Once upon a time I had a vision in my head of what being an author was like.
I imagined that I would wake up at the crack of noon, and I would roll out of bed and then ruminate on the complexities of the past, the present, the future. I would Think Very Hard about Big Ideas, and then I would go to the fertile garden of my word processor and gaze upon the word-seeds I had left the day before, and there, they would bloom, carrying forth the fruit of my Big Ideas — fruit that whose skin would rupture and it would leak the sweet juices of my Pure Nourishing Genius across the page.
Then I wrote a story longer than 2,000 words and became immediately divested of this bullshit notion. To clarify, I don’t mean that writing is not about big ideas, or that storytelling is not a conveyance and mechanism for those ideas, but rather, that in the day-to-day, this isn’t what writing or storytelling is about.
No, it’s about resource management.
Like, we’ve all had jobs. Regular, normal-ass jobs. (Or normal ass-jobs? Hm.) Jobs where you juggle tasks and complete them on time. Jobs where you have to keep track of random shit and make sure some kind of process or production stays orderly. Maybe you put things into a spreadsheet or you arrange widgets and dongles or you make sandwiches as a sandwich artisan.
All good. All normal. No shame in dongle-sandwich management.
Life, too, is this way — my adult life is constantly about managing things. Am I wearing pants? Am I where I’m supposed to be? Have I put food in my body? Where are my pants again? Having a child only increased this, because suddenly I’m worry about a tinier, less-responsible version of me. Is he eating food? Is he eating the right kind of food? Am I committing to his physical, emotional and intellectual nourishment? Where is he? Right now, seriously, where is he? Is he under the couch? He might be under the couch. He might be in the ducts, like John McClane. Did he poop today? This is legitimately a thing you have to think about with kids. Their poop. Did they do it? Did it look okay? Are you feeding them the right amount of poop fuel and is it resulting in proper poopification? You just don’t know. But you always have to check.
Job, life, it’s all resource management. Hell, even video games are like this. Wandering around Mass Effect is a constant act of, “Well, I found another pair of space pants, what do I do with these? I found seven Krogan whatchamafuckits, will I use them to upgrade my sniper rifle or will I spend them for research points in order to build space toilets on this disreputable planet I found, or maybe I’ll just sell them for space drugs.”
Storytelling, I had hoped was different.
Spoiler warning: it ain’t that different.
Writing a story is often just an act of resource management.
What I mean is this:
I am often forced to be focused on basic logistics for a story. My questions are ceaselessly dull. Where are the characters? Can they have gotten there in that time frame? Wait, have they slept? What are they holding? Could they have that? Wait, does that character know enough about that thing to accurately speak about it? What’s today’s date? When is it? Where am I? Where are the characters’ pants? Are they space pants? Do they need seven whatchamafuckits to defeat the seller of space drugs? Did the characters poop today?
Worse, the writing itself is subject to resource management: did I use that word too many times? Should this chapter follow that chapter? Is there a jump in time that will help? Am I establishing a good rhythm, with differently-sized sentences and paragraphs nestled up against one another? Am I breaking this chapter up, or leaving it long, or what? Do I need more space drugs? ARE MY WORDS TOTAL POOP TODAY?
Storytelling has its own abstract resources, too. You want tension, but you don’t want too much of it — overuse it, and it becomes overwrought, listless, expected. Conflict can’t just be one thing, it needs to come in a rainbow of fucking flavors. You never want just one plot, you need multiple plots, driven by stories, circumstances, conflicts creating conflicts, scenes creating scenes. It all has to flow together. It has to have a narrative rhythm just as your words need a rhythm of language. More resources, more management, and more poop, probably, I dunno.
I note this for a few reasons.
First, because it was on my mind and what’s on my mind often gets frothily reduced, like a fine sauce, on this here blog.
Second, because I think it’s important to hold minimal illusions about what the day-to-day job entails, and sometimes this job entails not merely herding cats but rather, WRESTLING MANY HERDS OF THE AFOREMENTIONED CATS, meaning, it requires juggling lots of internal narrative data. We often see writing and story spoken of in this high-minded and occasionally impractical way, but that’s rarely what really goes into the nitty-gritty of it.
