As new writers we want to do our best but because we haven’t yet internalized all the principles, we often want to create checklists of rules. We want to list out all the the aspects of a golden story and make sure we include them. And these lists can help.
Everything I’ve learned about building expertise suggests that experts have internalized guidelines, patterns, and concepts. But in the beginning we don’t have those internal constructs. And so we often are benefited by exetrnal support in the form of diagrams, lists, etc. Sooner or later we internalize. And what used to be conscious becomes automatic.
Case in point: Dean Koontz. In his book on how to write best sellers he states in so many words that you’d be in idiot not to have an outline. That was back in the late 1970’s. In an interview almost 30 years later about his Odd Thomas books, he says he never outlines. I suspect he’s so familiar with the form outlines are redundant for him now.
So lists can be good. But lists can also hinder us if we’re not careful.
For example, James Maxey, a great author, likes characters with dark secrets. He states: “One of my tricks for making my characters interesting is that the primary characters are usually motivated by a dark secret. Vendevorex in Bitterwood desperately does not want Jandra to learn that he killed her parents. Rail Blade in Nobody Gets the Girl doesn’t want anyone to know that she killed her brother with her superpowers in a moment of anger when she was still young. The key revelation for me is that the thing that the world most wants to know about a person is often the thing that a person least wants anyone to know.”
Dark secrets are kind of cool, right?
But if we then said, okay, a great story must have a character with a dark secret, and we put that on our list, that’s when we start to work against ourselves. The “must” is the problem.
Not because we don’t have tests and guidelines. Tests assume objectives. And I, for one, certainly do have objectives for my books as a whole an in their various parts. For example, I sure as heck want to make sure my opening chapter starts with a strong draw. I sure as heck want an ending that leaves me feeling some poignancy, cosolation, and a telescoping of possibilities. I most definitely want characters that intrigue me. I have some definite musts.
But any one of the techniques or elements we might list (dark secrets, 3 acts, 7 acts, the players in Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” characters with an internal problem, etc. and ad infinitum) are nothing more than options that might or might not serve any given objective. They’re not necessary (of course, monkeys may be necessary). And I don’t mean that in an anomaly way.
I’m not suggesting it’s counterproductive to say, well, I love characters [fill in the blank] or plots that [fill in the blank] and I want one in this novel. I’m saying if we begin to think that all (or most) good novels must have these elements, then I think we’ll end up limiting ourselves.
So when you find something that works, when you hear about a technique, or some writerly rule, put it on your list of option prompts. Not on your list of must haves. And then ask this creative question, which I got from another great author, Luc Reid: “Would I be more excited about this book if I…”
Another version might be: “Would I care about and believe in this story/character/scene/etc. more if I…”
Would I care about and believe in this story more if had a character with this [insert option]? Would I care more if this plot line had [insert option]? Would I believe the story more if there were monkeys hiding in the attic?
If the answer is yes, then add it. If the answer is no or maybe, then put it aside. That option can go back on the shelf for another time.