How much should you know about your story before you write it?
The conventional advice goes something like this:
First, write a one page summary of what your story is about. Know your characters inside and out. Come up with the conflict. Plot out your beginning, middle, and end. Know your theme.
Then write the story.
The urge to follow this advice is understandable.
It’s scary to stare down a blank page. What if we have nothing to say? What if what we have to say is boring? Or foolish? What if nobody likes it?
When we do have plenty to say, there’s so much meandering and frustration as we try to harness the mess of our ideas into something elegant and coherent.
Having some kind of engineering in place at the start is safe. Knowable.
It would make sense then that having all this certainty from the outset would produce our best stories.
But nothing is further from the truth.
And while the think-and-outline-before- you-write approach works for some writers, it’s sabotaging for most.
Because we have no clue what we’re going to write, let alone what we want to say, until we put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.
We don’t know what we know until it appears on the page.
Even when the events we write about are true.
Because writing what you know isn’t just about what happened. Not just the facts of your experience.
It’s about what you learn about yourself while you’re writing. Through your writing.
Knowing what you’re going to end up with is the worst way to create. Because meaning, structure, and beautiful sentences are not what we begin with. It’s what we end up with.
French philosopher Gaston Bachelard got it right when he said this:
Not knowing is not a form of ignorance, but a difficult transcendence towards knowledge.
Uncertainty is essential to the creative process. And produces our richest, most rewarding work.
The best stories contain mystery, surprise and risk.
Too much certainty strips the creative process dry. It corrals your characters into a limited set of preconceived situations you’ve set up for them, which is a joyless experience for you.
When we embrace and revel in that open space of not-knowing, when we collaborate and play with our uncertainty rather than against it, we create an infinite range of possibilities for our works in progress. And we have loads more fun.
Imagination and reverie are also creative forces in knowing.
Creativity thrives from staying open and receptive and above all, curious. You can’t rely solely on the intellect.
The writing process is messy. There’s nothing linear or certain about it.
Start with questions.
Writers are on a quest of sorts. The same questions and obsessions haunt us throughout our lives, often throughout our entire body of work. We use our works in progress to probe our obsessions – questions that demand to be looked at over and over, more and more deeply.
What are you curious about? What perplexes you? What frustrates you? What in your life has upended you?
What is it about your story you want to explore? What fascinates you about your characters and their situation? What are you trying to understand about yourself through exploration of this particular piece of writing?
There’s clarity in the questions themselves.
Structure, plot, character, and theme emerge in the act of writing.
They’re discovered and refined over time. Not premeditated.
Plot, character, and theme are ways of thinking your way though your material as you write. It’s not something you do first and then you’re done. It comes from engaging with your work ever more deeply as you revise and re-envision your work.
You do your best writing when you’re a little uncertain, a little scared.
Trust that, over time, as you work with, through and beyond your uncertainty, you’ll arrive at something beautiful, elegant and potent.
In the meantime, don’t be afraid to write from mystery, from wonder, from not knowing.