One of the hardest parts of weekly updates is coming up with ideas every week. Writing advice especially: It’s hard to know what you know. An advantage of taking editing commissions, then, is finding out what other people don’t know when I have to explain things.
This led to me having to explain two things that I’ve been careful of in my writing, but never actually had to think about before. Which probably means it’s something I’ve never seen taught, and I’m not plagiarizing anyone by giving this advice.
What actually happens is the least important, or interesting, part of a story. That’s why so many professional writers - script and prose - use formulas and frameworks to write a story, or set it along a consistent arc.
But writing isn’t that easy. What you hang from that arc, and how skillfully you hang it, is most of where the work of writing is.
What changes across stories, and how we interact with them as an audience, is through the characters. That’s why the deadliest thing you can feel about a story is; “I don’t care what happens to these people”.
This makes life a little easier, as a writer. It means that rather than thinking about what happens, you can plan a story around reactions - what would be interesting to do to a character, and what would get an interesting response out of them.
How a character acts and reacts is far more important than what they’re acting and reacting to. So it means you’re free to try to think of ways to get interesting responses out of your characters, which makes the actual writing process a lot easier as well as making for a stronger story.
So it means you shouldn’t think of a story in terms of what happens, but in terms of what it means for things to happen.
There’s a lot of overlap, but there’s an example I’d like to use to explain the difference from one of my very old stories now.
I have a character who is about to have to face a crowd and talk down an angry mob surrounding her house. She’s grouchy, irritable, not a morning person. She’s not intimidated, but she’s Very Grumpy.
If you plan a story in terms of what happens, then it’d be tempting to write her going over to get coffee. It’s a relatable thing that not-morning people do, and doing something routine shows she’s not fazed.
That’s a thing you could do that would express the ideas needed, but that’s all you think if you go through “in terms of what happens”. The problem is that you stop there.
if you think in terms of “Why am I showing this”, you start working out how to emphasize the significance of it, and how to exaggerate the character traits.
Her coffee machine was broken. So she took the beans out of the roaster, dumped a cup of them into her mouth, squirted a bottle of chocolate syrup after it, and crunched it like cereal.
Which makes for a much better story moment, and a much more interesting character.
That’s the next step you only take if you think “why am I showing them doing this” and not just “what would they do”.
If you just think in terms of what happens, then you don’t think to break the coffee machine.
This is the counterpoint to that.
In real life, there’s no reason you need to do or not do anything beyond your emotional response to that. And your emotional reactions don’t need a deeper reason than that.
But as soon as it becomes relevant to the plot, then you need to give the audience a logical, practical reason as well as an emotional one, even if the logical reason isn’t what’s important to the character.
The example I give here is cannibalism. If you were confronted with having to actually eat another person, it makes complete sense that you’d be revolted by it, or not want to.
However, as a more emotionally distant audience, you don’t have that immediate response. The idea of it, on its own, might even be an intellectual curiosity.
This is because the idea of emotions doesn’t create the emotion itself in the audience, and it doesn’t justify the character’s response to the audience. If you give a reasonable reason for that emotion, though, then the audience can take it on board.
If you’re reading a post-apocalyptic story, and a character is confronted with having to eat human flesh to survive - let’s say that someone else has cooked and prepared it for them - it doesn’t seem reasonable to turn it down because of squeamishness. It makes that character less likable or relatable if that’s the only reason you give.
It makes sense for the character, but we also have to care about our audience’s perception of them.
If you mention the unique and exotic diseases you can only get from eating human flesh, though, even though it’s not the character’s reason - their reason is the emotional, squeamishness response - it justifies feeling squeamish about it to the audience.
Because now they can relate their own fear of the consequences onto the character’s response of not wanting to do it.
The audience is distanced in a story. So that means you need to give them reasonable reasons to explain emotional reactions, or else they’re going to get frustrated with a character. But if you give the audience those reasonable reasons, then they’re going to actually relate to that character more and either respect their decision, or be impressed by their ability to overcome it and ‘suck it up’.
That being said, that also means having a character follow emotional responses which aren’t reasonable, but make sense to the character, is a very good way to make them unlikable in a subtle way. Knowing quiet and subtle ways to make someone unlikable without ever actually doing anything overtly negative might be a useful tool to have…