MR James, the famous short story writer, used to be a teacher. During the long evenings before the invention of television, he would entertain his students with the ghost stories he planned to write. That is, until he realised one day that telling his stories was getting in the way of his writing them. He noticed that the act of relating story ideas somehow dissipated the desire, even the need, to write them down. He promptly stopped vocalising his ideas so that the impetus to write remained strong and fresh.This is a curious phenomenon, but one that is completely understandable. Sometimes when an idea for a story is at its most compelling – that is, when you’ve just thought of it – the best thing to do is to start writing immediately and get the inspiration down, along with the rough idea. Sometimes the energy associated with the new idea is just as important as the idea itself, especially in terms of the motivation the inspiration can engender.
The same can be said for the temptation to overdevelop an outline for a story. I’ve seen many writers spend hours, days and weeks on their outline notes – using mainly exposition to flesh out their ideas, and usually all told in a largely passive tone of voice. The process may be cathartic and satisfying to a degree but I think it may – in the long term – harm the writing process.
When telling stories you should be in ‘active’ mode. That is, relating them with vigour, being in the moment and fully involved with characters, their actions and dialogue in real time. This is where your writing will be strong and lively. The time spent writing this way may be more taxing but it is the way you should be writing – rather than passively relating ‘notes to self.’
After all, your notes are not meant to be read by other people – which is perhaps why you may feel more comfortable writing them. You’ve removed some of the pressure!
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that writing detailed outlines is real writing. It’s not. It’s more akin to research, planning and other pre-writing activities. The sooner you get it over with, the better. You need to use your best energy on the real writing. A day spent on explaining complicated histories and back-stories to yourself is all valuable time you could have spent on work designed to please a reader. That is, work that will be read!
Because most of the story will change anyway – that’s the reality. Once you start telling a story for real, the characters often have a way of changing your outline – and most times for the better. When students come to me and say, well, I just need to work through these character motivations and plot holes in my notes before I start the story, I try to advise against doing that.
Why? Because most of these problems with character motivation and plot holes come through the writer thinking too much. And as I’ve said many times, thinking is not writing. Thinking is a logic based left brain activity – while writing stories is a right brain activity – at odds with the creative process. Do yourself a favour. Stop thinking about your stories. Just write them down – with the urgency and freshness they require.
If, after the first draft, you still have motivation issues and logic flaws, don’t stop to think and re-outline. No, start writing the prose again. You need to trust that your subconscious has the answers and will produce them during the creative writing process. Relying on your logical brain to sort through story problems is a long hard road – and one that will tie you up in intellectual knots. And the more you do it, the more you may begin to rely on it as a process, but the more harmful to your writing that process will become.
If you’re not writing actual story, you’re pretty much wasting time – putting off the inevitable. You need to commit to the story, for better or worse, rather than vacillate during some endless planning phase.
I’ve seen too many writers get stuck for years in the planning phase for it to be healthy. It may be a security blanket I suppose. The longer a writer spends not actually writing, the longer they can put off being judged for their work. It’s like the architect whose finest building never makes the drawing board. His vision may be strong, the inspiration for it sound, but he lacks the confidence to commit the idea to paper. Because then it will be real – and real problems may creep in, which the architect is trying to avoid.
So it is with writers. Many great ideas stay wonderful while they’re trapped in nebulous form. But the writer must at some point commit for the idea to take on solidity and mass.
Don’t get sidetracked into making long outlines – sketching in other words – when you should be using your valuable time telling your stories in the form they will need to be read.
© Rob Parnell