Hard Writing Lessons 1

hulk computerThis 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.

5 Comments on “Hard Writing Lessons 1

  1. It helps as art briefs too! As an illustrator, the more information I can get, especially about emotional stuff, the better. Illustrating for Role Playing Games, oddly, this get short shrift. It is one thing to get “Stalwart barbarian orc leaping from cliff with spear ready to plunge into angry dragon’s head”. It is another to get, “Dragon wiped out barbarian Orc’s village 3 months prior and it has taken this long and a few extra compatriots to track down this evil beast.”

    • Hey Storn — that’s a really cool observation, and one I hadn’t ever thought of. I’m going to remember this the next time I’m talking to an illustrator preparing to work with some of my characters. Now that you say it this makes perfect sense!

  2. Hey, Storn! Nice to hear artists want that information, I’m always a bit uncertain how much they want to know in my, admittedly limited, dealings in that area.

    Having that character and those motivations down is so important, and its often very easy to overlook that, especially and maybe paradoxically in protagonists, which I think can sometimes just serve as a window on the world while the actual character disappears. Usually when anyone complains about something being too plot driven, it’s because the protag really has no defining motivation to do what they are doing.

    • Ideally the protagonist drives the plot. His motivations, methods, habits, and personalty make the story develop in this specific way that it does. If the protagonist were a different person he would react differently to the same situations and lead to a completely different outcome.
      If that is not the case, then you failed at making the protagonist a good character.

      I disagree with Howard that worldbuilding is window dressing unless it becomes relevant. (Though I think he probably won’t object to the point I am trying to make. It’s more an elaboration than contradiction.) It’s not just decoration, it’s also scaffolding. You can use it as a foundation for the plot and even if they will not make a visible appearance in the story, you would not have been able to create that plot without those worldbuilding elements in place in your mind.
      And the audience will notice the difference. They will see the difference between a plot that was made in a vacuum and one that is build on a hidden foundation of a complex world.
      And I think this is why fan fiction is so popular with many aspiring writers. If you write a story set in the world of Star Wars, Naruto, or My Little Pony, you already hav that foundation that provides you with plot ideas and characters with an established personalty and relationships.

      • Hey Martin,

        I shouldn’t have been so flippant about background details. SOMETIMES they’re just background. Sometimes they’re absolutely vital to a character’s personality, background, and beliefs. It really depends. I was thinking quite literally of a scene I’d been working on where a road is really a very minor detail. If, however, I was writing about the black road that runs from Chaos through all the shadows to Amber, it would be far more than a background detail.

        With that in mind, I’m fully in agreement with everything you’ve written about the use of background, and the popularity of fan fix — although part of that just comes form a love of the particular sandbox and the desire to play there. Some of my earliest writing was set in the original Star Trek universe.

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