I used to think that the title of this post describes what we are all out to achieve as writers. That this is, in fact, a description of the writing journey as well as the destination.
Not so sure anymore. I’m certain that it can be – and I suspect that it should be – but I’m more convinced than ever that it doesn’t have to be, nor is it always so.
Like the song says, some girls just wanna have fun.
Some even get rich and famous in the process.
The more I study this stuff, though, the more convinced I am that, whichever side of this fence you are on, a richer level of understanding opens deeper access to a set of empowering tools and principles that might otherwise prove elusive. A set of criteria, checks and balances that allow us to optimize our stories both before, during and after we’ve written them.
Imagine if you could look at the story you are about to write, and/or the story you’ve just finished, and assess it in context to something that is universally true and essential – a set of forces and principles and criteria that exists whether you acknowledge them or not – wouldn’t that be a good thing? I think it would be.
Without such an understanding… well, you’re stuck with your instincts and the mathematical probably that you’ve hit the target as close to dead center as you possibly can. That there are no better creative decisions left on the table that trump those you’ve already made.
In other words, a crap shoot. And in a game that offers you a path to bettering your odds.
Some writers get to the promised land placing these kind of bets. Others spend decades waiting for their horse to come in.
I say, learn how to build a better horse and watch what happens.
You can wait for the game to come to you, or you can go after it.
As it is with sports and music and other forms of art – even in relationships and business and our health – it certainly is possible to dive in, experiment, learn, grow your instincts, get better and advance along the storytelling path – perhaps even to a professional level – without aspiring to truly understand what you’re up against and what, as a result, you are up to.
Or, put another way, to break it all down into its component parts.
We know we need to cut down on calories to lose weight… but do we always know why? The science behind it? The real analogous question here is, would we be better at it if we knew why?
Would our options increase and our risks be mitigated if we knew?
I think so. Doesn’t mean you can’t lose weight simply by skipping lunch and not sweating the details. It also doesn’t mean you’ll end up reaching your goal, or possibly paying the wrong price to get there.
Unless you seek to become a professional nutritionist. Then it matters that you know.
Sometimes a result is a natural outcome of an organic experience over time (like skipping lunch). Sometimes it’s just too much fun and too rewarding to allow a story to just flow out of you, instead of sweating the underlying principles that make it work.
I’m not talking about planning.
No, this mindset is as effective if you plan as it is if plod (pants) your stories.
I’m talking about the application of criteria, principles and even instinct that is based on something bigger than yourself, outside of yourself. Something that is true for everyone, before and after your time on the writing stage.
As important to writing as, say, gravity is to playing golf or flying airplanes.
We can’t alter the physics that make a ball curve in mid-air when thrown properly (or a golf ball curve in mid-air when struck improperly)… make a song pierce the heart like a whispered truth from God… or make a painting into an unforgettable frozen frame that captures the essence of the soul itself.
We can ignore them and hope for the best, betting that our instincts make up for our ignorance or rejection of what is true.
Fact is, a set of underlying physics are at work in these outcomes whether the athlete or artist acknowledges or leverages them or not.
For those who seek to understand what storytelling craft is all about at a deeper level – an understanding that can lead to a steeper learning curve and a hastened outcome as well as jacking the fun factor through the roof – I offer the following.
There are three realms inherent to the storytelling experience.
These aren’t issues of process as much as they are issues of essence.
A cynic could easily mush them together into a single breath of creative exhilaration and call it good, labeling them as different takes on the same thing.
But storytelling absolutely can be broken down… into three different realms or essences. Those who see them as separate essences are uniquely equipped to optimize their stories, and in a way that those who don’t or won’t cannot.
If you are building a structure – a bridge, a house, a strip mall – or writing a novel, there are three essences in play. Three levels. Three focuses. Three forces. Three stages. Three contextual lenses through which to view your project.
And they are paradoxical, because they play out in sequence, and then at a certain point they combine to play out in simultaneous three-part harmony (intentional mixed metaphor). You can look at them backwards, retroactively, sequentially or melded and gain great value… or you can harness them out of the starting blocks and also gain value.
Or you can ignore them and hope that your instinct, rather than your proactive hands-on working knowledge of them, will have imbued your story with what they provide.
– the physics that allow a structure to bear weight and hold together in a stiff wind…
– the blueprint that shows how the structure will hang together, a plan that comes together as the result of the discovery of what the end should look like…
– and then the final coat of paint and polish and artful touch that makes the structure an aesthetic, qualitatively judged piece of real estate.
There exists only one set of underlying physics.
Those physics comprise the first realm, or essence, of storytelling. Or of any craft. They don’t care whether you recognize them or not, because they will rule your outcome in spite of you.
But you should care. Because to not recognize, say, the physics of story pacing in your novel is to leave that essential quality up for grabs.
Name your field of endeavor, you’ll find that these three realms or essences apply in some form in evidence: the physics that govern it all… the search for effective application… refinement . That the last one is what separates the successful from the masses who apply the same set of physics and tools.
Notice, however, that the reverse isn’t true.
Form over function may work in interior design, but its a deal killer in storytelling.
It is literary physics… discovered and pro-actively applied with a set of tools used in the search for story… that provide function for the layer of paint that is the sum of your words.
Stay tuned… I’ll go over the three realms of the storytelling experience in my next post.
A mindset is a beautiful, powerful thing once ridded of limiting beliefs.