Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Of Writing and Training Wheels

I’ve been thinking a lot about story beginnings lately, fueled in part by the two books I’m working on, but also on my reading and television watching. There is such a fine art to beginning a story. My son and I have been watching The Wire, and it is great TV. However, we almost stopped watching the first season after the first two episodes because we were so lost. It was only the huge amount of praise the show had garnered that kept us going.

As I mentioned before, the second season opened with an entirely new milieu, which was surprising, but refreshing. So many audiences (reading and television) connect with the community of the story that it is always a risk to mess with that. But without risk, staleness can be a short step away. So even though the second season opened with such a giant side step, I was immediately hooked because I had a good sense of where the story was going.

The third season, however, went back to the world of the first season. In theory, this should have been a great move because its taking the audience back to what they first loved about the series. But I have to tell you, it was about five episodes of watching disparate story threads and plot lines and having no idea where they would intersect. It was frustrating and if I hadn’t already invested two seasons worth of my time, I might have given up.

Lastly, I’ve been reading a book that I’m really enjoying, but the first 60 pages are all backstory. And you know what? It totally works. Part of that is because this is a masterful storyteller, but also it seemed necessary to me because without this information, the rest of the story wouldn’t have been a story. Let me see if I can explain that.

Conventional wisdom says that we should start where the trouble starts. But I tend to balk at that because I think it’s better to get a sense of the character first and show their emotional wound or scar so the reader can bond with them. The other piece of it, the piece that this book drove home, is that trouble isn’t Trouble without context.

A parent dying isn’t necessarily where the trouble starts, unless that death propels the character into something else: sets them free, or casts them adrift. And as a reader, unless I’ve witnessed at least some of that relationship, I won’t recognize that it is, indeed, Trouble.

Which is a long way of saying that I am constantly surprised by how much time I have to spend unlearning the rules. How much time I spend telling the Rule Monitor in my head to shut up. The problem is, I was an obedient child and a good girl. Breaking rules feels so, wow, I’m searching for the right word here. Reckless. Daring. No, more irresponsible than that. Maybe that’s the word: irresponsible.

But lately I’ve been trying to think of Writing Rules as Training Wheels.

When we’re first starting out, we absolutely need them or our writing would be an unformed, sloppy mess and never achieve the proper momentum. But once we have achieved that momentum, a certain level of efficiency, then those training wheels simply get in our way. They keep us from daring to try new things or execute amazing feats; popping a wheelie or a radical slide.

But in order for us to become better writers, we have to ditch the training wheels. Not with wild abandon, but in those moments when we know, deep in our heart, that the story needs it, and we also know we’re ready to try it. That’s when those training wheels need to come off.

I know, I know. I go away for weeks on end, then when I return I write a ridiculously long entry. Sorry about that. You can read it in installments if you’d like. ☺


Vonna said...

I'm glad you posted this today. In my critique group yesterday, the question came up of when the inciting incident should occur. Of course, the "rules" were cited: start with the moment the trouble begins. But I had a certain book with me, a wonderful, funny, touching book which has recently garnered fame and praise. The Trouble doesn't really hit until page 219. Really. And boy, does it work! If the trouble had started in the first few chapters, we, the readers would have told the MC to quit being such a whiner and get on with it. Instead, the author gave us two hundred pages to fall in love with the MC. By then, we wanted all her dreams to come true. Indeed, there were a few reviewers who thought this book was too slow. Raspberries to them: it was perfect.

andalucy said...

I didn't think the post was too long at all. I found it very interesting. Even though I'm one who should still be using training wheels, I cheerfully tuck this away for future reference. :-)

Karen Strong said...

This was a great post. I really enjoyed it and like Vonna, it was great timing.

"trouble isn’t Trouble without context."

This line really resonated with me.

It is a delicate balance between "rules" and writing the right story.

Thanks for this post!

Stella said...

Well put. I'm glad to hear you state something I've long felt - that the rules are guidelines, not decrees or absolute mandates. Sometimes it really is necessary to include a little backstory or nothing will make sense. Thanks!

Katy Cooper said...

Speaking for myself, learning the Rules helped me gain a deep understanding of craft, so that I know what I'm doing when I go trailblazing. My take on the so-called Rules is that they're more like warnings, telling me that I'm taking a greater than normal risk. In that case, I need to be sure that the risk is worth the gain.

That being said, it's really hard to break free of the "I can'ts", even when they're self-imposed. I continually jam myself up by thinking I can't do something. Gah! So it's very helpful to be reminded that "you can't" doesn't always hold true and that all the time, it really means, "Be careful with this."

Robin L said...

So glad the entry was timely for you Vonna! And now of course my curiosity is getting to me and I'll have to email you and find out what book you're talking about. (Yes, I'm nosy. It's a fatal flaw.)

Lucy, half the battle is knowing when and if we still need training wheels, so you're way ahead of the game in my opinion!

So glad the line resonated with you, Karen. And that delicate balance between rules and cutting loose when necessary is a permanent struggle, I think.

Stella, yep. Guidelines. Not rules. Yet know matter how often I chant that to myself, I still get tripped up. :-D

Katy I absolutely agree that the learning of the rules is necessary for that deep understanding of craft that you're talking about. Totally agree with that. And I love your idea of a rule as a warning sign. That's a perfect description.
Stella, rules are absolutely guidelines.

Karen Llewellyn said...

What perfect description of the use of rules! And it applies to a lot of areas in our lives besides writing. We need structure until we get a grip on what we're up to. Then WAHOO! off we go, our own way--remembering the rules, but daring to try something new.

Robin L said...

You're right, Karen! It does apply to many aspects of our lives, not just writing...