This post is the first in my series on plot and storytelling.
The introduction and rationale for the series is here, and my argument for the importance of “story-telling” is over here: Can Writing Be Taught? If It Can, Why Aren’t I Better At It?
Today, I’d like to present a different way to write a story, a kind of experiment (different and experimental, at least, to me). To make it work, you’ll only need to write a dozen or so sentences, and when you’re done, you’ll have an outline for a brand-new story, to write up or alter as you please.
If people like the method, I can develop it in future posts, giving more models for different types and lengths of stories.
Here’s how I currently write short stories. I don’t think it’s a good method.
I usually start with inspiration: something in real life or from another writer’s story leaps out at me. Perhaps I’m walking at night and the sight of a wrecked car gives me the idea for a character, or perhaps I’m reading John Cheever’s story “Reunion” and think about writing a similar tale. Maybe I’m leafing through National Geographic one day, and the next day an image from that issue flashes in my mind.
From there, I start planning and imagining, coming up with characters, a point of view and a narrative voice, making plans. For me, one big goal of pre-writing is to build up my sense of the story until I stumble upon the big something that’s going to happen. Usually I delay writing until I have in mind that twist or significant change, the thing that’s going to end the story and give it a satisfying feeling. At that point, I write the story, and show it to friends, or perform it at a reading. Usually, I then revise it based on people’s responses, trying to improve the weak spots that they point out; I re-think the places where the listeners in the audience seemed to lose interest, where the energy in the room went away.
The trouble is, this approach doesn’t end up producing many finished stories. Maybe you have experienced the same problem.
I begin far more short stories than the small number I’ve managed to complete to a satisfactory level: most of those stories, including the ones I’ve worked on for years, and which I’ve taken to numerous teachers, never get to the point where they feel “good.” They just don’t seem to work.
Eventually, I abandon them.
I’m aware that there is a simple answer to this problem: begin more stories. Even if the ratio of started stories to completed stories is ten-to-one, perhaps the only thing to do is to spend more time writing stories. If that’s what it takes, that’s what it takes.
However, I’ve been thinking lately that there may be a way to speed up this process. I’m not promising any kind of magical answer here, but magic isn’t necessary. If I could reduce my “started-to-completed ratio” from ten-to-one to, say, seven-to-one, that improvement alone would be wonderful.
Now, one of the themes of this blog is that we can become better writers, and better teachers of writing, by studying what teachers and experts in other fields do. In the past, I’ve tried to borrow ideas from the Spanish football team and from Paul Graham’s hierarchy of programming languages. Here, I’d like to talk about pop music. Because the more I read about how pop songs are made, the more I worry that my approach to story-writing might be a little backwards.
According to the industry guru Bob Lefsetz, hit songs like “Umbrella” or “Shake It Off” are not made the way most casual listeners imagine. The recent book by John Seabook, The Song Machine, explains it all. Sadly, it’s not as though Rihanna (or any of the hyper-popular stars) sits down at her writing desk, reflects on some recent event in her life, and feels compelled to write out lyrics, humming the fragments of a melody as she works. And it’s not even that she calls up her band and everyone jams until a song appears.
No: instead, says Lefsetz, the beat is created first, and the “topline” melody is constructed on top of it.
… they don’t write the songs the way they used to. Some make the beats and others create the topline… They don’t sit in studios with guitars and pianos, writing melodies and lyrics together. At best, they do that in Nashville. Rather producers come up with beats and then they have their favorite topliners create melodies and hooks on top. And if there aren’t enough hooks in the track, they start all over… And they know one hook is not enough, that you’ve got to grab the public instantly and continue to thrill them.
It’s not that a Rihanna or a Katy Perry are superfluous to the making of a hit. They are vital. It’s simply that, as Nathaniel Rich explains (writing in The Atlantic), most hit songs are created as musical structures first. Only when the would-be hit is ready will a star be sought out to sing it: one doesn’t waste a star’s time with mere inspiration, with merely the idea of a tune. Rihanna got “Umbrella,” for instance, because Britney Spears’s team had already passed on the song.
And it’s not just ephemeral pop that gets made this way, with the creation of the guts of the music preceding the lyrics and orchestration. “Kashmir,” often considered Led Zeppelin’s greatest song, began when Page recorded the famous guitar intro; Page then had Bonham add drums, and only once that skeleton was laid down was it time to decide what the song should “be about.” By the time Robert Plant was ready to write words to the song, it was already so musically demanding that he felt all but overwhelmed.
