I always appreciate it when folks comment on my posts – especially when they mention cool books and suggest awesome video lectures! – but one commenter in particular really got some thoughts moving through this ol' head of mine, which is no bad thing so thanks for sharing your thoughts with me! This post got to be kinda long, so I’ve decided to split this bad boy in two.
The great thing about writing advice and writing in practice is that one thing doesn't work for everyone and one thing doesn't have to work for every one. Like any other art form, the artist has to learn what techniques bring the best of their potential to the surface.
No matter what artistic discipline you study, you'll always get the advice to reach deeper, further and to challenge yourself to do something you've never done before. Painters, dancers, musicians and actors aren’t born having already perfected their discipline. Even if the talent was there innately—and even more so if they make it look easy—they’ve had to learn, study, practice practice practice, and push. Why wouldn’t the same be expected of writers?
My former acting teacher – I went to an arts high school, studied theatre for four years – used to always say, “Why, why, why, more, more, more, deeper, deeper, deeper.” While I found it annoying at the time, it’s now one of my writing mantras. Asking ourselves to give more and dig deeper is how artists grow.
It’s funny. Just yesterday a co-worker saw me with Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell (which I picked up because I recently read a timely post about it). My co-worker gave me a strange look and asked, “Didn’t you write a novel already?” Two, actually. But I don’t see why that would stop me from reading a book about plots.
For the sake of learning and growing, I'm willing to try out different approaches. Also, I don’t think so much of myself that I think I’ve already reached the apex of my growth as a writer or that I know everything there is to know about writing. It’s not that I don’t trust my instincts or don’t value my talent, but there is such a wealth of knowledge out there, from all kinds of writers who’ve found many different approaches, why not see what’s out there and what may help me improve?
In Defense of Structure
This is kind of a tangent, but also kind of implied in a discussion of this sort, so let’s talk about structure. A reason why structure gets a bad rep probably comes out of out one little misunderstanding. Let’s clear that up. Structure does not equal formula. The best example of this is in screenwriting.
has three acts, an inciting incident, a midpoint, a climax , an Act 1 plot point and an Act 2 plot point.
also has three acts, an inciting incident, a midpoint, a climax, an Act 1 plot point and an Act 2 plot point.
With very few exceptions, all movies - at least in the corner of the world where I live - have the same structure when you strip them down to the bones, but obviously not all movies are created equal.
Whether consciously utilizing structure or not, it’s up to writer to fill in all the important stuff a story needs to become extraordinary. And that’s a pretty big undertaking whether you’re writing screenplays, for comics or novels, genre or literature. The trick is to not be a slave to the structure, but to know – or learn! – how to write so that the structure serves you. It takes a special type of ingenuity to take a structure that has been used a million times before and still produce something fresh and unique.
In novel writing, we get a lot more freedom than screenwriters. There are a lots of types of structures to choose from, and the option to not consider structure at all. What I’ve found is that thinking about structure is a great way to get ideas moving when I find that I’m stuck. It won’t solve all my problems. If I don’t know how to write dialogue, establish a voice, give characters believable personalities and all the rest, I’m pretty much screwed until I figure those things out. But the purpose of plot structure is to get characters active and moving (in a way that’s relevant to the story you want to tell). And I like it when my characters are active and moving (and relevant).
Even if I only use plot structure as a writing exercise to generate ideas then ditch structure to return to a more a meandering approach to writing, its usefulness has already been proven to me.
Beyond that, learning about any aspect of writing, whether plot, characters or whatever gives me the vocabulary to articulate why I like a certain book over another, and further the potential to understand why one aspect of my story got a certain reaction (good, bad or indifferent) as opposed to another. Since writing is re-writing, the ability to self-evaluate is a pretty useful trick.
Even if as a writer I choose not to write with structure in mind, understanding structure can’t hurt me. What I fear is that lack of knowledge could stunt my growth as a writer, and I wouldn’t even know it if it did.