Hard Writing Lessons 1
This being the first full week of National Novel Writing Month, I thought I’d start posting some of my hard learned writing lessons. One of these years I hope to join in, but once again I’m actually wrapping one up (last year I was feverishly revising one, and I think that was the case for the two years prior).
Regular visitors to the site, or any who’ve heard me speak in public, know that I like to repeat the lesson I found hardest to learn: know what every character wants before you start writing the scene. I still remind myself of that before I ever get to work.
There’s more to it than what I’ve usually said, but for those of you who’ve not read my previous comments before, let me first explain. Imagine you’re a film or stage director. Before you send your players out to give their lines you have to provide them with motivation. A good actor will want to know their background and their goals and why they’re in their particular emotional state. I find that if I remind myself of this rule before every scene it saves me a lot of headache and means a lot less rewriting — and means I throw out a lot fewer scenes.
But there’s more, as my astute wife recently pointed out to me. She’s been reading the rough draft of my newest and had several suggestions for fleshing it out. It all boil down to knowing the environment the characters were living in, because it informs their actions. If, for example, your characters are avoiding the main trade route for fear of being found by other travelers, it’s not enough to know how often patrols are supposed to turn up. Who else travels the road? What goods do they bear? What important cities are there along the way?
Sure, its just window dressing unless said cities at the end of the road are crucial to the plot. But that knowledge makes the world more real. Your characters are apt to be thinking of these things as they travel to contemplate their best moves.
Of course, don’t use these details for info dumping. It might be that the info YOU know about the background will never come to light. But it will inform the behavior of your characters, hence its connection to knowing what your characters want.