So. Perhaps our problems with story-writing is that we put too much emphasis on the “inspiration from life” part and too little on the “shaping it into a real story” part. We leave the most important part of the process up to chance.
What if there was a way to reverse that emphasis?
In other words: rather than starting from real life, and getting inspired to create a situation or a narrative voice, taking a first stab at composing the story, and then spending months, even years, trying to shape that life-like material into a good story, we writers could — instead — somehow create the bones and guts of the story first, and only then, once we were satisfied the story was a good one, would we try to populate it with characters and scenes. This might be a more reliable method of composition.
At the very least, perhaps we would benefit from a regular practice of designing and outlining stories “story-first,” so that when we were actually struck by inspiration, we would have developed our plotting muscles enough that we instinctively knew what to do.
Perhaps once a week, say, we fiction writers should stir ourselves to come up with a story outline, involving a plot and a protagonist and a narrator — even if we never complete the story. If such training could reduce the amount of time spent revising a “not quite there” manuscript, it could (eventually) give us months of our lives back.
The good news is that we students of fiction have access to a huge body of successful stories, flash fictions, and novels generally agreed to be successful literature. We can deduce structures from each of those works, and try to imitate them.
This happens all the time in the music world. Nathaniel Rich describes a scene from The Song Machine, during
… an early collaboration between Max Martin and Dr. Luke. They are listening, reportedly, to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”—an infectious love song, at least by indie-rock standards. Martin is being driven crazy by the song’s chorus, however, which drops in intensity from the verse. Dr. Luke says, “Why don’t we do that, but put a big chorus on it?” He reworks a guitar riff from the song and creates Kelly Clarkson’s breakout hit, “Since U Been Gone.”
So. Here is an exercise to try out this week. You can see it as a “prompt,” helping you begin your next short story, or you can see it as training, a chance to stretch your skills of plot-making.
I’m going to present a summary of a famous, greatly respected short story from a twentieth-century American writer. That story can be our “Maps.”
I’m not going to name the story, though, and this isn’t because I want to be precious or teacher-y. It’s rather because I found that, for myself, knowing the actual story made the structure harder to use. It took me a good week, after I first wrote out the structure below on a sheet of paper, to be able to “forget” the original story enough to plan out another similar to it.
If people want to respond to the exercise, either posting their attempts in a comment or by emailing me, I’ll name the story on Friday or Saturday, and give tips on people’s outlines.
Additionally: as this is the first time I’ve done this, I’m going to post two versions of the structure — a simple one and a more complex one. The first produces a more “universal” kind of protagonist and story; the second introduces a specific cultural or supernatural motif.
The first version is neater: the second demands a bit more effort to make it work. See which one you’d prefer to use.
When the story begins, the protagonist has spent the last few years of her life seeking the professional goal _____ (a). Because (a) has eluded her for so long, in order to finally get (a), she decides to achieve personal goal _______ (b), thinking that (b) will be a useful or necessary step to get (a).
In the stressful process of seeking (b), however, the character realises that something is missing inside her — something is wrong with who she is. Now aware of this problem, she feels a great need to improve herself, overcome her limitation or failure. In order to do that, she frantically chooses a dubious or scandalous or peculiar version of (b) that she believes will enable her to overcome her self-limitation, improve herself once and for all, but which the reader understands, as the story comes to an end, will also make the future achievement of (a) more or less impossible — at the very least, it will transform everything the character has spent all those years pursuing.
That’s the plot. On the point-of-view front, this story seems like it works better in third person, with a narrative voice which is sympathetic to the main character’s goals in terms of description and mood, but who does not explicitly comment much on the wisdom of the character’s actions. In the scenes of unhappy reflection, the narrator’s goal is to present the character’s doubts earnestly and believably.
How does that sound? Okay? If you want to plan out your version now, go for it.
