Saturday, January 15, 2011

BookMarc #8 The Writing Tripod


I've had people tell me that they have this great idea for a story and all they have to do is get it down on paper for a surefire best seller. Well, I'm not so sure there are any new ideas, there are only about twenty basic plots. But even if we do have this great, super, original idea, no one will care to read it if we don't wrap it in the three elements of story telling. This is the subject of BookMarc #8

The Writing Tripod

It takes three things, like the legs of a tripod, for a novel to stand. Plot. Characterization. Effective writing. Yes, we can talk about other things like dialogue and description, but I think these slip under more than one heading. Good dialogue not only comes under good writing, but is also a feature of good characterization. Description not only is good writing, it's part of a good plot, letting us both see the picture and feel the mood. We'll try to point these things out as we travel along on our journey.

Plot. Characterization. Effective writing. If we forget about any one of these elements, the whole thing comes crumbling down. We might put more emphasis on one, such as a literary work might be read for the pure joy of the way words are strung together, but if we eliminate plot, it goes nowhere and we have no story. If we drop characterization, we can have a good story line and effective writing, but with characters no one cares about. Good plot and good characters, but poor writing and who will plow through it?

I think a fantastic plot might occasionally get by with cardboard characters, and yes, some genres like SF pay less attention to characterization, but how much better if we people this fantastic plot with rounded characters with which readers identify and care about?

On the other hand, a character driven story will fall flat if it doesn’t have conflict and suspense. W/o that we have no story. So we need both, plot and characterization. Then there’s the writing.

In Russia House John Le Carre says "Spying is waiting."

Well, folks, writing is rewriting. I know it's gotten to be a cliché, but that doesn't make it any less true. And I know some famous authors will disagree with me, but I think all first drafts are garbage. It's just getting words and ideas down. Something I've called composing rather than dignify it with anything else.

Writing is rewriting. It's taking that garbage and making it into something that is sparse, crystal clear, conveying mood and sight and sound and taste and feel, using no more words than are absolutely necessary, and squeezing out the fat to leave a rich, simmering broth. It is the soup that blends the flavors of plot and characterization as surely as if they were chicken and garlic.

When we have rewritten the last word of our story for the last time, it must be the absolute best we can make it in every way. Anything that stumbles or doesn’t ring true will have to be gone over again and again until it stands, or we can count on a rejection. Which we’ll probably get anyway.

I’m telling you all this because I wish I had known it twenty-five years ago. Have I said this before? I believe I had good plots, but I had no idea about characterization. I had no one to sit me down and point out why my hero was a stick figure, or how to make my sentences flow. That’s what we're trying to do on this writing journey. If it works, we’ll all learn something. Not only in writing novels and short stories, but for family journals and essays and articles.

However, keep in mind what I said early on. We can point out all the things that go into a good story, but no one can teach you how to write that story. Each of us has to develop our own craft. I can show you some dance steps, but the casual weekend ballroomer will never be able to star in a ballet w/o practicing again and again and again and again. Effective writing is rewriting again and again and again, until plot and characterization come into sharp focus.

In the next BookMarc we'll start on plot.

And remember: It's always better to light a candle in your mind by reading Easy Reading Writing than to curse the darkness of rejections. To check out the first two chapters with an easy order link to B&N, simply click on:

Peter E. Abresch - BookMarc© February 13, 1998.
Author of The Faltese Malcom, Capitol Coven, If They Ask for a Hand at: and the James P. Dandy Elderhostel mysteries at:

No comments: