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Finding the Story

By Paul Roberts

I love creative writing clubs. I attend a good few. There are so many tales to be told. I regularly hear Haiku’s, ‘Twitter’ fiction, ‘Flash’ fiction, short stories and novels. And then there are those grand extravaganzas that run to trilogies, quadrilogies and more, where the scale and scope is limited only by the writer’s imagination and their life expectancy. None of them has yet expired mid-way through their work, but I wonder whether some might ever complete their epic.

I have listed these examples in ascending order of size because the bigger the work becomes, the harder it appears for the writer to find their story. Many of us like to inhabit the worlds we create. There is enjoyment and advantage in it. Enjoyment, because writing fiction can be a means of escape for writers as much as for readers. Advantage, because the more we live with the characters we have created, the more we come to know them. And the better acquainted we are, the easier it is to observe and describe how our characters are behaving.

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The risks of being worldly wise

However, I have noticed a tendency for some writers to become so enveloped within their fictional creation that they take on the qualities of a creative god, blessed with the authority to build a world, to populate it with whomsoever they please and to live amongst its people, discovering new and exciting themes and tales within. World-building becomes their obsession, not story-writing. Either the story never was, or it has become lost amongst what may be fascinating but unnecessary environmental clutter. There is nothing wrong in terraforming an imagined world, but not all of it needs to be presented to the reader. It’s enough that characters act believably in an authentic world.

A little knowledge is a wonderful thing

To address this tendency, it can help to change the narrative voice. Quite literally, by removing the author’s omniscience, god-like qualities can be diminished. Using a limited omniscience or first-person narrative can drastically reduce and contain the visible horizon of the much larger world in which the character lives, thereby constraining how much the writer is able to reveal to the reader. This is an important discipline as it is an intentional means of limiting what the author may know.

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Show your characters the plot

Maybe, as a book begins, like Elmore Leonard (author of several stories which inspired Quentin Tarantino), the writer finds their imagination populated with a cast of filled-out characters, but with nowhere yet for them to go. Or instead, the author has a story, but is not yet familiar with the protagonists. Whatever the starting point – and before writing the book itself – it is so important to let the characters and story inform each other until there becomes a connection between them; a person or people on a journey or journeys from one state to another. It is as much fun as it is practical to allow this chemistry to take place, but like all chemical reactions, it’s crucial to know when it has stopped, and what it has produced. Only then should we start writing.

But I suspect this is where things can go wrong for some writers. In their haste to mix the parts together, the characters, their back-stories and motivations diverge into a lightning fork of pathways which become a world, not a story. The chemical reaction becomes unstoppable with no product at its end. Thrilled with the opportunity the author’s invented world presents, the supporting characters become as important as the key protagonist, diluting or diminishing the hero’s story (if ever there was one). To worsen this dilemma, the writer commits it all to paper and both they and their readers become hopelessly lost.

Who, not what, is the story?

This particular challenge arises from a difficulty in choosing to follow a very few characters. Some rare authors are skilled in creating and maintaining a fictional world in their head, rich with a variety of life and lives. But even so, they choose to select a character on which to hang a tale. Charles Dickens offers many memorable examples from Oliver Twist to Great Expectations’ “Pip”. But even a seasoned writer as talented as this found himself often confused in the world he had created. A famous chapter midway through Our Mutual Friend has to remind the reader and the author just who some of the characters are, and what is their place and purpose.

So, the worlds we create in our heads are not the story, they are simply the fictional environment in which stories take place. The writer’s skill is in selecting a particular cast of characters and permitting them to support a single one (or small group of them) to play centre stage. So, J.K. Rowling created a world of magic and wizardry, but revealed it through one character, Harry Potter, supported by two secondary characters, Ron and Hermione. George Lucas created a science-fictional galaxy, but brought it to life through the eyes of Luke Skywalker, aided (but not side-tracked) in his pursuit by Han, Leia, Chewie and Ben Kenobi. The notes created by each of these authors to remind them of each character’s back story may be important to them, but may only serve to get in the way of the reader’s engagement in the drama.

Where are the dramatic points of focus?

And drama is key. One reason for the popularity of nature programmes on BBC television is, I think, down to the way in which it has been possible to enjoy the vast natural world by having our attention focussed on dramatic stories that take place within it. It is drama that sustains us as we encounter and move through a foreign world. So too in our writing, we should focus on the dramatic passages which propel the story in our imagined environment.

So, as we seek to tease out our stories from our real or created worlds, it is worth asking some fundamental questions of ourselves as writers:

  • Are we writing to indulge our own need for escapism into an imagined world, or to offer the reader a story of characters who are transformed?
  • On which character(s) does our story absolutely depend?
  • Where does the drama take place in the world we have created?
  • Have we included only that drama which involves or impinges on the key protagonist?
  • Does everything we have written substantiate and contribute to their story?

So what are we to do with all of those backstories that haven’t made it into the final draft? Well, the cutting room floor is a rich source of material for an ‘origin’ tale. But of course, that really is another story.

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