TOPPLING FREYTAG'S PYRAMID
- Aristotle, The Poetics (trans. Samuel Henry Butcher)
There's a pretty famous image that I think most of were introduced to some version of back in high school:
These kinds of narrative formulae are an easy shorthand for writing teachers, but I find them fundamentally lazy. Stories are interesting because of how they break audience expectation. Likewise, I don't know if it's possible for anyone to teach anyone else how to write -- it's such an isolated, idiosyncratic process, and my method of working often varies widely from project to project. What I can do, however, is talk about things that I think are useful for a writer to know, and that I wish I'd given more thought to when I was starting out.
Academic writing and creative writing serve nearly opposite functions. The goal of academic writing is to make structure visible ("...in this paragraph, I have demonstrated..."); the goal of creative writing is to make structure invisible, to create the illusion of spontaneity.
The mistake lies in applying one method to the other, manifested by many a creative writing teacher's enshrinement of the "thesis sentence." To which I respond: if I already knew what the story was going to be about, I wouldn't have to write it; and if I could boil what I was trying to say down to a single sentence, then it wouldn't be worth performing.
So one of the first things that you have to realize as a writer -- and here's the tough love -- is that you have to write. Writers write. Preferably, more than they talk about writing. It's a job, and you have to treat it as such. Being self-employed requires you to employ tremendous self-discipline. You simply cannot passively wait for inspiration to strike.
Like any other job, you have to set aside time to do it. If you set aside three hours one day to write, then you have to really set it aside. That means don't answer your phone, don't surf the net for anything other than research. If you sit staring at a blank screen for three hours, then by God commit to that. The good news is that you don't have a boss looking over your shoulder to make sure that you're actually working. The bad news is that that becomes your job.
I've become much looser over the years in my approach. I used to write fewer drafts, because I was a perfectionist: I'd write one draft very, very slowly. Now, I'm more inclined to dive in and start typing without a clear direction of where I'm going, and trust to find that in editing down the line.
I never start with no idea of where I'm going. I usually have a couple of strong images, and a couple of strong lines: they seem to relate thematically, and I start to build a structure to connect them. (I will also usually spend at least a solid couple of weeks on research at this stage, depending on the nature of the story.) I can generally feel early on how long the story needs to be. My first draft is, pretty consistently, about three times longer than that: if I have a ten-minute set, it runs a half-hour; if I'm working on an hour-long Fringe show, it runs three.
At this point, to grope after an analogy, it's more like sculpting than painting: I pick my favorite bits to preserve and start chipping away at everything else. Gradually, a coherent narrative and theme start to emerge. Once I figure out what those are, the editing job becomes both easier and harder. Easier, because everything that's not directly serving either narrative or theme goes. Harder, because I typically have to start rebuilding the structure the story is hung on from the ground up.
I usually have to have been performing a story for a few weeks before I finally figure out what it's about. The thesis sentence is the end of my process, not the beginning.
If you're new and looking for inspiration, then get out and start seeing other storytellers, as much as is humanly possible for you. Back when I was writing poetry more aggressively, acquaintances would bring me theirs (usually for validation, not for critique). My first question would always be "Who are your favorite poets?" More often than not, they'd shrug and state that they don't read poetry. If you're unwilling to read anyone else's poetry, then why should I read yours?
Beyond that, you'll begin to absorb what storytelling is, how it sounds. Unconsciously, which is the more important thing. If a woman listens to Django Reinhardt her whole life, then picks up a guitar for the first time, she's going to start trying to play like Django, whether she means to or not. We all start by imitating our betters -- it's an embarrassing and necessary stage to power through. But formal training, while often incredibly valuable, is ultimately meaningless until you've internalized what good storytelling sounds like, and that can only come with exposure. You can't start telling wines apart until you've done some serious damage to your liver.
Beyond that, you have to perform. Seriously. Close this and Google an open mic near you. I know, I know, your set isn't ready. It's not going to be ready until you've started performing it. It's incredibly easy to lie to yourself when you're writing in isolation. It's a lot harder to lie to yourself when an audience is staring at you blankly. (Still very, very possible, mind you. But harder.)
I taught comedy for years. By far, the most dreadful, agonizing material to sit through would be when students came in with some preconceived notion of "the tragedy of the clown." The advice I would give them: don't try to be "darkly funny," try to be funny. If there's something dark in you, it'll come through without conscious effort on your part. But the more you try to calculate a stage persona, the affected that persona seems.
And if you're in Minneapolis, WordSprout is a great place to start.