“The Two Questions” — A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

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…

When suddenly…

Nothing.

Nada.

Zilch.

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!

Art

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 aholcomb07@gmail.com and we’ll send you information on our seminars, workshops and boot camps.

7 Comments

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7 Responses to “The Two Questions” — A Guest Post by Art Holcomb

  1. I think I get it. Story is about us – the human race – racing toward demise or glory or at least understanding where we are at the moment. Thank you for an article that succinctly makes clear the goals of writing.

  2. Nice to see you back on StoryFix, Art. When we slip into our characters’ skin the emotions of the scene become much easier to write. Good stuff.

  3. Thanks, Sharon and Sue. Good to be back!

    We’ll have more good stuff coming in the weeks ahead. Thanks for the comments. In the meantime – get back to work!

  4. miker

    Something else to consider – if I may say – is that “such a moment” perhaps should prompt you to step away … for the moment … from “story writing,” and to return … again, for the moment … to “story plan.”

    “YOU,” after all, “are GOD.” By God, it’s YOUR story. (And, of course it’s going to live-or-die in the Marketplace based in-part on your subsequent decisions.)

    So, even if you’ve set-aside your I AM GOD(!) mantle, to focus your attention on story-writing with the good-faith expectation that you were at last ready to do so, maybe Reality has thrown you a Curve. If you find that your “low-level” execution of your “high(er)-level” story plan is not working out as you had expected, perhaps you should simply PARK your present efforts – DO NOT(!) throw anything away!! – and reconsider your “higher-level” plan in light of recent developments.

    It is perfectly all right to “back up, regroup, and try something else.” After all, if Robert Frost found himself and his horse at a decision point “on a Snowy Evening,” and in time decided how to proceed forward from that point, well, so can you. After all, it’s nothing more than a fork in the road, and you, as the Author, DO in fact have the luxury of “a creative decision.”

  5. miker

    … one more addition to my previous thought …

    While you’re in the low-level process of writing story text, your mind is of course still thinking about the story on many levels. As you write, always keep a journal in which you can capture ideas and thoughts as they occur to you – no, you won’t remember them later. And if you find that you’ve “written yourself into a corner,” don’t be surprised or alarmed. It’s perfectly all right that there might be several “good ways out,” and likewise it’s all right if you haven’t thought of some of them yet. (Hey, it’s called Creativity!) Go back to your story plan (now “version version-plus-one”) and brainstorm your alternatives.

    Save A-L-L of your “creative work-product.” If you “rewrite” a section, keep a copy of what you re-wrote. (You’re not exactly gonna run out of hard-drive space, now, are you?) Also keep a journal – a daily “running log.” CAPTURE your brainstorms. Capture everything. Every day. Talk to yourself. Devise a system of filing by which you keep(!) every revision of everything.

    No one actually “gets it right the first time,” and no one should expect to. Although the Gentle Reader will encounter only the product of our final editorial(!) decision-making, we Writers will not. The entire “choice process” will not be apparent to our audience, of course, but it should be seen as “all in a day’s work” for us. They think it’s Magic, and we like it that way.

    • Robert Jones

      Ideas are like dreams that fade when we come out of creative sleep. I’ve lost quite a few I thought I would remember, or didn’t get to write down until later. That’s what pocket note books–or even your smart phone–is for!

  6. Robert Jones

    Hi Art,

    Great advice, as always. One of the early things I learned when I came to the craft of writing was that writers tell truths other people are afraid to see. Sometimes, however, the truth is not easily accepted—even by writers. This especially happens when dealing with our villains. Which I believe is a crucial flaw in many stories. If the villain lacks credibility, or does bad things simply for the sake of being bad, the story falls short. Watch almost any summer blockbuster movie and you’ll see even the most interesting concepts fall short due to villains who are not motivated by anything more than a cliched. And yet, how does a writer get behind a truly bad, or inherently evil villain?

    Villains believe themselves to be the hero just as much as the protagonist in most cases. Yet, no matter where you land in history, the same mistakes are made and atrocities repeated under some notion that it is all for the greater good.

    I was recently reading about the Boer war (1889-1902). In short, the British military was no match for the Boer soldiers on the battlefield. So, to cut them off from support from family and community, they burned all their farms and homesteads, leaving women and children displaced and desolate. Yet they continued to thrive, living off the land. Next, the Brits decided to round up all the women’s and children and put them in concentration camps by the tens of thousands. They fed them half rations of food, grain swept from warehouse floors mixed with dirt, copper filings, ground glass, and even fish hooks. All to discourage their men from fighting. Large portions of them died. The only crime committed by these people was they stood in the way of gold.

    Were the people who participated in such cruelty heroes? Believing they served the greater good of the empire? Hard to fathom. Yet, I’m sure some of them did. Others probably felt they had no choice for fear of what would happen to them if they disobeyed. The bottom line is that humans are a conquering race. We compete on almost every level. The ultimate prize is usually monetary. Money equals power and control. Whatever you think your villain might be capable of when the hero gets in their way probably is not as horrible as many of the deeds throughout history done to our fellow humans under the guise of duty, or even unifying the world for what they believed was ultimate answer for a better tomorrow.

    There’s a line in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog,” the story of a super-villain on the rise, who states, “The world is a mess and I just have to rule it.” So simply stated. Tough decisions will have to be made along the way, naturally. People will die, surely. And how many have died over the centuries to either keep the status quo, or remake it in the image of someone who believed their vision was the “truth” humanity depended on? Of course, they have to be wealthy. How can you rule the world, fix all those problems, if you’re broke? You need to pay people, feed your army, build weapons, cities, etc….

    Most writers may not have the stomach to do what has to be done in order to achieve such a grand scheme, but our villains must. It may not be world domination. The prize might be something on a much smaller scale. A position at work, within their family, or even high school. The truth here is that our villains have seen the other side of the fence where ruin and even death has touched their lives on some primal level. They fear it, absolutely. So much that hey’ve become what they most fear. Even if it’s horrifying to behold.

    It’s not easy to look at the reflections cast by the darker side of human nature and get into a character’s head for even one second and give them a strong argument for doing such things. But in the end it strengthens your hero, gives them something to fight against that’s in the media most every day. Maybe your hero inspires the better side of human nature in others by showing the flaw in repeating such atrocities. By not allowing fear and greed to rule the day. Triumph, or tragedy, good writing paints a picture of human nature. A symbolic portrait of the battle we keep repeating because we pass those fears on in the form of pettiness and hatred. Without understanding the consequences or the price we continue to pay, again, and again.