If Stephen King wrote a syrupy novel about two kittens and a baby clown, people would buy it. By the thousands. Even though they might eventually be disappointed, they would buy it. Why? Because his established reputation could withstand that, or worse.
What’s that got to do with you and me, you ask? Read on.
One of the most highly touted TV shows of this season is “The Event“. It is breaking so many of the rules of good writing that one can but wonder. Why are the producers doing this? Because they have a need to generate interest through confusion. Called the successor to “Lost“—a show that rambled, drifted rudderless, and eventually came to an unsatisfying ending—The Event has a lot to live down to.
This is not to say I’m not watching it. At least for now.
So, I’m going to make two points here.
One: writing “free-style”, without goal or target might, be fun, but it will have a good chance of petering out, lifeless, and unsatisfying. Knowing where you are going with a story, at least in general, can make all the difference in the world. This is why I suggest outlining your work. Now, now, stop rolling your eyes. I’m not talking about a 60-page outline for a 160 page novel. I think that would steal the wind from your creative sail… I”m suggesting a one-pager. An outline that sets the initial problem (yes, there needs to be a problem), the intermediary steps (roughly sketched), and where you want the story to end. E.g., bad guy defeated, love interest saved, future looks bright—or at least safe for a sequel.
Two. Keep the story moving forward. What do the following words all have in common?
- Back story
- Retelling of the past around a campfire
- and on
- and on
- and on
I had recorded the second episode of “The Event” and watched it last night. I think I may like the show, for despite the sad breakage of rules, there are some intriguing moments in the show. That said, giving three minutes of real time, then showing a four-minute flashback of 5 days earlier which is interrupted by another flashback of 18 months earlier, and additional nested time hops, one can easily get lost about what has happened, and when, and where. It looks to me that the writers (this can only be done by a committee–I hope) have no idea where they’re going, and rather than structure the story logically, will continue to toss us around, rag-doll-like, in hopes of keeping us from guessing the major plot points (which I feel at this juncture are fairly obvious).
Like Stephen King, the network which “owns” “The Event” is big. It can spend a lot of money on special effects, and even more on advertising. We’re going to follow “The Event” for, perhaps, a full season. But by then, either they will have had to switch to a more comprehensible story unfolding, or their viewers will be switching channels in droves.
So, boys and girls, what can we learn about our own writing from this? If you would rather not appear to be a writer who has failed to think things through, who has to go back time and again to explain unplanned plot bits, to keep shaving the table legs to make the story hold together… Well, I’ll say it in a single sentence.
“Nothing should be in your novel that doesn’t take the story in the right direction: forward toward the end.”