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.
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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.