Third, because I think maybe a lot of big Hollywood films have actively lost sight of this kind of important resource management, and they treat the narrative resources cheaply to score a lazy impact — so sad when I watch big movies and find a hundred different plotholes or worse, aren’t sure how a thing is actually happening, all because I think the storytellers forgot to track the narrative data. They become so consumed with spectacle that they fail to remember how things need to actually make sense at the most basic level. Storytelling can be about pomp and circumstance, but the moment we stop believing in the basic reality of it is the moment all the pomp and circumstance deflate like a sad erection.
Fourth and finally because you do still need to transcend this — you’re managing resources but at the end of the day, a story isn’t a spreadsheet, it isn’t logistics, it’s something grander, greater, squirmier, stranger. You must get the data and details right, you must force it to make sense, and then you go beyond it. Only when your ducks are in their proverbial row do you transcend those details and find a way to arrange everything for maximum emotional or thematic impact.
But it’s okay that in the trenches, it’s about crude logic and basic arrangement.
Let that be okay.
Don’t sweat it.
Get it right, then go bigger.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to find my pants and go buy more space drugs.
* * *
DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
by Chuck Wendig, from Writer’s Digest, October 17th
A new writing/storytelling book by yours truly! All about the fiddly bits of storytelling — creating great characters, growing narrative organically, identifying and creating theme. Hope you dig it.
(Come see me launch the book on October 17th at Borderlands in San Francisco with Kevin Hearne launching the amazing Plague of Giants and Fran Wilde supporting her sublime Bone Universe books! 6pm!)
25 responses to “Sometimes Storytelling Is Just Resource Management”
I feel like you understand me, especially the kid poop part.
Thank you as always. You’re the best on so many level. Huge gratitude to you. You’re my favorite metaphoric wizard of Oz. xo
I love this so much.
He’s actually one hundred percent correct about checking that your kids are doing the right type of poop – the Bristol Stool Chart outlines the seven types, of which only two are normal. Even grosser, they have a Bristol Stool Chart for children where number 1 (hee hee) is Rabbit Droppings (very constipated) through to number 7 Gravy (very diarrhoea), and the two ‘normal’ versions are Corn on the Cob and Sausages. My prayer for you all is that you never have to face the trauma of seeing the Children’s Poo Chart on the wall of an incontinence specialist for your child – you will never look at chicken nuggets the same again…
Nearly crying with laughter, so my thanks to the two of you. Also glad I decided to skip the gravy on the Toad-In-The-Hole for tonight’s dinner…
I found this post weirdly comforting. I think it’s because, these days, it’s difficult for me to relate to lofty writer-talk about inspiration and the “magic” of story-telling. I guess between work-related stress, non-work-related stress, and the giant shitstain that is our country right now, I’m finding it really hard to be inspired, or see the magic in anything. But, resource management I can do. Logistics, I can do. My writing may be prosaic at the moment, but I can at least get the basics right, even if things like voice, and themes, and sparkling sentences come later.
Dear Master Wendig,
I am beginning to suspect, rather strongly, that you are psychic to some greater or lesser degree. Having just met my first submission deadline for the third semester of an intense graduate program in creative writing, I spent the morning journaling about how incredibly overwhelmed I am feeling. Three pages of my journal are now filled with lamentations regarding pretty much all the things that you have said in this post, especially regarding resource management. This post came at just the right moment to calm me back down, because it answered a question I wrote to myself not thirty minutes ago: is it like this for everyone else, or is it just me? Thank you, sir, for providing me with some solid evidence that it’s not just me. Writing really is this huge and messy and mentally overwhelming for others. So, from me to you, thank you for this post.
“Get it right, then go bigger.” Wonderfully funny rant with excellent advice. (Like the poop advice, too much fiber and it’s all shit.)
Find it interesting that while you’re concerned as to whether you or your characters are wearing pants, you don’t seem to be worried about whether or not your child is. One more detail to keep track of, at least if you’re planning to go out in public as a family.
