Some subroutines I’m trying to run for my writing, whenever possible. Or whenever I remember.
Warning: contains pedantry.
No roles, only desires
Many of my stories are about people who wouldn’t normally connect, people who come from different walks of life, having to work together.
This isn’t something I’ve engineered consciously. It’s something I’ve noticed as a result of constructing stories in many genres, and eventually seeing a unifying thread running through most of what I create. And now that I’ve spotted the trend, I’m kind of annoyingly proud of it – so I never resist it when it appears.
Sure, it’s often manifested as a classic ‘mismatched odd-couple facing a common threat’. But in recent projects it’s become much more extensive than that: people with ethical differences, or conflicts of identity, having to team up not only in the face of a threat, but because no-one else will accept or handle that threat. So yeah – it seems to be my way of making every story about climate crisis.
As a result I tend towards narratives that, even when you can technically identify a central protagonist, their actions mean little unless combined with the stories and actions of a larger group. Sometimes there’s even a central dramatic question about who the story ‘belongs’ to.
It also means I’ve recently developed a rule for how to develop fully-fleshed fictional people: I never plan their roles in the story up front, I only identify their desires.
The hope is that as a result their narrative function never feels perfunctory, and so as things develop there’s always room for surprise.
Substance > content
This one feels particularly relevant to XR and the newspeak that emerges whenever extended reality projects are kicked around, but it’s pertinent enough for most forms. I’ve stopped using ‘content’ to mean what you put on your platform, or in your book, or up your nose, etc. I’m using ‘substance’ instead.
It’s partly out of boredom at the ubiquity of the term, but I’m mostly operating under the suspicion that ‘content’ is a placeholder word that all too easily can mean ‘any old shite.’
‘Substance’ seems to have more of a ring of ambition about it. You’ve got to meet it well.
This one is the most tricky to maintain, but I’m trying. It’s to not call your fictional persons ‘characters’.
I don’t quite know why I’m attempting this one – the word is such a shorthand that it feels obtuse to avoid it, almost a game. I suppose my hunch is that if I stop calling them ‘characters’, the human beings I’m imagining become less, uh, ‘character’-like… and I feel I can’t simply push them around with impunity, forcing them to do my god-like bidding.
There’s times where it undoubtedly gets in the way (mostly of clarity and / or word count) and then I cave and use the c-word. But there’s also points throughout the drafting process where it makes me think in much more depth about the people in those fictional worlds: if they’re not ‘characters’ then what are they, how better can they be described?
I wrote about this wooly concept a while back, and over the intervening years (yep) I think I have a useful summary for the idea I last spent 1,300 words perambulating around. It’s this:
You’ll never really know what someone else is feeling unless you ask them.
The point at which anyone says what they’re feeling or thinking is a crucial one for drama. Not least because the dramatically fecund truth is: human beings are incredibly bad at reading each other’s silence, and on top of everything else the emotions we do show are potentially a matter of manipulation rather than unfiltered honesty.
Drama doesn’t have to feel ‘real’, but I’m interested in it feeling different from one story to another. A big part of our predominant dramatic model is to have people speak their feelings aloud with an almost dream-like regularity. I think this is a fine method a lot of the time (it moves things along, lets you do other stuff etc) but I’m fascinated by the alternatives.
My hunch is that holding that quantum state of what someone is feeling, the ‘not-knowing’, is a place of dramatic treasure too often squandered. I think of Kim Wexler in Better Call Saul as an example of when it’s maintained at incredible length to devastating effect.
So this one isn’t an innovation, just a particular shorthand for thinking about the release of dramatic information. Whenever I have a person speak their emotions, I wonder if there’s anything else that could happen; something more magical or troubling or knotty or funny or strange. Something for the tension and intrigue, rather than for the immediate gratification of ‘clarity’ that, if deployed too often, will just end up boring the arse off everyone involved – including the people in the story.