Do you feel you’ve rolled up your sleeves and are really forming something through your writing. I hope so. If you don’t, remember how the introduction of a partner in the first exercise shook you out of your predicted direction, perhaps tricked you into a real reaction instead of an expected one. Use a similar tactic here. Instead of going to the scene you think next follows it best, alter the order in which you work on these scenes, just for the hell of it. It’s a mistake to start writing without a story idea, it’s equally disastrous to have everything thought out before you begin. Throw yourself a challenge, let yourself be surprised at the results.
Here’s some encouraging news if you’re struggling with these first three principles. They’re all you need to be a good writer. Discover, Dramatize, Involve. That’s it! The rest is only practice and appreciating others who do these three things well. However, there is a difference between good writing and great writing. Principles #4, #5 and #6 consider this difference by going back over “writer,” “subject,” and “audience”–the communication elements already addressed respectively by Principle #1, Principle #2 and Principle #3.
Let’s say you were going to write an essay on loyalty. Because there just isn’t enough loyalty in the world today. On the top of the paper you put “Loyalty.” You begin, “Loyalty is really an important quality.” Tick, tick, tick, the clock ticks away. “There just isn’t enough loyalty in the world today.” Tick, tick tick. You get up, get a cup of coffee, look over what you’ve written so far. “Let’s see how Webster defines loyalty…” Don’t write this way. If loyalty is important to you it will come out in the writing, no matter what the subject. If loyalty isn’t important to you, but you think it should be, that also will come out through your writing. You can’t stop it.
Start with something or someone you’re intrigued by, a subject you want to explore and through the writing make discoveries about the subject and yourself. Twenty years ago when I taught high school, the equivalent of writing about loyalty, was a first assignment for the year—to write about what you did over the summer vacation. No one was interested in this. The kids had lived it, any rehash on paper was superfluous. The teacher assigning the topic wasn’t interested, he or she wished it still were summer. Consequently the results would be vague, ungrammatical, boring. On the other hand I remember finding crumpled notes on the floor at the end of the hour that read something like this: “Cindy, meet me at your locker, 12:15, today. Chris knows what happened last night. We have to talk.” Writing that was urgent, dramatic, precise, connects with a reader and uses language with terrifying efficiency. These notes could’ve been examples out of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.
There’s something else I learned from the students that’s an important lesson to apply to your writing. It was the late sixties. I had just completed my masters degree at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which was a hotbed of anti-war political activity. I was to teach American Literature at a very poor high school on the western side of the state. Perhaps twelve percent of the students went on to higher education–beauticians school, electronics in the Army or the local community college. This was at the height of the Watergate hearings and I was all fired up with anti-Nixon rhetoric. Together, the students and I were going to rediscover the meaning of America through America’s literature. Monday morning at 8, the bell would ring and I would launch into an inspired lecture. No matter how profound, at 8:55 the bell would ring again and the forty-five students would file past my desk and out the door as another forty five would file in. As these two groups passed one another, the departing students would give the arriving students an instant review of what they could expect. All within my earshot. They’d say: “Boring.” “Bring your lunch.” “He’s off in the clouds again.” “Gag!” And I’d think: I need a drink. By the end of the week, I was worn out, so on Friday we did group work. I’d divide the class into four or five groups, appoint spokespersons, and give each some question their group was to discuss with the idea that they would later report their conclusions to the entire class. Then I’d sit and stare out the window. But, I’ll never forget the first time I did this. The bell rang ending class. And as the departing students met the incoming ones, they said, “Wait till you see what we do today. It was so much fun, and we really learned a lot too.”
The lesson is: I valued my lectures because I did them. The students valued their group work because they did it. The same is true of readers. They value a book, not because the author is brilliant, but because it gives them something to feel, to think about, to discuss. Give your readers that role. Create scenes they can imagine. Let them anticipate what is going to happen, and give them enough detail so they can react along with your characters your characters. Finally, let your readers draw their own conclusions from what they experience. Relinquish your soap box.
It could be that the classics of literature are works that generate the most discussion, and it’s the opportunity to think and talk about them that we value. You know what I mean if you’ve studied Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, or James Joyce.
There’s one more important chapter on the dynamics between characters in scenes that will make the action seem to be happening in “the here and now.” It will help you generate tension right before your readers’ eyes, yet it uses some techniques with which many professionals outside of theater directors and screenwriters are not familiar. If you have done the exercise up to this point you are ready to use them for yourself. If you haven’t done the exercises, go back and complete them now before you go ahead.