Evolving Story Process

I put those three words in the title because a story has a certain neatness that is missing from real life. Real life is messy, random and, most of all, a continuous process. Although I'm comfortable these days saying "I am a literary editor", it would be more accurate to say that I am in a continuous process of becoming a literary editor. This is much like becoming a writer; we often call it 'development' as that has a suggestion that as time passes we improve (which I rather hope we all do), but 'evolution' is more accurate: we adapt and change.

My daughter and I play a game, usually at bedtime, of telling eachother subverted stories. It is as good a way as any of illustrating what a story is. Every story starts as follows:

"Once upon a time there was a lovely little pig called Margot and she wanted…"

The game is to find something she wanted, and thwart the desire as fast as possible:

"…a bedtime story, but her parents were both too tired, so she went straight to sleep the end."

This subverts Story#1, which is expressed as follows: person/conflict/resolution.

The more you write, the more you will develop a sense that most stories have a sort of underlying structure, built out of a standard set of characters and actions*. Initially, you will see the underlying shape of the story start to emerge as you write; presently, you will start to see alternate shapes, often in superposition, and you will start to steer towards the story that best satisfies you. Later, you may reach a point where you form a complete story before you start writing, however at some point before this stage, many writers settle into a personal process that suits their desire, temperament and creative preferences.

Some writers start recognizing tropes and archetypes and making use of them consciously. This is something that can be learned, but many writers are leery about learning tropes because they feel it will injure their spontaneity or otherwise prejudice the creative process.

The more you write, the more the process of writing evolves, and this evolution tends towards a stable, describable process, though the process may vary greatly from one writer to another. Writers who wish to allow their creativity to develop organically may want to stop reading here.

There are those artistic purists who claim that studying the art will stifle uniqueness in creativity. There are those hardened professionals who claim that only mastery of the requisite skills opens up the possibility of great achievements. I find I can walk a rather wavy line between these two points of view. What I seek to do when working with my author is to encourage him to follow a path that is natural for him, and I do this by trying to raise his awareness of his own process. If anything is essential, it is knowing the nature of your own creative process. Even if your process is to blind draft** everything, and if you aren't happy with a chapter, to throw it away and blind draft it again, you should be sufficiently aware of that process to be able to provide the best conditions for it (and to know that you don't need a literary editor, only a proofreader and a copy editor).

Most writers go through the evolution where they start by writing something and discovering the story as they go (or having the story pointed out to them by an editor after the writing is finished), and finish by consciously choosing the shape and structure of the story, either before or while writing.

In conclusion, here are some tangential thoughts, in parenthesis:

(By way of contrast, I know a writer whose characters are so well developed that she only has to drop them into a situation then watch what happens; if you are this instinctive with characters, then a story will appear with only a minimum of nudging.)

(Plot is something that I'll deal with in more detail another time. Plot is simpler than story to explain; nonetheless it is subservient to story. How conscious and explicit your plotting becomes is very much a function of the type of story you prefer to write.)

(As a literary editor I am conscious of the privilege of my position; I get to observe independently the development of writers and their skills. One of the reasons why I argue that storytelling is something human beings do naturally and instinctively, is that I have never known a writer who did not improve with practice (with or without my help).)

* commonly called 'tropes' but more properly called 'conceits'. The former is likely to replace the latter before too long.
** you start with a very vague idea of where you want things to be by the end of the chapter, and you sit down and write it, ideally in a single session, without any changes edits or corrections as you go.

No comments: