And then what if…?

Curiosity is the engine of art. The desire to know or learn and the desire to create come together in the best writing. Probably the two defining questions for the writer are ‘what if?’ and ‘what happens next?’ To which Lisa Cron would add ‘and so?’ (read her book Wired for Story to find out more about that)

The stimulus to trigger your curiosity can come from anywhere: a bit of conversation that passes you on the street, articles, daydreaming, music, museums, the line at Starbucks, you name it. Following any of those questions is the path that takes you into your material. While writing this, I did a Google search on curiosity and found a Tumblr on morbid curiosity.  If that or another site featuring people at their favorite celebrity tombstone doesn’t give you an idea for a story, I don’t know what will. There are so many approaches you can take – who died, how, what was their life like, why be photographed at the tomb of someone you never met, what is the fascination, hobby or obsession? and so on. Maybe it only gives you a jumping off point for a character, but that’s no small thing.

If your curiosity is strong enough, it can blast through writer’s block or fill up a blank page before you have time to be intimidated. All it takes is imagining or encountering a question compelling enough to get you to ask “and then what happened?”

How can you use curiosity to enhance your writing? First, keep a small notepad or recorder with you or use your smart phone so you can makes notes as you encounter inspiration or story ideas, a bit of dialog or an interesting character. Keep reading all kinds of material, including things outside your normal interest, try new things, Google random words, go rock climbing, learn the tango, travel, pay close attention to your environment and see what happens. The wonderful thing about curiosity is that it is endless.

How has curiosity led you into a story?

A Great and Interesting Story

“A story is the shaping of experience that let’s us know there is movement in time from an initial starting point, through a development, to a place where it stops. Every story is a pilgrimage, just as every human life is a pilgrimage – coming from somewhere, moving somewhere, ending somewhere. A good story, properly shaped, will be ordered; it will be shaped along those lines, which is not an easy thing. Story is to literature what melody is to music and what line is to painting. It is that which defines the work of art, and it is the reason why plot is the most essential thing in literature. It is like carpentry. You’ve got to take the materials and assemble them piece by piece until your project is completed. On account of its complexity, it takes thought, discipline, art, shaping, craft, and wordsmithing to write a good story. We respond to a good story, which means it will be well told, make sense, and of course, approach a truth.” ~ Dr. David Allen White, Professor Emeritus Literature, USNA

Story is the subject of Lisa Cron’s excellent book, WIRED FOR STORY. I’m just going to keep reminding you, so you might as well go buy it.

In all phases of writing, from conception to marketing, thoroughness and attention to detail will set you apart. It’s important to have a good copy editor as well as an objective person for global notes (theme, does your plot make sense, overlooked details, consistency, etc). If you can’t afford it, trade favors with other writers. Making the material the best it can be shows respect for yourself as a writer and for your audience. But the most crucial part is story and for that, it’s important to know which details to include (hint: relevant) and when to present them.

In the past, I tended to underwrite (hey, I know what I mean and you should too!) and while minimalism can be style choice, what I was doing wasn’t minimalist – it was not being thorough. You must round out and complete your communication to your readers for them to fully invest in the story and your characters.

The best writing does this without guiding your hand to connect all of the dots. In a chilling scene in John Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN, two members of a three person family die a fiery death. The scene describes the aftermath of the fire, the bones and teeth in the ashes and the absence of keys in the locks on the inside. The description of the aftermath frees us to imagine the horror of discovering being unable to open the doors while trapped in an inferno. Most current books and movies walk us through everything without giving the audience any credit for imagination. Artistry is not paint-by-numbers.

the primacy of story

Gorgeous sentences, breath-taking images, metaphors that lead to a flash of insight… there are all great things. But are they the most important? Go read the series Lisa Cron is running at her site, Wired for Story, “Everything You Learned About Writing is Wrong.” At first, it bothered me. I love great writing, but she has a point: we read and tell each other STORIES. It is first and foremost about the story and we writers can forget that as we learn the craft of writing (and it is important to master the craft of writing – I still laugh at the image of a high school English teacher I know hurling The DaVinci Code across her living room after a few paragraphs, cursing the level of writing). My first pleasure in reading was getting swept away into another world. I was not crazy about the world I was in, so escape was blessed relief. Your readers want to get swept away into the world you’ve created. Tell them a great story. Then go back and rewrite it until your prose is sterling.

It’s not an either-or proposition – the great books are great stories well-written – but start with your story. Sometimes it will come to you in a piece and sometimes you will discover it along the way, but pay attention to Mark Twain, “I like a good story well told.” He went on to add, “That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”