“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 come up with answers. We are undereducated, or overeducated, we’re too broken, 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 protagonist lives and what they do for a living and if they are in a relationship, and if so, for how long, and is they are really in love, and what they are struggling with, and how do they respond when their partner confesses that they’re 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 protagonist want? What do they 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 story 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.
There is no one correct way to write.
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 protagonist’s driving want.
Through asking the structure questions and remaining curious, we are led to a more specific understanding of our story.