500 Words is a blog about the writing process that is published on Thursdays.
A documentary editor friend of mine who has a superb sense of story was telling me a story about building birdhouses.
He didn’t mean it literally. He has no workshop in the way you might think. He meant that each film he edited or documentary series he worked on was another birdhouse. No matter what the topic, whether it was motorcycles, movie stars, or rats, there was a similar structure.
Movies (and novels) are linear, time-based media. You can only watch or read forward even if the narrative jumps off of a cliff or starts as a dirt track and ends as a superhighway. Even if the plot moves in flashbacks or is fragmented among many characters, the story — the inner narrative — can only go in one direction. It develops forward. You need a hook, a setup, and a payoff. You need a character, often just one, who develops. You need to end up in a different place from where you began. This never changes.
In any creative form, there are narrative conventions to be honored or ignored — your choice. But you have to be aware of them because they hold the narrative enterprise together. Your audience expects a story. If you don’t offer one, your audience will put one in for you. It’s better for you to do it.
My friend has been building narratives for decades. The work is always different yet it never changes. Same with me. I’m about to send my latest book manuscript off to my editor. We had a chat about it on the phone. Most of our conversation was about the difference between the plot which is what happens, and the story which is what the reader experiences. The conversation was valuable because it gets to the root of all my early mistakes as a writer.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve pulled some of my early work out of storage. And by early I mean printed-on-a-dot-matrix-printer kind of early. Reading the worst of those screenplays and novels (there are a few) I see how I became obsessed with creating a plot that was twisty-turny. I forgot to include character development. I thought my kick-ass narrative would conceal a weak inner story, but I was wrong.
In defense of my old self, this technique worked for the big movies of the time, the films I admired as a younger writer because they were action set-pieces or thrillers with a wisp of character development. I was wrong to emulate their hollowness because my screenplays written in their mode never sold. I page through that work now, the pages stiff and smelling of mold and bad narrative, and buck up because they are filled with teaching moments.
The best of my uncelebrated old work, work that I will resurrect, is different. It was not written to be a blockbuster, and it has an inner story. Of course, the bad plot is there. But I can see flaws now that I could not see then. A narrative shines through the murk, a light that I can follow to guide the protagonist’s and the reader’s journey.
I look forward to reworking that old material into a new birdhouse.
Thanks for reading,