Far and away, the best feedback I’ve gotten on this blog has been for this post, my musings on Show, Don’t Tell. So I thought I’d spend this whole week discussing writing.
I know, fun, right?
Since the primary purpose of any piece of writing is to tell a story, that’s where we will begin.
Storytelling is, by definition, the art of telling a story. I know that sounds pretty basic, but believe me, there are writers out there who just don’t get it. You’ve probably read some of their work—or, more accurately, been bored by their work. These are the writers who focus so intently on their use of language that they forget why they write. Instead of crafting an interesting or entertaining story, they beat you over the head with their use of vocabulary and their ability to craft elaborate, complex, dazzling sentences.
Now, I know that it sounds like I’m slamming the more literary types out there. I’m not. Even a successful work of literary fiction must contain some thread of story.
Story is this giant, all-encompassing arc under which your writing makes sense. Think of it as a bucket. All your chapters, your paragraphs, your sentences—everything that happens in your story must go into this bucket.
Writing an entertaining story is almost like playing with Lego blocks. If you fill your bucket full of blue blocks—that is, only the things that pertain to your story—then your story will be nice and blue once you put it together. Every block will be the same, and from a distance, it will look like one massive blue thing.
Maybe you don’t want a big blue thing. Maybe you want to throw some yellow in there, too. A nice stripe around the bottom and another around the top. Let’s go one step further and say you want to add a thin layer of red as well, a pinstripe to set off the yellow from the blue.
Those three colors represent the plot lines of your story. The blue is your main plot. Yellow and red represent sub-plots. If you read or study much about writing, particularly screenwriting, you may have also heard these called the A-story, B-story, and C-story. But for right now, they’re just colored blocks in a bucket.
Let’s say the blue blocks represent the following: Your HERO (a.k.a. protagonist) goes on a quest to save the world from your BAD GUY (a.k.a. antagonist). All the blue blocks in your bucket reflect this quest, from the moment the HERO learns about the BAD GUY’s plans to the point where the HERO (hopefully) defeats the BAD GUY. Everything in between is covered, too. Car chases, exploding buildings, whatever you want to happen. As long as it relates to the HERO trying to defeat the BAD GUY, it’s a blue block.
Your yellow blocks, then, will be the romantic subplot. Your HERO meets a HEROINE somewhere along the way. Maybe she use to work for the BAD GUY, or maybe she is just an innocent bystander. This works with your bucket only if these yellow bricks become part of the big blue thing you’re building. Outside the big blue thing, they’re meaningless.
For example, your HERO cannot simply decide to take a break from chasing the BAD GUY and go to Hawaii for vacation, fall in love with a local girl on the beach, have a wild affair, eventually be betrayed when he learns she makes her living bilking tourists, and then hop on a plane and go back to chasing the BAD GUY.
These would be two separate things, a blue thing and a yellow thing. The yellow thing would distract readers. They’d either get caught up in what’s happening with the yellow thing and forget about the blue thing entirely, or they’d get bored with the yellow thing and skip ahead to the blue thing.
So, for the yellow bricks to work, they must become part of the big blue thing. Or else, you need to get a second bucket, and write a second story, and put all your yellow bricks into something different.
In this case, for the yellow bricks to work, they must be connected to the bigger story—the blue bricks. Let’s say our HERO meets our HEROINE at an orphanage the BAD GUY wants to blow up. HERO rescues HEROINE, and HEROINE reveals to HERO that she has nothing and nobody, that she grew up at the orphanage and lived her whole life there and as an adult works with the orphans and now that BAD GUY has destroyed it, she has no home and no purpose in life.
All of the sudden, the HEROINE becomes motivation for the HERO. Because of her suffering, he wants to find BAD GUY that much more.
But let’s crank it up another notch. Because she’s lost everything, HEROINE wants to help HERO find BAD GUY. Let’s say HEROINE is street smart and tough. BAD GUY sees that they two are in love so he kidnaps HEROINE and forces HERO to chose whether to save her or complete his mission. In that moment, the conflict HERO feels—being torn between love and revenge—creates a compelling moment of story tension.
So when the yellow bricks work with the blue bricks, we have a pretty good story on our hands. But what about those red bricks?
Well, going back to the orphanage, let’s say that our HEROINE has become attached to one particular ORPHAN, who runs away from the orphanage right before BAD GUY blows it up. Now, ORPHAN is out in the city somewhere, with nowhere to go. He’s living in alleyways and eating out of garbage cans. HEROINE cannot rest until she finds him. Every time HERO and HEROINE enter a new part of the city, HEROINE looks for him. Eventually, we learn that ORPHAN was kidnapped by BAD GUY, who uses ORPHAN to lure HEROINE away from HERO long enough to kidnap her.
See how this works? The red bricks relate to the yellow bricks much the same way the yellow bricks relate to the blue bricks. And, at some point, all three colors of bricks work together to form something beautiful—if your definition of beautiful involves a BAD GUY blowing up orphanages and using a defenseless ORPHAN to lure a HEROINE into a deadly situation whereby the HERO must decide who lives and who dies.
Now, let’s go back to that bucket. Legos being what they are, you could put any number and any color of bricks into that bucket. Red, blue, green, yellow, purple, clear, wedge shaped, wheels and axles—whatever you want. The Lego world is almost as infinite as the language with which we work.
The problem is, if you put every color, shape, and size imaginable into your story bucket, when it comes time to build the story, you won’t have a big blue thing with yellow and red accent stripes. You’ll just have a thing. There won’t be a lot of consistency. There may be gaps where certain blocks don’t fit together, and you’ll spend a lot of time rearranging the blocks trying to make them pretty. Eventually, you’ll either have a mess on your hands, or you’ll realize that what you really want is a big blue thing with yellow and red stripes, and you’ll start having to throw away the green and purple and clear and a lot of the yellow and red.
If your story is a bucket, use it wisely. Write only what your story needs, nothing more. Avoid the temptation to stray off in a million different directions, with a huge cast of characters, each with their own color. Start off with a laser-focused idea of where the story begins, where it ends, and how you’ll get from point A to point B.
Tomorrow, we’re going to talk about plot. Keep the Lego analogy in mind, though, because each building block is important, and that big blue thing we’re building will get its shape from the plot we chose.