More goodness from our friend Art, who is always worth the read.
The Two Questions
by Art Holcomb
I want to talk to you about a place where all writers get to – regardless of our form, genre or level of experience.
I’m talking about The Big Suck – that place where we have written ourselves into a corner.
Does this sound familiar?
You might have been cruising right along, hero making his/her way through the Special World of the story, fighting the bad guys, getting the girl (or the guy) along the way – basically plowing his/her way through the story and are well into the throes of Act 2…
You come up completely empty and slam into a creative wall.
Maybe your hero isn’t cooperating, or the villain is done something that you just don’t understand. Maybe you’ve crafted a threat that’s too overwhelming (or worse, isn’t powerful enough) or you’ve suddenly and quite simply run out of ideas.
Worst of all, maybe you’ve gone back and re-read what you’ve just written and realized…
It’s boring. It’s just plain-vanilla, cold-leftover oatmeal BORING.
And then the anger comes.
You suddenly hate the story. You begin to doubt your abilities and ask yourself why you started this foolishness in the first place.
Here’s the good news:
I‘ve been in this hole and I know the way out.
At this point, I want you to stop. Just Stop.
Understand that every writer goes through this. It’s part of the process and there’s no way around the problem.
All you can do is go through it.
The Two Questions
Here’s a technique I learned from one of my mentors and one of the smartest writers I’ve ever met, Steven Barnes ((learn more about him here).
First, take a moment to remind yourself where you are in your story. Reread the last passage. Really find a way to put yourself in the place of the character you’re writing about. Understand their situation. Feel the emotions that the character must be feeling at that very moment.
Now, ask yourself these two questions:
QUESTION #1: What is ABSOLUTE TRUTH about this moment?
What can you say here that is absolute, positively true about what’s happening?
Not what you think the reader wants to hear. Not what you believe would be interesting.
But what is true about what’s happening at this very moment.
This may take a while to understand. More than anything else, readers want authenticity from their storytellers. They are in your story at this moment with you so that you can evoke in them an emotion that they cannot get elsewhere. That emotion is best produced by the truth that you are subconsciously trying to tell them through your writing.
Spend a little free-writing time to explore the setting, the underlying motivation of the characters. How would YOU face this problem (this is key to the authentic moment because, in some subtle but important way, YOU are this character)? Try to sympathize with the antagonistic forces involved here.
That is – FEEL your way through the moment.
And then, move directly to . . .
QUESTION #2: What does this moment say about us AS A PEOPLE and about the HUMAN CONDITION? Regardless of whether you’re writing a science fiction or a mystery or a romantic comedy, every story tells the reader something about who we are as a people. What our lives are like and what we have to pass along to others.
Regardless of whether you’re writing a science fiction or a mystery or a romantic comedy, every story tells the reader something about who we are as a people. What our lives are like and what we have to pass along to others.
For example, romance stories feed our desire to be connected. Science fiction stories give us a sense of what we are becoming. Fantasies lead us down a path towards our own dreams and alternative realities.
Each story, whether we realize it or not, says something about us as a species.
The Purpose of Story
So, lean into that curve. Seek out the truth that you’re trying to tell.
You may just realize a deeper level of your own storytelling.
These two questions serve the original purpose of Story from the days of our ancestors. Stories were created by the elders of the village to instruct the young people about what their lives were going to be like. They needed to know what to look out for, to know where they came from and, more importantly, gain some inkling of an idea about where they were going.
For example, the Cave Paintings of Lascaux, France, warned of the danger and glories of the hunt. The tales told around the campfire were the lessons of the day, made all the more important by the power of the Storyteller. The emotions brought forth in the story bound the lessons into the mind of the listeners and they . . . learned.
That is the role of Story. And you, as the Storyteller, can find your way out of the corner by leaning into that curve and going for the deeper truth.
It’s the best way I know to write myself out of a hole.
It might just work for you, too.
Until next time – keep writing!
P.S. – If you’ve enjoyed my posts here in StoryFix and are interested in learning more about our teachings about the craft of writing, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send you information on our seminars, workshops and boot camps.