Thursday, March 22, 2007

Story Structure Part Five: Content

Content:

Ah, now we get to a nettlesome subject. Regardless of how well organized and executed your story is, there still needs to be a core of great content at the heart of things. Before you even begin a story, you'll have to ask yourself some probing questions. Those questions have to keep being asked as the process of writing moves from phase to phase, as well. Flash and brilliance are all fine and good, but content is king.

Bring the Pain:

Does your content justify the time it takes to read it? Will a reader be moved to stick with your tale, or will she be able to lay it aside when something juicier comes along? Is your story going anywhere, or is it just words strung together? In the final analysis, is your story worth telling, worth hearing, and worth the effort you'll spend to set it down? These are questions that can be painful to ask, sure. Asking them early and often can save us a great deal of anguish in the long run, though.

Justify the Love:

As a writer, you'll have to justify the reader's attention. After all, they could be clipping their toe nails or watching an infomercial about abdominal sculpting. You also have to justify the time you're spending on the project. After all, you have toe nails, too, and you'll have to clip them eventually. There are a number of old sayings that are appropriate to this situation. Among the most apropos are these two:

“Garbage in, garbage out.”

and

“You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.”

What the hell am I talking about? Well, what I'm saying is this: if you start out with a slapdash plot, hackneyed characters, and a poorly-drawn setting, it doesn't matter how much spit and polish you apply to the project later. Your basic structure dictates the quality level you can maximally achieve. It's sort of like the start value for a high dive or gymnastics routine. A bad story idea means that, at best, you'll end up with a mediocre result. When you're thinking about a story, make sure that it's got enough “juice” to warrant your effort and your reader's attention. Don't fool yourself into thinking that your prose style is so scintillating that you can get away with a stupid story. Readers can tell when you're stringing them along. Readers know when you're wandering aimlessly or filling in time until the next big event. They can see right though you when you're having the characters engage in silly struggles that have nothing to do with the plot at large. Maybe they'll forgive you the occasional trip off the beaten track, but you'd better not count on it. Look at your story, segment by segment. You'll be able to, deep down in your heart of hearts, when your story is on life support, trying its best to die.

One more old saying before we move on to the next point:

“Don't spend good money after bad.”

Here's what I mean: if you start to hear your story making the “great sucking sound”, listen. Either figure out how to fix the structure and make it worth writing, or abandon it for some better prospect. You're not given any extra points for nursing lost causes. No one will pin a ribbon on your chest for “most time spent working on a story that will never, ever be good”.

Writing is a harsh process sometimes. You can't hide from things or nurse a tender ego if you hope to get better. If you're having a tough time or getting tepid responses from your peer group, if you can't seem to get the story to move in any satisfactory direction, you're probably going to find that there's a problem. Your subconscious mind always knows. Unfortunately, it can only grumble at you in nonsense syllables. Listen to it. Some stories just don't work. Put the idea away for some other time. Perhaps you'll figure it out a few months or years down the line, when you're wiser.

Don't start stories if you can't see past the first few scenes. You don't have to know everything that will happen, but there should be several “islands above the smoke” that lead up to that big conclusion. If, when you write down a paragraph describing the story, it sounds really boring (or trite, or derivative, or nonsensical), it probably is. Better to get yourself pointed in the right direction before you spend lots of time trying to make things work.

I know, I know, you say that you can't bear to outline or plan things out. Fine. You don't have to write a lot of things down. You'd better think things out in your head, though, and have somewhere for the story to go. If not, you could end up wasting weeks, months, or even years on a project that'll always be too flawed to succeed. We only have so many years in us, we human folk, and though I don't believe there's such a thing as wasting time, I do think that making the same mistake again and again is bad form.

If you look carefully at your content as you're planning a story, you'll find that it'll be a heck of a lot easier to coax a good story out of yourself. Make sure that your content is dramatic, interesting, cohesive, and well-thought-out. It'll act as the fertile soil for all your work.

Next time: Quantity

1 comment:

drthunder said...

I know that this is getting to be redundant, Patrick, but I love the way you write. Your stories are wonderful. Your poetry has captured a person who never really read much poetry in the past: me. The academic articls are a treasury of information without being stiff and boring. Those who want to write would be giving themselves a treat if they would read these. You, do indeed, make it all look so easy. What an amazing gift!