“Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.”
– Martha Graham
Technique is developed over time. By reading and writing, we absorb a sense of story structure, cadence, and rhythm; we learn how to create and release tension. We deepen our relationship to our protagonist’s dilemma, and ultimately (God willing) we grow in our understanding of human nature. Through sitting alone each day and allowing our imaginations to wander, and then writing down what we see, we develop what might be called technique.
Technique is a word often used by people who do not understand the creative process. It can imply an “outside in” approach, as if the artist simply harnessed his technique and the work suddenly appeared. Technique involves cultivating a spirit of curiosity. Although there is a rigor to creating a story, it is not a right-brain rigor, but rather a marriage of knowing the right questions to ask while maintaining a relaxed state. Buddhists call it “detachment.”
The novice writer can burn himself out too quickly. He can panic at the first sign that he has lost control of his story. Writing a story—whether it is a novel, memoir, or screenplay—demands we accept that our story is bigger than we are. We cannot hold the entire story in our brain. When we become too dependent on plot we tend to lose sight of the reason our story wants to be told, i.e., the theme. What are we trying to express?
Technique involves continually returning to this question while synthesizing all the seemingly disparate character and story elements that come to us through this single question. Our theme is played out in every moment of every scene through a single dilemma that all of the characters in the story constellate around.
This process is a mental dance of sorts. Dancers know that if they don’t stay relaxed, and if they think too much, they will trip and fall. It is the same for writers. While we are asking questions, we are not demanding unequivocal answers, but rather, we are moving in the direction of the most dynamic way to tell our story.
I once had the opportunity to meet Paul Schrader, a hero of my youth. The brilliant screenwriter of the classic Martin Scorsese films Taxi Driver and Raging Bull among others, had called me to discuss optioning a story I had written. I mentioned how my third act had a problem in the hopes that he would offer a brilliant solution that would set me back on the path.
What he said was even more helpful. “Kid, third acts are a bitch.”
The relief I felt was indescribable. If my childhood hero struggled with third acts, maybe I could stop making meaning out of my own struggle and just show up on the page. Just because writing a story is difficult, and at times, seems nearly impossible – this does not mean we are unqualified to write it. When we stop questioning whether or not we are able to do it, and put our focus where it needs to be, on the primal drives of our characters, we are employing what some call “technique.”