Monday, August 30, 2010

Chicken or the Egg?

The other night I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep. Naturally, this is when I get my best ideas. Genius ideas, absolutely startling pieces of thought the likes of which would cause instant envy-rage in the top echelon of Mensa. And then I usually fall asleep right after having the thought.

But the other night, I stayed awake long enough to think about the essence of a new story I'm writing. The essence of a story is that one or two sentence log line, or hook, or summation. It's the setup, conflict, and stakes all wrapped into one. Usually I have a hard time writing this succinct summation, but the other night it was crystal clear. It struck me that the essence of the story is often what we miss when we're off on tangents with dialogue or subplots or whatever. Or, more especially, when trying to sum up our story in a longer-format query pitch. Right? You with me? When you try to sum up your own novel, you often get bogged down. And when you flat out can't sum up the essence of your novel (after it's written), that's a warning sign that you don't understand the essence of your own story, or that it's weak.

I know you're thinking, Shyeah, who doesn't understand the essence of their own story? That's checkmark number one. Duh.

But it isn't. We all know that a well-crafted story, especially one fit for public consumption, is tricky to write-- that there are many twists and turns and dead ends before we reach the end. So what I'm saying is, sometimes understanding your story's essence is tricky. That being said, in order to weave together all the elements that make a story -- plot, character arc, dialogue, subplot, conflict--shouldn't you understand the essence of the story? An example using the age-old standby Star Wars. The essence is probably good vs. evil. But there's so much else to it, too. It'd be easy to get bogged down in the force, bounty hunters, and wookies.

Yet, I wonder, without the force, bounty hunters, and wookies, how can you get to the essence? You are probably thinking, But you don't need those particular elements--you can use anything around the essence of good vs. evil. Yes, you can--but not in Star Wars. See what I'm saying? You need both story parts and an understanding of your story's essence to put it all together. (In my opinion.)

For my own part, I find that starting with the essence is key for me, but I haven't always done that. Sometimes I've gone back with established characters and found the essence in the nuances.

I hope this made sense. What is your take on this? What do you start with?


Linda G. said...

To me it's the trees/forest thing: the "trees" being all the story elements you mention, and the "forest" the overriding essence. (The "log" line, if you, sorry. Couldn't resist.)

I can never see (on a conscious level) the forest until I get far away enough from the trees. A little time usually does the trick.

Julie Dao said...

I'm in the same boat. Sometimes I will create a character or two and just start writing, and the essence slowly evolves from there. I almost always begin with a plot though.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

This is an interesting question. Usually the essence comes first to me. But sometimes it's certain of the elements. Either way, I don't/can't/won't start writing until I have some sense of the essence. And yet, sometimes the story surprises and the essence changes between conception and execution. The important thing, I think, is to realize that.

demery bader-saye said...

This is a question I've grappled with too. I guess most authors do. I like your way of trying to puzzle it out! What forced me to the essence of my book was attending a writing conference in June - and going to a workshop with an agent who "forced" us to come up with a 50 word summary of our novels and share them with her. My first pass through the line revealed that I really didn't understand the essence of my story. Mortifying! But she wasn't too scornful :) I went home and worked on it half the night and found her again the next morning. It went better. When I begin writing my next novel, I'd like to start by trying to find the essence first.

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