When I'm writing my first draft, I’m trying to get the words on the page. I'm writing and revising scenes in fiction for maximum effect. I do this by asking a few questions:
What are my characters doing?
What are they saying?
Why are they here?
What do they want?
Do they want the same thing? (It’s better if they don’t.)
What problems are they trying to avoid?
I wait and listen and write down what I hear them say. I can’t generate a story without a sense of place, so to get an idea about setting, I ask more questions:
Where are my characters?
What’s the setting?
What does the scene look, sound, smell, taste, feel like.
Granted, not all of these details end up in the story, but I can’t get the narrative moving if I don’t know where my characters are going and why. Usually by answering these questions, a story will start to take shape. But what “story” means at this point isn’t the same thing as narrative: here, “story” only implies an element of "grabbing hold," or “stickiness;” it's a part of the process coming together to grab me, something that says, Well, "that’s interesting," or "hm, that's strange, check this out," or whatever. In essence, let’s see where this goes.
That initial “story-ness” emerges in direct opposition to what I initially thought the story was about, or what I’m insisting the story’s about. The trick is to remind myself I don’t yet know what the story is about, so I need to listen to what the story is trying to tell me. That might sound like new-age bullshit, but in my experience, going on instinct and not trying to know too much about where you think the story’s headed can actually save you a lot of time in the long run. It’s like you have to get out of your own way, if that makes sense.
These detours that take shape when writing a scene are happy accidents; they pull you in new directions, and the first impulse is to say, “Oh, that’s awful. That would never work.” Or, if the writing comes naturally, you think, “Well, that can’t be any good. It came out too easily.” So you set about tinkering (i.e., censoring) before the scene has had a chance to reveal itself. I would say don’t resist that initial pull; I'd recommend you go with it, because there’s a part of the process that’s smarter than you are, more down with the magic of writing than you’ll ever get by trying to force something into existence. Try to roll with it if you can.
"The trick is to remind myself I don’t yet know what the story is about, so I need to listen to what the story is trying to tell me."
Thelonious Monk, the great American pianist, said, “Genius is the one most himself.” What I think he meant, in its application for composition, refers to that initial letting go, letting your natural story emerge on the page, not trying to judge yourself too soon so you end up sounding like someone else, not trying to write to fit whatever plan you’ve imagined in advance. Ironically, the best scene you can write is the one you already own (subconsciously, intuitively, or otherwise), and it’s the genius who knows when to step out of the way and let the thing get written.
Usually the characters will start acting impulsively in this early phase; they’ll go rogue on you, although, in fact, they’re really not going rogue. You don’t know your characters well enough to judge their actions; the way we don’t know people well enough to understand their motivations. To me that’s the heart of a good scene: when you know your characters well enough to understand why they’re here and what they’re after. Then, when I'm revising that scene, I take each draft through a series of more pointed questions, this time to heighten the tension and make things more compelling for the reader (I’m not thinking about my readers until this later stage), and the key phrase I add to each question is “in this scene.”
Much like you don’t want to worry about tomorrow or ten years from now when you’re focusing on today; when revising fiction, you don’t want to give yourself the excuse of saying you’ll deal with that critical issue in the next scene or chapter. Everything important needs to be addressed in this moment, right now: What could my characters do to get what they want right now (in this scene)? What’s preventing my characters from resolving their problems (in this scene)? Who or what is holding back my characters from getting what they want (in this scene)? Why are my characters avoiding these issues about themselves (in this scene)?
The temptation is to delay these questions for another time. But you have to ask yourself, are you delaying it for the benefit of the story, or because it makes your job easier as a writer? Once you know your characters, their troubles and goals, I say go all in. Don’t save anything for later. Whatever risks you take in this scene will pay off later, and you’ll only improve the story with each additional draft. Don’t be a miser with your ideas. Be generous. Take risks. Your characters are waiting. They’re ready to act, and the time is now.
About the writer:
David Norman is the author of two novels, The Watershed Project (2021) and South of Hannah (2018). His short fiction has appeared in The Best Small Fictions (2019), FLASH! Writing the Very Short Story (2018), American Literary Review, Image, Gulf Stream, Southern Humanities Review, Rio Grande Review, and other publications. He currently teaches writing at Trinity University in San Antonio. Learn more about his work at www.davidrnorman.com.
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