Lessons from “Story” – Part I: Get Intrinsic with Your Writing

Last week, I talked about one of my favorite books on writing, Story by Robert McKee. I realize that many of you have a To-Be-Read list as long as the Mississippi River, so I thought a series of highlights from the book might be beneficial! Before I dive in, if there are any topics you’d like me to hurry up and cover, please let me know in the comments below or via Twitter.

Today I’m going to discuss a mistake that many novice writers make, and that is tackling a novel without first studying the craft. McKee equates this with someone who dreams of composing music. This person would be a fool to think to himself, “I’ve listened to music all my life. I can play the piano pretty well. I think I’ll write a symphony today.” It’s the same for writers who, just because they got As in English and love to read rush to their laptops fully intending to bust out a novel over the weekend. They rely solely on their life experience, the books they’ve read and the movies they’ve seen, naively thinking they have all they need to write a compelling story.

These writers mistake their familiarity with common story elements and tropes for technique. But these perceptions are not technique and will invariably produce stories that are riddled with dreaded clichés. A passion for storytelling is simply not enough if we wish to write stories that delight, thrill, inspire, and entertain – education is a must.

McKee points out that in the first half of the 20th century, Creative Writing teachers taught an intrinsic understanding of story, that is to say they focused on telling stories from the inside out, starting with a theme or controlling idea and working out from there.

Today, however, many writing schools have reversed this method and instead emphasize extrinsic factors, things like setting, flashy fantasy worlds, scary sci-fi scenarios, high-octane car chases, and saccharine boy-meets-girl scenes. In other words, writers are learning to prioritize commercialized story elements that are shiny, yet skin deep. This neglect of what McKee calls “big-muscle movements,” like conscious and unconscious objects of desire and the story spine (which I’ll cover in forthcoming posts), ultimately produces an erosion of story values; books cease to say anything of substance because writers fail to write from the inside out.

Quote on Writing from Henry James via Diana Anderson-Tyler

I think a good place to begin when it comes to thinking intrinsically is to consider your protagonist, as this is the most important character in your novel. Considering this is the person you want – or should want – the audience to connect and empathize with most, you should have a solid understanding of who they are, what they value, and what they want before you start writing your rough draft.

Next week, I’ll delve further into protagonists and tell you what every main character, in every story, must have. I hope you’ll join me! Until then, I encourage you to pick out a craft book on writing (of course, I highly recommend this one) and study it like you would a textbook for school. Even if you’ve been writing for years, I challenge you to read up on something writing related that you struggle with most, be it dialogue, plot structure, or narrative devices.

Think deeply about the roots of your latest story idea. Jot down what it is you want to say through the theme, tone, and imagery of your story. What feeling do you want readers to walk away with? What emotions do you want to stir, what questions do you want them to ask? What questions do you want to answer? Answering all those questions now, before you write or before you get to work on your second draft, will enrich your work a hundred fold as you imbue your book with meaning.

As I said earlier, if you have any specific writing questions or would like me to expound on anything discussed today, drop a line below or tweet me at @dandersontyler!

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