Friday, February 22, 2019

Broad Writing, Precision Storytelling, and Waldo

I will be brief with this entry. I usually throw in a lot of personal discussion in these posts, either to highlight specific parts of a broad topic, or sometimes to show how I realized these things as a writer. Often I offer plenty of personal anecdotes to humanize part of our writing process that might not intuitively make sense. And, of course, more times than not, I say more than is necessary just to throw a wide enough net to capture as many readers as possible. I admit guilt to all of these things, and through it all, I regret nothing.

Writers can learn a lot from him
You might be thinking, "You promised to be brief. That wasn't brief at all." That is my point - I made a simple seven-word promise at the beginning, and broke it by the end of the paragraph. This is one of the sins of writing stories - starting off with one message then going off the rails, unable to return.

If I made a different promise at the beginning, such as, "By the end of this post, you will think of me differently," then I'd better live up to it. That's more than a promise, that's a commitment, and one to which a writer has to be held accountable. I might take a long way to get there, and your perspective might change in one of many unexpected ways, but my writing will be judged on whether you arrive at the conclusion I promised. Otherwise, you will not remember by name in a positive way, and your expectations will fade.

A writer's obligation is to get the reader from A to B, without question. If we can't make this promise, we should reconsider what we are writing. And if we believe we can do it, we need to get them to the exact center of B. A dead-center Bull's-eye. Our precision cannot be questioned.

In a writing group I recently attended, someone discussed possibly writing their first novel. They had the stories, they had the personal connection, and they definitely had the passion and skill to write these things. They were ready to hit the keyboard. But that is the broad section of writing. It is definitely fun and very exciting (at first), but it can be dangerous. When we write, there are obstacles much greater than just trying to write our story. The biggest problem is that we often write ten stories while trying to write one. Or we write the first third of three books in one manuscript instead of writing one story to completion. Our writing becomes broad and expansive, but so much so that we lose precision.

The advice I gave that writer, and that I give to all writers ready to take that step, is pretty straightforward: First, they should write the whole theme and spirit of the work they want to complete in one sentence. Then they should write the main plot arc in one separate sentence. Those two sentences should be clean and precise, though they will likely never go into the book. They will serve as the goalposts for the story from that point forward. Whenever the author adds more to their story or inserts subplots, new characters, etc, they need to make sure the story still goes between those goalposts. They can write as much as they want then, as long as they go between them. They are the promises the author makes to themselves at the beginning, and they must be answerable to them.

I think the best way to relate to this is from one of my favorite book series, Where's Waldo? (work with me here). The promise is right there in the title - the pursuit and location of our bespectacled friend, Waldo (Wally in international versions). Now, every page gives us an exciting array of varied locations and activities, all quite complex with little subplots littered throughout. We can take enjoyment in all the little activities on the beach, at the park, in the shopping mall, but in the end, we always land back at that promise, knowing Waldo is there and that we can find him.

As writers, we can create the most elaborate tapestry imaginable. We can describe the most amazing worlds and create the most intricate plot lines. We are powerful in that regard, but we are still accountable. No matter how vast that world is, if we entitle our masterpiece, "Where's Waldo," our reader has an expectation that the question will be answered. Without that, we have not created anything but a waste of time.

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