Oct. 6th, 2015

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 I've been reading a few of the books in the Elements of Fiction Writing series, and they aren't very good. They seem to tend towards the formulaic. I have found, though, that they are helpful with clarifying what I think about various aspects of writing, as I mentally argue with the author.

I'm currently in the middle of reading Scene and Structure (by Jack M. Bickham). So far, he seems to be saying that there is One Right Way to plot, and it is by starting with a character, who has a goal, and then throwing obstacles in their way. While this is certainly one way to plot, I've never used it, and I know it won't work with a lot of writing styles. It also doesn't allow for changing goals (in which a character sets off with one goal but ends up with a different one along the way) or expanding goals (in which a character starts off with one goal but ends up with a much larger goal that encompasses the first). 

Bickham basically says that you have to keep that original goal, and discard any ideas that don't throw obstacles in the way of that goal at precisely the right level. If Fred's goal is to climb a particular mountain, that should be his goal through the entire story. And, while this may often be true of short stories, I think it often isn't true of longer stories or books. In fact, I think that changing goals can be tricky, but are often much more interesting. When writing, Bickham says (in essence) that if Fred's goal is to climb that mountain, perhaps the first obstacle is to get funding, for which he might go into a bank and be denied funding. But if you have a brilliant idea that changes the story, say the bank is invaded by aliens, you must discard it, because it isn't in line with the original goal and is the wrong sort of conflict. I think, though, that there are really three possibilities. Bickham sees the first. If you are writing a story that is really about Fred trying to climb the mountain and things that get in his way, the alien story probably doesn't belong there. But there are two further possibilities. It might be that the alien invasion story is a fabulous idea, but it just doesn't belong in the same story as Fred. Then you should set it aside and perhaps write that story later. But it might be that the alien invasion opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities, where Fred is still wanting to climb his mountain, but now everyone is telling him it isn't that important because there were aliens (real aliens!) in the bank. It might be that Fred becomes obsessed with aliens after a government cover up and is now trying to find the truth. It might become the story of Fred valiantly fighting the aliens in the bank. If the story changes drastically from the original plot, you might have to go back and rewrite some earlier bits (or even cut out a lot) to make the story fit with what it is now, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Of course, the tricky part is determining whether or not the alien invasion belongs in the story. I suspect that one thing to do is to look at why you want the alien invasion in the story. Were you bored with the story and wanted to spice it up? That suggests that perhaps this isn't the story that you want to write. Did you have a brilliant idea about an alien invasion and just wanted to write that? Perhaps you should write the alien invasion story, or even just jot down the ideas and work on the story of Fred. 

I think that for a lot of writers (or possibly even most writers), writing is a much more convoluted, organic process. If you aren't careful, Bickham's way of plotting out scenes can easily become formulaic and dull, like those essays I wrote when I was first learning how to write essays that began with an introductory sentence, then a thesis statement, then one sentence of support for the thesis followed by two sentences of explanation, and so on. 


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Kate Saunders Britton

April 2017

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