We all begin our storytelling experience as new writers. And thus, we all have a journey to take. Each journey is unique, with an infinite number of starting places and contextual baggage to either help us or weigh us down. Usually both.
Irrespective of those differences however, one thing is true: we all end up – or strive to end up – in the same place. To become writers of effective stories.
When we get there, the technical underpinnings of our stories – the physics of them, the forces that make them work – will be virtually the same.
Storytelling is like gravity – you can play with it all you want, but in the end you have to honor the underlying forces and create your vehicle in context to them, or what you create will never arrive safely at its destination.
The process of getting to that point is the subject of much debate.
In my view, seeking out the nature and limits of those storytelling physics (forces) is empowering. It gives us a framework and a roadmap along the way.
Some writers prefer to set out on foot, foregoing the road and climbing the mountains with a pick-ax. To learn the physics through the pain of failure and/or the deductive reasoning of a child learning to walk can work, or even simply trying to imitate other writers… it’s all a certain ticket to frequent falls before you begin to walk with confidence.
In my view, the biggest and saddest mistake a new writer can make is to fail to recognize the physics that govern the effectiveness of what we put on the page. To believe that there are no rules, no physics, and/or that they reside in some magical, muse-governed realm that is accessible only through pain and decades of experience.
A lot of writers, and even writing teachers, like to say “there are no rules.” That’s semantics. That’s rhetoric. Okay, there are no rules… but there are underlying physics at work… EVERY time. Violate them, compromise them, and your story will fail. Period.
That “no rules” thinking is just so wrong, at least if you don’t recognize it as semantics. This is stuff you can learn, and quickly. Not easily – it’s complicated, but eventually. When you do, storytelling physics become the context from which you write.
Those physics kick in on Page One.
Which means that if you use your draft as a means of discovery of your story, meandering in and out of character and dramatic exposition without a clear path… then suddenly you find that path and finish your story accordingly… that can work. Takes a while, but it’ll get you there. But… if you don’t go back and revise those wandering first pages in context to the newly-discovered chosen path of your story… it’ll fail. Or at least, it won’t work as well as it could.
And that’s the Great Trap so many new writers fall into.
You really can plan your story… then write it, then play with it.
Or, you can begin writing drafts as a means of discovering your story, beginning at Square One.
But if, once discovered, you don’t go back and revise your story in context to the newly discovered path of it, it’ll fail. Every time. It’s like a cook who begins with hamburger and decides she wants chicken enchiladas before her guests arrive… you have to start over. Even if the table was already set.
That’s the most common mistake I see in my work as a story coach. Writers who don’t write their stories in context to something… be they the principles of story architecture, or a story plan… something that becomes the very heart and soul of the story they are working on.
This trap is avoidable. And we all get to choose.
I’m not saying you must plan. That’s not a rule, it’s a recommendation… and once you begin to understand the underlying physics, a bit of an inevitability.
I am saying that, to write a successful story, the universal physics of dramatic theory must be honored and observed on the page, at some point, no matter what path you choose to get there.