Forget What You Know

One of the most hugely-criticized tendencies of first-time (or even long-time) writers is the INFO-DUMP. I’ve had a lot of practice with that. The advice is, simply, explain what’s going on only at the moment when a reader/viewer needs to know it, and cares. As the creator of the world, a writer is naturally eager to paint the entire panoramic mural of the world and the main character’s history that you’ve cleverly conjured-up. But saving that for when your audience really needs to know, for orientation or mystery-solving is critical.

But I’m also discovering that, especially when crafting the opening scene of a tale, it’s far too easy to drown a first-time reader with unfamiliar facts, names, and so on that aren’t essential to the scene. Raise too many questions and you’ll loose them. If your first scene requires a glossary and cast-of-characters list, you’re not enticing the reader, you’re lecturing. Most readers can handle the cognitive load of a great story, but not all at once. It’s the discovery that’s fun.

When your writer-brain is alive with the richness of the world and its inhabitants, it is extremely challenging to forget it all. But you must switch your POV to that of a first-time reader’s brain, who comes at your tale knowing nothing (or possibly just the log-line on the book cover or a review), otherwise you’re probably doomed.

However, during the opening, delivering a tease — a passing mention of an unexpected element, something to light a spark, a promise of more to come — is terrific. Essential, even. Call the tease an INFO-TICKLE.

What you want is not what you need.

Goals. Many stories start with that, but not all. Beautiful tales have been written without an obvious vector, but as a reader and writer my attention soon wanders if I don’t know “where are we going.” A firm bond with the protagonist is what every reader/listener/viewer has sought since the invention of cave painting and campfires — a struggle against the forces that block our path to a better life or at least survival.

Teaching would-be writers how to use this essential feature, of course, can be commodified. According to the “How-to-be-a-famous-storyteller” industrial complex, the main character should “want X, but really need Z” to be compelling. Okay. Transformation is desirable, even more preferably Improvement.

So at the risk of getting entangled in the “wants X, but really needs Z” theory of plot development, let’s get oriented. But first there’s a problem here. Vernacularly speaking (is that redundant?), non-storytelling-obsessed persons use “want” and “need” interchangeably. So maybe those aren’t the best terms to use when exploring the soul of your focus character. [I’m not saying “main character” since any character you care about should be considered this way.]

I prefer thinking “external” for Wants and “internal” for Needs. A Want, which will often be obvious early in a story, is tangible, physical, easy to understand. (eg, The person wants a Lexus? Okay, but why? The answer to that could be the Need, which might be superficial or could be profound.) Eventually the Want has to be SHOWN as achieved — or not achieved — so the reader can “visually” evaluate the state of things. Is is silver or black or crushed in a junkyard?

An intangible, internal Need may be expressed just in the character’s thoughts, but it’s better for the reader if it’s demonstrated somehow. For instance, if a person wants “to not feel alone,” what they DO should show us that they feel alone, and later something happens to prove that Need is fulfilled — eg, someone stands beside them at last to share each other’s ups and downs. (I state the Obvious.)

If “learn to trust people” is one of the person’s Needs, show multiple instances (apparently three is the magic number) of where the person doesn’t take someone’s advice, let’s say, and that gets them into trouble. Trust is a deliciously malleable attribute.

The writing gurus say: The Main Character thinks she Wants “X” (which is something superficial and external), and goes for that, but LEARNS partway through what will really make her a stronger person, what she really Needs, is “Z,” something significant and internal that she discovers in herself. Writing coaches and agents talk about growth, a change for the better, as a good feature of a story.

Whatever you call it, whatever formula espouses it, I’m finding it helps me understand my characters better, and hopefully my readers.

Get Out of the Car

Writing a long tale can feel like an elaborate (and hopefully rewarding) road trip, using a map if you have one [or not], following directions, obeying the rules of the road. But the landscape looks a lot different if you get out, climb the hills occasionally, and look around. You might discover magic. Or something behind you, growling. (I never promised curiosity would always be safe. [insert cat joke here])