“It is a parable of art that, to be universal, you must be specific. Otherwise, you are just talking about an abstraction. So you have to talk about a particular person and a particular place. Specificity is the essence of art. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have universal resonance.”– David Cronenberg
Writing is really about asking the right questions. What is commonly referred to as technique is the trained ability to create a space for our imagination to play. Our brain is excellent at one task. It answers the questions we ask it.
We might wonder “What is wrong with me that I can’t figure out my story?” and our brains give us an answer. It tells us that we are undereducated, or overeducated, or maybe that our happy upbringing has not prepared us for the artist’s angst-ridden existence. And then, our brain takes over and we approach our story as an intellectual exercise, cutting ourselves off from the wellspring of our imagination. We become lost in a way of thinking that is counter-productive. For some people this can go on for years. It becomes their reality as they start to wonder if they are cut out to be artists, despite their longing. This is a frustrating predicament.
To master storytelling, we must ask the right questions.
We may begin with the most general questions as we imagine the world of our story. Maybe we don’t even realize we are asking questions as we wonder where our hero lives and what she does for a living and if she is in a relationship, and if so, for how long, and is she really in love, and what is she struggling with, and how does she respond when her boyfriend confesses that he is a werewolf? We do this quite naturally. It is fun as we continue to imagine, while holding it all loosely.
The stakes are low because we are just testing the waters to discover if our idea is seaworthy. And then we start to ask more specific questions, like “What does my hero want? What does she need? How can I find the dilemma at the heart of my story? What is the dramatic question? What is the inciting incident?” Etc. And as we do this, the stakes get higher. We become invested, and the challenge becomes to remain in our rightful place of “not knowing,” of staying curious. The temptation is to want to take the reins and control the process, but this is a mistake.
Story is not linear. We cannot figure it out. That’s not the point. We are channels. The desire to write is connected to the desire to evolve. Our novel or screenplay is really just a manuscript documenting our own journey to transformation. This is a humbling position, but necessary, otherwise we panic every time we don’t have an answer for where our story is heading. Writers often talk about how “the story wrote itself.” What they are talking about is surrendering to the process and taking their rightful place as a channel.
Does this mean we don’t get frustrated? Of course not. Being “in the zone” is not something we can call up on demand. It seems that this process demands that we not see ourselves as objects. We can’t treat ourselves as story robots. We have to cut ourselves some slack.
As we approach the midpoint in our screenplay or novel, we may want to ask ourselves what events transpire that lead our hero to temptation. Be curious about how this moment might connect to her primal want. And if we don’t see a connection, it is not because this moment is wrong, but it is an invitation to inquire and get more specific about the connection.
Example: At the midpoint of Rocky, Stallone gets the chance to fight the champ. He is tempted to say no, to keep things the way they are. He is dating Adrian. Things are good. He doesn’t want to have to confront this lingering question that he could have made something more of himself. But he can’t shake it. What happened before informs his decision at this moment.
What makes our hero heroic is that he never gives up on his want (even at the end of Act 2 when he surrenders – he surrenders his desire, but he never gives up his want. He merely reframes it. “I can’t win. But if I can go the distance, then I’ll know I’m not another bum from the neighborhood.”) There is no one correct way to write. Some of us tend to write more character-driven pieces while others are more plot-driven. In the end we are all seeking to accomplish the same thing: to satisfy a dramatic question in a specific and compelling way.
The plot points are all connected to our hero’s driving want.
Through asking the structure questions and remaining curious, we are led to a more specific understanding of our story.