Asking questions via the situation and getting the character to answer them

See, I’m a pantser, a pure unadulterated seat-of-the-pants storyteller. I know some people reading this will snort right about now and think to themselves, ‘No, he’s not’. They’ll either assume I am lying to you, though only they know why, or to myself. Essentially, they automatically assume that I am either a blowhard or deluded.

I, in my turn, assume their assumptions come from being too closed up in the mythology of writing classes to allow the words to run free.

But that is my assumption and, like their assumptions about me, it is based on insufficient evidence to be considered factual. So, unlike their virulent desire to prove that I am not what I say I am, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and let that body lie dead beneath the boughs of the unfruited tree. Me? I head for the tree with fruit on it, pick the low-hanging and then climb up to get the inaccessible, take them all down, mash them all up together, and call it a story.

Somebody  sent me a brief snippet from Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’. Never read the book, heard good things about it, but never had access to a copy. So I’ve only read three paragraphs of Chapter five. I kinda gave up on writing books for lent a decade ago and I haven’t noticed the lack since.

Just like to say, Mr King, what you say in the small snippet of Chapter 5 I’ve read [Quote Stephen King] When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. [Unquote] I hear you, man.

So this is my take on what King says more eloquently in ‘On Writing’. (Oh by the way, reading that snippet. I think he might well be even more of a pantser than I am, I wasn’t sure that was actually possible. )

Character

Characters are real people to me. No, they don’t talk to me. No, I don’t have conversations with them. Hell, I barely know what the buggers look like. But they are real and usually amorphous. From the first moment they appear in a scene they are revealing themselves to me, a bit at a time, piece by piece. Everything they do, every word they utter, every thought that passes through their minds, reveals a little bit more of the puzzle to me.

I really don’t know who they are when they turn up. I don’t know if they are good guys, or bad guys (Okay, sometimes I think, ‘I need a bad guy here’ and create one, but I don’t know what sort of bad guy they are: evil, misunderstood, banal, trapped, whatever) or instigators. I don’t know if they are the love interest, the unrequited love, or the nightmare lover that tears your soul apart. I don’t know if the are the loyal friend, the honourable enemy, or the sneaky little bugger I am going to love to hate.

But that’s fine. I don’t need to know who they are until they show me, which means the reader gets to find out about them at the same time. Very good for pacing that. I’m writing and wondering why-the-hell-did-he-do-that-thing-he-did, which means the reader is wondering it too, and then the question is answered.  For both of us. At the same time. No artificial story beats there, just a ‘Oh right, so that’s what’s going on’ for reader and writer at the same time.

Of course in the second draft there will be rewriting and foreshadowing and adaptations to make the story tighter, but I try very hard to keep the drip, drip, drip, of character revelation to the same beat as in the first draft. I shape it a bit, but I don’t plug it up and place the interaction someplace else, unless I really have to shift the damn scene for story reasons. This is the hard bit of editing for me, not the story stuff, but the character stuff that has to be moved because of the story stuff.

Situation

Situation, setting, where the story takes place, when the story takes place, will lead to the why the story is worth recounting via the how it all plays out.

Unless it is part of an ongoing series (like my Tales of the Shonri  originals to be found over on http://writerlot.net/  and even then I’m creating the setting story by story, which is why some are a bit skimpy on detail) I don’t know what the setting is until I start writing. It is nice to have some sense of place, which may be why King tends to set all his stories in his own backyard, but the sense of place comes from the story-telling process.

The soft touch of the grass beneath his naked feet as he raced down towards the water’s edge, screaming, “Ellie! Ellie! Ellie!”

Just made that up (obviously) so what’s the setting. Grass. Water’s edge. Hmm, okay you don’t get grass running down to the sea, not normally anyway, so it’ll be fresh water. So either a river or a lake then. Some place dangerous probably, because it sounds like somebody is in trouble, mind you it might turn out that he has been away for a bit and is calling out to his love, or maybe he thought she was dead, or maybe she has come back from the dead.

See, situation. Geezer running across grass towards water calling out to somebody female.

From that situation other situations arise. Is she drowning? Does he save her? Does she drown? Does he drown saving her? Do they both drown? Is this a story about the afterlife? Or grief? Or love? Or none of these things? Is she returning from beyond the grave? Is he returning from beyond the grave? Is he returning from a war? Is she now married to somebody else? Is…?

Questions.

Situation is the source of questions. Character is how you answer them. A story is how the answered questions throw up more questions that then need to be answered until there is only a single possible conclusion left. Until you run out of questions that character can answer and are just left with the question of how the character will prevail or endure or not.

I just keep on answering the questions as they come up. I don’t work out what they are going to be ahead of time, because then the characters are answering questions that I already know the answer to, which is a bit like cheating at a test. You ain’t cheating anybody but yourself, or in this case the story.

PK’s Caveats: Caveat 1: I may not know what I’m blathering about. Caveat 2: There are no rules about writing, there are just things you can get terribly wrong. Caveat 3: If people apply the words never or always to storytelling techniques, ignore them.

First posted to ‘of Altered States’: http://www.ofalteredstates.com/blog/

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Filed under Character, Character Dynamics, and Character Interactions., Structure and Plot

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