The process of writing is unique to each author.
There is no right or wrong way to write a work of fiction. Perhaps the main thing is to just sit down and get on with it.
Many authors start by writing the beginning of the story and working their way through to the end. This seems intuitive, as it mirrors the way narratives are normally received – from opening to resolution. Furthermore, it allows a development of the material that feels natural, beginning probably with a setting and a character or two and growing in complexity as the story progresses.
But this isn’t the only way to get a story written. The author is not the recipient, after all. The author is the creator.
Creative habits seem to differ according to medium. Most screenwriters spend a lot of time working out the intricacies of plot and complexities of character before beginning to actually write the screenplay. Some novelists, on the other hand, seem to require the writing process in order to get to grips with the material. For such authors, the act of working on text is so intimately intertwined with the craft of dramaturgy that the shaping of the story has to be performed simultaneously with the writing of it.
In some cases, a writer might have a fairly clear idea in mind where the story is headed, or already be aware of certain key scenes that ought to be included. In others, the author may not know how the story ends and instead she just writes as fancy dictates. During such a writing process, it might begin to feel like the characters are dictating the action, and the author is merely “capturing” the story rather than actively creating it.
Artists get so deeply immersed in the creative process that their entire consciousness is involved, and the outside world is temporarily excluded. Authors refer to the “flow” state. Usually this is attributed to the act of writing, but it may just as easily occur during the act of creating a world, structuring a plot, or developing a character.
Both language and dramaturgy are at one and the same time art as well as craft. Both writing a beautiful text and shaping a compelling story require intuition as well as technique. In either case, it is possible to “get lost” in the moment, dive so deeply into the process that externals are locked out, and creativity “flows”.
Plotting and Pantsing
The difference between writing and conceiving has led to the popular duality of the plotters versus the pantsers. Plotters map the outline of the plot more or less exactly before beginning to actually write. Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants”, making it up as they go.
The distinction is probably spurious. Some plotters may find that their plots meander or even veer strongly off the course they had planned in the outline. Some pantsers may actually have a much clearer outline in their heads than they care to admit, and just refrain from writing it down first.
Either way, it seems indisputable that narrative structure is more satisfying when the story ends with a resolution to the problems it opened with. Furthermore, readers and audiences tend to expect all the loose ends to be neatly tied up by the end of a story. With which writing process the author achieves this feat is, for the audience, irrelevant.
In any case, a certain amount of revision and rewriting is inevitable. Having said that, at least in theory the pantser is likely to spend far more time rewriting than the plotter.
“Every detail is a prophecy”
Because of foreshadowing. As Jorge Luis Borges put it, “Every episode in a careful narrative is a premonition, … every … detail a prophecy.”
A famous example of foreshadowing, or set-up/pay-off, is Chekhov’s gun. When a gun is seen in Act 1, it is clear it will go off before the end of the story.
Unlike readers, authors must work backwards. If a gun is fired at the climax, then it makes sense to drop clues earlier in the narrative that this will happen. The emotional effect on the reader or audience is significantly greater if such events are “set up”.
Hence after the first draft, an author may go over the manuscript to find places to drop such clues, place the set-ups, premonitions, prophecies.
However, “careful” authors, who know where the narrative is heading, include the set-ups, the foreshadowing, in the narrative as constituent parts. They plan the prophetic details as integral elements of the story. In this way, such details feel less conspicuous and more organic.
Scenes and Arguments
Instead of writing from beginning to end, some authors begin by writing particular scenes that are already clear to them. If an idea for a certain plot event is already established in your head or elsewhere, there is no reason not to write it. Even if you don’t yet know how it fits into the overall scheme of the story.
If you, for instance, have a vision of a man in a suit standing alone in a vast flat expanse of fields, and he is attacked by an initially harmless seeming cropduster plane, then why not write that scene or sequence down? Even if you don’t know yet that the character’s name is Roger Thornhill and the plane is being piloted by an assassin sent by a foreign agent called Vandamm.
Some authors write more or less detailed arguments, which are like abstracts or summaries of the chapters or sections in a work of prose. This provides a detailed outline as text, explaining what happens and making clear all the patterns of cause and effect that make a narrative cohesive.
Text versus Story
It is quite possibly to work on narrative without great amounts of text. Outlining with cards that stand for plot events is a popular way of shaping story structure and determining the dramaturgy.
Furthermore, a story is based on the actions of the characters, and these actions occur due to decisions they make. Therefore, working on the dramatic function of the characters in the story is really a must for any author.
Whichever is your workflow, it cannot be wrong. If the story gets finished, you’re doing something right. If it then appeals to readers and audiences, you’ve done a whole load more right.
What matters is the end result.
How do you work?
What’s your method or workflow? Do you outline before you write? To share your experiences, comment on this post.