Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Serve the Story

So I'm writing my novel the other day, and I get to a scene where the female protagonist has to re-enter a group of old friends, most of whom did not treat her well, and one of whom is her ex-boyfriend who has hooked up with someone else.

I wasn't sure what I needed from this scene as I wrote it. I knew the scene was somehow necessary and should be dramatic, but what was my heroine trying to accomplish here? What were the specific conflicts, and how should I use them to drive the story forward?

The suddenly I was writing down words I'd always wanted to say to one of my exes. The words poured out of my heroine's mouth with all the power and anger I didn't get the chance to express all those years ago. I wrote down the response of the Ex, which was the same sort of self-justification my ex offered up to me, and which can still make my blood boil. And my fingers flew over the keyboard, and I was all intense, focused on making a scene happen in my book that never got to happen in real life. It felt good to make blood drip from my pen (yeah, that's a metaphor).

That night, I was lying in bed, and I thought - hold on a second! Is my heroine's relationship with her ex REALLY just like my relationship with mine?

Uh, no.

And just exactly how does that scene serve the story and move the plot along?

Well, it's doesn't. Not really. But it's good! It flows. It's full of passion and fire. It's witty. It's fun.

So what? This isn't about you, it's about the characters you created. It's about serving this story, not your story. You wanna berate the bonehead who mistreated you in print? Then write a story about THAT. This is NOT that story. It's a better one.

Then I got all up in my own shit. I berated myself for still having anger, for not having completely let go of issues long dead. I thought I was done. I thought I didn't give a hoot. I thought I was happy and otherwise occupied. And even worse I thought - I've ruined my novel! I've derailed its focus! I'm a bad writer!

The next day I looked again at that scene and deleted - a page. That's all I'd written that was wrong. I hadn't derailed diddly squat. All I had to do was delete a page of stuff that didn't work, rethink what I wanted from the scene, and take a stab at it.

Then I forgave myself for my anger. And I wrote a damn good scene.

Lesson here? Sometimes it helps to write out the crazy stuff that's in your head. Being a writer is a bit of a power trip. You are the demiurge, the omnipotent Creator, and in your world, people do whatever you tell them. But don't mistake your issues for whatever your characters are going through. Don't let your own life take over your novel. Your own life is not nearly interesting or structured enough to be a novel. You are the creator, but you are also the servant of the story. Serve it well, then you will serve the reader too.

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