The art of letting a story write itself

The writing of a novel brings together a wealth of experience and know-how combined with an ability to surrender to a story and let it lead you.

I am very much an advocate of following the story when writing, rather than precluding its course by drawing up an outline before beginning. I generally start with a scene or a place or the action of a character without having much of an idea where the story will lead me. I discover what happens as the story unfolds almost as if I were the first reader. I can even get within walking distance of the final pages and still not know how it will end. 

I might do research or I might sketch out what I know of a character or a place when I can’t move forward without it, but not before I start. Stories People Tell was a striking example of this. I went to London after I’d finished the draft, to check I’d got it right. There’s a very good reason why I couldn’t have done otherwise. It was only as I reached the end of the manuscript that I realised the story had to be more solidly anchored in London. It was the first novel I had written that took place almost entirely in a real setting. 

A lot of writers describe how, from time to time, they get stuck in their novel and detail their strategies to surmount the obstacle. The unspoken fear may well be that the blockage will perdure and the story will get stranded and go unfinished. In such circumstances, persistence is often presented as a virtue, especially in the face of procrastination. But pushing forward may not be the best strategy. What if being stuck is the story’s way of telling the writer she’s going the wrong way? It just happened to me. I wanted my character to win a fight with a thug that had deliberately waylaid her. Her situation was pretty hopeless. Not only did she not have the build to triumph against such a hardened nut, but she was an ardent advocate of non-violence. Try as I would, I couldn’t write the scene. I kept searching for a clever slight-of-hand that would enable her to win, preferably without fighting. It was only when I resolved to let her lose that the blockage dissolved and I was able to finish the chapter. I’m not sure yet, but I suspect she had to fail for her story to move forward.

Having said that, letting a story develop is not without discipline. Experience shows that some things work, others don’t. This applies to word choice, punctuation, sentence structure, dialogue, the overarching narrative,… Just to give an example of one such ‘artful’ constraint – for which I am grateful to MJ Holmes – concerning what could be called ‘narrative distance’. The depth and breadth of a novel can be greatly enhanced by moving in and out from an intimate perspective to a much wider societal or historic anchoring of action. Now, this distance necessarily shrinks when the action heats up. You want the reader to be engrossed in what is happening, not distracted by background descriptions. So doing, you enhance the telling and the impact of the story, but do not constrain or dictate its direction.

In other words, a wealth of experience, know-how and knowledge conditions and enhances a story as it naturally grows and develops following the path it alone can dictate.

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