I KNEW I WAS FORGETTING SOMETHING
Don’t sweat the pants thing for the kid. At the end of the day, you’ll likely find him wearing pants. They just won’t be his. And he won’t be the only thing in them. In fact, you’ll probably want to have MIT on speed-dial because you’ll have discovered a singularity leading to a pocket universe that can hold metric tons of the most bizarre things imaginable and also a set of spare car keys you thought you lost, from a car you sold BEFORE HE WAS BORN. But it’ll be okay, because he’ll show you a dead stinkbug and you’ll be able to see it’s little knight’s-shield body with his eyes instead of yours, and they’re amazing.
“…deflate like a sad erection.” Dying laughing here. I’m sixty-four and I’ve witnessed a lot of sad erections.
Your comment about movies made me think about when Ryan Reynolds was first asked, concerning “Deadpool”, “How do we know this isn’t going to suck like ‘Green Lantern?’”
His answer was “Well, for one, it will have a script.”
Not “better script”. **A** script.
When the first “Transformers” movie came out, we all complained about a lack of story, and how terrible it was. Then it went on to make a billion dollars, and then I heard some of my friends say “But the effects are AWESOME! I love it!” One of these friends being a writer herself.
I heard the same thing about “Prometheus” – “It’s gorgeous!” During an interview with Keven Smith, writer Damon Lindelof carefully said “When Ridley Scott wants something, you just give it to him.” Fortunately he was busy with “The Leftovers” when it came time to write the sequel, and his answers to interviewers asking “So, did you like ‘Alien: Covenant’?” are amazing in their verbal contortions, lol. Like Smith said about Lindelof’s ‘just give it to him’ answer, “Well, if you want to work again, anyway.”
I feel bad for writers, I really do. I’ve heard that they don’t even look at original scripts anymore. Not that it matters … sometimes they’ll buy an original script just to shoehorn John McClane into it. Not that I don’t love “Live Free or Die Hard”, it’s actually my second favorite Die Hard. I just can’t help picturing the look on the original writers face when he found out.
Thank you for reminding me how hard writing is. I have to go look for my Tylenol now.
Amusingly, I’ve been itching to play Mass Effect again, satisfying that urge by reading pages like TvTropes for it. Then it crops up here? Clearly, the universe (and Chuck) are trying to tell me something!
But more to the point, these are the posts that help me most when I’m struggling with my stories. I’m constantly second-guessing if I’m over-thinking the details. But then I see a post like this and I remember that I SHOULD have all those details, I just shouldn’t bury the reader in them in the final product.
obs Space Pants:
Bonjour de France
Cela devient difficile de vous lire, la traduction google ne respire pas le même air que le votre, donc on ne saisi pas le sens des mots et des maux et de la construction de l’idée!
Ai-je été claire/ C’est du français parlé et non du français littéraire qui ne parle pas en réalité.
Yeah…sometimes I wonder about people…
So relieved that someone else gets “bathrooms on the Enterprise” syndrome (or in Chuck’s case, I guess it’d be “Bathrooms on the Death Star” – knowing all these little logistical details is like seeing mile marker signs in your writing process that tell you you’re in forward motion. And that ain’t nothing.
Your writing advice is head and shoulders above the rest but this may be your best yet. Or maybe it just hit my inbox at exactly the right time. Either way, thanks very much for being so generous with your time and thoughts.
This post goes in the Terribleminds Hall of Fame! Maybe I’m starting that, I don’t know. You nailed it! And not in a meme-like way, the best way. It’s these posts that keep me coming back day after day. Beard the fuck on, Chuck!
This might be one of my favorite posts ever – or possibly just the one that I needed the most right now.
[…] them the tools to move forward. Hand the characters a gun. Give them some crazy space drugs. Stick them in a fast […]
[…] Chuck Wendig has some of the best advice about writing this side of Steven Pressfield. This post is just an amazing slice of practical pie that is so inspiring. No, the metaphor should be that this is ‘inside baseball’ without the stats but with all the coolity. Read and learn. It IS all about resource management. […]