There’s a piece of writing advice out there which basically goes ‘are you writing about the most exciting bit of this characters life? If not, why not, show us that instead.’
It’s one of the rare pieces of advice I generally agree with. Yes, just following a character through a series of unlikely events in flashy action is a bad idea, and we need moments of downtime between adventure for character development and the like, but it should hinge around some pivotal moment in a character’s life, and their decisions.
Also, no one needs a three-page diatribe on Justins’ preferred blend of morning coffee, or a detailed list of Jane’s thirty pink suits to choose from, just saying.
I’ve said in previous posts that my method of writing usually starts as the above would suggest – I write the ‘juicy’ bits first. They tend to be what made me want to write whatever the story is in the first place, and once they are in place, the ‘join-up-the-dots’ is a lot easier.
This means I spend a lot of my early time thinking about adventure, excitement, peril or whatever the key moments are, and thus analyzing the character as I write. How did they end up here? What mental effects is this causing them, or indeed what mental state were they in to do this in the first place? How is this affecting their normal life, or changing their morals? Are they doing the right thing for the wrong reason? Or the wrong thing for the right reasons? Or worst of all, the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, knowingly.
Just how, exactly, did we end up here?
And the answer is always one thing: change.
Change drives life. Evolution is change over generations, social progress is change over a lifetime, learning is change over a personal period of time.
Change takes us form what we were, to what we are, and then on into what we become, and that is where interest in stories lie, for me.
A book about Jane Pleasant, school teacher, on her day to day grind of trying to balance her love for kids with the demands of the school administration is only going to be interesting for a very finite period of time if there is no change in it.
Jane gets up, she eats breakfast, she goes to school and sets up the class for the day, teaches the children, meets with concerned parents, gets reamed out by her boss for not making everyone happy all the time, then goes home to mark test papers over her TV dinner until bedtime at 11pm, after the evening news.
I’m yawning just from typing that.
The interest comes in when something changes. Maybe the Headmaster is fired and Jane must prove she is worthy of the position. Maybe it’s a darker story, and the ‘concerned parents’ are abusive and Jane must struggle to protect their child.
Maybe it will become a superhero story, when one of the children develops powers of some kind and Jane has to help them.
Maybe Jane gets fed up one day and decides to start her own school.
Maybe one day she just drives off, fed up, and the entire ‘school’ plot was a set up to display Jane’s character before she goes off a wild Sri Lankan safari and is eaten by tigers.
It’s about inserting a change, and seeing how people react. Just like real life.
It’s been a changeable time for me, of late. I’m not proud of the fact I’ve barely written anything on my own projects since I got back from England, but I’m also not mad at myself. There’s been a lot of changes.
For one thing, my husband is changing his career options, and as he is the wage earner we fit our lives around, that’s a lot of potential turmoil still to come as things sort themselves out – nothing bad, just different.
At the same time, someone dear to me is very sick in the hospital and not yet well enough for visitors, while at the opposite end of the emotional scale, two of our friends have a baby in their lives now (who is just precious) and their lives are of course changing as a result.
Lots of change, some happy, some sad, some complicated, and all of it a bit tiring. But, like all things, the experiences are grist for the great mill of words in my head, and will hopefully go on to make my future works better for the reality I can inject into the changes my characters go through.
Ultimately, that’s what writing means to me – pinning down my experiences of the world and perceptions through words, trying to put a little bit of what it was to be alive and to experience change, into language someone else can read, understand and hopefully relate to.
So, if I may be so bold, may I offer a little bit of my own advice for living your own stories: If you are in a place in your life where you aren’t happy, change something. There is always something you can do, no matter how small, and while one should always think out the consequences of an action first, being brave enough to step outside the rut, to change your situation in any way, can bring about some of the most wonderful adventures.