“Story talent is primary, literary talent secondary but essential. This principle is absolute in film and television, and truer for stage and page than most playwrights and novelists wish to admit… Only by using everything and anything you know about the craft of storytelling can you make your talent forge story.”
After writing or co-writing sixteen novels (and a volume of ten short stories), I may finally be taking the story design process sufficiently seriously. I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m really learning how to do it properly yet, but I am at least taking it seriously… And it is also just kicking my ass. It turns out that doing SERIOUS storywork, beat by every beat, getting down into the weeds, before writing a single word… is just cognitively BRUTAL. (It’s so damned hard I’m here doing this instead, just to get away from it for a few minutes.)
But here’s what I’m learning:
In story design, there’s absolutely nowhere to hide: every beat you’re working with is a big story turn. Whereas in writing, particularly writing something like a 100k-word novel, it is very easy to fool yourself into believing that thousands of words of mere maundering prose is actually story. If you haven’t designed it first, it’s probably not.
In an outline, a 20-page synospis, or a matrix of notes cards (real or virtual), whatever you’re using in the process of “breaking story”
everything is either plot or character (or maybe theme, though that should probably be an emergent property). In other words, pure story. Rule Number One is: Story is things happening. And if it’s not something happening, it’s simply not going to come into it at this stage. And that may be the best argument for taking the story design phase very, very seriously. The fact that you can't fool yourself. You actually have to wrestle with that giant, amorphous, anything-is-possible hurricane of pure story which is at every second knocking down houses and threatening to pick you up and carry you away and crush you until you've somehow shaped it into a beautiful kingdom of clouds. (Which you can then build out into a solid one made of bricks, i.e. words.)
In the remarkably lovely and wise literary memoir (i.e. memoir of a literary life) Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert asks:
“I finally realized that this was a really weird battle for me to be fighting. Defending my weaknesses? That’s seriously the hill I wanted to die on?”
Great old expression. And, yeah, this STORY is in fact the hill I want to die on.
Dispatch from the Razor's Edge is owned and operated by novelist, technologist, vegan, exercise junkie, classical liberal, rambler, and Londoner Michael Stephen Fuchs.
Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)
Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some verylongwalks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.
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