Technique develops 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. By sitting with our imaginations regularly and allowing them to wander, 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 their technique and the work suddenly appeared. For writers, 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.”
Novice writers can burn themselves out too quickly. They can panic at the first sign that they have lost control of their story. Whether you’re writing a novel, memoir, or screenplay, this process 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 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 my third act had a problem, hoping he would offer a brilliant solution to set me on course.
What he said was even more helpful. “Kid, third acts are a bitch.”
I felt indescribable relief. 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 “technique.”