Do You Have to Know Exactly What That Story You’re Writing Is About?
No question, there are an infinite number of ways a story can evolve. It is always organic, arising out of your creative purpose. What a story is about is revealed by who you are, and you are happiest when the reason for the story matches your intention. But sometimes, this can seem elusive.
It helps to let a story speak to you, to let it simmer if you aren’t sure where it’s going, because in the end, it will reveal not only the subject to you, but why it matters to you in the first place. If you persist, and if you allow that to happen.
Look at the image above. Does it draw you in? Do you sense a story in it? Can you write down in just a few words what story the image suggests to you? Try this now.
You can use this approach for your own work — write down in a sentence what your story is about, whether it is a story you are just beginning to write or one you have just finished. You might be very surprised!
But there’s something else to consider. You could be one of those writers who outlines a story in detail or one who plunges into the story to see what will happen. Which way do you relate to the most? (At the end I’ll give a quiz you can take that might help you answer that.) Most of all, does it matter?
Here are some writers who have explored that very question.
Do Famous Writers Always Know What They’re Doing?
In a master class he was giving, Rod Serling was asked if he outlined his stories or just guessed at how they’d turn out. He said he liked to immerse himself in the story and just go for it. Another student asked if he ever got stuck, and he said, reluctantly, that in fact a story he was working on was stalled because he had no idea how it was supposed to end. But he still felt immersion was the best way to go. (And he did finish the story, eventually.)
P.D. James often spent a year working out the details of the characters and plot before she even started writing one of her books. She insisted on a great deal of careful preparation. And James knew exactly how story would end.
So did J. K. Rowling, who famously wrote the last chapter of the Harry Potter series and put it in a vault before she had even completed the first book. Her charts of characters and plot events are meticulous and fascinating for every volume. Rowling spent five years laying out the whole series and two years writing the first book. Her commitment to creating her exact vision was uppermost.
Mystery writer Agatha Christie did both. More of her books have sold than any others in history except the Bible, so she obviously did something right. But her method was mixed. Christie would get an idea for a story based on something she saw on a walk or overheard at a tea shop, and spent a lot of time plotting her stories and deciding on the characters, but only in her head. After a time her family would strongly recommend she start writing a book because it was evident the story was distracting her from everything else and she was muttering plot points aloud. Yet the writing itself was spontaneous — the clues she had worked out would show up, along with the red herrings, but her preference was to let the narrative flow of its own accord. She merged calculation with immersion.
Elizabeth George wrote almost 600 pages for a novel, having decided the plot in detail and the characters at length, got to the end of her book and realized she’d chosen the wrong villain and the story would only work if another character was the villain. She thought she would have to start the book from scratch all over again. Then she realized if she just changed a few sentences here and there she could solve the problem by misdirection.
Stephen King sees outlining as the best way to write a bad book, a last resource. Margaret Atwood never outlines and thinks doing so makes writing seem like “paint by numbers.” George R.R. Martin says Game of Thrones was plotted in his head but never on paper, so there might have been some things that got left out, but his way works for him.
What About You?
Find interviews with your favorite authors and you will find variations on the theme of outlining versus immersion all the time.
You can do it however you want , but if you are still not sure what your own way is or what you want it to be, here is a grand quiz to help you decide: “Writer: Are You A Plotter or Pantser?”
Knowing how a story will turn out from the beginning or discovering the story as you go along can both bring you creative satisfaction.
Persistence above all helps you complete your story, whatever your process.
The main takeaway? If you love writing, giving up can never bring satisfaction, so it’s not an option…:-)