A couple of days ago, I spent a fair amount of time lambasting the storytelling methods of one Damon Lindelof, the writer of “Prometheus”—a film which I think is the most stirring example of how not to tell a story perhaps of the 21st century. Why do I make such a bold statement? Because I don’t count Katherine Heigl movies or anything that bad as films in the first place. “Prometheus”, on the other hand, had the elements of something special but failed spectacularly in the fundamental stage of writing: Bad plot, bad characters, bad structure—everything was a mess.
That said, I wanted to throw some ideas at people about what good storycraft looks like. Let be the hypocrite, first, by going straight for the ultimate cop-out: There is no single answer. There are tons of storycrafting ideas that work well from author to author. I can damn well assure you that the way Stephen King approaches structure is not the exact same way that Joseph Heller or Hemingway or J.D. Salinger ever approached it, nor are you ever likely to approach it exactly the same was that I do. However, I have stumbled across a few decent ideas concerning story structure and crafting, and I thought I would weigh in on this issue with what I like to call “The Monet Approach”.
Now, I’m going to take credit for that, but this is nothing new that I’ve created. I’m only trademarking the name. Monet was, for those of you who don’t know, one of the founders of the revered French impressionist art movement of the 19th Century. Unbeknownst to me, he also kept a beard that made Karl Marx’s look like a goatee. Impressionism is a style of art work that basically amounts to giving only the impression of usually a scene and the trick is that the farther away from the work you stand, the more whole it looks. Up close, you can more plainly see all the individual short-strokes and miscellaneous details and swirls of color that contribute to the piece. Well, this is the approach I take to storycraft and let me explain to you what I mean.
“Moneting” means that you aren’t writing your story in a linear fashion. You aren’t going to be starting with page 1 and then later find yourself tapping your finger aimlessly on the keyboard trying to decide what comes next. As you can guess, impressionist writing means that you’re only going to give impressions of the whole at first. I often come up with the beginning, myself—I’ll usually sit down and write the first few pages if I have them—but those pages are only tentative. Once I find myself content with the beginning, I try to think about what comes in the middle, what happens in the climax, and (ultimately) how the thing ends. Sometimes the last chapter will be the second or third chapter I write. If I come up with a scene in the middle that is just too good to pass up, I might just dive in and start writing it while all the ideas are swirling around in my head, because a well of ideas is not necessarily a well you’ll be able to tap just as easily later on.
Even if you don’t go overboard, though, and start diving into chapters, you can still storyboard the way they do in film commentary or behind-the-scenes documentaries. Scribble your best ideas on note cards and throw them up on a blank wall in your house so that you can reorganize them and flesh them out as you can. Up close, you’ll only be able to see note cards, but as you take several steps back, the whole narrative should start to come into view. Sure you’re going to have to add more cards, and maybe connect your thoughts with strings or what have you, but you’ll be looking at the bones of your novel and you’ll have an idea of how the story goes and how it is best told in a structural sense.
Me, I’m too poor to afford such extravagance as note cards, but I do outline this way on my computer. In fact, before I even write a single word or name the protagonist, I often try to come up with 100 great ideas for the book I’m writing. These ideas can be fascinating/unique details about the world in which the story takes place. They can be an interesting idiosyncrasy of a key character or the antagonist. I can flesh out one strong scene that I’m looking forward to writing. Maybe I have a really juicy piece of dialogue mapped out in my head. The point is to get it all down on paper (or screen) as quickly as possible so that it’s there and you won’t forget it.
In time, you’ll be able to start making all the little strokes and flourishes that make your masterpiece sparkle and if you aren’t happy with a stroke, you can always smudge it out during edits. And the further you carry out your structure, the harder all those little strokes will be to see. If you stick with it, your piece of art will soon look just as good up close as it does from a distance. Monet would be proud.