Here is a guest post from Chris Holzworth (a former student of mine), discussing that strange paradox which all writers face: much of the work of writing seems a blind slog through guess work and revision, constantly encountering unplanned detours, with characters and settings coming out perversely different from how you intended—and yet good writing, as a finished product, seems perfectly ordered and designed, perfectly sychronised from start to finish, each section leading unexpectedly but inevitably to the next, so much so that a casual reader might think the whole thing was composed and drafted in one care-free afternoon. How does a writer, and a writer of science fiction / fantasy in particular, try to cope with these two contradictory sides of writing and, at the end of it all, produce good work?
The Woes and Wonder of World Building
An interesting question was raised by a peer of mine in Daniel’s Advanced Creative Writing Class: At what point does a writer know when to focus on prose and when to focus on plot? Well, this is a difficult question—one without a definitive answer. Neither, it would seem, is completely independent of the other. Both are intertwined and become a recursive process, and both need to be addressed during drafting. Now, this advice may seem geared toward the particular genres to which I gravitate—science fiction and “fantasy” (a term I hesitate to use, since it tends to evoke Tolkien High Fantasy—I am equally trepident about esoteric subgenre labels such as “New Weird”)—but as someone who stumbled into writing through video games, namely Japanese Role Playing Games, I’ve always placed particular emphasis on cohesive narrative plots. And since breaking into classic and sci-fi detective fiction through such works as Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and Sara Paretsky’s Warshawski novels, the importance of a tightly woven narrative has been effectively hammered into my brain.
What isa “tightly woven narrative”? For me, it is a Rube Goldberg machine, where there are no major loose ends—every character, every event, every narrative moment, like the machine’s parts, may seem arbitrary, but, by the end, the pieces of a seemingly disparate puzzle become clear. The characters’ arrival through the denouement to the ending click, make sense. Everything that happens, every detail, serves a purpose and pushes the story, weaves it into a cohesive package. Even if the event involves, say, a character going to a coffee shop, the tightly woven story uses this scene as an opportunity to focus on some aspect of the character that will become relevant later and link to the overall story.
“Writing is very much like bricklaying,” stated Red Smith, as quoted in Plot & Structure. “You learn to put one brick on top of another and spread the mortar so thick.” Unfortunately, there is no trick or clever technique or genius (well, perhaps a little genius) behind creating a tightly woven narrative. Your best hope, your safest bet, is planning. Prewriting. Taking the time and effort—just as much time and effort as you would put into prose writing, perhaps—to construct characters, their backstories, the world, its inhabitants, its politics, its everything. Hell, the fact that there are so many damn books, like Plot & Structure, about the “techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish” proves plot’s importance.
The thing is, in my relatively brief experience, I’ve found there are really only two approaches to fiction plot construction. The first is extensive prewriting—spending a year or so building up a world, its inhabitants, its texture, its culture, and damn near every minute detail. This no doubt is particularly relevant for the science fiction and fantasy writers, who have to create a living, breathing, thriving world out of thin air. But even for those whose writing is set in the real world, the complexities of a tightly woven narrative require extensive planning. The other option, and the one I find myself blending with prewriting, is to flesh out and tighten plot as I move from draft to draft. Part of the drafting process involves strengthening your prose, your dialogue, your narration—honing in on Point of View, on character values—but with each new draft, so too do you find new ways, better ways, to pull your plot strings more tightly together. Plot and prose are never mutually exclusive.
I am currently on the fourteenth draft of a short story I’ve been kicking around for two or three years. After the first year, I set it aside, knowing full well I had failed to textually execute that which possessed perfect clarity in my mind. Then Daniel’s class swung ‘round and I decided to dust off this particular story—“Nazca City Blues”—in an effort to raise its caliber. I adored the potential of my protagonist, I loved the idea of blending detective fiction with an unconventional fantasy setting. As my piece neared its workshopping, I vanished off the radar and spent nearly two weeks producing ten drafts. With each draft the story grew more cohesive, the prose stronger. I wrote outlines, mapped out the story’s progression and scene interrelations on index cards. Printed out hardcopies and studied the movement of the story. Questioned the relevance of dialogue, characters, and events. Fought through heartbreaking deletions of paragraphs and scenes. Even now, after fourteen arduous drafts, I still find myself blue-penning whole sentences and noting when and where the narrative dips. Even now, as I bounce ideas off of other writers, Daniel included, I find myself discovering new ways to tell a more effective detective story from what I’ve created thus far, better connecting the characters, plot arcs, and world building.
I was shocked to learn from Daniel that, often, creative writing teachers and published writers alike dismiss the importance of plot. Now, I am willing to bet these writers happen to have a knack for plotting and narrative pacing. For some people it really is an innate talent. But they are a rare breed. For others, particularly beginners, it’s not so obvious. More often than not, the sheer effort it takes to fill ten blank pages is a sufficient accomplishment for most. It’s why so many undergraduate fiction stories—mine included—are clunkily paced. The end fizzles. It’s easy to get swept up in filling the canvas, completing the sketch.
Ironically, despite those who dismiss plot’s importance, there remains a plethora of basic plotting and pacing techniques taught to writing students—Freytag’s Pyramid and Syd Field’s three-act structure, for instance. This screams the importance of plot, whether we choose to recognize it or not, and I think that, like the need for a functioning command over grammar, sentence structure, flow, and formatting, so too do early writers need to learn plotting structure to avoid having stories that meander about pointlessly (or, worse, not engagingly).
Honestly, as I see it, there’s no way to get where you’re going without a roadmap. For writers, the outline is the roadmap. There are countless outlining methods: some use traditional outlines, some outline in prose. Others break stories into scenes or acts, laying out brief descriptions on index cards. Methods vary, and no one way is necessarily better than another—go with whatever system works best for you. It’s highly personal and subjective. But one thing remains certain: attention to pacing and plot are paramount. If it weren’t, Writer’s Digest wouldn’t dedicate a whole book to plot and structure. And those of us not raised by talented intellectuals with a penchant for writing—as Mary Shelley was—need a grasp of the basics and a firm foundation before plunging into a ten thousand-word manuscript. Hell, we need this knowledge just to bang out a ten-page short story that locks readers’ interest from start to finish.
At the end of the day, plot is important regardless of the kind and length of the story you’re telling. And if you’re like me, aiming to construct elaborate worlds with complex sociopolitical dynamics and a rich, original history, well, you have only one option: to embrace the woes and wonder of world building.