Here’s my attempt:
A ambitious teacher wants to become the principal of a Methodist-run school, one of the most expensive, old fashioned, and well-regarded schools in the city. But she was passed over in the last hiring round, and as she prepares for her interview, she hears a whisper that, last time, the advisory board thought she was not physically fit enough to run a school, to survive the long hours and intimidating parents. The position is competitive: even the smallest doubt can sink a good candidate. Worse, she worries that they might have a point: she has devoted all her waking hours to teaching theory and parent outreach, and this focus has left her sometimes unwell, kind of overweight, and short-tempered. So she hires a personal trainer and begins a training plan as mechanical and intense as she imagines a good school should be. The fitness club she picks is kind of weird, and there’s a group of scary militia types who work out in camouflage, making her wonder if she is going about this all wrong. And instead of making her feel better, this training exhausts her and leaves her depressed — her numbers never seem to improve. She stays late day after day, hearing the militia types discussing their plans for a bizarre month-long retreat in the mountains, setting bear traps and hunting for food — she wonders what the hell she was thinking coming to this gym.
However, the night before her big job interview, in a particularly unpleasant training session, she suddenly understands that through her whole life, she has been desperate to please other people. She has worn herself out trying to bend to everyone’s demands, even as a child. She should have confronted those stuck up Methodists and their ridiculous standards. They didn’t understand how brilliant she was — and “physically fit” was just a code for saying they wanted her to be a skinny pretty thing. She needs to teach herself, she decides, that she needs to please no one. In a state of furious elation, she approaches the creepy militia types and asks if they have space for one more. She says she wants to take a little time out of her life to get properly in shape. She leaves with them in their jeep, the wind rushing past her face, the mountains approaching in the distance, feeling better than she ever has before.
That’s my attempt: I’m sure you can do better. Try it out!
Now, the truth is, the original story that I’m drawing on is more complex than the simplified version, above. So, here’s the second model. Because it is more complex, the summary is a slightly more messy, but perhaps messy is a good thing in fiction.
See which version you prefer.
When the story begins, the protagonist has spent the last few years of his life seeking professional goal ____ (a). Because (a) has eluded him for so long, in order to finally get (a), he decides to achieve personal goal _____ (b), thinking that (b) will be a useful or necessary step to get (a). But because he has spent so much time focusing on (a), he has no natural or easy way to get (b). So he chooses a particularly strange, archaic, supernatural, or mysterious path to get (b) — perhaps something half-forgotten from his own heritage and culture. This choice leads him to meet the second character in the story, who is the emissary of this strange other path.
Narrative Intro: the character’s dilemma is introduced, and the choice to seek out this strange emissary is described.
Scene 1: The emissary character presents some options for how the protagonist can get (b), and they all seem dubious. The protagonist dismisses the emissary in frustration.
Scene 2: Reflection scene: the protagonist spends an unhappy night worrying. The emissary’s arrival has been oddly upsetting, more than really makes sense. The protagonist perhaps worries that by dismissing the emissary, he has also dismissed his own roots, his own heritage.
Scene 3: The protagonist returns to the emissary. Again, the other character’s ideas seem weird, crazy, but this time, the protagonist allows himself to be persuaded.
Scene 4: This is a scene of action and conflict. The character is now seeking (b) using the emissary’s peculiar methods. But the discomfort of the situation provokes the negative epiphany, as described above: the protagonist discovers something deeply wrong about himself. Something has been wrong with him all along, and he never realised.
Scene 5: A scene of reflection, where the protagonist is distraught, confused. He can’t deal with this new knowledge about himself.
Scene 6: The protagonist explains that he has learned something new about himself, and that it is contrary to the strange method the emissary has been recommending. He dismisses the emissary, and says he is going to try to achieve (b) by himself. Yet, in the process of departing, the emissary reveals a hint about some unexpected, even more dubious version of (b).
Scene 7: Time has passed, but the protagonist has got no further on his own, and is completely desperate. He investigates the hints left by the emissary, discovering something that should on the face of it be unattractive to our protagonist, but which, in his current heightened mood, seems instead the perfect cure for the internal problem he has uncovered.
Scene 8: Now the protagonist seeks out the emissary character, demanding this new goal, the forbidden one. The emissary tries to warn him off, but to naught.
Scene 9: The protagonist runs to meet this new version of (b), both elated and suspicious that the emissary character had been planning this outcome all along.
So… That’s Rihanna method. If you like the idea of plotting a story out this way, leave your response in a comment, or send me an email. If readers like this idea, then in future weeks, I’ll provide more such structures from other famous stories.
And if you’ve read this post feeling that a really great work of fiction requires more than just a clever plot twist, don’t worry: I agree. In future posts in this series on storytelling, I’ll flesh out different tools and options.
What’s a topic or craft issue you would like me to address?
Best wishes with your writing,