the comic, Breaking into Comics The Marvel Way. The passage from which it is taken focused on advising new comic book artists:

Include more backgrounds to give us a better sense of place. Think of your background as another character in the story and use it to help enhance the storytelling and the world your characters are inhabiting.

While the writer, C.B. Cebulski, was talking about comic art, his advice could just as easily apply to fiction writing. It’s so easy to forget the importance of the background. When developing a story, we’re often trained, formally or informally, to think about sentient characters and their development.

But the background, and here I mean the environment or the setting, is critical to your story in that it provides that layer of texture that grounds the more ethereal qualities of dialogue and action. Not only that, but it’s also a key element in differentiating your story from all other stories. And by thinking of your environment as a character, you can really flesh out its nuances and peculiarities.

I suggest writing up a character persona on your environment. And finally, think about how that persona interacts with the other characters in your story. What do each do for the other?