Writing from a Point of Knowledge or Discovery | Some Insights
What do you bring to a story when you begin?
There’s a split camp between writers who outline and plot before they write and those who don’t. At the end of the day, what matters is that your method works – so I’m not going to approach this as a right vs. wrong debate. What I’m interested in is how Stories choose us and how we work with Characters to tell their stories. Every writer is unique and so is their writing process. I suspect that how Stories and Characters choose to interact with writers is highly and deeply personal. No doubt there is a underlying spiritual alignment. There’s also an alignment with how a writer receives, processes and moves through the world. Which camp you fall into most likely has to do with your way of moving in the world. Or, in other words, how you best communicate with the Storyworld.
Outside of the writing world (which only sees the finished product), writing appears to be logical, the author in full control. Fictional stories and characters are make-believe. The writer gets an idea, creates interesting characters, figures out what is going to happen (makes it up??) and writes it down. To the outside world, an ingenious for storytelling appears to be unique to writers. People generally credit writers as the originators of the story and my, aren’t we clever for coming up with such fascinating stories!
Ha. Stop right there.
Originators of the story? Let’s say you get a story idea. Where does that idea come from? It’s given to you, isn’t it? It appears in your mind. Can we really claim that we originated it? I don’t think so.
The Outliner/Plotters – Are You Really In Control?
If you are in the outline/plot camp, you’ll take that idea, mull it around, think about who the characters should be, create them based on well-established psychological archetypes, then decide what is going to happen at every plot point. You’ll have a solid idea of the complete story and the character arcs from start to finish. Then you start writing.
In this position, you are in control of the story. This is where we often hear writers say “then the story and characters took on a life of their own.”
What is that phenomena? You discover as you’re writing within your established framework that you aren’t quite as in control as you thought you were. Characters “come to life” and start saying and doing things that you hadn’t anticipated. The story may take a turn that works far better than your pre-determined plot point. (And if this doesn’t happen to you, you may be trying to force a story into existence. You’re not trusting the process enough to receive what your story has to give you.)
I believe and it’s been my experience that characters don’t “take on a life of their own” because they already have one to begin with. They exist in their own realm. They are fully formed and as unique and individual as you and I. You did not actually create them. Yes, you worked hard to figure out what archetype to use, what backstory to give them, what color of eyes they should have – and that gave you the perception that you’ve made them up. What if, in this process, what those characters were actually doing was revealing themselves to you in a way that your analytical mind could embrace?
Outlining and plotting are tools that help writers organize. They are a method for interacting with the story and characters. A way for the Story and Characters to work with your mind in a way that makes sense to you as a writer.
The Freestylists – Control Isn’t an Issue
In the freestyle camp, as I’ll call it (and where I reside), you get an idea for a story. It may not even be an idea. It may be a scene with a character or two in it. You listen into that unseen realm. You get glimpses of who the characters are. You get glimpses of a thing or two that happens. You may even see the end first. A lead character moves into your intuitive realm and you start having conversations. You sense their presence, their emotional state, and you listen, listen, listen. Like anyone else, they don’t reveal themselves to you in their entirety up front. You’re still a stranger, after all. You start building a relationship of trust. You may have entire scenes played out in detail to you. You take notes.
Then you start writing. And what is revealed on the page is a surprise to you. It flows out as if you are simply a channel. You listen, you write. You write, it emerges. You are deeply touched by who your characters are, what they go through, the conversations they have with other characters. You are a witness. You realize that they trust you. You’re not just a writer, but counselor, friend, confidante, coach, guide. They are, in turn, invested in your artistic career.
You are not in control of the characters or the story; only of the writing. Their story will be far bigger, far deeper, extend back further and out farther than what you will put on the page. As the writer, you have to make decisions about how to tell the story in the most effective way; yet, it’s never your story to tell.
If you work with your characters, if you trust them, they will collaborate with you. They have insight into what you should do. They’ll work with you to make those decisions. (We talk a lot about a writer’s isolation and forget that our characters are with us every step of the journey. We’re not as alone as we think.)
This method is a natural alignment for writers who move through life by intuition, who move in spiritual realms, who are comfortable trusting the process as open-ended and uncertain.
Either Way, Characters Need Your Trust & You Need Theirs
No matter which process you use, you’re going to work with characters. You don’t have to believe that they are anything more than a figment of your imagination (though I would encourage you to question where the things you imagine come from) to tell their stories. Yet, if you do open up to the possibility that they are more than meets the eye, you will find a rich storyworld where you don’t have to be in charge of everything. Your characters will carry responsibility for who they are, what they do and what they won’t do. Sure, you’ll collaborate with them to shape scenes to be most effective; you’ll cut, you’ll change, you’ll ask them to do a scene another way; maybe have some characters step in or out of the written story; but in the end, it will remain indelibly theirs.
And that’s why we write, isn’t it? To give characters a voice, to reveal their stories, and allow them to touch us.