Writing: Movie in my head
I get emails every once in awhile asking about writing advice. As with anything writing-related, every experience is different and everyone has their own way of doing things, but I thought I’d write about what has helped me. Maybe you’ll find it helpful or maybe it’ll be one more method to check off your list before trying something else. And that’s okay, too–remember, there really is no one way to write a book (h/t once again to Ally Carter for that phrase)!
So, this week, it’s about process. I don’t know how it works for everyone else, but writing for me is often like watching a little movie in my head. (And I LOVE that!) However, it’s like a movie in pieces, out of order and making no sense. At least in the beginning.
When I first started writing, I’d get so excited about that first “scene” I saw in my head, and I’d sit down right away and start writing. The trouble was, I quickly found, I had no context for what was going on and I didn’t know how to continue beyond that scene.
Imagine walking into a darkened theater where a movie is already playing. You have no idea how long the movie has been going on, only that everyone else inside the theater is already settled and watching in riveted silence. On the screen, a girl is running through the dark woods. By the light of the full moon, you can see she’s been crying, her cheek is bruised and her lip is split and bloody. She’s carrying a big, antique-looking metal box with a heavy lock on the front. It’s awkward and causes her to stumble more than once. She’d definitely be moving faster if she ditched the box, but she doesn’t. Even when she glances back over her shoulder at a shadowy figure in the darkened woods and it’s clear she’s being chased and she’s terrified.
Great. Except…what happens next? Well, the problem for me was that there were just too many possibilities and I had no idea which one was the “right” one, in that it would allow the story to progress. Mainly this was because I had no idea what I was seeing or what it meant. Was getting this box the final step at the end of the story? Or are we just kicking things off by stealing this box? And what’s in it that is so important to this girl? We know it’s important because she doesn’t abandon it to get away. Who is she? Who is chasing her?
Does she get caught here and have to prove her mettle by taking on whatever is chasing her? Does she escape cleanly…for now? Does she open the box and hide whatever is inside from whoever or whatever is chasing her? Any of these possibilities are, well, possible! It depends on where we are in the story, who these characters are, and what they are trying to accomplish.
The first thing I do is jot down all the possibilities of what the next scene might be, just so I don’t forget what I was originally thinking. Then I go back to that little snippet of film in my head, and I slow it down so I can note all the details, knowing that some may change or go away as I find my way through this. But I don’t know for sure what’s important at this stage, so I write down everything I can see and treat the details as clues.
How old is the girl? What does she look like? What is she wearing? Regular clothes probably mean a contemporary setting, even though the box is old-fashioned looking. Is she scared simply of being caught? Or is she more frightened about what will happen if the person/thing chasing her gets a hold of the box and its contents?
I write down everything I know (based on what I’m seeing) and then it’s time for a little context. We know this isn’t the first thing that happened to this girl in the story because she had to get to the woods and find the box and acquire those injuries somehow. Now, for the sake of interest, we could start the story with this chase and then flashback to when the story starts, but we still need to know what happened and in what order for HER. No matter how we read her story, to her, it happened in regular linear time. We need to have that timeline, even if we don’t write or present the story in that order.
So I take some notes on what might have happened immediately before this moment.
(Also, throughout this process, I continue to try to push the film forward or run it back to see if more scenes appear, which they usually do but almost always out of order. I don’t get the next scene; I get the second to last scene or something near the middle. That’s okay. I just write it down, knowing that I’ll use it eventually.)
Now…this is the point at which I’d often get stuck. There’s only so much that film can tell you. TV and movies, in that respect, are more limited. You only know what a character is thinking if the character tells you. In books, that’s not the case. So, I start getting to know the characters. In the case of our girl being chased, I have already two characters: a protagonist (the girl) and an antagonist (whoever is chasing her). Yeah, I want to know what their favorite breakfast cereal is and their most humiliating moment, but even more than that, I need to know the following things:
–WHO are they?
Is the girl in the woods a college student or in high school? Is she an orphan or the daughter of a wealthy family? Is keeping this box safe the first thing she’s ever fought for or is she a seasoned warrior (like Buffy)? Who is chasing her? I haven’t seen them yet in the movie, so I can’t draw too many conclusions about them yet.
–WHAT do they want?
In this case, it’s pretty clear they both want the box or, more likely, whatever is in it. The girl and her pursuer are likely going to spend the story trying to acquire and then KEEP the box from the other, for their own reasons.
–WHY do they want what they want?
They each want the box. Why? Well, my guess is that depends on what’s IN the box. And I don’t know yet what that is. I’m going to need to do some exploring on that and soon because my story is going to hang on the value of that box and why it’s important. But even without knowing what’s inside of the box, I can say that most likely the girl is trying to do something “good” with the box. She’s trying to keep someone else from destroying the world or she wants to use to help someone she loves.
Perhaps someone has taken a person she loves as a hostage until she delivers the box, and she’s the only one who can touch the box safely because of a curse on it. This girl, descended from the witch who cursed it, has immunity. But that wouldn’t explain why she’s being chased. If someone has blackmailed her into getting the box, they wouldn’t be chasing her. So either that’s not the scenario or the person chasing her is not the blackmailer. Perhaps it is someone else who wants the box or maybe it’s someone charged with the responsibility of guarding the box.
–WHY CAN’T they have what they want right now?
Well, again, that depends on why they’re doing what they’re doing. The girl can get the box because she’s immune to the curse, but if she delivers the box to save her loved one, she knows the blackmailers will use it to do something bad. The blackmailers, assuming we go with this story idea, can’t touch the box because of the curse.
It’s important to recognize here that you need to know what your villains are up to and why. They are the heroes of their own story. They have a reason for what they’re doing and they don’t think of themselves as evil. On the contrary, in their minds, they are the misunderstood saviors of the world. Even if, in this case, they are planning to use the box to wipe out the entire world, they will justify it by saying there is so much pain and suffering in life today, that they just want everyone to be at peace. You see?
(Note: the above questions come from Goal, Motivation & Conflict by Debra Dixon, a fabulous book that I highly recommend. Buy it from the publisher, though, not from Amazon. It’s waaay cheaper from the publisher.)
So, I do a lot of pre-writing–taking notes, getting to know characters and exploring possibilities–before I actually start writing the story. That being said, I ALWAYS take notes on scenes that appear or bits of dialogue, even if I don’t know yet where they fit or how to use them. They’re showing up in my head for a reason, and I don’t want to forget/lose them. I carry a notebook with me always for this purpose.
Once I’ve got most of these questions answered, the blank spots filled in, I feel like I’m on solid ground…and ready to jump off the cliff into writing. 🙂 You never know what will happen once you start writing; it’s a bit of a free-fall. But with my notes, I feel like I have a rough idea of the destination and the conditions that will affect my trip. If that makes sense.
And if that all sounds like a lot of work, in addition to the actual writing of the book, you’re right. 🙂 Writing, to me, is very much like the whole iceberg analogy. Only small percentage of all the work shows up on the final page. Everything is else is beneath the surface but still necessary for that bit to rise to the top.
But as I said in the beginning, what I’ve talked about here may or may not make sense for how you write. That’s okay! There are lots of different ways to write, and we’re all searching for new ways to improve and/or make things easier. 😉
Thoughts? Questions? Got a better way? Share it here! 🙂