Wednesday Wonders: There’s science to art?

In reviewing an upcoming repost of an article about William Shakespeare, I was reminded of something about my creative process that I’ve seen at least one other writing teacher mention online, but it’s something I’ve been doing since forever, and I think that if writers of fiction adapt it, it will make their lives so much easier.

It’s simple, really. Who writes your novel, play, screenplay, or short story?

If you answered, “I do!” then you’re wrong. First of all this is why a lot of people think that writing is hard or suffer writer’s block. You’re laboring under the notion that you are doing everything.

But here’s the real answer. Who writes your dramatic work? Your characters.

What this means is that your job is to sculpt those characters first. For each of them, figure out their wants and needs, their personalities, they manner of speaking, and so on. Chart this all out — and trust me, it will be more useful than elaborating plotting out your story.

Figure out which characters get along and which ones don’t. Pay attention to their background, age, education, political leanings, and so on.

The only things you need to worry about plot-wise are these: 1) Who is my protagonist? 2) Who is my antagonist? 3) Where to they start? 4) Where do they end.

Sure, you can blop in rough route markers if you have major set pieces you want to happen. But in order to write your story, you begin by setting the scene, dropping in your first speaking characters, and then just standing back, shutting up, and letting them do the talking.

Now, that probably sounds kind of weird and difficult, especially if you’re writing prose and not a script. But it’s the same either way. Plus, in prose, you get the bonus of being able to let your readers know what your character is thinking or feeling at any moment. Hard to do that in a play or screenplay without reflecting it in the dialogue.

For a long time now, before I start writing everything, I create a spreadsheet with rows for each of my characters, and a series of questions I ask about them, which covers things like what do they want right now, what do they want as their major life goal, how do they see themselves, how do others see them, and so on.

One of my favorite parts of this, which I picked up from one of my writing teachers and best friends, Che’Rae Adams, is creating a metaphor to describe your character, because you can go wild with these. Maybe your character is a nervous Chihuahua in a room full of veterinarians, or a bowling ball tossed down a staircase, or your grandmother crashing your bachelor party while the stripper is there, or whatever.

This can be a nice little anchor that brings all the character traits together in a very powerful visual and emotional shorthand.

So, again, got all that? Good. To write a scene, put two characters in that room and let them start talking. All you’re doing is transcribing the conversation. All you need to keep in mind that each of those characters is going to steer things toward what they want or need. You only need to nudge them if they start to veer away from your overall route from beginning to end.

And yes, this is where learning how to do improv is really, really helpful, because what this style of writing essentially is (and it took me decades to realize that I’d always been doing this) is this: You’re doing a long-form improv act, but the entire cast is You.

For those of you who’ve been following my fiction on here via the Saturday Morning Post, either from the first excerpted short story/novella collection The Rocky Road from Walgreens or the later serialized in full novel The Rêves, this was exactly how I created the stories.

I knew where I was starting out. I knew where I was going. But I spent my development time creating the characters instead of the plots.

And, wouldn’t you know it? This is pretty much how TV writing has always worked. Irony alert: I never wanted to go into TV writing because, before the second golden age of streaming, I thought that most of it was crap.

I still think that, but I also see how TV has always focused on character over plot. And this is even true of police procedurals or medical shows or any of that kind of shit. Yeah, there’s a mystery to solve or a disease to cure — but it’s in the context of our (quirky, difficult, independent, etc.) protagonist fighting the system in order to be vindicated.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I guess the only reason it sucks in TV is because it gets repetitive for any particular show. “Oh, look. House is pissed off again.” “Oops. Walter White kind of overreacted. Again.”

Or maybe the problem is that a lot shows start out with characters and Point A, but never nail down the landing at Point Z because it’s a crapshoot over how long the series will run.

Just look at American Gods. It sure seemed like they were going to get another season, so they pulled a big risky season finale and… whoops. The end. Sucks when that happens.

But back to novels, short stories, plays, and screenplays. Don’t let all that TV shit discourage you. If you do wind up in TV, make sure to A to Y each season while always having the ultimate Z in mind that you can swap in at a moment’s notice.

And, always, don’t burden yourself with writing the story. That’s your characters’ job, and if you learn to listen, writing will become a breeze instead of a chore. Trust me.

<em><a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dictaphone.jpg”>Arnaud 25 (original image)Pechristener (cropping)</a>, <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0″>CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, via Wikimedia Commons</em>